The Samurai Themes
The main themes in The Samurai are religious conflict, the power of language, and Japanese culture.
- Religious conflict: As a Franciscan priest, Father Velasco aims to convert the people of Japan to Christianity. He meets with resistance and, ultimately, violence.
- The power of language: Velasco’s role as an interpreter is vital, as he is the only member of the group who speaks both Japanese and Spanish.
- Japanese culture: Velasco is fascinated by Japanese culture yet fails to fully understand it and wishes to transform it through his missionary zeal.
Last Updated on June 10, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 956
There are various different types of religious conflict in The Samurai. The most obvious is the attempt of the Spanish Catholics, and particularly the Franciscan Order, represented by the intense zeal of Velasco, to convert the Japanese to Christianity. As the narrative opens at the beginning of the seventeenth century, this attempt has met with a range of responses, from aggression to indifference. It is only slightly more than a decade since the crucifixion of St. Paul Miki and the other twenty-five Japanese martyrs on the orders of General Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1597. The characters in the novel are not similarly violent in their response until the executions in the final chapter, but they can be equally intractable. While the samurai accepts the guidance of Father Velasco in most matters, and has no other religion to claim his loyalty, he is deeply resistant to becoming a Christian.
Another type of conflict is the continual squabbling between the different Catholic orders (and between Catholics and Protestants, though this is not stressed in the book). Velasco himself, a bitter enemy of the Jesuits, who are continually trying to frustrate his plans, reflects:
Though we believe in the same God, worship the same Lord Jesus, and share the same desire to make Japan a nation of God, we feud and fight amongst ourselves. Why must men always be so ugly and selfish?
Finally, there is the internal conflict experienced by the Franciscan priest himself, a man who ties his hands together every night to prevent himself from inadvertently committing sins of the flesh. Velasco is devout and passionate in his desire to convert the Japanese to Christianity, but he is never quite sure whether he is doing God’s work or furthering his own career. He sees his own ambition as a flaw but is not above justifying it by using scripture as a defense. His internal conflicts are shown in prayers and meditations throughout the novel.
The Power of Language
At the beginning of the novel, Father Velasco is in prison but is fairly confident of his survival because he knows that the Japanese are in need of his skill as an interpreter. None of the Japanese are fluent in Spanish, and there are so few Spaniards who speak Japanese that Velasco immediately becomes the effective leader of the expedition to the New World, despite the fact that his formal role is merely that of interpreter.
Velasco is an ambitious man. His long-term goal is to become bishop of Japan, while his immediate aim is to exercise power through his exclusive knowledge. The Japanese envoys do not trust him, but their ignorance of Spanish means that they have no choice but to accept his assurances. They only learn of the danger on the road to Veracruz when they meet a Japanese man who can also speak Spanish, and as soon as they leave him behind, they are in Velasco’s hands again.
Because he wields it so effectively, Velasco overestimates the power of language, both in the sense of linguistic prowess and that of eloquence. The Japanese are shrewd enough to sense his dishonesty, even when they do not know precisely what he is withholding. Velasco is concerned about the influence of Matsuki Chusaku and is relieved to leave him in Mexico, because he is the most gifted orator among the envoys. At the same time, he underestimates Tanaka and the samurai because they are men of few words.
When he imagines his debate with Father Valente, Velasco always imagines a speaker of great rhetorical power, and he is disappointed to find the Jesuit an easy opponent in this respect. It does not occur to him that his plans will be vanquished with simple facts. Later, in Saint Peter’s Basilica, the defeated Velasco regains some sense of power when he decides not to translate the words of the Japanese envoys for the pope, leaving them without help, as well as rendering the most powerful man in the world powerless to understand.
Matsuki, the most intelligent of the Japanese envoys, warns Velasco that his missionary zeal will only cause trouble, saying: “Your brand of happiness is too intense for Japan.” While he does not agree, Velasco understands the point and immediately dismisses as foolish the idea that the Spanish conquest of Mexico might be replicated in Japan. Japan, as Velasco is continually telling himself, is a special case, quite unlike any other culture. He often reflects on the peculiar fascination this country exerts over him. His great ambition is to be bishop of Japan and to win this land for Christ, filling it with monasteries and cathedrals, altering and subverting the culture he finds so powerful.
Velasco is often ashamed of his own worldliness and has a grudging respect for the unashamed materialism and pragmatism he sees in Japanese culture. However, the author makes it clear that his understanding of this culture is incomplete and dismissive. Father Valente, who lived in Japan for far longer than Velasco, has a keener appreciation for the culture, which he deems hostile to Christianity in both its strengths and weaknesses. The Japanese are not tempted by the prospect of eternal life because they are not afraid of death. They think collectively, not individually, and feel deep connections to nature and to one another.
Velasco believes that he understands the Japanese and appreciates their culture. However, his appreciation is shown to be shallow, since his great ambition is to destroy the autochthonous culture and make the Japanese resemble Europeans. His mystification at the idea that Tanaka will commit suicide if their mission to Rome fails demonstrates, as Hasekura himself says, that Velasco does not understand the complexities of Japanese culture.