The Samurai

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

The title of Shusaku Endo’s novel may prove deceptive to readers whose knowledge of the great warrior-statesman class of Japan is limited to that fascinating combination of military prowess and cultural refinement for which it is now so well known. This is no conventional tale of heroic deeds or of mortal combat. The heroism is present and there is mortal struggle, but these are of a different order. The samurai who appear in thse pages are humble men of low rank who serve their master faithfully and, in some cases, to the death; theirs is the quiet heroism of endurance and obedience. The combat, if it may be so described, is waged internally and individually by two men, and the opponent in both battles is Jesus of Nazareth.

Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542-1616) is one of the most impressive and complex figures in Japanese history. Before his rise to power, Japan was a feudal system of warring fiefdoms. Tokugawa gradually subdued his rivals, assumed the title of Shogun, and, by the end of his life, had succeeded in unifying Japan. The dynasty he established ruled that nation until the last half of the nineteenth century.

Tokugawa was a master political strategist and statesman who often operated on the principles of indirection and misdirection. He was hostile to foreign influences, partly because they were contrary to the indigenous culture and partly because they represented a potential conquest by outsiders. European missionaries had been working busily, if not harmoniously, in the land for half a century; Tokugawa viewed them as a serious threat that must be neutralized. He initiated the first steps toward their eventual expulsion and began to suppress the Christianity that had already taken root among his subjects. Persecution of converts was undertaken in the domains under his control; such persons were still tolerated in some domains he had not yet conquered. This was the situation in 1613. In that year, Tokugawa, whose court title was by then Naifu (he had given that of Shogun to his son in 1605), set in motion what was ostensibly a trade mission to the Europeans in Nueva España (now Mexico). The stated purpose was both diplomatic and commercial: the Japanese would establish mutual trade with the Spanish and would, in turn, welcome foreign missionaries. Envoys would accompany the merchants.

Since Japan lacked adequate seagoing vessels, the ship would be built by Japanese labor at a new port, its construction designed and supervised by a Spanish engineer who had been detained in Japan. Thus, it was to be a Spanish galleon, manned by Spanish sailors who had been stranded on the island.

Envoys are customarily persons of elevated social and political status. Those appointed to this mission were, on the contrary, drawn from samurai of low rank whose lands had been appropriated and who had petitioned in vain for their return. A Spanish missionary was selected to accompany the envoys and to dispel rumors of anti-Christian activities. The successful candidate, a Franciscan priest, was evidently screened with care: he was a zealot, blinded to reality by his own overweening ambition.

Clearly, this mission was never more than a subterfuge. By the time the galleon departed in October, Tokugawa had accomplished several important goals. He had learned much about the development of deepwater ports and about European naval architecture and construction, along with related shipbuilding methods. He was thus in an excellent position to repel intruders or to keep them at a comfortable distance. If the mission succeeded, he could easily repudiate it. If it failed, the returning envoys would be disgraced and would serve as an object lesson to any malcontents within their own subclass.

Tokugawa was a man of genius whose success often depended upon such complex deceptions, and he played a very deep game. His pawns—and his opponents—seldom realized how helpless they were until their own doom was already upon them.

This ill-starred expedition and its participants form the framework for Shusaku Endo’s novel. Superficially, it is a story of travel and adventure, something like the journey of Marco Polo in reverse but with a much different conclusion. The cast is large, but there are really only two principal characters: one of the envoys, Rokuemon Hasekura, who is referred to as “the samurai” throughout; and Father Velasco, the priest whose burning ambition is to be named Bishop of Japan. The two form an absorbing study in contrasts.

Hasekura is a quiet, introspective man who thinks much but says little. He exemplifies the best attributes of his class. The term “samurai” means “service to one’s master.” Hasekura...

(The entire section is 1920 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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