The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Early Modern Catholic Global Missions and Cultural Accommodation

Joint Research Coordinator SAITO Akira

Reserch Theme List


Mission, Society of Jesus, Cultural relativism


This study aims to bring out the historical significance of the missionary work of the Catholic Church in Asia and America from the 16th to the 18th centuries with attention to the policy of "accommodation". The ways in which this policy was implemented in different localities are compared, and how Europeans viewed the world and human beings examined. Accommodation is defined as the policy for promoting the conversion of local people through missionaries' study of local norms and customs and their adaptation to local societies. Accommodation covers a wide variety of aspects of local cultures, such as language, clothing, food and housing, manners, laws, and education. One famous case of accommodation is the policy adopted by the Society of Jesus in Asia. The missionary methods implemented by Alessandro Valignano in Japan and Matteo Ricci's study of the Chinese classics are typical examples of this policy. Particularly noteworthy is the Rites Controversy caused by the policy in China, which led to a great division within the Catholic Church.
The accommodation of the early modern Catholic Church is often considered as a predecessor of today's cultural relativism. However, the validity of this view must be questioned. What are the similarities and differences between these two modes of thought? Does the current concept of cultural relativism owe anything to the Catholic global missionary work in the early modern period? To answer these questions, this study examines the aspects of accommodation that stand as cross-cultural practices by placing the work of missionaries within their respective local context. At the same time, the rationales missionaries assigned to accommodation are examined against the background of the currents of European thought on the diversity of world's cultures, thereby revealing the significance accommodation holds for intellectual history.