Study Guide

Heart of a Samurai Contrasting Regions

By Margi Preus

Contrasting Regions

In Japan there was an artist named Hiroshige who made beautiful pictures of everyday scenes. Manjiro had seen some of these prints: two men seeking shelter from rain that fell in cold, slanting streaks; three travelers lighting their pipes by a fire so real it seemed to glow; several geishas in such find kimonos, you could almost hear the silk rustling.

Forever afterward, when Manjiro thought of what happened that day, he would remember it in sudden, vivid scenes like Hiroshige's prints. And yet unlike those pictures, because nowhere in any of them were there scenes as strange as these:

Twelve shoes, Manjiro counted, as he sat on the bottom of the boat. Stiff-looking things, brown as the skin of hairless dogs. Shiny and smooth, as if made of animal hide.

[…]

Eleven eyes. When at last he dared to look up, what he noticed was their eyes. Each pair a different color: green as a stormy sea, blue as the sky, black as night, or brown as his own. One man had only one eye, and that one as gray as a cloudy day. The other eye was covered with a patch….

Six big noses, in fact: one long and hooked, two long and straight, one squashed and wide, one turned up at the end, and another as big and red as a radish. (2.3.1-6)

Here's what's interesting about this passage: The artwork shows "beautiful pictures of everyday scenes," but Manjiro's experience of being rescued is anything but everyday. In fact, even though he says that his experience reminds him of the artwork, we're not entirely sure why—the contrast between the two types of scenes is so striking. Perhaps Manjiro wants similarities to exist between the Japanese and the Americans, but he just can't help focusing on the differences.

It was so real, it was almost as if it were happening. In the memory, he was at home. Rain tapped lightly on the roof. It must have been a special day because he could smell the sweet perfume of cooking rice. Why, he wondered, did rice have no smell when it was raw, but smelled so heavenly when it was cooking?

He was brought back to the present moment when a bowl of steaming rice was set before him. A real bowl. Of real rice. It had not been a dream. The wonderful, unexpected smell of rice cooking had fanned the embers of memory. (2.3.48-49)

Ah rice, the universal carb—even places as different as Japan and America see the beauty in a steaming bowl of rice.

They found themselves seated on benches before a table, with their legs swinging under them.
"You see," Goemon whispered to Manjiro, "the torture has begun."

It wasn't torture, exactly, but it wasn't very comfortable, either.

"Look at your legs hanging there," Goemon said.

"It is a strange way to sit!" Manjiro agreed. (2.3.40-44)

A good reminder that even something as simple as sitting can be totally different depending on the country you're in…

"Stop apologizing for asking questions!" the captain said. "How are you going to learn if you don't ask things? Ask all the questions you like whenever you like to whomever you like." The captain tipped Manjiro's chin up and looked him in the eye. "Do you understand?"

Manjiro began to bow, but the captain put his hand on his shoulder.

"One other thing," he said. "It is good to be respectful, but it would be well if you would stop that incessant bowing!" (2.4.27-29)

Here's another major contrast between the Japanese and the American captain: The Captain wants Manjiro to "look him in the eye, " he wants Manjiro to be comfortable with him even though he has more authority than Manjiro. It doesn't seem to occur to the Captain, though, that perhaps Manjiro's bowing is worth honoring as its own cultural practice.

Denzo shook his head. "If you doubted they were barbarians, this"—he gestured to the roiling black smoke, the blood and grease on the deck, the sharks seething in the water around the ship— "this should convince you."

"Our countrymen kill whales, too," Manjiro said.

"Yes," Denzo said. "But not like this. You know how they do it—at home, whole villages work together to capture a whale in a net to drown it. Then they tow the creature to shore, butcher it, and distribute the meat to many people. They use all the parts — all the meat, all the bones, everything. But this—this is barbaric. Look at this waste!" Denzo nodded toward the men who shoved the carcass away from the ship, with most of the meat still intact. The sharks attacked it with such frenzy that the water seemed to boil around it. (2.5.25-27)

From Denzo's perspective, the Japanese way of killing a whale is not just more humane, it's more communal. People gather together to capture the whale, and they share in the spoils. He's also describing a practice that might only work for a small community or village that doesn't engage in global trade.

"The day," he said, "is divided into two pieces: sunrise to sunset and sunset to sunrise. Those are divided into six smaller pieces, like 'hours,' but instead of twenty-four, we have twelve. Each 'hour' has the name of an animal: tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, monkey, rooster. Now, I think, is the hour of the dog."

"That is interesting," Captain Whitfield said, "because we call this two-hour period of time the 'dog watch.'" He nodded to the sky, where the first stars were appearing. "Maybe we call it that because of that star." He pointed to a brilliant star and said, "That's Sirius, the dog star. Do you call it that?"

"No," said Manjiro. "We call it Aoboshi, blue star."

"Tis blue, indeed," Captain Whitfield said, filling his pipe once more. (2.10.25-28)

Here's what's happening: Captain Whitfield's trying to make a connection with Manjiro (not hard to do since they completely get along), so he's searching for common ground, like wondering if "hour of the dog" in Japanese comes from the English "dog star." The fact that there isn't a connection between the two things except mere coincidence shows that sometimes differences just need to be accepted, without explanation.

And that's pretty much what Captain Whitfield does. He doesn't press on, trying to find similarities where there aren't any; he just ends up being agreeable, noting that the "blue star" is indeed blue.

Through the trees and far down the beach, Manjiro could hear the native people singing. Mele and hula, their music and dancing was called. They weren't supposed to do it; the missionaries said it was wrong. Manjiro thought the music was lovely; it had a motion like the sea—it rolled over you and through you like water. Western missionaries had come to Japan, too, a couple of hundred years earlier, and they were one reason Japan had closed its doors to foreigners. Seeing how the native islanders here were expected to change almost everything about their lives for the missionaries, Manjiro could understand why Japan had expelled them. (2.10.9)

Ah finally—some context to Japan's isolationism. It's easy to knock Japan for closing its borders to outsiders, but Manjiro gives a good reason for Japan's isolationist approach. And he does so by seeing an almost-parallel situation in Hawai'i: colonialism suppressing the native Hawai'ian culture. Who knows what Japan would have become if it hadn't closed its borders for a period of time?

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?"

"No," Goemon said. "It looks like the sun is about to rise."

"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)

Manjiro's only in Hawai'i (not even a U.S. state) and he's already seeing things differently. Or he's expressing his different perspective more willingly, anyway. All in preparation for his next destination: America.

He felt as if had flown over oceans and traveled through veils of fog and mist to arrive in a magical land of enchantment.

Tidy houses glittered up the hillside, punctuated by tall spires—tall as ships' masts.

People swarmed down the hills and through the streets. Boys skipped along, pushing hoops ahead of them with sticks. Women spun their parasols and lifted their skirts to avoid puddles. Some of them called out the names of loved ones—husbands, sons, fathers, brothers—who'd been away for years. (3.15.13-15)

Manjiro doesn't make an explicit comparison to Japan here, but we get the sense that Japan in the 19th century was anything but active and busy, like this port in New Bedford. Something's certainly different between here and there since he's so captivated.

Americans and the Japanese, when you boiled it down, were more alike than they would ever admit. They both thought they were better than other people—and each thought they were better than the other! (3.24.27)

Straight from the guy who would know best: Is there really all that much a difference between America and Japan? Sure they're totally different geographically, but Manjiro points out a key similarity: a patriotism bordering on jingoism. The people of both countries can be narrow-minded. But we might also wonder if Manjiro's just being a little too negative. What about all the friends he's made in America? And what about Manjiro himself? Doesn't he also prove that Japanese can be humble and open?