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Shūsaku Endō’s best-known work is Silence, a historical novel about a Catholic missionary in early seventeenth-century Japan. Silence was published in 1966, when it won the Tanizaki Prize, and has since been adapted as a film twice, most recently by Martin Scorsese. Several of Endō’s major works are concerned with Catholicism, and in 1980 he returned to the same period in Japanese history with The Samurai, a book which sounds as though it ought to be the quintessential novel of Japanese martial culture. In fact, it is about religion and diplomacy rather than war, most of the action takes place outside Japan, and the most prominent character is a Spaniard.

It is Velasco, not the eponymous samurai Hasekura, who is the main character in the novel and drives forward the action. Endō makes it clear that, left to himself, Hasekura would never leave Japan or do anything at all except try to wring a poor living from the barren land he farms. The samurai himself is out of his element throughout the novel. This is true first of all in a very simple and literal way. The Japanese go to places where few or none of their countrymen have preceded them. They are objects of wonder to the people of Mexico and Europe, who are continually staring at their faces and stroking their clothes in amazement.

However, the samurai is also out of his element in any situation calling for subtlety and diplomacy. Velasco, to whom he acts as a foil, notices this immediately. He cannot understand why Lord Shiraishi has entrusted Hasekura with the letters which contain the essence of the mission, still less why he advises Velasco to take the samurai with him to Rome if the need arises. Velasco says that Hasekura “cuts a sorry figure” and seems “more a peasant than a samurai . . . the least impressive of all the envoys.”

From the third chapter onward, the narrative of The Samurai alternates between a third-person account which focuses on the samurai and his companions and the first-person observations of Velasco (who is described in the third person before this point). This method of telling the story emphasizes the differences between the samurai and the priest. The former is silent and impassive. When the author discusses his emotions, they boil down to homesickness, loyalty, and a determination to do his duty. Velasco, on the other hand, is a seething mass of contradictions. On the surface, he never deviates from his arrogant ambition, but in his thoughts, he is constantly vacillating, examining himself, then analyzing the self-examination. He is acutely aware of his own faults, though he sometimes misses specific instances in which these faults come to the fore. He knows his tendencies toward pride and self-aggrandizement, for example, but this knowledge does not stop him from comparing himself to Christ and using Christ’s actions as a justification for his own.

Velasco believes, or claims to believe, that sincerity is unnecessary for conversion to be effective. This is one of the many theological and practical points on which he differs from Father Valente and the Jesuits. Valente says that the Japanese will never embrace Christianity. They will claim to do so when it is convenient, then recant as soon as it becomes inconvenient. Velasco says that this does not matter. When a convert invites the Lord into his heart, the Lord makes his home there. It does not matter what the convert intended. His words may have been empty as far as he was concerned, but God intended something quite different.

Ironically, these two diametrically opposed men, Hasekura...

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and Velasco, are both executed for embracing a Christian faith which the former disavows entirely, while the latter declares it to be his entire life. When the samurai is asked to recant his Christian faith, he indignantly replies that he never believed in it in the first place. The miserable, emaciated figure of Christ which he saw all over Mexico and Europe was repulsive to him. By the end of the narrative, however, he sees the resemblance between Christ and his servant, Yozo, and realizes that this miserable figure embodies the virtues he values most: sympathy and loyalty.

Velasco goes to his death still uncertain that his haughty spirit has been tamed or that he has been fulfilling God’s will rather than his own. Nonetheless, he has insisted on attacking these questions in his private prayers while insisting in public that everything he does is in the service of the Lord. He confidently dismisses the compromised motives of church dignitaries, comparing the great Cardinal Borghese to the High Priest Caiaphas while asserting the superiority of his own difficult path. Meanwhile, the samurai has continually protested that he is not a Christian, but his natural humility, his sympathy for the poor, his loyalty to those who follow him, and his acceptance of his unjust fate may well remind the reader of Christ, the foreign figure the samurai claims not to understand.