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The Samurai (1980)

by Shūsaku Endō

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618926,451 (3.96)1 / 62
"Endo to my mind is one of the finest living novelists." --Graham Greene. In 1613, four low-ranking Japanese Samurai, accompanied by a Spanish priest, set sail for Mexico on an unprecedented mission: to bargain for a Catholic crusade through Japan in exchange for trading rights with the West. Among the first Japanese ever to set foot in Europe, they travel to Rome and gain an audience with the Pope. All are baptized, hoping to curry favor with their European hosts. But upon returning to Japan, they discover that the Shoguns no longer wish to forge links with the West, nor will they tolerate the Christian religion. The seven-year mission has been in vain. Disgraced and tormented, the Samurai begin to identify deeply with the crucified Christ they formerly reviled. Based on historical fact, this is a powerful examination of the impact of external events on our deepest beliefs.… (more)



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Endo follows the true story of a group of Japanese envoys sent from a provincial Lord to Mexico, Spain, and eventually Rome in the hopes of gaining access to trade with the Spanish empire in the early 17th century.

Hasekura, one of the low-ranking Samurai leaders of the group, struggles with his feelings of betrayal by Father Vasquez, who has convinced his masters in Japan to embark on this mission. He also struggles to understand his new surroundings, how his life in Japan's marshlands fits into a newly emerging global picture of Japan's place in the world, and with the eventual betrayal he encounters when the surviving members of his group return home.

This was extremely well researched and very moving. Endo fits in believable characters from very minimal information left on them in Japan and Europe. As good, if not better, than Silence. Highly recommend to any interested in Church history or Japanese history with the West. ( )
  jeterat | May 17, 2018 |
This wonderful historical novel, based on true events during the first part of the 17th century, tells the story of a Japanese samurai and a Spanish missionary. The samurai is dispatched, along with three others of his rank, on a ship bound from Japan to Mexico. Their mission: to secure trade agreements between the two countries, presumably allowing for greater numbers of proselytizing monks to come to Japan to spread the word of Christianity. Across the ocean, to Mexico City and then, when that visit fails to secure the sought trade agreements, to Spain and eventually to the Vatican. The Samurai and his companions are determined to succeed in their mission to establish overseas ties; the Franciscan missionary wants the trade routes opened in the hopes that he will be promoted within the Catholic church and be vindicated in his charges that the Jesuits have botched the evangelism in Japan. Unknown to any of them, back in Japan the government is shifting and the practice of Christianity is being strictly forbidden. Christians are being burned to death.

The cultural and religious clashes between the Buddhist foundations of the samurai's beliefs and the fundamental Christian faith of the missionary are neither trite nor simple. Each man is sure of himself. What is self-evident to the one is incomprehensible to the other. Each has his own convictions shaken and each comes to terms with the limitations of his own firm belief system. The search for meaning and understanding, even in the face of tremendous human greed and oppression, is common to each. There are no simple answers.

The writing shifts from the stilted, sterile cadence of translation to occasional brilliance in phrasing. I very much enjoyed it and I learned about world history at a critical time. ( )
2 vote EBT1002 | Dec 4, 2012 |
[See review of Shusaku Endo: Silence for comments on themes in writing and historical background concerning early Christianity in Japan]

Historical Background
Hasekura RokuemonTsunenaga (1571-1622): HRT was a mid-level samurai and retainer of Date Masamune, the daimyo of Sendai. In 1612, HRT’s father was convicted of corruption and put to death in 1613; his fief was confiscated and normally the son, HRT, would also have been executed, but Date Masamune gave him the opportunity to redeem his honour by leading a diplomatic mission to Europe in 1613, and restored his lands as well. HRT was accompanied on the mission by a Franciscan monk named Luis Sotelo who had been proselytizing in and around Edo, modern Tokyo. The diplomatic mission travelled to Spain and Rome through Mexico (New Spain) with various ports-of-call in Europe; the group retraced its steps across Mexico in 1619 and sailed from there to Manila, travelling north to Japan in 1620. The goal of the mission was to establish trade relations with Spain and meet the Pope in Rome, but with the increasing suppression of Christians in Japan, the King of Spain refused the proposed trade agreements.

