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...
(The entire section is 993 words.)