Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai (1980) is a fictional account of a 17th-century diplomatic mission from Japan to “Nueva España,” or present-day Mexico, and then beyond to Spain and Rome. There’s a lot to this novel as it shifts between first- and third-person narrative, and from historical adventure to travel narrative, political drama and meditation on certain interpretations of faith and Christ.
It came as a surprise to me that Endo based the characters on actual historical figures. As Van C. Gessel, the book’s translator, points out in the postscript, “Endō’s novel, besides being a superbly crafted piece of fiction, is a valuable work of speculation.” A group of about one hundred Japanese, along with Spanish sailors, really did travel to what is now Central America and then crossed the Atlantic and met with Pope Paul V. But almost no documents about their journey exist today.
For Endo, this skeleton must’ve compelled him to provide the right flesh and blood. Through his prose it's clear he spent considerable time working out each detail and contemplating the intentions and motivations of the characters and countries in play. The story also explores missionary work as a precondition for international trade (for Catholics, not Protestants), the rivalry and animosity between Franciscans and Jesuits, the hardships of sea travel, and methods of torture and killing used in Japan to humiliate and terrify Christians. The novel is also interesting for its depiction of Luis Sotelo (the Franciscan friar on which one character is based) and Christianity in the Tohoku region.
As an aside, I found this amusing… An excerpt from a 1982 article by Julian Moynahan, writing about Endo and The Samurai for The New York Times:
“Shusaku Endo is modern Japan’s most distinguished Roman Catholic novelist. If that description makes you blink, consider that a cross-national survey of religious belief published in American newspapers within the past year reported that among the populations studied, the Japanese came last in the percentage of people expressing any belief in immortality or the survival of the soul after death. Another recent survey, comparing I.Q. averages among populations of some leading nations, Eastern and Western, places the Japanese at the very top. It would seem, then, that Mr. Endo has his work cut out for him. Willy-nilly, a great part of his primary readership will be extra-bright people who are either not religious at all or who profess attachment to a religion for the sake of social solidarity, tradition, ceremony or worldly advancement.”