HRT reported to Date Masamune when he returned to Sendai and although it is not clear what was said, it clearly wasn’t welcome, and was probably caught up in political tensions with the Shogun, because two days later, Date issued a three point edict against Christians: (1) all Christians were ordered to abandon their faith, in accordance with the rule of the Shogun and if they did not, nobles were to be exiled, all others killed; (2) reward to be given for denouncing hiding Christians; (3) propagators of Christianity should leave Sendai area or renounce their faith.

Sotelo returned secretly to Japan in 1624, but was caught and burnt at the stake. HRT had converted to Christianity while in Spain and it is unclear whether he renounced his faith, was martyred for his faith or continued to practice secretly. He died in 1611, possibly just of illness. After HRT’s death, his son was eventually executed (1640) for not denouncing Christians living under his roof, as were a number of other people who had accompanied HRT on the mission to Europe.

The Samurai: Endo follows the basic outline of the HRT mission, but plays a bit with the historical setting. In the novel, Hasekura is a low-level samurai whose family has been stripped of its traditional lands for siding with the losers in an uprising; his uncle lives only to see those lands returned to the family patrimony. His patron, Lord Ishida, passes on the request from Lord Shiraishi that Hasekura lead the diplomatic mission to Europe, to seek trade arrangements, and tantalizes with the promise to look at the question of restoring the traditional lands at the conclusion of the trip. Three other samurai are also chosen and with their retainers and a large number of businessmen, they set out on the voyage. They are also accompanied by Velasco, a Franciscan monk who speaks fluent Japanese and is therefore the retainers’s only link to the outside world; Velasco is clearly patterned on the real-life Sotelo, including the martyrdom by fire at the end of the book.

The Samurai was published thirteen years after Silence. The Samurai is a richer book: it has a broader scope of action with the political arrangements in Japan, the formation of the mission to the new world, the construction of the ship, the clash of cultures taken to the new world, the experiences of the Japanese representatives in this wholly new and strange world through New Spain (Mexico), Spain and Rome and then home by the same path. Endo explores many of the same themes brought out in Silence: the culture clash between east and west; the clash of Christianity in Japan and the debate as to which should adapt to which (Velasco: “When I look at the Japanese, I sometimes wonder whether a true religion—one that seeks after eternity and the salvation of the soul as we understand them—can develop in that country. There is too great a gap between their form of godliness and that which we Christians know as faith.”) ; the clash over what Christianity could give to Japan; the power of faith in a direct, personal connection to God as opposed to through the intermediary of the church hierarchy grown powerful and wealthy and political.

Added to this are the personal evolutions of Hasekura and Velasco. The former as the lead samurai who disdains Christianity, converts because he thinks it will help the mission at a critical point, apostatizes upon return claiming that his conversion was for appearances only, but finds himself drawn to the religion in ways he cannot quite understand himself. The latter, Velasco, as the interpreter-priest leading and manipulating the mission and its members, driven by personal ambition that he finally abandons in favour of an even deeper love for, and commitment to, Japan that costs him his life.

The broader canvas of this novel also lets Endo treat other themes, such as the effects of colonialism on native peoples, however it may be justified as necessary to bring them to “happiness” defined as knowledge of the Christian God. One of the samurai retainers is astute enough to see this and argues that while Japan will “gladly learn superior knowledge and skills from your countries…we need nothing else.”

While seeing the Japanese as politically sophisticated, Endo is openly critical of them as a people in this novel, likening them a number of times to ants in the sense of mindless, self-sacrificing behaviour while at the same time describing them as cunning, commercially greedy and calculating. He plays a lot on the commercial interests of the Japanese, seeing this for Japanese authorities, as a principal reason for interest in, and tolerance of, Christianity.

Endo also demonstrates an understanding of one of the motives the Japanese shoguns in not only banning Christianity, but closing off the country from almost all contacts in order to avoid the contagion of foreign influences. Hasekawa: “Once again the samurai had the feeling that he was defying his own destiny be going on this journey. When he had known nothing but the marshland, he had never thought of anything except his life there. But no he realized that he had changed. The tiny marshland, his uncle, his uncle’s tedious complaints beside the hearth, orders from the Council of Elders—for the first time since their departure from Mexico City, the samurai felt a desire to rebel against those unyielding elements of fate that had been thrust upon him.

