Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Review: The Samurai

We were packing our bags to leave my family's house in the U.S. and go back to Japan. I had enough room in my purse for one more small book. I took a long look at my old bookshelf and pulled out this volume. It would be my third time reading it but I chose it for the trip for several reasons 1) airplanes are uncomfortable places to read (or do anything really) so rather than an unread book (I might miss something important) I wanted one I knew I'd like 2) why not read about a journey across two oceans while I traced part of the route at 40,000 feet. 

I was riveted and had nearly finished the book by time we arrived back in Japan. The first two times I had read it were in 2007 and 2010, before I'd come to Japan. Now five years in, it hit home. Hard. 

At first blush, The Samurai by Shusaku Endo reads like a historical travel novel. It starts off a bit wordy and plodding in explaining to the reader the political situation at the time in 17th century Japan, and then launches the title character Hasekura Rokuemon, a low-ranking member of the warrior class and a real historical figure, on an incredible journey. The book is propelled by vivid contrasts: the passive Hasekura and the passionate, power-hungry Spanish missionary Velasco, things Japanese and things foreign, intrigues and truth, absolute trust and devastating betrayals, peasants and kings, imperialism and isolationism, the wide world to see and the small local corner one always longs to return to, materialism and spirituality, faith and unbelief. 

The year is 1613, and after thousands of years of feudal isolation, Japan is beginning to face the outside world--though it is far from the politically stable and unified country we know today. In this sea of political and cultural turmoil, tenacious Fanciscan missionary Father Velasco and four Japanese envoys including the main character are sent by the daring chieftain of a Sendai fief to visit the West. The Japanese go to represent a friendly Japanese port to Christendom with the hopes of securing lucrative trade agreements. Velasco goes to allay papal fears of Christian persecution and bring to Japan more missionaries of his Order. But the journey is beset with many more hidden purposes unknown to the central characters, and within themselves personal missions each cannot at first admit. The separate missions intertwined lead them across the sea to the Viceroy of Mexico and eventually to Pope Paul V himself in Rome. Hasekura travels the world and sees its great sights, meeting its great people, but there is one that seems to follow him always, staring down at him in every ornate cathedral and squalid monk's cell: the strange figure of a man, naked and emaciated, hung on a cross. How strange and unfathomable that such a man is worshiped by so much of the world, Hasekura thinks, some wretched ridiculous fellow who died long ago and has nothing to do with me. And yet, the man is always there. When Hasekura returns at last to Japan and the man's image is nowhere to be found, He is still there, in Hasekura's mind, the friend who never betrays. 

Yes, more than a historical travelogue the book is a semi-autobiographical conversion story and in that sense it is an intensely spiritual and personal book. However, it is not a simple happy story as is common with conversion testimonies popular in Christian bookstores. I don't know if this book is sold in Christian bookstores. It ought to be. 

This book will not make anyone comfortable. Non-Christian non-Japanese readers will be uncomfortable because it is a conversion story and puts Christianity in a positive light. Christian non-Japanese readers will be uncomfortable with the subtle criticisms of Christian missions and a gradual, nonlinear, passive approach to faith and conversion. Non-Christian Japanese readers will be uncomfortable with the main character's disappointing betrayal in the end of the book, as well as perhaps the book's slight anti-establishment leanings. The only demographic that may find some comfort in this book is Japanese Christians, who will see in the main character many of their own raw feelings and struggles. Life with my husband in a Japanese church, both of us working Japanese companies in Japan has confirmed many things portrayed in the novel are as real now as they were 400 years ago, such as the immutable hierarchies in human relationships, and the "remorse" many Japanese feel when they become Christian. 

However, one doesn't have to be both Japanese and Christian to get something out of this book. If anyone wants to understand Japan and its society better, to see mission work "from the other side" , to learn why Christianity has yet to be "successful" in Japan and the things Japanese go through when they do become Christian, to read a story that is thought-provoking and good but never fluff, I heartily recommend them this book. 


  1. Sorry, I don't have any of those accounts, so I make an anonymous comment, I hope that is okay. The thing is, I am a Christian, too (not Japanese, though), and I would like to learn a little more about what it means to be a Christian in Japan. I heard of the big persecution that happened. I also heard from a missionary, that he has very little "success" in Japan. You make so many allusions, here, in the last paragraphs, like:

    ...Japanese Christians...Life with my husband in a Japanese church...both of us working Japanese companies in Japan...the "remorse" many Japanese feel when they become Christian...why Christianity has yet to be "successful" in Japan and the things Japanese go through when they do become Christian...

