When East Meets West
With a civilization that dates as far back as 30,000 BC, it cannot be denied that Japan has a long and lush history. The Land of the Rising Sun, as it would be popularly monikered in the contemporary, has a history that is anything but uneventful. Its rich tapestry is riddled with seminal incidents, some of which would alter the course of world history. This includes its role in the rise of Buddhism and feudal states to its role in the Second World War and its rise from its ashes which saw the country’s exponential rise as a global economic power. From an ancient civilization that mainly relied on fishing, hunting, and gathering, Japan united slowly evolved into one of the most influential nations of the modern world.
The rich landscape of Japanese history has inspired many writers. They made historical events, whether pivotal or not in the grander scheme of things, the mantle upon which they build their stories around. Among works of contemporary Japanese literature, it is not uncommon to encounter books that explored the Second World War and its legacy, both on a universal and local scale. A fine example is Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. Novels capturing the drastically changing landscape of modern Japan and the clashes of tradition and modernization or Western values are also ubiquitous. But despite this extensive examination of Japanese history, there are also parts of it that are rarely discussed or portrayed, such as the entry of Christianity on Japanese shores.
This makes Shūsaku Endō (and a select group of other Japanese writers) unique in the ambit of Japanese literature. He stands out for writing from the point-of-view of a Japanese Catholic, a rarity in Japanese literature. 沈黙 (Silence), his most renowned work, evokes memories of 17th-century Japan. It conveys the story of a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan at a time when the shogunate was combing the archipelago to purge those they view as heretics. It was critically received, winning the prestigious Tanizaki Prize in 1966. It was considered Endō’s magnum opus and one of the finest novels of the twentieth century. It would even be adapted into a film by no less than Maritn Scorsese in 2016, five decades after its original publications. The book has certainly elevated Endō’s status as one of modern Japan’s topmost storytellers, virtually consolidating his legacy.
“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.“~ Shūsaku Endō, The Samurai
Evoking the same atmosphere was his novel 侍 (The Samurai). Originally published in Japanese in 1980, The Samurai was inspired by actual events, just like in the case of Silence. Both books also transported the readers to the 17th century. In the early 17th century, the majority of Japan remained isolated from the rest of the world. The Tokugawa shogunate, helmed by Ieyasu Tokugawa, was resolute in keeping at bay the influences of Western Catholicism. The observance of any Catholic religious activities was outlawed while some suspected of being associated with the invading religion were persecuted. However, there were still realms of Japan that were beyond Tokugawa’s control. Over in the northeastern part of Japan, Lord Ishida wielded influence and power. Unlike parts of Japan under Tokugawa’s control, Lord Ishida’s domain did not persecute Catholics.
Meanwhile, in other parts of Asia, the influence of Western nations was gaining ground. Trade was blossoming between the East and the West. The Japanese, while they were enthused by these developments, were being left behind. Nagasaki, in the southern part of the archipelago but beyond the control of the shogunate, was experiencing a trading boom. Wanting to partake in this trading boom, Naifu, Ieyasu’s successor drew up a plan to build a port on the Eastern part of the island. This would rival Nagasaki and with the goal of establishing direct trade with Nueva España (New Spain); trade with Nueva España was done through Manila. This would also be the springboard for establishing commerce and trade with the rest of Europe.
To realize his dream, Naifu enlisted the assistance of Lord Nishida who planned an expedition to Mexico, the Nueva España. He rounded up a select crew, primarily made up of noblemen and merchants who carried with them their products which they can sell in the New World. Heading the group were four envoys, two of which would form the backbone of the story. The first one was Father Vrais Luis Velasco, a Spanish Franciscan priest imprisoned in Edo – modern-day Tokyo – due to the shogunate’s policy on Christians. However, because of his mastery of both Spanish and Japanese languages, he was able to find leverage for himself. In exchange for his release, he was made part of the envoy. However, his role was limited to being an interpreter for the Japanese delegation. His journal formed half of the story.
The other half of the story was conveyed from the point of view of the second key character, the titular samurai, Rokumon Hasekura. Amongst his peers, he was considered part of the lower ranks. His landholdings were comprised mostly of poor and unproductive marshlands. Prior to the war, his family once owned vast tracts of land. However, they lost their previous landholdings after they took the wrong side during the war. While Hasekura has learned to embrace his fate and was content ruling a meager three villages, his family, particularly his uncle, still wanted to restore the wealthier lands they have lost due to their wager. His family wanted to regain the power and influence they once had.
“Though I try to accept that fate, at times the fear of death jabs at my breast like a sharp sword. Desperately I remind myself that the Lord spent similar hours enduring the anxiety of approaching death. Of late I have been wondering how Jesus felt at that time. I wonder when it was that Jesus foresaw His own death, a nd how he lived with that realization.”~ Shūsaku Endō, The Samurai
Endō is a skilled storyteller and a writer who resplendently captures the atmosphere. This quality of his prose was palpable in The Samurai. His evocation of the 17th century was vivid. It was even more commendable how he captured the atmosphere and the period’s attitude through the perspective of both native and foreign lenses. This was also despite the fact that the story was peripatetic; it took the shape of an adventure that journeyed across oceans, from Japan across the Pacific to Acapulco and Veracruz in the promised land of Nueva España, then across yet another ocean as the delegation voyaged across the Atlantic from Mexico to Europe. What ensued was a classic clash of cultures as East meets West in an attempt to integrate but was bound for failure from the onset.
