Book Review: The Samurai by Shusaku Endo

The Samurai – Shusaku Endo (New Directions, 2018) (translated from the Japanese by Van C. Gessel)

Like Endo’s other famous book, Silence, this is a slow moving and contemplative book, dealing with Christianity in 17th century Japan. Which isn’t to say it’s a boring book or one without much happening; it’s simply a deeply thoughtful book.

The Samurai of the title is a low ranking lance-corporal who is chosen as a member of an envoy to be sent to Nueva Espana. In the hopes that his ancestral lands will be returned to his family, he is sent on a voyage with three other envoys across the world in an attempt to open shipping channels with Spain. But the motives of those in power are broad and secretive and are the envoys merely pawns being used in a complex game?

The other perspective we follow is that of Velasco, a Spanish priest who has served in Japan for many years. Although Christians are being increasingly persecuted in Japan and Christianity is outlawed in many regions, Velasco’s power lies in the fact that he is one of the few people in the world who speaks both Japanese and Spanish. He is included in the voyage as a translator but his own ambitions run deep.

The novel takes us through Nueva Espana, through deserts and cathedrals, to Espana itself and on to Rome and the Vatican City. It’s a fascinating look at a world in a time when travel was dangerous and long, taking years to get from one country to another. But where Endo really soars, as in Silence, is in the characterization. The samurai is a deeply stoic, loyal man. His honour and his family are of paramount importance, his own desires secondary to those who command him. He is trapped by his place in the rigid hierarchy of Japanese culture. Through the other envoys we see different personalities within this placement and hierarchy but each still held to the honour and formality required within their society.

Along with the samurai’s story, we follow Velasco’s perspective too, a man of deep passion, willing to sacrifice himself and others in his pursuit of his ambitions. He is skilled at rationalizing his actions as being done in the name of Christ but do the possible eternal ends truly justify the earthly means? His character is a fascinating look at Christianity, in all its most painful and sinful history. As a Christian, I have to face the awful truth that the church and its people have, in the name of Jesus, committed great atrocities throughout history. In The Samurai, Endo delves into just how an individual can walk that path, believing themselves to be doing the right thing. For many Christians, if we’re being honest, I think we can see glimpses of ourselves in Velasco.

As painful as it is, I appreciate the way Endo lays Christianity bare. It is painful, degrading, embarrassing. This is a far cry from how Christianity is so often portrayed now, especially in the West. This is not the prosperity gospel. The Samurai is a thoughtful and unique story about what might draw believers to Christ and what might keep them from him.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Samurai by Shusaku Endo”

  1. New Directions books are interesting. The first one I read was Drought by Debra Di Blasi, and it just knocked me off my feet. For a couple of semesters, I would teach Drought, which is two novellas in one. I think you would like it:

    I’m not sure this book is for me. The blending of different cultures and languages and a time period with which I am not familiar would have me off kilter right from the get go. I can see how this book might speak to you, given your experiences growing up in the East and your faith. 🙂

    1. The time period/historical setting and the central religious themes do mean it’s not an easy book to lose yourself in. I don’t know a ton about Japanese history but the culture of honour and family duty has a lot of similarities to what I’m familiar with in China. And I do really appreciate the way Endo approaches faith, which would maybe not be the same experience for another reader.

  2. I haven’t read anything by Endo but he really appeals to me for the same reasons you’ve outlined here – I have Silence on my shelf and hoping to get to it soon. Great review!

    1. Silence is excellent. I think I liked it a bit more than the Samurai but they have a lot of similarities, particularly in how Endo portrays faith and Christianity.

  3. I think if more Christians were like you Karissa, (and really, believers of any religion) and were able to accept the good along with the bad in their religions and their religions’ histories, we wouldn’t have so many wars, honestly. What a balanced viewpoint you offer, you should preach in a church! Seriously, I think we’d all be better off if people could look at their own beliefs so critically.

    1. Anne, that’s such a nice compliment, though I’m not sure that I deserve it. Thank you. I love so much about the church but I do think we have a responsibility to face the wrongs that have been done in the name of Christianity too. Too many Christians in North America seem unwilling to admit that we do have a position of privilege or they want to enact this idea of a “Christian nation” that I think is really harmful and not at all in accordance with the Bible.

    2. You do deserve this compliment Karissa, I truly mean it. And regardless of what religion people follow, if any, I think being able to admit our mistakes is a really important skill many of us including myself seem to be lacking. It’s something we seem so hesitant to do, yet it’s so easy, and goes so far in repairing relationships.

    3. I think we’re seeing that now particularly in the calls for the church to apologize for residential schools. Where leaders refuse or dig their heels in, there really is no way to move on or rebuild.

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