Study Guide

Heart of a Samurai Identity

By Margi Preus

Identity

How does a snail move when it has no feet? he wondered. And where was the tiny creature going with such purpose? Manjiro watched it, losing himself in its slow, graceful movement. (1.2.16)

Manjiro isn't the kind of guy who wants to be the main guy. He's this guy—the one who's really into nature and daydreaming. All of which makes him even more likable as our main guy.

"I've been thinking, though," Manjiro said. "Maybe there's another way." (1.2.25)

This is Manjiro in a nutshell: He's always thinking of a creative alternative, which is why "maybe there's another way" gets repeated a bit throughout the book.

"My face!" Manjiro whispered. The shadow of Manjiro's face must have seemed like an island of shade in the bright sea. The snail and I, Manjiro thought, are alike. I trace out the length and breadth of this island every day, pacing around and around its face. Like the snail, I have no idea of all that lies beyond. (1.2.87)

Manjiro's watching a snail make its slimy trail on the ground. His big revelation is that the snail's trail is in the shape of Manjiro's face because of the shadow his face is casting. But instead of going super-narcissistic (Oh! Nature reflects me!), Manjiro identifies with the snail and what the snail is doing: figuring out the borders of what he knows.

"Henceforth," the captain said, "I want ye to call this boy by his new whaling name: John Mung."

"Hear, hear!" the men cheered. (2.4.93-94)

We don't get to find out that John Mung, the artist of all the illustrations throughout the book, is actually Manjiro until this moment in Chapter 4. Why don't the illustrations at the beginning of the book make it more clear that John Mung = Manjiro? Why reveal the John Mung's identity well after we've seen John Mung's illustrations?

John Mung! So they would really call him that? Now he had not just one, but two new names—two names like a samurai would have. But barbarian names. Manjiro shuddered a little. (2.5.7)

This is the moment in the book when we get the sense that Manjiro has a split (or double) identity, in the sense that he has two parts to his cultural identity and they don't totally mesh just yet. So for this reason, it makes sense that he has an American name for his growing American self and a Japanese name for his Japanese self. Kind of like Beyonce and her alter-ego Sasha Fierce, only Manjiro doesn't name his alter-ego, the Captain does.

"Captain Whitfield says this, Captain Whitfield says that. You listen to everything he says. He makes you think wrong thoughts. You listen to the foreigners; you believe them. You're like them," Goemon cried, his voice breaking. "I don't know you anymore!" (2.8.39)

Why is it that Goemon's so much more upset about not "know[ing]" Manjiro "anymore" than Manjiro? How is a changing identity different from the perspectives of the self and of a friend?

"Look how that woman walks with her arm on that man's arm. Don't they know that they shouldn't touch in public—that's just wrong! And, besides, women should always walk behind men."

"Why should women walk behind men?" (2.10.23-24)

That's our Manjiro, defending a woman's right to walk wherever she wants, even if it's even with or ahead of a man. He's a budding feminist, that guy. Question: Did he always think these radical thoughts or is this all from the influence of the captain and the other sailors?

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)

Manjiro's a romantic. To Goemon, this whole vision of "the light from another world, spilling through a slightly open store" isn't all that—it's just a typical sunrise—but Manjiro is a dreamer and a visionary. He sees sunrise and thinks opportunity; he thinks America.

Manjiro hung his head. "Please excuse. I should be punished. I… I dropped it… into the sea."

The captain remained silent, puffing on his pipe. And everything rushed out of Manjiro—the story as best he could tell it: the attack by Jolly and the gang of thieves, the theft, and the fight. "I don't think you can believe," he finished. "Now it is my fault for Jolly not being here. I am sorry you lose your best harpooner and get me, only a greenhand." (2.14.11-12)

Manjiro's a stand-up guy. In fact, this sense of self is so important to him that he's willing to risk the captain's affections just so he can be true to his principles. And on top of that, he's totally humble. These qualities don't change for the rest of the novel—they're the bedrock of his identity.

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)

Ding, ding, ding… This is one of those major moments in the novel. How can we tell? It features the title of the novel in a sentence. Anytime a book does that, you just know the passage has to be significant.

In this case, Manjiro's back at home in Japan. He doesn't know yet whether he's going to be locked up in jail because he's spent time on foreign land or if he's going to be rewarded for all his knowledge of the West. He's just who he is—the same guy as at the beginning of the book, a person with faith in his own simple, good-hearted identity. And that is what gives him (and us) hope for his fate.