Study Guide

Heart of a Samurai Analysis

By Margi Preus

  • Tone

    Hopeful With Dashes of Darkness


    For the most part, hopeful covers the tone for the majority of the book. Manjiro is a pretty positive dude, and since the book is pretty much from his perspective, it makes sense that the tone coincides with his voice and character.

    Manjiro tends to speak in positive terms, and the hopefulness of the book often comes through in his dialogue. For instance:

    Manjiro pointed to the sky. "Look," he said. Pink light rimmed the eastern horizon and ran down the sea. "Doesn't it look like the light from another world, spilling through a slightly open door?"


    "It's like how I feel about America," Manjiro said. "It's as if I see this little bit of light from an open door. It promises… I don't know what! But I want to go through that door and find out what is there." (2.11.50-52)

    How Manjiro feels here is pretty much how the book wants us to feel about Manjiro's prospects in America. There might only be a "little bit of light" at times, but it's light nonetheless.

    Then there's the ending, which perfectly captures the overall positive outlook of both Manjiro and the writing:

    Within him, Manjiro knew, beat a heart scoured by sand, pounded by waves, burned by sun, and polished by rain and wind. It would always be the simple heart of a fisherman, but perhaps it had also become the mighty heart of a samurai. (5.41.18)

    The hope is all in the change from "always" to "perhaps": the "perhaps" carries a pretty big dream on its little alphabetic shoulders—the dream of becoming a samurai. To end on that note is to give us a final sense of how Manjiro views his life even in the most stressful of moments—this is how he feels as he walks to greet an unknown fate.


    As upbeat as Manjiro and the writing tends to be, it's not like there aren't dark episodes in the book. The darkest period, we think, is Manjiro's time on the Franklin, with crazy Captain Davis and the drudgery of an unsuccessful whaling expedition.

    Here are Manjiro's inner thoughts, turned all dark and twisted:

    He leaned against the mainmast and stared out at the sea, trying to remember what had motivated him before. As if through a gauzy cloth, he remembered that he had desperately wanted to go home. But now he knew that would never happen.

    It didn't matter anyway, Manjiro told himself. He wouldn't be accepted at home anymore. Better to live out his days in the middle of his endless, motionless sea. If they didn't make landfall soon, there might not be many of those days left anyway. The little water they had was brackish and foul, the pork moldy, and the biscuits more weevil than bread. Some of the men were suffering from scurvy. (4.29.4-5)

    The description he gives of life on board the ship clearly shows a sad state of affairs, but it's the lackadaisical indifference in the words "anyway" and "anymore" that subtly give the whole passage a feeling of futility and hopelessness.

  • Genre

    Adventure; Biography; Coming-of-Age


    We have a thrilling rescue, the high seas, and a whole new country. Then, on top of that, a return to a home country that doesn't want our main man back and readily tosses him in jail to prove it. This book is all about high stakes, physical drama, and new places—all of which means we're definitely in the adventure genre.


    Okay, this one is easy. Here's why: John Mung a.k.a. Manjiro? A real dude. The story of him getting picked up by Captain Whitfield and his crew, of him going to America and then back to Japan? Yup, all of it's real, too. But it's not told by Manjiro himself; the story is told through a third-person narrator created by Margi Preus. So the book is basically a biography.

    That said, a warning: the book calls itself "a novel inspired by a true adventure on the high seas." What does that mean? It means the novel—a piece of fiction, ultimately—is an imagined biography. The author has tried to fictionalize or make up what she thinks Manjiro might have thought and felt while experiencing these major events. And for this reason, you can't take everything you read in the book as factual and true, especially when it comes to Manjiro's words, thoughts, and feelings.