A good novel of character and ideas.
  John | Nov 1, 2012 |
This is the fourth novel by Shusaku Enhat do which I have read as part of a year long read of his works by a group of readers on LibraryThing.com.

I have now started this review three times because I am not quite sure what to say. This story is another effort on Endo's part to illuminate the failure of Christianity to take hold in Japan. It is the story of a samurai who remains faithful to his mission to the death. It is the story of a priest who remains faithful to his mission to the death. It is the story of their disillusionment with their leaders. It is the story of the search for a way of life which will allow a person to live a life of integrity and honor and compassion. It is, in the end, a story of trying to maintain faith in the face of duplicity and abuse practiced by governing groups to obtain their own ends at all costs. Ultimately, I believe this is a story about each person's personal journey to find something to believe in beyond themselves. The writing is powerful and the imagery is outstanding. I do not think I have come across an author such as Endo before, who repeats the same theme so deliberately across very different story lines. He was, himself, a man obsessed with a theme. ( )
  hemlokgang | Sep 2, 2012 |
This is a brilliant novel with many of the same themes as other Endo novels: East vs. West Christianity, being lost in the world, and conflict between worldly knowledge and community tradition. I found the historical setting interesting and the character development was perfect. Velasco makes your blood run cold at the beginning and by the end he is transformed are you are wishing him well and saddened by his demise. In some ways, despite the title, Velasco is the main character.

The writing is paced and methodical. This is a book to savor 20 pages at a time. It does not begged to be rushed through and I think it was better to let each bit soak in slowly. Here of some of my favorite passages:

"It ha never occurred to the samurai that there were so many new and different things to experience. He had not realized the world was so vast....But now a subtle transformation was taking place in his heart, and with it came a vague uneasiness and 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." --- The Samurai

"Missionary work is like diplomacy. Indeed it resembles the conquest of a foreign land. In missionary work, as in diplomacy, one must have recourse to subterfuge and strategy, threatening at times, compromising at others---if such tactics serve to advance the spreading of God's word, I do not regard them as despicable or loathsome." --- Velasco

"...he had come home. Why was it that weariness and a sense of emptiness -- not joy-- were all that remained? Had he seen too much of too many things, until it was as if he had seen nothing at all? Had he experienced too much, until it was though he had experienced nothing at all? --- The Samurai

"The building in Nueva Espana and Espana were all brightly lit by the sun. They weren't anything like this castle. Everybody smiled when they talked. But here we can't smile as we want or talk as we want....So long as we are alive there is no escaping this darkness. " --Nishi

This is not a quick read. Savor each passage; there are so many perfect ones. If taken this way it is a rewarding read. 4 stars. ( )
  technodiabla | Mar 17, 2012 |
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Es schneite
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.
Those who weep seek someone to weep with them. Those who grieve yearn for someone to lend an ear to their lamentations. No matter how much the world changes, those who weep and those who lament will always seek Him. That is His purpose in living.
Edo had tried to use the domain, the domain had tried to exploit Velasco, Velasco had tried to deceive the domain, the Jesuits had waged ugly contests with the Franciscans--and in the midst of this deception and strife the two men had pressed ahead with their long journey.
I had a flash like a revelation from heaven. This was reality. No matter how much we try to camouflage or idealize it, the real world is as wretched as the dirt-stained, mud-caked corpse of Father Vazquez. . . . I feel as though the Lord gave me all those setbacks so that He could force me to look this reality in the face. It is as though my vanity, my pride, my haughtiness, and my thirst for conquest all existed for the purpose of shattering everything that I had idealized, so that I could see the true state of the world.
Why did I come to Japan knowing I would die? Think about that sometime. If I can die and leave you and Japan to deal with that question, my life in this world will have had meaning. . . . I have lived. Whatever else may be, I have lived. I have no regrets.
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