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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232

The Samurai , by Shusaku Endo, takes place in the seventeenth century and tells the story of a Japanese samurai, Hasekura Rokuemon, and a Christian missionary, Father Velasco, who embark on a mission to develop trade relations with the Phillippines and Mexico and convert the people to Christianity. Rokeumon writes...

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The Samurai, by Shusaku Endo, takes place in the seventeenth century and tells the story of a Japanese samurai, Hasekura Rokuemon, and a Christian missionary, Father Velasco, who embark on a mission to develop trade relations with the Phillippines and Mexico and convert the people to Christianity. Rokeumon writes a letter to Pope Paul V, declaring his commitment to the Roman Catholic religion and promising to convert the people of these territories. In return, he expects the development profitable trade relations with the Spanish-dominated islands in the Pacific and Latin America. Ultimately, Rokuemon and Father Velasco plan to establish Catholicism in the Latin world and then in Japan.

Father Velasco organizes the mission to Mexico, and he and Rokuemon leave on the trip with a group of Japanese merchants and samurai. The journey is long and difficult, and over the next four years on the ship, Father Velasco converts the samurai to Christianity, convincing them that their faith in Jesus will ensure the success of their mission. Their mission fails, and they continue on to Madrid, and then to Japan, where they learn that the Edo Emperor has banned Christianity in Japan is persecuting anyone who refuses to renounce their Catholic beliefs. Disillusioned and facing death, Rokeumon turns to the lord for comfort. Based on historical fact, the story is a fictionalized account of events the preceded the Christian persecutions in Japan.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 993

Dealing with a relatively obscure mission to New Spain, today known as Mexico, mounted by the feudal overlord of a district in seventeenth century Japan surrounding the modern northeastern city of Sendai, Shsaku End’s The Samurai focuses on the fundamental effects of the Tokugawa period on Japan, of Japan’s association with European Roman Catholic missionaries, and of its ultimate decision to close the country to all foreign influence. End’s interest in the episode arises from its relative obscurity and the lack of surviving historical records. His imagination was stirred by the situation of unsophisticated Japanese of the lowest rank in the samurai class being forced to play large roles on the international stage.

The novel begins with descriptions of the two men central to the action of The Samurai. The first is Rokuemon Hasekura, a samurai and the holder of a small fief in the marshlands in Masamune Date’s district. At home in his estate and among the people who serve his family, Hasekura cannot imagine a life different from the one he leads. He is of the land he tills, and he suffers the privations of the peasants tied to it. The second man is Father Velasco, Provincial at Edo (the older name of the modern city of Tokyo) for the Franciscan order of missionaries in Japan. Velasco is, in nearly every respect, the apparent opposite of the samurai. An alien in Japan, having fought with the Jesuits for control of missionary efforts, Velasco nurses the ambition of being named Bishop of Japan and gaining control of the effort to Christianize its people. Two more different men could not be imagined, but End links their destinies in the novel.

Summoned by Lord Ishida, his feudal superior and patron, Hasekura is told to hold himself ready to undertake a mission at the direction of Lord Shiraishi, a leading figure in His Lordship’s provincial council. Hasekura’s elderly uncle is overjoyed at the news, believing that the family will regain the property from which they were dispossessed two generations before, when they found themselves on the wrong side in a political conflict. Hasekura is less optimistic about the prospect of leaving his native place. An occasional white swan flies into the marshes each winter, and he marvels at the fact that it has seen places he cannot even name. Hasekura thinks that he is unprepared for the mission when it materializes; he is instructed to join three other low-ranking samurai as envoys from Masamune Date to the government of New Spain. The four will board a Western-style ship, designed under the supervision of shipwrecked Spanish sailors, and seek to persuade the colonial government in New Spain to trade directly with Date’s district of Japan. To that end, they are instructed to offer the prospect of uncontrolled opportunities for Christian missionary activity.

Attached as translator to the group of Japanese envoys as they embark on the San Juan Baptista, Father Velasco exudes self-confidence about the success of the mission. He sees in this effort an opportunity for the Franciscans to supplant the Jesuits as the prime group undertaking missionary activity in Japan. The journey, however, proves more difficult than he anticipated, and the Japanese envoys and their attendants are less easy to control than he thought. Velasco does make some converts among the group, in part because he demonstrates the political expediency of becoming a Roman Catholic, but, from the first, Hasekura resists Velasco’s arguments. He finds the man Jesus Christ beyond comprehension, for his conduct is the antithesis of behavior which a samurai finds natural. “This ugly, emaciated man,” Hasekura thinks, reflecting on the image of the crucified Christ. He continues,This man devoid of majesty, bereft of outward beauty, so wretchedly miserable. A man who exists only to be discarded after he has been used. A man born in a land I have never seen, and who died in the distant past. He has nothing to do with me, thought the samurai.

Nevertheless, Hasekura accepts Christian baptism in the guise of political expediency. Arriving in New Spain, the Japanese envoys find the colonial officials unresponsive. Three of them, Hasekura among them, accept Velasco’s advice to cross the Atlantic to appeal to the King of Spain and the Pope. In Madrid the three envoys become Roman Catholics, but Hasekura is overcome during the ceremony by feelings of guilt: “He felt a loathing like a woman must when she is forced to sleep with a man she neither loves nor trusts.” Yozo, Hasekura’s companion and servant, accompanies his master in this momentous step, but his acceptance of Christ is genuine and unreserved.

The political consequences of Hasekura’s actions are momentous, but they are hardly the ones that he anticipated. The Spanish king sends the Japanese envoys on to Rome, where they linger about the city until they are granted a single audience with the Pope. The Roman Catholic church seems on the verge of endorsing the aims of the embassy and of naming Velasco’s Franciscans the chief missionary group in Japan, but word comes from the Jesuits in Macao that the Tokugawa government in Edo has formed a trading alliance with England and that Masamune Date, who had sent out Hasekura’s mission, has begun to persecute the Christians living in his district. Their mission unsuccessful, Hasekura and his companions retrace their steps, hoping only to return to Japan and to be allowed to live unobtrusively. Meeting Chusaku Matsuki, an envoy who turned back and did not accompany them to Europe, they are told that the government never intended the mission to succeed. It was merely a ploy to hide the government’s intention to gain knowledge of European methods of shipbuilding. “That’s why they didn’t choose qualified people as envoys,” Matsuki explains. “Instead, they appointed low-ranking lance-corporals who could die or rot anywhere along the way and no one would care.”

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