Coria del Río: The Spanish Town with a Unique Japanese Legacy

Why 400 Residents in a Spanish Town Share the Last Name ‘Japón’.

Discover the intriguing story of Coria del Río, a Spanish town with a unique 400-year-old connection to Japan, manifested in the surname ‘Japón’ among its residents. Coria del Río is a unique town in the Spanish region of Andalusia that has maintained an enduring link with Japan, an association dating back to the early 17th century.

Coria del Río is a small town situated in the province of Seville, in the autonomous community of Andalusia, Spain. The Guadalquivir River plays a significant role in the existence of this town and other localities in the Aljarafe region. During the colonial era, the river served as a conduit for the transfer of goods and resources between America and Sevilla. Specifically, the shallow waters near Coria del Río made it a crucial stopover for ships traveling to and from Sevilla, allowing them to unload or take on additional cargo.

The Unexpected Arrival of Japanese Expedition

In 1613, an ambitious project took shape under the aegis of Date Masamune, the daimyo of Sendai, to establish diplomatic and trade relations with New Spain (now Mexico) and potentially with Spain and the Vatican. Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga, a retainer of Masamune, was appointed as the envoy for this expedition. He was accompanied by Franciscan friar Luis Sotelo, who had previously been in Japan and had convinced Masamune of the merits of the mission.

Portrait of Hasekura Tsunenaga leader of the expedition
Portrait of Hasekura Tsunenaga leader of the expedition, in Rome. source

The expedition set sail on the ship “San Juan Bautista,” built explicitly for this purpose, and initially landed in New Spain. Their aim was manifold: to secure trade routes that would connect Japan, the Philippines, and New Spain and to explore the possibilities of spreading Christianity in Japan. Although they reached as far as Europe, conflicts arose primarily due to the ambitions of Spanish traders who viewed the Japanese delegation as competition, as well as political pressures back in Japan against Christianity.

Given the complexity of these conflicts, the delegation was forced to halt at Coria del Río in 1614. Records indicate that they stayed in the town for a few months, awaiting further instructions from Spanish authorities and probably also assessing the feasibility of continuing their original mission. Eventually, most of the delegation returned to Japan, but not before leaving a lasting impact on Coria del Río.

Historic Letter from the Japanese Embassy to Spain
Historic Letter from the Japanese Embassy to Spain, source

The Japanese Legacy

Upon their arrival in Coria del Río, the Japanese delegation quickly became an integral part of the community. Whether due to the length of their stay or the friendships formed with local residents, some members of the delegation chose to remain in Spain, marrying into local families. This led to the creation of a unique surname in the town— “Japón.” This surname symbolizes a lineage that can be traced directly back to the 17th-century expedition.

The adoption of the surname “Japón” is not a casual cultural footnote but a deeply ingrained aspect of Coria del Río’s identity. In a town with a population of approximately 30,000, more than 400 individuals carry this unique surname. Local archival documents, baptismal records, and last wills and testaments bear testimony to the prevalence of the “Japón” surname, its continuity over four centuries manifesting as a distinct cultural and historical marker.

Hasekura Tsunenaga statue coria del rio

The legacy isn’t confined merely to surnames. The town’s collective memory still holds vivid imprints of this expedition. Several public places and monuments in Coria del Río pay homage to this historical event. For instance, a statue of Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga stands in the town, a visual representation of the enduring connection between the two cultures.

Modern Day Cultural Influences

The town of Coria del Río has embraced its Japanese heritage through various means. Businesses often display their names in Japanese characters, and the primary park in the village features signage in Japanese. Furthermore, cultural events like Hanami (flower viewing) in spring and Toro Nagashi (floating lanterns) on August 15 serve to honor and perpetuate this special connection.

Juan Manuel Suarez Japón, Vice President of the Asociación Hispano Japonesa Hasekura de Coria del Río, has been instrumental in keeping this legacy alive. Research by Virginio Carbajal Japón in the early 1980s and a visit by Japanese Ambassador Eikichi Hayashiya in 1984 significantly boosted public awareness both in Coria del Río and Japan about this historical tie.

Role of Asociación Hispano Japonesa Hasekura de Coria del Río

In 1996, Jutaro Sakamoto, a Japanese ambassador to Spain, initiated the formation of the Asociación Hispano Japonesa Hasekura de Coria del Río to maintain and foster the relationship between the two cultures. This association now conducts a range of activities, including annual cultural events in October, haiku competitions, and commemorations for the victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

Diplomatic Visits and Recognition

Coria del Río has received significant diplomatic attention. Prince Naruhito of Japan visited the town in 2013, and in the past 30 years, every Japanese ambassador to Spain has made a point to visit. These visits highlight the international significance of Coria del Río’s unique history and cultural heritage.

Coria del rio municipal office
Coria del rio municipal office, source

Sources: 1, 2

Last Updated on October 30, 2023 by retrofuturista

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