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Shūsaku Endō: 侍 (The Samurai)

This novel is set at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Japan was still relatively isolated but Western Christians had made some inroads. However, the Japanese ruler, Ieyasa Tokugawa, was determined to keep the Christians at bay and they were outlawed. Tokugawa, however, did not control all of Japan so some were able to proselytise in other parts of Japan. At the same time, the Western nations were trying to extend trade and influence in Asia, including Japan. The Japanese were fairly enthusiastic about this, not least to acquire Western technology. Tokugawa had made his son Shogun but he had given himself the title Naifu and was still very much in charge,

The book opens in the Northern part of Japan where a relatively unimportant samurai, Rokuemon Hasekura, lives with his family and retainers. The lands are poor. The family had been moved there from their ancestral lands following the recent wars in Japan. Rokuemon is not complaining but his slightly unbalanced uncle is and keeps submitting unsuccessful pleas for the return of their ancestral lands. We next meet Velasco, a Franciscan priest who is in prison in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) for being a Christian, which is outlawed in that part of the world, However, Velasco is optimistic that he will be released, as he is the only person that speaks fluent Japanese and Spanish and the Japanese need him as they wish to trade with Spain or, more particularly, with Nueva España (modern day Mexico) via Manila. He is, indeed, released but it is made clear to him that he is to be released as an interpreter and not as a Christian. We learn that the Naifu wants to open up an Eastern port to rival Nagasaki. Nagasaki is not under his control. The reason for this is that he wants Japan to trade directly with Nueva España, without having to go through Manila, as is the case at the present. The Japanese try to make an agreement with Velasco that if he can procure this trade agreement, they will allow priests to come to Japan to proselytise.

Velasco is a a priest but he is above all a wheeler-dealer. He is very ambitious and wants to be Bishop of Japan. He is bitterly opposed to the Jesuits, who were in Japan before the Franciscans and have, in his view, alienated the Japanese. (Not surprisingly, the Jesuits feel the same about the Franciscans.) We later see that he is happy to convert the Japanese to Christianity, even if their motives are purely to improve their chances of getting favourable trade terms and are not the slightest bit interested in Christianity per se. In short, in many respects, he lacks the Christian spirit. The Japanese need for an intermediary works very much to his advantage. When the Japanese decide to build a ship to cross the ocean, using a Spanish crew that were shipwrecked in Japan, Velasco makes promises to the Japanese that he may not be able to keep. He is sent on the journey to Nueva España as their emissary but they also send a few very minor officials, including Rokuemon. It is not clear, either to us or to Rokuemon and his colleagues, why they have been selected, though they have a theory that, as there is a real risk to them, their loss would not matter. Rokuemon is not too keen to go and hates the journey, as he is seasick, but is obedient, and does go.

Their journey is difficult. There are two major storms on the way. They are not made particularly welcome in Nueva España and it is made clear to them that to get any approval for the trade agreement they want, they will have to go to Madrid. This means they have to cross Mexico to get to Veracruz. Unfortunately, the Spanish have treated the Indians very badly and there is an Indian uprising on their route. Endō makes much of the poor treatment of the Indians by the Spanish. Meanwhile, the traders have converted to Christianity, purely to help them trade, much to Velasco’s delight.

Their difficult journey – difficult because of travel but also because of the various political problems they face – carries on and on. Historically, we know that, at this time Christianity was to all intents and purposes totally suppressed from Japan and did not reappear till the Meiji Restoration of 1868, so we know this expedition is not going to end well.

The book is based on a true story but, inevitably, though there are several records of the journey of the Japanese once they reached Europe, there is nothing in Japan. Rokuemon apparently kept a diary but that was naturally destroyed by the Japanese and we have no Japanese records of the whole affair and, in particular, no real explanation for the expedition. This, of course, means that Endō has been been able to use his imagination in recreating both the motives for the expedition as well as the thoughts and feelings of Rokuemon Hasekura and his colleagues, what happened to them before the expedition and what happened to them afterwards.

If anyone comes out of this story well it is Rokuemon Hasekura and his colleagues. The Japanese authorities are clearly using them for their own ends, whatever those ends may be (which is left unclear) and equally clearly have no concern whatsoever for the well-being of their envoys. They are given orders. They will obey. And that is it, as far as both sides are concerned. Velasco is ambitious, very political (someone suggests he should have been a diplomat rather than a priest), dishonest when it suits him (which is all too often) and self-centred. There is no question that he does show Christian charity on more than one occasion and that he seems devoted to the cause of proselytisation, even though all too often the goal of proselytisation matches his own political ambitions. Meanwhile, the unfortunate samurais are left adrift, unsure what is wanted of them, why they have been selected, having to face a culture, a religion and language of which they are totally ignorant and in which they have no interest whatsoever. They are at the mercy of the ambition of Velasco and the political whims and vicissitudes of their Japanese masters. Yet, obediently, they struggle on without having any clear idea of what they are really doing and why.

When this book was released in Japan, it was hailed as a great historical adventure, which, indeed, it is. However, its Christian elements tended to be played down. These have, if anything, been played up in the West. Despite that, the Christian aspect does not come out all that well. The main purveyors of Christianity in this book are the Spanish and they are shown as ruthless, cruel (towards the native population of Mexico), looking mainly for political advantage and certainly not following the teachings of their religion. That some of them become martyrs in the cause of promoting Christianity in Japan appears, at least to this non-Christian, foolhardy rather than praiseworthy. We barely see any Japanese Christians and those very few we do see tend to favour a Japanese style of Christianity, which is well removed from the Spanish variation. In conclusion, I am going to side with the Japanese readership, and say that this is an excellent, imaginative, well-written historical adventure, which happens to have Christianity as a part of its subject matter. Christian readers may take a different view.

Publishing history

First published in 1980 by Shinchōsha
First English translation by Peter Owen in 1982
Translated by Van C Gessel