Friday, October 07, 2005

Books: "The Samurai", by ENDO Shusaku

ENDO Shusaku's "The Samurai" (遠藤周作著 侍) is the forth book that I have finished from my trip to the Naka Ward Library last week. The first was a cheesy X-Files book (but at least it was written by Kevin J. Anderson, who has done some decent Star Wars novels, and more recently, written some Dune prequels with Frank Herbert's son). The second was NOZAKA Akiyuki's "The Pornographers", which I wrote about previously. The third was NATSUME Souseki's "And Then...", which I will write about presently.

"The Samurai" is ENDO doing what he does best: historical fiction set in the time just before TOKUGAWA Ieyasu closed Japan off from the rest of the world, the early 17th Century. As in his seminal work, "Silence", "The Samurai" concerns itself with the persecution of Christians that occurred in that time, and the effect of Christianity on the Japanese. The story is far more plot-based than was "Silence"; at its centre is the journey of one HASEKURA Tsunenaga (an actual historical figure), along with three other Japanese envoys, to the West. HASEKURA is the samurai from the title of the book, and when ENDO is narrating in the third person, he is only referred to as "the samurai". It is only through dialogue spoken by other characters and the brief first-person passages (from the diary of the other main character, a Franciscan friar named Father Velasco--based on a historical figure named Father Luis Sotelo) that we learn his name.

The book opens with a description of the samurai's life on his minor estate in the marshlands of northeast Japan. It is a simple life, with the samurai joining his peasant retainers in their daily chores. The entire village is just one bad harvest away from starvation, but the samurai feels no resentment towards his lot in life, and in fact feels bound to the marshlands, where he was born and he expects to die.

Next, the scene shifts to Father Velasco (though he is referred to only as "the missionary" in this scene), imprisoned in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), the capitol city of the Tokugawa Shogunate. We are shown the priest's religious fervour, his pride and ambition (which ENDO's narrator notes are slightly unseemly for a priest), and his desire to conquer Japan for God (with no weapon other than the Good Book, however--Velasco despises the Spanish conquest of Nueva España). He expects to be freed from prison, since the Japanese have need of his services as an interpreter: after 10 years in Japan, he speaks Japanese fluently, along with his native Spanish and the other usual languages spoken by a Spanish priest of that time (Latin, Greek, Italian, and probablyPortuguesee, given the influence of Portugal in the early 17th Century). And freed he is, as the Japanese want to send him on a mission back to the West.

Despite being an island country, at the beginning of the Tokugawa Period, Japan lacked the ship-building technology to construct vessels capable of crossing the mighty Pacific. So when some Spanish sailors were marooned on Japanese soil after theirgallonn--inbound fromManilaa in the Spanish colony of thePhilippiness--was heavily damaged in a major storm, the crafty Naifu (the court title assumed by TOKUGAWA Ieyasu after abdicating from the position of Shougun--military ruler of Japan) came up with a plan. He would use the ship-building knowledge of the Spanish sailors to build a mighty galleon, which he would send back to Nueva España (modern-day Mexico), along with a Japanese trade delegation, for Japan could benefit greatly from direct trade with Nueva España (all trade with the Spanish Empire thus far has been through Manila).

Since the Spanish sailors ran aground in the domain of DATE Masamune, one of the most powerful daimyou (generals) in Japan, TOKUGAWA instructed his retainer to select four samurai to accompany the trade mission as his personal envoys. The samurai were to bear a letter from DATE, asking that trade between his domain and Nueva España be opened, in return for the construction of cathedrals and freedom to proselytise for Christian missionaries. Father Velasco was to act as interpreter for these four samurai.

