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In Margi Preus' Heart of a Samurai, five men leave the shores of Shikoku, Japan, at the beginning of 1841. They are an eclectic group of men: old and young; experienced and inexperienced. They are all desperate to catch fish to feed their families, but know they must not stray far from home, for Japan neither wants visitors from the outside world, or members of their own country returning from other places to upset the balance in Japan with crazy western ideas.
Trouble begins when the men are caught in a storm and shipwrecked.
The wind pushed the sea into great mountains of water; it tore the oars from the men's hands and flung them into the sea; finally, it snapped the mast, then ripped the rudder away from the boat.
As they prepare (they think) to die, each shares his wish with the others:
Manjiro, at age fourteen the youngest and so the last to speak, said, "I had hoped to become a samurai."
His dream seems a hopeless one. However, the men don't die. They discover land and are shipwrecked for a time; they are finally picked up by an American whaling ship and treated kindly. Manjiro embraces this new life, works hard and learns the language. He hates the destruction and waste of whaling, but despite his origins, he lives in America for a time as the captain's son, sails on another whaler, and finally makes enough money in the Gold Rush to make his way home.
The main problem in the story is not that Manjiro is separated from home and family, but that he wants to return home. When he does, he is suspected by Japanese leaders of being a spy, and of having adopted western ideas about life and religion. (Japan practices "isolationism" at that time.) He and his friends are treated badly—imprisoned and beaten, while Japan is on the brink of civil war. The country at this time disassociates itself from the world and has hoped that it would remain that way.
Eventually, Manjiro and the others are released to go home. However, this does not last:
Three days into his visit with his family, Manjiro was called back to the city and given the lowest samurai rank of sadame-komono, extraordinary at that time in Japan's history.
With his language of English and America, Manjiro becomes invaluable in helping the Japanese come to terms with the changing world, which brings unwanted change to his homeland.
...the American naval commander Commodore Perry arrived in Edo harbor, demanding that Japan open its doors to the West. As an English speaker with firsthand knowledge of America, Manjiro became an adviser to the shogun, who elevated him to an even higher samurai rank.
The difficulty in the story is that Manjiro, who is curious by nature, wants to see the world and learn more, but because Japan practices isolationism, returning home could cost him his life. Even so, he does for he wants to see his family and know the life he had before he was lost in the storm. He is at first welcomed, but town officials soon come and take him and his friends away. This is the main conflict.
The resolution to the conflict is that when Commodore Perry arrives demanding that Japan allow foreigners to visit their shores, etc., Monjiro is the only person who knows English and can intercede for the shogun. Manjiro is then promoted, and his dream to become a samurai—unheard of for a poor young man—is finally realized. The conflict is resolved because Monjiro is able to help the shogun.
This is, by the way, based upon a true story.
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