Other details of history, such as uprisings due to the atrocities of Spaniards on native Indians, propped the story. But beyond the treacherous journey marred by a plethora of obstacles such as storms, there was a subject that was recurrent. With Endō being a Catholic himself, one of the novel’s overriding themes was religion, particularly Christianity. The novel depicted how religion can be molded into bargaining chips and how it can also be a motivation for unreligious acts. In particular, the novel was an in-depth exploration of and preoccupation with the nature of religious faith rendered through the experiences of the two main characters. The characters were essentially navigating the dire straits of what it means to be a Christian. This exploration of this subject makes the novel transcend time.
The backbone of the story, however, was the two primary characters. Endō’s characterization was again, on point. It was their contrasting personalities that gave the story distinct textures. On one side of the story was Father Velasco who was ambitious. He was politically involved and self-centered. He was unfazed by the obstacles before him. While the present circumstances prevent him from proselytizing the country, he was nevertheless fueled by his dream of one day becoming the Bishop of Japan. He was an opportunist and has no scruples about taking advantage of situations and people for his selfish ambitions. For instance, he convinced the Japanese delegates to convert to Christianity under the guise of improving their chances of earning favorable trade terms. He masquerades as a crusader of Christianity but he does the most un-Christian acts in order to achieve his goals.
The samurai was the antithesis of the ambitious and politically-driven Father Velasco. He resigned himself to his fate. Had it not been for the shogun and Lord Ishida’s request, he would have not left Japan. He was content living off the paltry income he earned from his unproductive domain. His passivity was a reflection of the subservience of his fellow unimportant samurais sent for the expedition. The Samurai, despite his resistance to the idea of being connected with Christianity, acted with more Christian values than Father Velasco. While Father Velasco loomed above the story, the samurai dwarfed as he was out of his element during the entire expanse of the story. He and his ilk were like fishes fresh out of the water, unsure of what to do and how to conduct themselves before a society they had very little understanding of. They were literal chess pieces in a political maneuver, the intention of which was obscured from the samurai and the readers.
“The frothy waves which swept onto the beach swallowed up the rush mat, collided, and retreated. Those movements were repeated several times, and then the winter sun beat down upon the long beach as though nothing had happened, and the ocean stretched out beneath the sound of the wind. The officers and guards no longer stood within the bamboo palisade.”~ Shūsaku Endō, The Samurai
Despite being one of modern Japan’s most prominent Roman Catholic novelists, Endō did not shy away from exposing the different layers of the Church, from the good to the ugly to the bad. This is something that many, particularly the devout, might find discomfiting. Politics undermine the Church; this persists in the contemporary. Hypocrites hide behind cassocks in order to push their personal agenda. They use religion to mask their true agenda. Religious values are compromised. In contrast, those who are stoic and barely show interest in religion are the ones who display the values of the church.
Steeped in history, The Samurai captivates the readers on different fronts. Religion and faith were overt subjects but the novel was by no means a typical work of Christian fiction. On the surface, it was the story of a journey across oceans with the intent to break barriers and establish diplomacy. It grappled with a part of Japanese history rarely discussed in contemporary works, particularly the tumultuous and bloody history of Christianity in Japan; the public display and practice of the religion were suppressed for until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. With Endō’s descriptive writing, he managed to draw an evocative image of 17th-century Japan and Europe. The Samurai, despite the repetitiveness, was an insightful book not only about history but of faith and belief.
Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
It was through must-read lists that I first came across Shūsaku Endō. His novel, Silence, comes in highly recommended. It also came at a crucial juncture in my journey as a reader; my interest in Japanese literature was gaining ground. Silence was one of the books I looked forward to very much. The book and its premise were interesting but in the end, I was a little underwhelmed. Not entirely disappointed, but underwhelmed. This experience did not, however, stop me from wanting to explore the rest of his oeuvre, starting with The Samurai. Like Silence, religion was the overriding theme of the book. Details of history came alive with Endō’s writing. Again, it was not an easy read It is a book that requires attention, hence, it must be inhaled slowly. Interestingly, I liked this book better than Silence. While the voice of the samurai was mostly muted, I found the depiction of politics within the church and the cultural divides well done. On another note, I am interested in reading a work by Endō that does not integrate religion. It would still be a memorable and interesting experience I surmise.
Author: Shūsaku Endō
Translators (from Japanese): Van C. Gessel
Publisher: New Directions Books
Publishing Date: 1997
Number of Pages: 267
The Samurai, without doubt one of the late Shūsaku Endō’s finest works, seamlessly combines historical fact with a novelist’s imaginings. Set in the period preceding the Christian persecutions in Japan, The Samurai traces the steps of some of the first Japanese to set foot on European soil. Rokuemon Hasekura, a low-ranking warrior, is chosen as one of Japan’s envoys to the Viceroy of Mexico and Pope Paul V. The emissaries set sail in 1613, accompanied by an ambitious Franciscan missionary who hopes to bargain trading privileges with the West for the right to head his order in Japan. The arduous journey lasts four years, and the Japanese travel from Mexico to Rome, where they are persuaded that the success of their mission depends on their conversion willy-nilly to Christianity. In fact, the enterprise has been futile from the start and the mission returns to Japan where the political tides have shifted: the authorities are pursuing an isolationist policy and a ruthless stamping out of all Western influences. In the face of disillusionment and death, samurai Rokuemon’s only support and solace come from the spiritual lord he is not even sure he believes in.
About the Author
To know more about Shūsaku Endō, click here.
I liked your review, so I gave you a shout out on my blog, hope you don’t mind. I also shared this to twitter/fb. Thank you for the history lesson.