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The Samurai is, at its core, a novel about cultural hybridity and the ways in which the motivations of individuals and nations can inform, complicate, and obfuscate their eventual human relationships. Underneath the narrative is a constant ideological competition, waged using various ideological currencies, the two most common being the...

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The Samurai is, at its core, a novel about cultural hybridity and the ways in which the motivations of individuals and nations can inform, complicate, and obfuscate their eventual human relationships. Underneath the narrative is a constant ideological competition, waged using various ideological currencies, the two most common being the spread of religious (usually Christian) doctrine, and the hoarding of technological knowledge.

In the same vein, a key question in the novel is that of ideological protectionism. That is, to what degree should an individual or nation let its borders (both physical and ideological) be permeable to outside actors? Japan comes into direct contact with this question when it attempts to send envoys to Spain to benefit from some of their technological innovations, ultimately paying a price when Spanish Catholic missionaries find their way into their borders and permanently alter Japan's ideological fabric.

The Samurai

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1920

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 conveys an impression of strength and dependability that is reinforced as the story unfolds, and his authority over his servants is the kind that is never abused and need not be questioned.

Velasco is a man driven by energy and fierce ambition, whose efforts to subdue his impatience often fail him, as his temper frequently defies his best efforts to control it. A schemer and manipulator, he is one of those contradictorily devout evangelists for whom personal ends are equated with the purposes of God and are sufficient to justify any means utilized to achieve them.

The journey is a long one, occupying several years and extending eventually to Rome. Velasco gains an unsatisfactory audience with the Pope, and with it the certainty of failure. Many of the Japanese are converted to Christianity during this journey; to most of them, the ritual is a mere formality observed in order to further the success of their mission. A few of these conversions, however, notably that of Hasekura’s servant Yozo, are genuine.

The real journey, for Hasekura and for Velasco, is one of the spirit. Confronted at every turn by the image of an emaciated and unsightly man nailed to a cross, the samurai is at first baffled, then resentful, and finally haunted. By the time he has returned to Japan and to the welcome that awaits him there, he has seen life reduced to the most basic elements of human suffering and has gradually come to understand what the emaciated figure represents. By this time, the country has been purged of foreign elements, including the missionaries, and their converts are being required to recant or die. When his own life is finally required by the state, Hasekura goes to his death as a genuine convert to the emaciated man on the cross.

Velasco undergoes a conversion of his own. Shattered by failure to achieve his ends, he begins to question his own motives and his unbending insistence that God serve as his personal instrument. By the time he eventually returns to Japan and to his inevitable martyrdom, he has learned a measure of humility. Nevertheless, he remains in character: the robust vitality that has driven him in the past now becomes a healthier resource that sustains him to the end.

These two characters are developed with great skill and sensitivity; their transformations are entirely credible. Endo has been called the Japanese Graham Greene, and critics have detected Greene’s influence on his work. In turn, Greene has expressed his admiration for Endo’s work.

Religious conversion and the acceptance of spiritual responsibilities are difficult fictional themes, and their convincing portrayal is beset with pitfalls. All too often, they seem contrived, or they become the conventional stereotypes found in much inspirational literature. Endo allows these experiences to occur naturally and inevitably, and he avoids superficialities that are common to this general theme.

The Samurai forms an interesting bridge between Eastern and Western cultures. Endo is himself a convert to Catholicism and, as such, represents a tiny minority within his own country. He indicates that this novel is, in a sense, autobiographical, for he was the first Japanese to study abroad after World War II. For this reason, he feels a strong kinship with his protagonist, Rokuemon Hasekura (1571-1622), whose reactions to and perceptions of the West reflect many of his own. This sense of identity undoubtedly contributes in large measure to the strength and conviction of his portrayal.

The most striking aspect of this bridge is Endo’s clear understanding of the Occidental mind. His characterizations of Velasco and the other Europeans do not contain any false notes and give no impression that they have been filtered through the perceptions of another cultural heritage. Writers who possess this kind of accurate cross-cultural insight are rare.

It is instructive, in this context, to compare The Samurai with James Clavell’s recent historical novel Shogun (1975), which exploits the same period in Japanese history. Both writers have provided convincing fictional accounts based on individuals who actually lived. Clavell’s is the more colorful of the two works; it is told from the viewpoint of Will Adams (Blackthorne in the novel), an English sailor who was shipwrecked in Japan, spent the rest of his life there, and died an honored and respected man in 1620. It also provides an arresting portrait of Tokugawa, who plays a major role in the novel as the character Toranaga. He is convincingly ruthless and astute, and is, in the final analysis, terrifying. Clavell’s novel is sensitive and well-crafted, but it offers the reader a Japan seen through Western eyes.

Unlike Clavell, Endo retains the actual names of his prototypes, with the exception of Velasco, for whom the model was one Father Luis Sotelo. He has taken fewer liberties with these personages and has in fact represented them as accurately as the surviving evidence, together with a shrewd analysis of character, will permit. Tokugawa’s influence is sensed throughout Endo’s novel, but he appears only once: a silent old man behind the Shogun and the throne, whose absolute power is chillingly conveyed. In Endo’s novel, Hasekura is an intelligent and complex man who gives the outward impression of quiet simplicity; the reader shares his thoughts and observations directly. Velasco appears in contrasting lights, as seen by the Japanese and as seen by himself. His inner struggles are conveyed, for the most part, through excerpts from a journal or diary. These devices are appropriate to the characters as they are conceived by Endo. Interestingly, it was the original Hasekura who actually kept a journal of the voyage. It disappeared, or was destroyed, after his return to Japan. Readers of The Samurai will feel as though they have known both the Eastern and the Western characters from the inside—no small achievement for any writer.

The Samurai was well-received in Japan, where it was published in 1980 and won the important Noma Prize. That it is entirely successful in its English version results from the painstaking and sympathetic work of its translator, Van C. Gessel. Gessel refers, in a note, to the formidable challenges posed by conversion of works from non-European languages to English. That The Samurai has retained its credibility and vitality, and that it remains a valid work of art, is high tribute to Gessel’s ability.

The author has prefaced this work with a few brief comments in regard to its historical setting, but these will be more puzzling than informative to Western readers. The translator has accordingly provided a postscript, which contains an excellent historical summary and some additional information in regard to the author.

The Samurai is an outstanding novel, equally effective at each of the several levels on which it is written. The writing is notable for its precision, clarity, and economy. Endo is a gifted writer who speaks a language that is universal, regardless of his native tongue.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 103

America. CXLVII, December 4, 1982, p. 354.

Elliot, William. “Shsaku End: A Christian Voice in Japanese Literature,” in The Christian Century. LXXXIII (September 21, 1966), pp. 1147-1148.

Howe, Irving. “Mission from Japan,” in The New York Review of Books. XXIX (November 4, 1982), pp. 31-33.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 5, 1982, p. 3.

Moynihan, Julian. “The Conversion of Japan,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (December 26, 1982), pp. 7, 27.

New Age. VIII, October, 1982, p. 67.

New Statesman. CIII, May 7, 1982, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, August 27, 1982, p. 347.

Ribeiro, Jorge. “Shsaku End: Japanese Catholic Novelist,” in America. CLII (February 2, 1985), pp. 87-89.

Rimer, J. Thomas. Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions, 1978.

Times Literary Supplement. May 21, 1982, p. 567.

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