To make a long story short, the voyage is a complete failure. The delegation reaches Nueva España, where the profit-hungry Japanese merchants are baptised, as Father Velasco tells them that they will be unable to trade in Nueva España unless they become Christians. The Japanese delegation is welcomed with pomp and ceremony, and even granted an audience with the Spanish Viceroy of Nueva España. The Viceroy tells them that he does not have the authority to grant their request for trade, so Father Velasco decides that they will continue on to España itself. After a hard voyage across the Atlantic, Father Velasco has to debate the issue of missionary work in Japan with a leading Jesuit padre, who feels that the Japan is already lost to Christianity. Velasco wins the debate, largely thanks to the envoys deciding to become Christians, and the council of bishops is about to grant his request and recommend an audience with the King of Spain, when a letter arrives from the Jesuits in Manila, reporting that TOKUGAWA has signed a trade agreement with protestant England, crushed the remnants of the TOYOTOMI family in Osaka (the last challenge to his sovereign authority over all of Japan), and forbidden Christianity throughout his entire realm, including the domain of DATE Masamune. Hearing this grave news, the council has no choice but to agree with the Jesuits; Japan is a lost cause.

Father Velasco's last hope is that the Japanese envoys might be granted an audience with the Pope himself. So they journey to Italy, where a high-ranking cardinal at the Vatican decides that the Vatican will not ask the King of Spain to see the envoys. The Vatican has also decided to write off Japan. The delegation continues on to Rome, where the Pope appears for the celebration of Easter. As he passes, the Japanese envoys make such an impassioned display of requesting him to hear them out that the Pope grants them an audience. Of course, this audience is only symbolic; the Pope will not grant what the envoys ask in light of the news from Japan.

The envoys return to Japan (except for one of their number, who returned to Japan earlier from Nueva España, and another who commits seppuku--ritual suicide after their mission fails). Velasco himself goes no farther Philippineshilipines, for by this time, Japan has been closed to foreigners, and Christianity is forbidden on pain of death. When the two samurai return to Japan, they are detained and questioned, and it comes out that they became Christians. Since the samurai maintain that their conversions were not in earnest, but simply for the sake of the missions, they are allowed to return to their homes, but forbidden from associating with each other again. The main character, the samurai, returns to his home to find it much the same, and he resumes his simple life, happy to be reunited with his wife and children at last. A year or two later, the samurai receives orders that he is to be confined to his home as a punishment for adopting a "heathen religion".

Several years later, Father Velasco sneaks back into Japan, disguised as a merchant, determined to continue his missionary work. He is captured in short order, and when news of his return reaches Edo, orders are dispatched to DATE that the two surviving envoys are to be executed for the crime of being Christians. The book ends with Velasco's own execution.

Cheery stuff indeed; yet this is how ENDO's books usually turn out. In fact, Japanese literature as a whole tends to be much more gloomy than even its Western counterpart. Conventionally happy endings are seldom seen.

ENDO's theme is, as in "Silence", how establishment Christianity as promulgated by the Catholic Church cannot succeed in Japan. Japanese Christianity is a more private, personal affair. As in "Silence", an arrogant, proud priest gradually learns this, but not before his plans all utterly fail. In the end, of course, the priest dies.

The word samurai as it is understood in the West has more to do with swordplay and MIFUNE Toshiro than with the idea that is at the core of the Japanese concept: servitude. This is why ENDO chose to title his book, "The Samurai", and this is why the otherwise ordinary main character is important to the novel. His honourable subservience to his temporal lord gradually gives way to servitude to a greater lord. Of course, ENDO being ENDO, there are many parallels between the life of the samurai and the life of Christ. There are even more parallels between Valasco and Christ, which will hardly surprise anyone who has read "Silence", since that priest actually felt he was becoming Jesus Christ.

"The Samurai" is a well-written, compelling book. One does not have to be a Christian to enjoy it, in fact, it was wildly popular in largely secular Japan as a rollicking tale of adventure set in a famous historical period. It is far less overtly psychological than "Silence", though Christian themes are a strong undercurrent throughout the book.

My opinion? Thumbs up.

4 comments:

Matthew said...

Since you wrote all of that about The Samurai and didn’t get any comments from your loyal readers, I’ll oblige.