    These sound really interesting, and I would love to learn more about it! What do you mean? Unfortunately, I am unable to read that novel at the moment. But I would really like to learn some more about this! What "remorse" do you mean, for example? And what does working in a Japanese company have to do with your religion? And also the other things. Could you maybe write some more about this? If it is too personal or for some other reason you don't feel comfortable writing about that in more detail, could you maybe recommend some texts I could read online about that? It sounds interesting, and I really would like to learn more about it!

    Thank you!

  2. Hi Christine!
    Thanks so much for reading and for your comment!

    Yes, I left some things non-specific for privacy but also because I didn't want to give away plot twists in the book! ;)

    -the "remorse" scene in the book struck me because my husband has said the same thing, that many Japanese Christians feel guilt for being saved alone out of their families and communities. To willfully do something different from everyone else is not a virtue in Japan.
    -Japanese society tends toward collectivism. There are several conversations in the book about why Japanese people don't like holding strong personal principles, one reason is that people have to be flexible in public so as to fit what the group is doing. This shows up in companies for example when vegetarians or teetotalers are expected to not let their lifestyles interfere with company drinking parties. At first blush Japan seems like a secular society, but it's very superstitious, and company outings often include visits to shrines to pray for successful business; of course Christians don't want to join in that! But the expectation is again that Christians should leave their convictions at home.
    -on the whole Christians are often made to feel they are not "proper Japanese" because they cannot fulfill many expectations their family, company and other social groups have of them, such as participating in seasonal superstitions and taking care of family shrines etc.
    -the Japanese are pretty materialistic in that they like everything to have some tangible benefit for them. All their gods promise health or wealth in exchange for proper worship. Also I said "collectivism" but it doesn't mean everyone is the same, Japanese society is hierarchical and people worry about social status. Being Christian damages social status here and doesn't necessarily promise health and wealth, so most Japanese aren't at all interested in it. Most don't seem to care or think about the idea of eternity. That is a theme that comes up in the book a lot.
    -all these things we see going on in our daily interactions to some degrees, and are probably some reasons why Christianity has yet to catch on.

    I highly recommend the book if you want to learn more! I hope you can get a hold of it^^

  3. Hi Leah,

    thank you so much for your detailed reply! I have wanted to answer you for days, but I didn't really know what to write.

    I had no idea that this is the situation in Japan. It is not really something that is easy to see from outside. It is not unlike the situation was in eastern Germany when my mother was young (she is from there). The pressure is strong and real, but it is almost invisible from the outside. We have prayed for you both, and for Christians in Japan in general.

    It is never truly easy to follow Jesus in this world, like the bible tells us. And it is so good to see that in Japan also, God has his people, in spite of everything! We can only praise him for his mercy!

    It has also touched us, that Japanese Christians have this keen awareness, that the others are lost! I think, this is something that we tend to forget or ignore a lot in the west. And that is not good at all. We need to remember!
    But I really hope that God shows your husband and the others, that they don't need to feel guilty about other people's choices! (Maybe 1 Cor. 1,9 and others like it are also applicable to the question of the guilt? I am not 100% certain.)
    And hopefully also, their keen awareness will help and encourage them to be a bright light from Jesus, to remain faithful, so that others can see their faith. For this is our job as Christians, is it not? And how often do I myself fail at this...
    As you write, the occasions for it will be frequent in Japan, when there is such a big expectation to participate in non-Christian religious rituals and ceremonies, and simply refusing to participate in them is difficult and a true statement for Jesus! Much like in the book of Daniel and others in the old testament! May God help you and bless you like he did Daniel and his friends!

    I think the words of the bible say it much better than my own :)
    So, apart from this, I would like to refer to, and greet you with: Luke 14,26+33 and Luke 18,28-30 and John 17,14-16 and John 15,18-21 and of course John 16,33 and 2 Thess. 3,3 and 1 Cor. 1,9!

    May God be with you and bless you!


    1. Thanks for the encouragement Christine!

      Yes it is an invisible pressure to us Westerners whose thinking is more like "why can't you just make your own choices and do what you want?" when it doesn't work that way here. It's sometimes like being on another planet where atmosphere or gravity are completely different, and the laws, common sense and things we take for granted don't always apply^^

      "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" is what we strive for.

      Thanks again for the scriptures and kind words, God bless you!


Thanks for reading, be nice!