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Storytellers can’t agree whether 16th-century consort Gracia Hosokawa was a victim or a hero. Keith Putnam

Battered wife or ‘Strong Woman’? The real life and death of Gracia Hosokawa

One can’t help but reel from the mixed messages about men’s violence against women in the media recently. Australia’s Governor-General attends the state funeral of the king of Saudi Arabia, missing the ceremony in which anti-domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty is made Australian of the Year.

The movie Fifty Shades of Grey opened on Valentine’s Day and is said to romanticise abusive relationships, if not rape.

A database on femicide, compiled by Ingala Smith, is published, painstakingly documenting the names, faces, and profiles of women killed by men in Britain since 2012.

Patterns emerge: men who perpetrate domestic violence seem also more likely to be a danger to women at large, not to mention children. Can intimate partner violence really be separated from random male violence?

My head was swimming with these uncomfortable thoughts when my doctoral student came to report on a curious anomaly he had just discovered in an early history of the Christian mission to Japan.

We have been collaborating on a documentary film about a Latin musical play, The Strong Woman, by Johann Baptist Adolph (libretto) and Johann Bernd Staudt (music), first performed by schoolboys at the Jesuit college in Vienna in 1698. It celebrates a Japanese lady from the 16th century, Gracia Tama Hosokawa (1562-1600), who is killed by her samurai husband – in this fictionalised version of a true story – for promoting the Christian faith.

Noritake Christmas Plate designed by Kiyomi Akagi (1976). Makato Harris Takao

My student, Makoto Harris Takao, had found that the source of Adolph’s plot, a Dutch Jesuit history, had been drastically altered from its original French source, also by a Jesuit. In the play, “Queen” Gracia of Tango dies at the hands of her violent husband, who beats her to death for defying him and rejecting the gods of their homeland.

In reality her death was an assisted political suicide.

A period of severe Christian persecution and regional warfare in Japan reached its climax at the turn of the 17th century. Against this background, Gracia’s husband ordered his right-hand man to behead her in the event that his enemies threatened her honour. In 1600 the Hosokawa residence went up in flames, the decapitated Queen with it.

But in our play, an evil informer, like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, fans the King’s bad temper, accusing the Queen of corrupting the royal children with Christian literature. The character of King Jacundonus (better known as Hosokawa Tadaoki) is shown to be upright but prone to anger. In fact, there is good historical evidence of Jacundonus’s brutality.

Often described in Jesuit accounts as one of “the wildest among all Japanese men”, Gracia’s husband displays textbook examples of what we would now call controlling behaviour and criminal abuse: locking his wife away from the outside world, disfiguring or killing servants in her presence to assert his dominance.

But the Queen is no shrinking violet.

Her character in the play is partly based on the real Gracia, who was a strong and independent-minded woman. Gracia’s death was neither self-willed Christian martyrdom nor the end-result of an abusive marriage. Indeed, it is clear from Jesuit sources that she was no passive victim of her husband’s violence.

The modern diagnosis of “battered woman syndrome” has been criticised for implying a psychological defect in the wife. We know that Gracia not only challenged her husband but sought to expose his violence publicly.

Historical accounts reveal a woman who wears a kimono stained with the blood of a murdered servant for days on end until her embarrassed husband begs her to change it. She shares a macabre sense of humour and solidarity with her Christian maids, most of whom were also victims of his abuse. This side of her character is not fleshed out in our Viennese musical drama.

In Adolph’s play, Gracia seems to be held up as a mirror to the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, for whom the play was originally performed. The intensely devout and strong-willed Eleonora Magdalena Theresia exerted influence on her rather feckless husband in matters of religion, economics, and politics, and instilled strict piety in her children. She is said to have been a bit “depressed” and prone to asceticism.

But does Adolph’s play glorify violence against women or in any way suggest that good Catholic women should tolerate abusive husbands?

The grave of Gracia Hosokawa and Hosokawa Tadaok in Kyoto. Wikimedia Commons

It certainly glorifies willing submission to gruesome religious violence in the prospect of Christian martyrdom. The Queen herself, having submitted to torture, encourages her own young children to embrace a martyr’s death.

All of the roles, including that of the Queen, would have been played by males, and mostly by young schoolboys. Ideally, performance of martyrdom was preparation for future martyrdom.

But Harris Takao points to an important twist in the knotted tale of the historical Gracia. As a devout Catholic, the real Gracia sought advice from her Jesuit confessors about her desire to flee her home and seek a divorce. But if a noblewoman of such prominence had left her husband following her conversion to Christianity it would have added fuel to the fire of persecution already directed at the missionaries.

Indeed, there was good precedent for the Jesuits’ insistence that she stay with her husband. The founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola, had advised Joanna of Aragon to endure her royal husband’s violence.

There are undoubtedly passages of Adolph’s play that make for uncomfortable reading today. The furious King attempts to choke one of his daughters. The royal children plead with their father not to be cruel to their mother. The torture of the Queen is described in almost erotic terms.

Perhaps the most emotionally impenetrable scene for a modern audience is that in which the King changes heart – but not until after he has beaten his wife to death. No psychological rationale is offered for his repentance apart from the implied supernatural one: Christian grace.

Jacundonus’s rage and violence (“furor”) is portrayed by the Jesuit playwright as a temporary madness which lifts to reveal a contrite and admirable soul.

The historical Gracia could have removed herself from the abusive situation. There were shelters for “battered women” even in 16th-century Japan. Why this noble, educated and feisty woman chose to stay in her abusive marriage is not, however, to be found in a retrospective diagnosis of “battered woman syndrome”, but in the religious politics of the period.

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