Friday, November 1, 2013

The Samurai by Shusaku Endo

In 1613, four low-ranking Japanese samurai travel to New Spain in an attempt to establish diplomatic and economic relationships with the Spanish empire.  Along with them is a priest/interpreter who dreams of a Catholic crusade in Japan.  The five will eventually travel to Spain, where they will win fame as the first Japanese to ever visit Europe and then to Rome where they will gain a brief audience with the Pope before finally returning to Japan, defeated.

Along the way, all four Japanese will convert to Christianity, though none of them understand this strange belief in the emaciated man on the cross.  Why would anyone worship a man who is so clearly weak? they wonder.  How could a man who has no power at all be worthy of adoration?

Shusaku Endo's haunting novel The Samurai, loosely based on a true story, is both a physical and a spiritual journey.  It's well worth reading for the physical journey alone.  The story, unfamiliar to me before reading the book, takes the reader from the poorest backwater of late medieval Japan  across the Pacific to the early days of the Spanish empire in Mexico.  Mr. Endo fully evokes both locals,  bringing a Japanese perspective to each.  Looking at the Spanish conquest through the eyes of Japanese characters from a world quite different from my own brought a fresh perspective to it.  It's revealing to see an Asian view of what I consider European history.

The inner workings of the Spanish court and the Papal court also make for interesting reading.  We watch the Japanese samurai struggle to succeed in a game they do not know is rigged against them, all the while maintaining their honor even as their mission falls into failure.  They are tragically in over their heads, unabe to comprehend the way their own leaders have willingly used them as sacrifical pawns. Their priest/interpreter while probably sincere in his motivations seems to walk right up to the line of corruption time and again as he struggles to win support for the small number of Christian converts already in Japan and in exile in the Philippines.

But the journey that most interests Shusaku Endo is always a spiritual one.

His Japanese characters here convert to Christianity out of expedience--the merchants are convinced they will make better profits in Catholic New Spain if they are Christian, the would-be diplomat samurai hope to gain greater access and respect and therefore success with king and pope if they become Christian.  While the priest interpreter who baptizes them all knows this, he thinks it is none-the-less a step towards a true conversion.

But it's only when the samurai have returned home as failures to find themselves held in contempt by the newly established political order, banished back into rural isolation, that they begin to truly convert.  After they have lost everything they once hoped to gain, they begin to see why people worship the emaciated man on the cross.

It's powerful stuff.

My thanks to Bellezza for posting The Japanese Literature Challenge 7.  While it's taken me more than seven months to finally get around to reading a book for this challenge, it was well worth it. 


Lisa said...

James, this sounds fascinating, on so many levels, first because it's based on real events, but also for the travel, and the view of new and old Spain through Japanese eyes. I'm definitely looking for a copy of this.

Anonymous said...

I read this one for a college course and really liked it, even more than Silence, which I think is Endo's most well-known book. It was intriguing to have the Japanese characters in what is present-day Mexico - not a perspective on that era that is usual to read about.