侍 (The Samurai) – Part 1

Endō Shūsaku (遠藤周作, 1923-1996) is not a household name in English-speaking countries, but may be about to become one, as the film adaptation of his novel Silence is released on 1st January 2017. (I haven’t yet seen it so this doesn’t constitute an endorsement. However, I can only say that if it isn’t harrowing, then it isn’t true to the novel.)

The recurring theme of Endō’s work is Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, in Japan. Endō was born in 1923 in Tokyo but spent his early life in Manchuria, returning to Japan with his mother in 1933 to live with an aunt in Kobe after his parents divorced. Endō’s mother converted to Catholicism and Endō himself was baptised into the Catholic Church in 1934. Many of his writings take the theme of the conflicts he perceived between the Christian faith and Japanese culture. Among these works are two historical novels, 沈黙 (Silence, 1966) and 侍 (The Samurai, 1980), both of which are set in the seventeenth century.

Christian missions to Japan in the sixteenth century had resulted in large numbers of converts, including some feudal lords. However, the shogunate came to distrust the ‘new’ religion; anti-Christian edicts began to be issued and outbreaks of persecution to take place. The severity of anti-Christian feeling varied from time to time and place to place, and one of the more tolerant parts of Japan was the Sendai domain under the rule of Date Masamune (伊達 政宗, 1567–1636) who, at least initially, allowed Christians to practise and propagate their faith in his domain, even when this was forbidden in Edo.


Snow was falling.
Twilight. The sky, from which weak sunlight had trickled through a cleft in the clouds onto the pebble-strewn riverbed, became dark. Suddenly it was quiet. Two, three snowflakes came fluttering down.
(own translation)

The beginning of The Samurai paints a picture of a bleak, meagre existence. The eponymous samurai and his servants are cutting trees for winter firewood. This is not a man who lives in a castle or one of the understatedly elegant samurai residences (武家屋敷, buke-yashiki) that can still be visited in certain parts of Japan, for example in Kakunodate. Instead, this samurai is superior in little more than name and heritage to the peasants with whom he seeks to eke a living out of his desolate marshlands. Better times lay in the past; his father was dispossessed of more productive lands – the lands at Kurokawa, which play an important role in the story – ostensibly to develop the marshland region, but, the family suspect, more probably as a punishment for the involvement of certain family members in sheltering rebels. The samurai lives with his wife Riku, two sons and an uncle who constantly reminisces and longs for the better days in the past. The samurai himself is stoical, dutiful and silent, accepting the fate he has been given and expressing no longings for anything different.

We are then introduced to a very different character – Velasco, a Franciscan priest in prison in Edo. The Jesuits, who were the first Christian religious order to evangelise Japan, have been taking a more cautious approach and refusing to send new missionaries since persecution of Christians has increased. The courageous, but driven and ambitious Velasco finds this approach entirely too timid and wishes to intensify missionary efforts, welcoming the idea of becoming a martyr for the faith. To this end he wishes to have himself appointed Bishop of Japan. At this point in the novel, Velasco, who is portrayed in the first person, exhibits very little self-awareness.

The link between the two characters is then revealed: it has been decided that an embassy will be sent from the domain of the samurai’s lord to Nueva España (today’s Mexico). Velasco will take part as a translator, while the samurai is to be one of the four representatives of the domain.  Velasco, of course, has his own plans for how he will use the trip to fulfil his ambitions, while the samurai is somewhat bemused to be chosen, but obedient.

Endō’s novel is based on historical events. Although he is rarely called by name in the narrative, “the samurai” is 支倉常長 Hasekura Tsunenaga. It appears that relatively little is known about Hasekura’s early life. Indeed, the journey made by Hasekura and his companions was forgotten for many years after Japan closed itself off against contact with the outer world. The Velasco character is based on a priest named Luis Sotelo. A note in the English translation of The Samurai by Van C. Gessel (New Directions) discusses how close the novel corresponds to known historical fact.


Why is the principal Japanese character in the novel referred to as “the samurai” rather than “Hasekura” or a pseudonym as in the case of Sotelo/Velasco? The word 侍 “samurai”, although it evokes ideas of swordsmanship, bravery, ornate armour and weaponry, nobility and the like in a Western readership, has for its root a word believed to mean “to wait/attend upon”. A more usual Japanese word for what non-Japanese readers would think of as a “samurai” is 武士 (bushi, meaning “military warrior”). The samurai of the novel is, however, called 侍 (samurai), emphasising the serving aspect of the role. (Van C. Gessel retains this naming convention throughout the English translation, and explains the reason for it in terms of this serving role in the Translator’s Note.) In addition, the use of “the samurai” rather than a name reinforces the sense that this samurai sees himself primarily in terms of his duty to his family and lord rather than as an individual; this is certainly not someone aiming to impose himself upon the world or “find himself”. Interestingly, the samurai’s servant, Yozō, is referred to by name. The use of “the samurai” also points out the contrast with the ambitious Velasco, who does indeed aim to impose himself upon the world, albeit while seeing himself as a servant of Christ and the church. Whether Endō wished to make these two characters symbolic of what he saw as typical Japanese and European ways of being is less clear.