It could have been laziness, a capital sin that a priest should never have allowed himself. Laziness or inexperience, a venial fault that would not close the gates of heaven to anyone. Because it seems that in Coria del Río, an Andalusian town 15 kilometers from Seville, Spain, the parish priest on duty multiplied a surname without Spanish roots, since the middle of the seventeenth century, in the baptismal certificates of those newborns who arrived at upa de Japanese parents with surnames impossible to translate into the Latin alphabet.
You will be called Japan, they would have baptized them as Jesus called Simon Peter. Today, in Coria, there are about 700 Japan.
That says a popular legend in this town of 30 thousand neighbors in which more than one feels like a descendant of samurais and prepares to follow the Olympic Games that are about to begin at a distance as if they were held in their native land.
Without epic and for 4.90 euros, a barge crosses from one bank or the other of the Guadalquivir to motorcyclists and rushed cars that recreate that historical landing that, centuries ago, mutated the DNA of these Andalusians and installed the surname Japan in the town: that of the Japanese Keicho expedition that, in 1614, appeared on the coast of Coria and changed his destiny.
The Coria del Río Cemetery 15 km from Seville, in Andalusia. Photo: Cézaro De Luca
Captained by the samurai Hasekura TsunenagaThe procession had departed from Sendai, in Japan, eagerly to reach Spain and close a business deal with King Philip III and then continue on to Italy.
It was Japan’s first diplomatic foray into the West.
Hasekura, that today is venerated in Coria as a pagan god, had left Sendai in 1613 with other samurai, merchants and sailors, many of whom fell in love with the Andalusian kindness, and their women, and never returned home.
The intention was to reach Seville but, as the risk of running aground on its coasts was great, they made a port in Coria del Río where today there are bars, hairdressers and herbalists with posters written in Spanish and Japanese, just in case.
“Why did they stop here? The 100 kilometers of the river from Seville to the mouth made very large curves and, in winter, the river overflowed and when the waters returned to their course, they left a lot of mud. That is why they stopped in Coria ”, he tells Clarion Juan Manuel Suárez Japan, Professor of Human Geography at the Pablo de Olavide University and former rector of the International University of Andalusia.
Today Hasekura is venerated in Coria as a pagan god, he had left Sendai in 1613. Photo Cézaro De Luca
Suárez Japan, a resident of Coria that has a square that bears his name next to the Asunción de Nuestra Señora school, gives some details about the historic expedition: “The letter that Hasekura brought, they put it in a metal tube and it was lost until 1852 . They also brought a sword, a katana, which was lost “, says the former rector that he is about to publish a historical novel on the subject: “The lost katana.”
The Coria del Río cemetery. Photo: Cézaro De Luca
The former rector says that it was his first cousin, Virginio Carvajal Japan, who had data from the annals that they helped to dust off, only in the ’80s, the red thread that connects Coria del Río with Sendai.
Virginio had a spare parts store for cars and bicycles. And every time a Japanese approached the town in search of traces, the answer was always the same: “Go to the spare parts store.”
The Guadalquivir river in Coria del Rio, where the Japanese expedition stayed. Photo Cézaro De Luca
Suarez Japan does not share the theory According to which the surname Japan crystallized among the Corians as a way of simplifying when registering the boys.
“The surnames toponyms always allude to the origin of the person ”, he opines.
And he adds: “In 1549 the letters of Saint Francis Xavier, the first Jesuit to set foot in Japan, were published. There he refers to a native as a “xapón”, with an X. The important thing is that this surname nests here”.
They still remain in Coria 12 persons which are called Japan Japan.
Plaza Coria del Río, with its legend in Japanese. Photo Cézaro De Luca
“Years ago, a professor from the University of Nagoya, Yamamoto San, came here because he wanted to do a DNA study of the Japan here and those in the Sendai area, from where the expedition started,” recalls the professor. He asked me for help to draw blood from Japan and we gave him a hundred samples. After two years he came, gathered the Japan from whom we had drawn blood and said that he could not say that genetics united us ”.
“But I like to take the words of a Spanish geneticist when he said that the cultural and emotional bond is stronger than DNA ”, Suárez Japan feels.
Coria del Río is the only place in the world, outside of Japan, where the tradition of Toro Nagashi is celebrated, the feast of those little paper lanterns with candles that are thrown into the river so that the souls of the deceased, who in those days came down to earth to be honored, find their way back to heaven.
And the only municipality in which a neighbor, Francisco Bizcocho, mixed Japanese sake with Andalusian rice pudding and invented a spirit drink –the Keicho Sake– which in pre-pandemic times exported some 30,000 bottles a year and that, after the third drink, makes anyone feel like an emperor.
Bilingual posters in Coria del Río. Photo Cézaro De Luca
How you recreated it in 2019 “The Japan”, the movie that was filmed here and in which the Spanish actor Dani Rovira is Paco Japan, a neighbor from Coria whom they come to look for from Tokyo when they discover that he is the heir to the Japanese throne.
At the door of the Town Hall, on Cervantes street, next to the Spanish and Andalusian flags, a Japanese woman flames. It has been there since 2013, when the then crown prince to the imperial throne of Japan and today emperor, Naruhito, visited the land of Japan to commemorate the 400 years of the Keicho expedition.
Months later, Coria had the designer as guest of honor Kenzo, who planted a cherry tree (sakura) in the Carlos de Mesa Park of the town, one of the attractions for those who visit it today.
“We decided to leave the flag at the Town Hall as a trace of brotherhood, of familiarity ”, the mayor of Coria del Río, Modesto González, tells Clarín.
Barges to cross the Gualdalquivir river in Coria del Río. Photo Cézaro De Luca
“The most important thing about our relationship with Japan it is familiarity. We have ancestral ties. For Andalusians, family is important but for Japanese even more ”, he emphasizes.
“Between 60 and 70 percent of Corians, in their genealogical tree, they have at some point had the surname Japan “, says the mayor.
“We are trying to introduce the language,” he adds. If you walk through Coria, you will see that there are businesses with their signs in Japanese too. And there are schools in Coria with their classrooms labeled with the names of Japanese cities ”. In 2019, just landed in Spain as the new Japanese ambassador, Hiramatsu Kenji also passed through Coria. It was his first institutional trip, as if it was essential to have the blessing of the Corianos to legitimize his diplomatic credentials.
Neighbor of Coria del Río, 15 km from Seville. Photo Cézaro De Luca
The Japanese liturgy in Coria has its own story and landmarks in the town that everyone curious or passionate about tracing the Japanese footprints in Andalusian lands cannot be missed: like a stop in front of the statue of Hasekura, who looks at the river with fierceness and melancholy, as if he had intuited that part of his troop would not retrace his way back to Japan with him.
The itinerary includes the Plaza del Rocío and the parish of Santa María de la Estrella, where the parish priest dusts the baptism certificate of the first Coriana with the surname Japan before each illustrious visitor.
In the Coria cemetery, the tombstones in the niches are made of white marble. There, the relatives of the deceased send names, dates and legends to be sculpted. There is almost no open-air corridor in which, in that already lifeless cast, Japan is not listed. Or a Japan Japan, faithful to the Spanish tradition of using the paternal last name and then the maternal one.
And although more than 400 years have passed since that feat that united the two geographies, the collective imagination of Coria keep flirting with that brotherhood with Japan it will one day become a source of resources for the people.
“Many expect the Japanese to come here, put the Toyota and end unemployment (unemployment) ”, reflects, with brutal honesty, a neighbor of the town.