The Samurai

…and the Priest

Because The Samurai, this novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, has two protagonists for all that only one of them is mentioned in the title. Two main characters in parallel, united in purpose – yet in contrast to each other.

The purpose that unites them is gaining an agreement for the establishment of direct trade between Japan and Nueva España, New Spain, in exchange for Japan allowing Christian misssionaries to proselytise in the country. What separates them is… everything else, beginning with their reasons for setting out on the embassy. The year is 1613, and the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu has recently managed to unify Japan under his own rule.

The samurai, Rokuemon Hasekura, hopes to get his ancestral lands back; the priest, Father Velasco, dreams of becoming the Bishop of Japan. Their desires will only be granted if their mission is successful…  can they carry it off?


The Keicho Embassy

Endo based his novel on solid facts. The so-called Keicho Embassy, headed by Rokuemon Hasekura, a samurai in the service of the daimyo Date Masamune, was dispatched to Nueva España in 1613, with permission from the de facto ruler of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Hasekura and Luis Sotelo in discussion in the Palazzo Quirinale, Rome. [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
With the help of Spanish sailors, the Japanese built a galleon, the Date Maru (called San Juan Bautista by the Spanish crew) and launched her from Tsukinoura. Hasekura travelled to Acapulco and crossed Mexico via Mexico City to set sail towards Europe from Veracruz. With a stopover in Havana, he reached Spain at the end of 1614. While in Madrid, Hasekura was baptised a Christian and was received by Philip III. He then carried on to the Vatican, where he had an audience with the Pope Paul V. He returned to Japan via the same route, finally arriving home in 1620. In addition to his retinue, he was accompanied by a Franciscan missionary, Luis Sotelo, in the capacity of interpreter.

Endo took these basic facts and turned the story into something rather more than a simple historical travel narrative. He created a novel about duty, ambition, religion and human helplessness in the face of circumstances over which we have no control.

The Samurai

Once again the samurai had the feeling that he was defying his own destiny by going on this journey. When he had known nothing but the marshland, he had never thought of anything except his life there. But now he realised that he had changed. The tiny marshland, his uncle, his uncle’s tedious complaints beside the hearth, orders from the Council of Elders – for the first time since their departure from Mexico City, the samurai felt a desire to rebel against those unyielding elements of fate that had been thrust upon him.

Hasekura in Rome by Claude Deruet (1615). [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.]
The Hasekura of the novel is a low ranking samurai, nearly as poor as the peasants of the three villages in his marshland fiefdom. He’s a man few words but of deep reflections; unambitious, dutiful, trustworthy. The first time we see him he is labouring alongside his vassals collecting firewood, wearing the same kind of clothes as them. He lives in a small small, enclosed world, which never changes from one generation to the next.

The Hasekura family has lost their fertile lands and this unexpected and unexplained mission to serve as an envoy to faraway countries is the samurai’s chance to get them back. He goes on the mission not because he wants to or because he understands the reasons behind it; he goes simply because he had been commanded to go. He’s a man of his class and of his time: duty and loyalty to his lord are his guiding principles. He neither asks for, nor expect explanations and although he’s not stupid, he has no idea of the political realities governing the actions of his feudal overlord. He will persevere in trying to carry out his duty to the best of his ability, trusting in the good will of his patron to reward him in the end.

The Priest

O Lord, are these actions I have taken contemptible? I have uttered these lies and plotted these stratagems so that some day hymns praising Thy name will flow throughout Japan, and the flowers of faith blossom there in profusion…

Father Velasco – modelled on Luis Sotelo – is his complete opposite. The scion of an influential Spanish family from Seville, with the blood of conquistadors and cardinals flowing in his veins, he abandoned worldly ambition – in exchange for religious ambition. He wants nothing less than make Japan into a country of God: with himself as its bishop. Talented and ambitious, to achieve his aims he puts to use his considerable skills of persuasion and rides the political undercurrents ably, scheming and deceiving if it serves his purpose.

It’s not that Velasco is a bad man: his faith is sincere but ambition blinds him to the falsity of his position. The Franciscans, after all, are a mendicant order, dedicated to poverty, preaching the word of God and ministering to the needy, but Velasco has lost sight of that somewhere along the way. His entire soul is focused on his ambition to become the first bishop of Japan. Believing himself engaged in God’s work, he repeatedly compares himself to Christ and the apostles. The ancient Greeks had a word for this: hubris. What governs Velasco’s actions is not godliness but hubris – but if he’s going to get closer to Christ, he will have to conquer his ambition and his pride.

In Parallel

Endo has wrote a book that abounds in parallels. From the rather unusual point of view of a Japanese Roman Catholic, he draws a beautiful parallel between his two protagonists, describing at once the physical and the spiritual journey they have to make. Will Father Velasco conquer his ambition and become a true servant of his God? Will Hasekura’s beliefs and character change as a consequence of his journey?

It’s not just the protagonists who are presented in this way, side by side. The images of the winter marshland in Japan contrast with the white heat of Mexico and the soaring spires of Rome; Velasco’s self-serving ambition with Hasekura’s sense of duty; the emaciated figure of Christ on wooden crosses in whitewashed rooms with the pomp and circumstance of the Vatican. The purposes of Velasco clash with the purposes of the envoys. The rulers of Japan are just as ready to grant the missionaries freedom to proselytise as to persecute existing Christians. And Europe is no less divided: the Franciscans are against the Jesuits and the Jesuits against the Franciscans; the Protestants are against both.

Japan is at the point in history where she is about to choose between isolation or opening up… And the men caught up in this historical moment have to choose too.

You might also like:More about Rokuemon HasekuraHow Hasekura is remembered in Civitavecchia, the Italian port where he landedSilence by Shusaku Endo

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