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Extraordinary Samurai - Part I

Window for the Sea Wind by Hitoshi Tanaka, Blue Hill, Maine

Sometimes all it takes is one intriguing book, and then several books later you find you have read a whole stack of related books. This is exactly what took place when I picked up Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan by Giles Milton. Literally, one book led to another, mostly with the word “samurai” in the title. These are what I have read so far, but I am far from done with literature about Japan. This first one blog will focus on two nonfiction books about two extraordinary and unusual samurai from the Global Age or Age of Discovery, and one folktale for children.

Nonfiction book #1: Samurai William relates the story of William Adams of Kent, England, who became the first Englishman to reach Japan during the Global Age. A true Renaissance man, Adams was an accomplished pilot, shipbuilder, mathematician, astronomer, and linguist who was able to learn fluent Japanese. As a result, he rose to great power and influence in the Japanese court and was made a samurai by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Besides a glimpse into feudal Japan during the early 1600s, Samurai William is also a close up look at the early competition for a foothold in East Asia amongst European powers during the Global Age. This competition not only manifested itself through economics and politics, but through religion as well. The Portuguese and Spanish who had reached Japan first had established a Jesuit presence by the time Adams arrived. While there is no doubt that Japanese justice was harsh and there was a real disregard for human life, this historical account offers an equally unflattering picture of Christianity and Christians at that time as represented by the Europeans - Dutch, English, Portuguese and Spanish. There are monuments, plaques, and even place names in Japan that point to Adams’ role in the history of this country. On a side note, William Adams is supposedly the inspiration behind James Clavell’s novel, Shogun.

Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, California

Nonfiction #2: Samurai William led me to African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan by Thomas Lockley. However, Yasuke’s story begins a few decades before William Adams’ arrival in Japan. Before ever reaching Japan, Yasuke, which may be a form of the name Isaac, had already lived through a long list of amazing adventures. Originally from the Nile River to the south of Egypt, Yasuke was taken at the age of 12 to India and trained as a soldier. Surviving the battlefield, he was then hired by Valignano, a Jesuit and “Visitor” of Asia to be his personal bodyguard. Accompanying Valignano to Japan, Yasuke was then given to Nobunaga, the most powerful daimyo at that time and was made a samurai. Again, this book, which reads like a novel, portrays the 16th century world as extremely harsh. However, the author does take up an interesting perspective for this crucial stage in the globalization of our world: the loneliness of globalization and isolation in a foreign culture. Comparing The African Samurai with Samurai William, it is clear that both men experienced this kind of isolation. Two lovely quotes preface the book point to this theme: “An orphaned blossom/returning to its bough, somehow?/No, a solitary butterfly” (Arakida Moritake), and “When a lion runs and looks back,/It’s not that he is afraid./Rather, he is trying to see/the distance he has covered” (African Proverb).

Don’t skip the endnotes, they provide fascinating information about Yasuke after he had disappeared from the record.

Children’s Book: Children’s author and Caldecott Honor winner, Eric A. Kimmel has written over 50 books, many of which are folktales. Three Samurai Cats: A Story from Japan is an original folktale about a rat who takes over a daimyo’s castle and eats him out of house and home. In an effort to get rid of the rat, the daimyo engages three samurai cats. The first two are young cats who confront the rat head on only to get badly beaten. The third cat, Neko Roshi is old and decrepit, who seemingly does nothing but eat and sleep, yet manages to send the rat packing. The illustrations by Mordicai Gerstein are in a comic style that perfectly supports the lighthearted feel of this story which discusses the best way to deal with unwelcome “guests”.

Tea: Recently, I bought from Simpson and Vail a type of Japanese tea I had never heard of before: Bancha Hojicha, which is a blend of green tea leaves and twigs that have been roasted over charcoal. (I had to look it up.) When I first opened it to brew a cup, I had a hard time telling the difference between the deep brown leaves and sticks. The packaging described it as a “dark golden cup with a smooth earthy, toasty, slightly malty flavor.” It was definitely smooth without even a hint of bitterness. I expected it to be smoky, which is a flavor I love, but there wasn’t even a hint of it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It is really an interesting, comforting tea.


Artwork credited to Aurora Draws - contact for more details

All photographs by the author

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