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‘Rusontsubo,’ Luzon jars

/ 01:13 AM October 15, 2014

When Francesco Carletti arrived in Nagasaki from Manila in June 1597, customs police boarded the vessel and asked the passengers and crew to declare any pottery they had on them. There were many names for these jars (“tsubo”) but the customs officers were searching for jars from Luzon (or “rusontsubo”) with the same zeal and diligence that customs officers today would look for contraband: drugs, laundered money, ivory, and porn.

Carletti noted that smuggling rusontsubo was punishable by death because the emperor of Japan wanted all these for himself. More fantastic for Carletti was that these jars were quite common, and he would not pay more than one giulic for one. These were ordinary storage jars in Manila that, by some strange alchemy, turned into precious objects worth 6,000 to 10,000 escudos each in Japan.

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Rusontsubo were prized over other jars because these could preserve freshly picked tea leaves for many years. Some jars cured the leaves, turning these from green to yellow, making tea brewed from these slightly sweet instead of bitter. Carletti ended his narration thus:

“Generally these vases cost three or four coppers each to the man who made them and many merchants therefore have become rich, specially those who have got the chance of bringing in vases that had or where superstitiously believed to have the property of preserving the cha. It is well-known that the Emperor of Japan and all the other princes of the land possess an innumerable number of them which they treasure particularly and value more than any other precious thing. They compete among themselves both for vanity and for megalomania in possessing the largest number for they take great pleasure in showing them to each other… Soon after the police officials had searched for these earthen vessels, we received the permission to land…”

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After two years of research on rusontsubo I made two presentations on them last August for the Oriental Ceramic Society of the Philippines and last week at the Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies to solicit feedback and other leads. Just when I thought I had seen all Western sources on rusontsubo I found a reference to a journal article by Kisino Hisashi in Japanese. My good friend Takefumi Terada of Sophia University read through the article in English and from there I followed the footnotes to the letters of the Franciscan friar Pedro Bautista, mentioned in previous columns, who worked in the Philippines before he was martyred in Nagasaki in 1597, making him a saint.

San Pedro Bautista established the church of San Francisco del Monte in Quezon City and discovered the healing properties of the thermal waters of Laguna, thus giving us aguas santas (holy waters) and Los Baños (the baths).

Our history textbooks do not tell us about early relations with Japan, a country we encounter in the classroom and through film as an aggressor and an oppressor in World War II. We do not know that in the late 16th century a man named Hideyoshi threatened to take Spanish Manila, emboldened by reports that the city was not well-defended. I wonder if Hideyoshi’s letter is still extant in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, but according to sources I have read, it is in beautifully written calligraphy sent in an impressive gold-and-lacquer box. The content of the letter, however, was cause for alarm because it was a threat of invasion.

The Spanish governor-general Dasmariñas first sent Dominican friar Juan Cobo, a specialist in Chinese, as his ambassador to Japan in 1592. Cobo made no progress with Hideyoshi and got lost somewhere in Formosa on the return voyage to the Philippines. In 1593 Dasmariñas sent the Franciscan Pedro Bautista as ambassador, and it was he that changed Hideyoshi’s mind about the invasion. Furthermore, Hideyoshi, contrary to his edict forbidding the spread of Christianity in Japan, allowed the Franciscans to settle in Miyako where they established a church and a leprosarium.

What complicated matters was that the Jesuits had a papal grant giving them a monopoly to evangelize in Japan, but a back door was opened for Dominicans and Franciscans from Manila when Dasmariñas sent them to Hideyoshi as ambassadors. Then we have the Portuguese, who also claimed a monopoly of trade in Japan and saw the Spanish from Manila as threat and competition.

In January 1594 Pedro Bautista wrote Dasmariñas, saying that Hideyoshi wanted a small carabao and two “gatos de Algalia” (whatever those are). Bautista then told Dasmariñas to ask a Japanese to find three jars (tibores) for Hideyoshi and five more to be given as gifts to people he needed to influence: the governor, the military governor, Hideyoshi’s nephew, and even Hideyoshi’s personal physician.

What made these rusontsubo so precious that the Spanish ambassador from Manila sought to buy favor and influence with them? Why were Japanese merchants travelling to Manila in search of jars like ants in search of honey? Some of these jars are still extant in the Philippines today. Some are used for ritual or fermenting rice wine in the Cordilleras; others are used as interior decor in posh Makati homes.

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These are antiques, but not worth very much. Why were these jars left behind? Why didn’t they become rusontsubo? Research never seems to end; one answered question leads to yet another question, enlarging my knowledge of early relations between the Philippines and Japan.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: “rusontsubo”, “tsubo”, customs police, Francesco Carletti, History, Japan History, Luzon jars, Nagasaki, Philippine history, pottery
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