Nice review but I disagree with you on two points –

1. I’m not sure that Endo’s period fiction is really what he ‘does best’. I think that some of his best novels have a modern setting.
2. You write that “ENDO's theme is, as in "Silence", how establishment Christianity as promulgated by the Catholic Church cannot succeed in Japan. Japanese Christianity is a more private, personal affair.” Endo does make this point, however, there is the added idea that Japanese, with different cultural roots, cannot truly appreciate Christianity. More than a “personal, private affair”, for the majority of his career, Endo saw a link with God as being next to impossible to achieve for Japanese Christians. I think that the “Silence” in 沈黙 is a dig at Japan’s ‘moral vacuum’ . In any case, in some of his later writings, Endo points to this as being the one issue that he struggled with throughout his adult life.

In some of his books with a (mostly) 20th century setting like 海と毒薬 (which I have done a bit of research on) and 留学, this idea comes out in full force. For example, in 海と毒薬, Endo makes a few narrative choices which are gob smacking for ‘Western’ readers. The story has a WWII setting and his Japanese characters are depicted has doing bad things because they have no moral center / connection to a transcendental morality. The contrast comes in the form of a German character who is depicted as fundamentally moral. Good choice in the context of the book but it leaves the Holocaust and anti-Semitism as huge read flags in my mind.

I think that the idea that Japanese cannot understand Christianity because of its ‘Western’ roots comes out most clearly in Endo’s non-fiction – works like イエスの生涯 and キリスト教入門. It is not really an idea that I agree with. As you said, religious experience is fundamentally personal. Just because a Japanese does not experience Christianity in the same way as a ‘Westerner’ does not mean that this experience is any less valid, important, or useful for the individual. I think that this is a good example of an instance where I have a lot of doubts about an authors fundamental themes but still consider just about everything that he has written to be a masterpiece.

Anyway, I've been enjoying your reviews. Thinking about doing a film next?

Matthew said...

"Read flags" is not a pun. It is a really bad typo.

Josh Glover said...

Matthew, I enjoyed your comments.

Since I have not read anything by Endo other than "Silence" and "The Samurai", perhaps it was unwise for me to make comments about "what Endo does best".

I definitely agree about the moral vacuum theme in "Silence".

Something interesting that I read in the afterword to "The Samurai" was that Endo's own experience parallels that of the main character: he became a Christian against his will (or at least, not of personal choice), and he fought for years to reconcile Christianity with his own, Japanese, experience, before finally achieving some personal relationship with Christ. Interesting stuff.

I really need to read more Endo, but it will probably have to wait until I read the rest of Natsume Souseki's translated books.

And this is slightly off-topic, but can you recommend a decent book in Japanese on the Bakumatsu? I really want to learn more of the words associated with my favourite historical period! Extra points if the book you recommend can be found in my local library (the Yokohama City Central Library).

Matthew said...

Yeah. I have read the same things about Endo's experience. If I remember correctly, his mother went through a rather painful divorce, became a fervent late-life Christian and dragged the young Endo into a situation that he really did not understand. He struggled with finding a personal connection with Christ for his entire adult life (including a period as a foreign student in France, etc.) I think that you should grab 留学ASAP. Once again, I don't agree with all of his themes but it is a powerful account of crossing cultures. A good idea for Japanese practice would be to get some of Endo's later non-fiction. Even if you just read the intro and conclusion of イエスの生涯, for example, you will get some great insight into Endo's mindset.

The best book in English about the bakumatsu for my money is Beasley's "The Meiji Restoration". The majority of it is about the bakumatsu. If you are in the mood to try out a novel in Japanese Shiba Ryotaro's 竜馬がゆくjust rocks. A great movie (with Shinsengumi in it) is 大菩薩峠 directed by Okamoto Kiihachi (a Japanese director who is not well known in the West but who rules). There is a novel as well but it was written in the 1920s so it is bloody hard to read.

There is also a children's history manga on the bakumatsu that may be worth looking at. I love the 少年少女日本の歴史 series from 小学館. Once you get over its cartoonish style, it is a nice bit of historical writing. The 幕末の風雲 volume should be a great read and I bet you a Fanta Grape that they have it at your local library....