    Manjiro is a young guy, bound to his family and to Japan, at the beginning of the book. But pretty quickly, he learns to go his own way, and this means moving away from his friends to go with Captain Whitfield to America. It's huge. He goes out on his own, leaving everyone familiar behind, in order to experience a new country and way of being. How could he not mature into an adult, given all of that experience? Manjiro's definitely grows up over the course of this book.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    In Heart of a Samurai, Manjiro totally want to be a samurai. The only trouble is, he is "a fisherman's son" (1.2.33), and at this point in Japan, there's not a whole lot of upward mobility. In fact, Manjiro's friends even laugh at him when he announces that he "hope[s] to become a samurai" (1.1.30). Becoming a samurai is just beyond the reach of a poor fisherman's son.

    So Manjiro can never be a samurai… or can he? What does being a samurai, in Manjiro's head, actually entail? Manjiro wants to "be like the noble samurai of old times: heroic warriors who were loyal to their lords, and who studied calligraphy and poetry as well as the art of fighting" (1.2.37). Which—if you think about—is something he kind of accomplishes while he's in America since he receives an education, especially in the liberal arts.

    And when he returns to Japan, because he's been through and has learned so much, and because times are a-changin', Manjiro's actually made into a samurai. It's totally unprecedented, and totally awesome.

    Manjiro is made into a samurai partially because the Edo court needs his knowledge of America to negotiate with the Americans, but the larger reason is Manjiro's ability to survive with ingenuity and perseverance: "Within him, Manjiro knew, beat a heart scoured by sand, pounded by waves, burned by sun, and polished by rain and wind" (5.41.18). That's a pretty strong heart. It's one that's not only "the simple heart of a fisherman, but perhaps… also… the mighty heart of a samurai" (5.41.18). Hey there, title.

    The "heart of a samurai" is just another way of saying that remaining honest to his core traits—openness, inquisitiveness, adaptability—is what allows Manjiro to achieve his dreams. He's always been a samurai inside, but in the end he gets recognized for these qualities. A nice, heart-warming message all wrapped up in the title of the book.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    If you think about it, there are actually two endings to the book. The last chapter ends Manjiro's story as Preus has written it, and then the Epilogue comes along and wraps up all the factual loose ends about Manjiro's life.

    Preus's rendering of Manjiro's life ends on an uncertain note. On the last page of the last chapter, we learn that Manjiro is supposed to go see the "great lord of Tosa" in Kochi. The messenger doesn't really know why, but rumor has it that there are two possibilities: Manjiro's in big trouble and might be imprisoned on spy charges again (5.41.13), or he's being summoned to teach the samurai about Americans (5.41.15).

    Which is it? Spy or samurai? Who can tell? The last chapter leaves us with is Manjiro's own calm faith and hope in himself:

    Within him, Manjiro knew, beat a heart scoured by sand, pounded by waves, burned by sun, and polished by rain and wind. It would always be a simple heart of a fisherman, but perhaps it had also become the mighty heart of a samurai. (5.41.18)

    So while the Epilogue follows and answers the question about what happens next to Manjiro, Preus's story ends by highlighting who he is inside—his heart, calm, and strength.

  • Setting

    At Sea and Aboard a Whaling Ship, 19th Century

    This is where we first meet Manjiro and the other Japanese fishermen, and even though most of them hate the whole lost-at-sea-away-from-home gig, Manjiro loves the sea and ship life because of all the sense of adventure and camaraderie among the crew.

    Of course, camaraderie isn't easy to come by at first, but the crew eventually becomes a family of sorts for Manjiro:

    They had all seemed so big and so hairy and so fierce when he'd first encountered them, but now he knew them as mostly kind and pleasant men. He had ceased to identify them by their skin or hair colors; now he knew them by their names and personalities. (2.7.6)

    It's a motley and diverse crew, but just as Manjiro eventually comes to view each member has an individual instead of just understanding them based on their appearances, so, too, do they come to understand him as an individual.

    On top of that, the sea and ship life (at least on the John Howland) represent freedom and potential. Manjiro tells Captain Whitfield that, to him, "'Future is like ocean… Big mystery, many danger, much beautiful" (2.7.37). Gee, sounds like a good setting for a story about a young man on the adventure of a lifetime, now doesn't it?

