‘The Samurai’ by Shūsaku Endō (Review)

Last time out, we had a rather relaxing outing, with lots of tea consumed, but today sees a change of pace.  I hope you’re all well rested as today’s #JanuaryInJapan expedition is set to be the most daunting of them all.  We’re off to the north of Japan, but we won’t be there for long.  You see, the world is calling, and we’re about to set off on a very big adventure, with no guarantee of making it back any time soon – if at all…

Shūsaku Endō’s The Samurai (translated by Van C. Gessel) is an historical novel set in the early seventeenth century.  Lowly samurai Rokuemon Hasekura is generally content with his lot as ruler of three villages in the northern marshlands, even if his uncle continues to bemoan the loss of the family’s traditional lands (stripped from them for disloyalty on the part of Rokuemon’s father).  However, one day he receives a summons from the local Lord, which turns out to be a chance to make amends.

A plan is underway to send out a trading mission, and with the help of some stranded Japanese sailors, the locals are rebuilding a galleon in preparation for a daring ocean voyage to Nueva España (Mexico).  There they hope to establish trading links with the Spanish colony, and to his great surprise, Hasekura is one of four men chosen to fulfil a special role on the journey:

“I’m sure you know that His Lordship is constructing a great ship in the inlet at Ogatsu.  That ship will carry the foreigners who were cast ashore at Kishu and sail to a distant land called Nueva España.  Yesterday at the castle, Lord Shiraishi suggested your name, and you have been ordered to travel to Nueva España as an envoy of His Lordship.”
pp.36/7 (Penguin Modern Classics, 2017)

With a few retainers, and a letter to the Pope safely tucked away, our samurai sets off on a journey that will astound him, and cause him to re-examine some of his beliefs.

Endō’s novel is a wonderful, absorbing story, and incredibly, it’s based on real life.  Hasekura actually did undertake this journey, to Mexico and beyond, making him one of the first Japanese to see the wide world.  This a stylised, fictionalised account, one that makes changes for the sake of the narrative, but overall, it’s not too far from the truth.

The main attraction of the book is the way it allows us to see the journey through the samurai’s eyes.  Hasekura is a reluctant traveller and a rather reticent man, slow to open his mouth and generally preferring to keep his counsel when consulted.  However, he gradually opens up as his horizons are (literally) broadened:

The samurai watched motionlessly until at length the whales disappeared on the horizon.  Rays of sunlight seeped through the clouds like sheaves of arrows, markedly tinging the edge of the now-deserted ocean with silver.  It had never occurred to the samurai that there were so many new and different things to experience.  He had not realized that the world was so vast.  His Lordship’s domain had been the only world of which he could conceive.  But now a subtle transformation was taking place in his heart, and with it came a vague uneasiness and a formless fear.  He was setting foot in a new world.  And he feared that cracks were beginning to form in the wall that had supported his heart until now, and that it would eventually crumble into dust. (p.82)

The deserts of Mexico, the wonders of Europe, the perils of two great oceans – it’s all enough to make anyone question their place in the world.

However, Hasekura is just one of two main characters in The Samurai, the other being, as you might have guessed, a Christian priest, Father Pedro Velasco.  Having so far avoided execution or expulsion, the Spaniard is chosen to act as an interpreter for the envoys on their journey to the west.  Of course, after ten long years in Japan, he has his own reasons for wanting to joining the expedition.  Like many of Endō’s priest characters, Velasco is fascinated with a country that seems immune to the attractions of Christianity, and is convinced that he’s the one that will finally lead it into the light.

As the novel progresses, the relationship between the withdrawn samurai and the ambitious priest is increasingly brought into focus.  Velasco is using the expedition as a stepping stone to his goal of becoming Bishop of Japan and spreading the word in his new homeland.  To this end, he attempts to convert the envoys, retainers and merchants, many of whom are happy to be baptised if it brings material advantages in this world.  Hasekura is unable to understand why the Europeans are so obsessed with the miserable, scrawny man he sees on pictures everywhere – only later, when life gets tough, does he start to see the attraction of Jesus for those with nothing.

A notable feature of The Samurai is the way it deals in contrasts.  There are frequent comparisons of Japan and the west, of course, both in terms of appearances (snub or angular noses, swarthy and pale skin) and of habits (much is made of the way the characters eat, for example).  Yet one of the bitterest divides shown involves the rather uncivil war between Velasco’s Franciscans and the Jesuits, which culminates in an excellent scene featuring a debate at the Council of Bishops in Spain.  Here Velasco accuses the Jesuits of heavy-handedness that threatens the Church’s progress in Japan.  His opponent admits some of Velasco’s points, but counters the Franciscan’s arguments by claiming it’s all too little too late – Japan is already a lost cause…

Anyone who has read some of Endō’s other work, particularly Silence (set a few decades on), will know that Hasekura and Velasco are unlikely to live happily ever after.  However, with Endō, it’s always the journey that’s important, not the destination.  Our samurai eventually realises that a return to his former life might not be that easy:

At sea, and again in Nueva España, he had sensed an intangible change taking place within his heart.  What that change might be he could not put into words; all he could be certain of was that he was no longer the person he had been in the marshland.  And he was somehow afraid, wondering where this destiny would leave him, how it would finally change him. (pp.151/2)

Velasco, too, is eventually forced to acknowledge that fate will get the better of him, the petty ambitions of man being nothing compared to the Lord’s grand plans.

The Samurai is another superb book by an excellent writer, one in a series of works telling the tale of Christian Japan.  I would love to find some kind of timeline ordering these works (from The Samurai to Sachiko perhaps?), and it would certainly make for an absorbing reading project.  These novels and stories provide something slightly different from most J-Lit, and The Samurai is a great example of that intriguing blend of traditional culture and Christian elements.  But if that all sounds a little high-brow, rest assured that it’s a story worth reading in its own right.  Most readers would agree that even without the religious and philosophical musings, Endō’s novel is an entertaining book about an incredible journey.

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