Hasekura Rokuemon (1571-1622), the titular samurai of Endô Shusakü’s 1980 novel is a middle-aged, low-rank (likened to a lance corporal) samurai, with no experience of battle, who is placed in nominal charge of a delegation of four envoys and some merchants dispatched to New Spain (later Mexico) in the second decade of the 17th century (C.E.). They are not representing the shogun (the newly dominant Tokugawa one, Ieyasu) or the emperor but a lord (daimyô) from Tohoku in northern Honshu, Shiraishi, who tells his envoys, “In the land of the foreigners, the ways of life will probably be different from those here in Japan. You must not cling to Japanese customs if they stand in the way of your mission. If that which is white in Japan is black in the foreign lands, consider it black. Even if you remain unconvinced in your heart, you must wear a look of acquiescence on your face.”
Having traveled to Acapulco, then overland to the capital (Mexico City), they learn that no decisions about trade or other relations with Japan can be made by the viceroy there, so they journey on to Vera Cruz, then across another ocean to Madrid. There, they learn from the king (Felipe III) that the pope (Paul V) must be consulted. The samurai and the three envoys still with him consent to be baptized in order to be received in the Vatican (that is, their “conversion” is policy, not motivated by belief in Christianity) They attain an audience with the pope in Rome, but nothing is resolved, and they return by the same route they had taken eastward.
While they were gone, Japan has closed itself off again. Hasekura has become a true believer, but even the nominal baptisms are viewed as treasonable in their xenophobic homeland. And the diplomatic/trade mission being back with them a Spanish Franciscan missionary, Father Velasco. He seems more jesuitical than Franciscan to me, though he battles with the Jesuits who had already established a toehold in Japan. Father Velasco is exceedingly vain, ambitious, manipulative, and lacking in scruples or doubts in his understanding of a very alien culture. He seeks to be named Bishop of Japan, but attains a spectacular martyrdom (before those missionaries who Endô portrayed in The Silence).
Endô himself had a sojourn in Europe (to study French Catholic writers), and much of his fiction that I like most involves Japanese outside Japan (Deep River, “Japanese in Warsaw). Most of it concerned the incompatibilities between Japanese culture and Christian faith that he grappled with himself. The Jesuit debating Velasco sounds recurrent Endô themes:
“The Japanese basically lack a sensitivity to anything that is absolute, to anything that transcends the human level, to the existence of anything beyond the realm of Nature: what we should call the supernatural. I finally realized that after thirty years there as a missionary. It was a simple matter to teach them that this life is transitory. They have always been sensitive to that aspect of life. The frightening thing is that the Japanese also have a capacity to accept and even relish the evanescence of life. This capacity is so profound that they actually revel in that knowledge, and have written many verses inspired by that emotion. Yet the Japanese make no attempt to leap beyond it. They abhor the idea of making clear distinctions between man and God. To them, even if there should be something greater than man, it is something which man himself can one day become. Their Buddha, for instance, is a being which man can become once he abandons his illusions. Even Nature, which for us is something totally detached from man, to them is an entity that envelops mankind. We…we failed in our attempts to rectify these attitudes of theirs.”
The Holy Mother Church does not come off well in Samurai, but Hasekura’s faith and, ultimately, Father Velasco’s willingness to die for it are treated with respect.
BTW, the historical Hasekura Rokuemon died within two years of his return to Japan in 1620, but was not executed. And Endô has the Spanish priest speak directly (i.e., Velasco’s first person), but not the Japanese convert (i.e., third person narrative for Hasekura). There is little “local color” in Mexico and Europe in Endô’s novel about Christian faith, and no swordplay (or spearplay) contrary to the cover images..
©2017, Stephen O. Murray