    Fairhaven, Connecticut, 19th Century

    Fairhaven is the small, American town that the Captain takes Manjiro to. For the Captain, it's like family; in fact, when he and Manjiro arrive at his house, which is closed and abandoned, it's his neighbors the Akens who take them in, having them stay in their home until the two men get settled.

    At the same time, because Fairhaven is small, it's also—like other places—wary of strangers, especially foreigners like Manjiro. Because of Fairhaven's xenophobia, the Whitfields bounce from church to church until they can find one that more than just tolerates Manjiro, but accepts him whole-heartedly.

    In this exclusivity, Fairhaven (and America in general) may share more similarities with the isolated Japan than we might expect.

    Japan, 19th Century

    We're not giving a specific place within Japan because the different settings Manjiro ends up in all go back to the same idea: Japan is way too isolated and narrow in its thinking. That's because it's still the Edo period (the Meiji period is what brings Japan into the modern, industrial era).

    The fact that Manjiro gets imprisoned twice in Japan on suspicion of being a spy just because he was a castaway and lived in America for a while should give you an idea of just how isolated and anti-foreigner Japan is during the era our book is set in.

    That said, there is a small exception: Manjiro's hometown. Sure, the Epilogue tells us that Manjiro never really left that cloud of suspicion behind him while he lived in Japan, but the way his hometown greets him indicates that—sometimes—a small place like his hometown can be just as supportive as a small American town like Fairhaven.

    Here's a brief description of what the neighbors do to welcome him: "Later, after neighbors arrived, bringing red sea bream mixed with boiled rice, red beans, warmed sake, and other gifts of food" (5.40.28). The custom of bringing food to Manjiro is not unlike the way the Akens open their door to Captain Whitfield and Manjiro after their period at sea.

    Small towns—even ones that are scared of strangers like Manjiro's hometown in Japan and Fairhaven in America—may not be as unsupportive of the new and different as we might think.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?


    I have no parents; I make the heaven and earth my mother and father.
    I have no home; I make awareness my dwelling.
    I have no life and death; I make the tides of breathing my life and death.
    —from the Samurai Creed

    I have no parents; I make the heaven and earth my mother and father.
    I have no home; I make awareness my dwelling.
    I have no life and death; I make the tides of breathing my life and death.
    —from the Samurai Creed
    What's up with the epigraph?

    How fitting. The Samurai Creed is exactly what is going on with Manjiro and his new life at sea. Notice all the negations: "I have no…" and the way to deal with those negations—through creation and invention: "I make…" The Creed isn't just about sucking it up and making do. It's about working with nature and body ("heaven and earth"; "awareness"; "tides of breathing")—combining the two into a whole—to forge a new future. Good thing Manjiro's a pro at being one with nature.


    When meeting difficult situations, one should rush forward bravely and with joy. It is the crossing of a single barrier.
    —from Hagakure: The Book of Samurai

    If the Hagakure is Manjiro's personal guide to survival, then he does a really good job of following it. But why does this piece of advice work?

    It asks the samurai to "rush forward bravely and with joy." It might seem like the "with joy" part is a toss-away phrase, but it's actually the key part to the whole sentence. Manjiro shows that meeting challenges "with joy" allows him to greet each situation with a positivity that his friends lack. They're all negative about what they see, whereas Manjiro's openness and joyful eagerness lets him learn English more quickly and strike up a strong rapport with Captain Whitfield. His attitude lets him make something out of the strange and new.


    When one's own courage is fixed in his heart, and when his resolution is devoid of doubt, then when the time comes he will of necessity be able to choose the right move.
    —from Hagakure: The Book of a Samurai

    What gets Manjiro through his time in America? A strong sense of right and wrong. Because of this, he's able to think of creative solutions to ethical dilemmas. For example, should he fight his bully? Instead of fighting, Manjiro thinks of a challenge—horse racing—that takes any man-on-man combat out of the equation, yet still preserves the spirit of a challenge.

