Shusaku Endo's novel The Samurai is a brilliant look at the ways which western missionary efforts in the 1600's profoundly failed to take root in the eastern world of feudal Japan. It is the story of Father Velasco, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, who attempts to cope with the difficulties of proselytization of an increasingly isolationist Japan. Father Velasco believes he can guarantee the continued success of missionary work in Japan if only he can forge a strong trade alliance with the ports of Nueva Espana (modern-day central Mexico). Not only is he concerned with the continued spread of the gospel through Japan, but also with the spread of the influence his own order, the Franciscan society, over against the Jesuits who also are working in Japan. Through the successes of trade alliances, Velasco hopes to secure for himself the preeminent position of Bishop of Japan.
The Samurai is simultaneously the story of a poor peasant samurai, chosen among a handful of his compatriots, to accompany Velasco on this mission to forge a trade alliance. They are told that their families will be rewarded (indeed, honored) by their betters nearer to the emperor if they were to succeed in their mission. The samurai, who has never been away from his humble marshland fief, is anguished at the prospect of leaving his family and his homeland, but merely obeys--a trait deeply valued by the Japanese. Several other samurai and a cadre of servants accompany him on this long mission. Though each of the men represent different points of view on the outside world (from deeply suspicious to overwhelmingly accepting), none are truly interested in Velasco's Christianity for its own sake. While several of the Japanese end up submitting to the Christian sacrament of baptism, they do so only in the interest of their mission and they retain a distaste for the suffering figure that Velasco (and indeed the whole western world) seem to worship.
The story progresses through the terrible difficulties faced by this strange mix of eastern and western travelers. They press on through violent storms at sea, unwelcome receptions at the various ports they visit, local uprisings throughout Nueva Espana, and eventually end up in Spain and then in Rome, all the while pressing every advantage they can find to complete their trade alliance.
Their are essentially two great strengths to the story. First, it is simply an excellent adventure story of a difficult mission that takes a group of strong but naive men halfway round the world on an impossible mission. The story moves quickly and their is plenty to enthrall the reader along the way. Second, and more importantly, the story explores the adventure from two points of view, both Velasco's and the samurai's. As the story approaches climax, the reader is drawn more and more to the center of conflict between the eastern and western mindsets. At the novel's conclusion, no real bridge between the two cultures is ever built and the reader is left alone, defeated by the chasm. But Endo leaves the reader also with another experience. The reader, through the samurai character, is nevertheless brought into contact with the divine in way that subtly but manifestly changes him. Though beyond conscious experience, the samurai comes into contact with the Divine Will in moments of profound supernatural mystery and deep human sorrow, and ultimately finds fellowship with Velasco (and ultimately, with God) only in this experience. God triumphs in the shadowy mists of shared humanity that transcend culture.
The Samurai should be read by all those who sense a deepening divide growing between so-called "tribes" in the postmodern world. Endo's story is for the reader a poignant reminder of men's inability to bridge the deep cultural fissures we create for ourselves as well as a reminder of God's ability to do just that in the suffering figure who bore the cross.