The Samurai by Shusaku Endo (1980, tr. 1982)

Two months back when I reviewed Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, I mentioned that the 1970 seppuku of the internationally-acclaimed Yukio Mishima overshadowed the Japanese literary world for some years afterward.  During the period between Mishima’s post-World War II literary debut and the combined commercial and critical success of Murakami in the late 1980s, obviously, there were other Japanese writers shaking up the literary world not only in their home country, but internationally as well.  One of those writers who put forth a unique perspective was the late Shusaku Endo, who was a Catholic in a land where less than one percent of the population professes Christianity.

 

Interestingly, his work has been getting another look as Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of his most popular work, Silence, is to be released December of this year.  However, Endo believed The Samurai to be his most personal work, a novel that expresses the conflict he felt being a religious minority in a culture and country that values conformity.  When the novel was published in 1980, the literary establishment praised it and it won the Noma prize, a very prestigious award in Japan.  The public also enjoyed the narrative; however, Endo was somewhat unsatisfied by the praise of his countrymen.  When he read the reviews, he felt that the readers just had a superficial understanding of the themes.  To many of his countrymen, The Samurai seemed to be just a gripping historical novel, rather than fiction seriously commenting on the human condition, dealing with themes of faith, loyalty, and disillusionment.

 

There are two main characters in the novel, Velasco and Hasekura Rokuemon, the aforementioned samurai of the title, though supporting characters greatly influence the movement of the narrative set in the early seventeenth century.  Velasco is a Franciscan missionary tending to the needs of Japanese Catholic converts in one of the few remaining Japanese provinces tolerant of Christians.  Hasekura is a poor, low-ranking samurai eking out an existence in swamplands far removed from his ancestral homeland due to political shifts from the turmoil of recent civil conflict.  Further conflict among various parties complicates matters.  Spain is trying to grow economic ties with the increasingly centralized Japan; however, the shogun’s persecution of Catholics continues to dim those prospects.  England and Netherlands seek to establish trade beachheads in Japan, which could possibly lead to another front in the Catholic-Protestant wars.  Furthermore, the Catholic Church is divided among the various monastic orders.  As seen throughout the novel, the Jesuits seek to block the efforts of Velasco primarily because he is a Franciscan missionary, while Velasco believes the collapse of Catholicism in Japan is due to the arrogant and incompetent meddling of the Jesuits in the political affairs of Japan years earlier.  Moreover, Velasco, at times, questions whether his own motives are truly pure: Does he want to build up the faith of the Japanese people? Or does he seek greatness for himself in possibly being appointed bishop of Japan?

 

What gets the story going is that shipwrecked Spanish soldiers need to be returned to Nueva Espana (what is known as Mexico today).  The provincial lord, along with a council of older men, thus decides to build a European-style vessel and creates an expedition to repatriate these men.  Velasco, Hasekura, three other low-ranking Samurai, their servants, and many merchants join the Spanish sailors, for each have their motives.  The provincial lord hopes to open up trade so that a port will be built that will rival another in the still unconquered western provinces of Japan.  The merchants seek profits that would abound with increased trade.  Hasekura and his samurai companions seek to restore themselves to their ancestral lands.  Believing that completing this mission will restore honor to his family name, he’s willing to leave his family and all that he knows to journey to unknown lands.  Velasco, of course, hopes that better economic ties between Spain and Japan will halt the persecution of Catholics in the land, and perhaps, he’ll be appointed as shepherd over the increasingly scattered flock.  The journey spans the globe, but things turn out unexpectedly for all as the months and years pass.

 

Though both Velasco and Hasekura could be viewed as self-centered by some of the actions they take, the reader ends up with sympathizing with both of them, even though they also clash with each other.  The characters are motivated men who are willing to do anything to accomplish their goals.  For both of them, this leads them to take measures that seem to be compromise to outsiders.  Though according to their own hearts, it’s not truly betrayal, as they hope it leads to accomplishment of the ultimate wills; for Velasco, it’s God’s, and for Hasekura, it’s his ancestors.  Another interesting character is the youngest samurai, Nishi.  Unlike the other Japanese travelers, he has a sincere interest in the Western culture he encounters.  It’s heartrending to know that such a vibrant personality is living at a time when he thinks that Japan is about to open up to the world, but in reality, the country is about to close its borders for nearly 250 years.

 

Though there is much to think about when The Samurai, it’s not a ponderous read.  Once the voyagers set sail, the reader is quickly moved along.  However, this does not mean that Endo does not pay attention to detail.  Whether you’re reading about the characters sailing on the ship, wandering around a decrepit Indian village, or looking up in wonder at the towers of Europe, you actually feel like you’re with them, sharing the same emotions.  Endo takes time to paint the scene so you’re transported back to the age of explorations; however, he doesn’t linger so much that your weighted down with superfluous detail and turned away from the emotions of the characters.  If it was longer than necessary, I believe that it could’ve become one of those numerous historical novels that get the facts all right, but seem more like a textbook than a story.  The novel is based on historical fact; however, Endo said his “purpose in writing The Samurai was not to depict the condition of Japan in the seventeenth century.”  There was really no need to, because in his mind as a Japanese Catholic, the philosophical attitude of the seventeenth century Japanese still resided in the majority of the Japanese populace of the twentieth century, and this is something with which he struggled.