    He also has the awareness and perspective to "choose the right move" when he sees his bully lying in a ditch, bloody and crying. He helps Tom out. That's what "courage […] fixed in the heart" does for you: Even bullies don't deter you from doing the right, compassionate thing.


    It is good for young people to experience a good share of hardship or misfortune. A person whose spirit collapses in the face of misfortune is of no use.
    —from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

    Things have been pretty good for Manjiro up until now. Yeah, he was lost at sea and stranded on a deserted island at the beginning of the book, but it didn't take long for him and his friends to be picked up.

    Part 4 is another beast entirely, though, and things go badly pretty quickly. And they stay bad for a couple of years. Manjiro has a crazy tyrant of a captain to deal with, his baby brother from his adopted family dies, and he still hasn't gotten to Japan. Ugh.

    Which is why this epigraph is so appropriate. Its message? Buck up, deal with things, and move on. Which is exactly what Manjiro does.


    Have your whole heart bent on a single purpose.
    —from Hagakure: The Book of a Samurai

    What exactly is Manjiro's "single purpose"? Luckily, the subheading for Part 5 is "Home" (sometimes authors are into making things easy for us).

    Manjiro's heading home, and by home, we mean Japan. So that's probably his "single purpose." But you can also interpret his purpose as the dream he states at the beginning of the book: to become a samurai. So how do you focus in becoming a samurai? By doing things in the way of the samurai—a.k.a. following the principles outlined in the Hagakure.

    There's also all the idea that if you focus on your purpose, your fate will take care of itself, and in a good way. For Manjiro, this means not worrying what will happen once he gets home. Jail or some better fate? Doesn't matter. It's all about achieving that goal.

    And lo and behold, what happens at the end? He becomes a samurai.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    This book is basically one of those novels that you can plow through in a couple of days. The language is flat-out easy (no real SAT words anywhere to be found—yay!). Plus, the chapters are short and the plot is—if not a page-turner—very close to being one. There aren't any tricks in terms of the plot or structure of the book and, to top it off, you have a really likable protagonist and what turns out to be a real-life, happy-ish ending. History made reader-friendly? Not sure you can top that…

  • Writing Style

    Clear; Imagistic


    The clear writing style of this book means the sentences tend to be short, with simple structures (think: subject-verb-object). If the author uses a descriptive clause, trust us—it's not going to make your head go dizzy trying to keep up.

    Here, for example, is how Preus describes Manjiro's feelings after he and Captain Whitfield have their first bonding moment:

    When Manjiro left the room soon after, he tried to identify what he was feeling. He was no longer afraid. He was no longer angry. He was, perhaps, a little amazed. A little surprised. And maybe even a little bit happy.

    There are a total of four complete sentences in that passage, and none of those sentences run longer than a line on a page. Preus even adds in two "sentences" that aren't even complete, but instead are just phrases. In other words, there aren't any extra words in this passage.

    Manjiro may be feeling strange, confusing feelings, but Preus doesn't want you to feel confused. Nope—her writing is as clear as it gets. And this clarity to her writing adds nicely to the simplicity of Manjiro's character (more on this over in the "Characters" section).


    By imagistic, we mean words that paint pictures, that make us think in images. Preus is nothing if not descriptive, but not in a super-wordy way—that might impede her clarity. Instead, she uses simple similes and metaphors to help us imagine what a scene looks like. Take this paragraph, for example, which is so typical of Preus's writing in this book:

    But no sooner had he said this than the wind began to roar like a dragon. The sail filled with air and yanked the boat on its side until Denzo released the line. Freed, the sail whipped about, flapping like a wounded bird. (1.1.15)

    See what we mean? There's a really strong wind because it "roar[s] like a dragon," so much so that the sail "flap[s] like a wounded bird." The image of a ship at sea is clear because the similes the author uses don't interfere with the scene; instead they only add to the scene.

  • The Heart

    You know this one has to be important because it's part of the title of the book. Having the "heart of a samurai" doesn't mean that you have a super-bionic heart; it means you live according to the codes and creed of the samurai class.

    For Manjiro, who is born into a much lower social class, this means weathering—in some cases, literally—the obstacles and difficulties in life:

    Within him, Manjiro knew, beat a heart scoured by sand, pounded by waves, burned by sun, and polished by rain and wind. It would always be the simple heart of a fisherman, but perhaps it had also become the mighty heart of a samurai. (5.41.18)

    Think of Manjiro's heart as a part describing the larger whole: His heart represents Manjiro himself, it is who he is at his core—strong, persistent, and readily compassionate for other people, even his greatest enemies (like Jolly and Tom). Manjiro really is "all heart," which is what allows him to be a samurai in both spirit and reality.

  • The Steamship, the Railroad, the Telegraph

    When you think about the steamship, railroad, and telegraph in this book, think technology and progress, since this is what these things mean to our main man Manjiro. They are everything that Japan isn't in the 1800s, so they symbolize American intelligence and power.

    But Manjiro doesn't just think that all these new advancements are awesome. He's torn:

    It was hard to imagine anything changing this remote village, but the wind of change was blowing, and Japan would be swept along by it one way or another. She, his beloved country, had spent hundreds of years living from full moon to full moon while the West had sped ahead in science, invention, transportation, navigation, and, most ominously, military strength. There were hundreds of ways Japan would benefit from the coming changes. And hundreds of ways she would not. (5.41.3)

    On one hand, all this progress is awesome. But on the other, it's the destruction of an older, maybe more peaceful, way of (Japanese) life. See, Japan at this point is at the tail end of the Edo period, a time of deep isolation for the country, so while other countries (like China) are all open to foreigners, Japan is the exact opposite.

    There are some real perks to Japan's closed borders—no foreign invasions and no Opium War, to name a few—but Japan also missed out on some of the innovations of this time, technological developments that made other countries (like America) more efficient, wealthy, and strong.

    By the way, if you get a sense of foreboding in the above passage, you're not wrong: "There were hundreds of ways Japan would benefit from the coming changes. And hundreds of ways she would not." Note the "would not"—the writer is signaling the future and what technology will do to Japan.

    Think: bullet trains, super-tiny electrical gadgets, the Toyota Prius. But think also: World War II, the atomic bomb, and total destruction of a nation.

    There's not a lot that can be done about all this "wind of change"—like nature, it's inevitable. It's also like the locomotive: It keeps chugging along, in forward motion, whether the world likes it or not.

  • Natural Imagery

    This symbol's kind of general and vague, we know, but that's because there isn't a single type of natural image the writer focuses on throughout the book. Instead, she just kind of throws the kitchen sink at us (only it's all a lot prettier than an actual kitchen sink) when it comes to weaving nature into her metaphorical language.

    Here's an example of how the author uses nature to clarify an opinion Manjiro might have:

    Wasn't it funny, Manjiro thought, that his countrymen, who so admired the fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms and the maple's momentary burst of fall color, clung so fervently to the past? They were like the last fragile blossoms that tremble on the branch while the wind tears and tears at them. (5.41.5)

    The Japanese equal fragile cherry blossoms because they're so unprepared for the world's technological and economic advances. The world, to be clear, is the wind in this passage.

    But before this, Manjiro makes a parallel between shells and people:

    "These shells are like the people of the world, Okachan […] They come from many different places. They come in many different colors and sizes. But they are all beautiful." (5.40.35)

    Here, shells symbolize all the different races of people in the world, beautiful in their differences. It totally works as a means of getting the point across, but as a simile, it has little to do with the cherry blossoms and wind references that shortly follow.

    What's the point of all these different ways of comparing human life to nature? It's an aesthetic that goes along with Manjiro's view of the world: to be a harmonious part of a nature rather than be against nature. Natural imagery allows for a closer link between the detached, technological human intellect and the wider, natural world and, by scattering it throughout the pages, we are constantly kept close to Manjiro's relationship with the world around him. For more on this, be sure to check out his analysis over in the "Character" section.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Limited Omniscient)

    We may be reading the book from the position of some outside observer, but this third person narrator is definitely in Manjiro's head and looking at things through Manjiro's eyes, which is why we're calling this narrator limited omniscient.

    Take this small passage from the scene in which Manjiro has his first private talk with Captain Whitfield:

    Manjiro stared at the captain. He had never imagined that a barbarian could appreciate poetry. Or play music. Or express kindness. (2.6.46)

    Okay, so any old third person narrator could tell us that Manjiro stares at Captain Whitfield—no special brain access required. But when the word barbarian is busted out, we're clearly glimpsing inside Manjiro's perspective—that's a word he used for white Americans, and the prejudices he holds about what a "barbarian" is capable of come through, too. Our narrator, then, has seamlessly stepped into Manjiro's vantage point, relaying the scene to us and rooting it in Manjiro's experience.

  • Plot Analysis


    Lost At Sea

    A small group of young Japanese fishermen get stranded at sea and then make their way to a deserted island, where they stay for a while. Their food and water are running out and they don't know what to do. Sounds like a pretty bad situation right? That is, until Manjiro—our main dude—spots a ship near the coast of the island and swims out to the ship for help.

    Rising Action

    The Land of the "Barbarians"

    This part covers a good bit of the book only because there are so many conflicts. First, there's the fact that the rescue ship that picks the boys up is manned by "barbarians"—a.k.a. mostly white Americans. For a closed-off people like the Japanese, it's like meeting the devil. And since Manjiro and the gang have been stranded, the stakes are about as high as they get when they first encounter this American crew.

    Adding to the rising tension is Manjiro's ability and desire to learn from these "barbarian" guys, especially Captain Whitfield. This puts him at odds with his pals, who just want to head back to Japan and have nothing to do with the good captain and his crew.


    Manjiro makes a couple of key decisions throughout the book, so it's like the book has more than one climax.

    Going to America

    The first climax is all about Manjiro's decision to go to America with Captain Whitfield. Once he decides to leave all that is familiar to him, you just know nothing can possibly be the same.

    And it definitely isn't. Manjiro basically becomes landed gentry in Connecticut: He works the farm, goes to school (a first for him), learns to ride his own horse, and falls for his first girl. He basically becomes a typical American teenage boy—only Japanese.

    Heading Home

    But all of this rises to another climax when Manjiro decides its time for him to head home. The captain's at sea; Manjiro doesn't like his apprenticeship as a cooper; the girl he likes is someone he just doesn't think he can actually get. So why stay? Why not head home? The only trouble is, he's lived in America for so long at this point that returning home definitely won't be easy either… nor will he be the same once he gets back to Japan.

    Falling Action

    Delays, Delays, Delays…

    Okay, this section is all about delay. Manjiro's made his choice to go home, but home is still a long way—both in distance and in time—away. He gets on a whaling ship but doesn't quite make it to Japan; goes back to Connecticut briefly; heads to California to pan for gold; finds said gold; and funds his and his friends' trip back to Japan.

    But once he's finally in Japan, Manjiro's thrown in jail because people think he's a spy. See what we mean? Resolution: It's so close, and yet so far away.


    Dreams Come True?

    There are kind of two endings to the book. The first one is the actual resolution, but, well, it doesn't totally resolve things. Instead, a guy comes for Manjiro on the order of the daimyo. He doesn't know why, though, and so the story proper ends with Manjiro uncertain about whether he's about to be sent back to jail or honored by being recognizes as a samurai. Manjiro remains calm, though, which lets us know that no matter what happens, he's going to be okay with it.

    Then, in the Epilogue, we get the true resolution for Manjiro, which is that—yep—he becomes a samurai. It's a pretty landmark decision for the daimyo, considering Manjiro's the first Japanese to ever go from poor fisherman to super-high-class samurai. It takes a long time, but Manjiro majorly makes it.