Study Guide

Heart of a Samurai Tradition and Customs

By Margi Preus

Tradition and Customs

"Even if we should get home, you know very well you can't be. You weren't born into a samurai family. You were born a fisherman's son and you will be a fisherman, and any sons you have, they also will be fishermen. That is the way it is; that is the way it has always been; that is the way it will always be." (1.2.33)

Some things never change. Like being a Japanese fisherman in the late 19th century. Good thing Manjiro isn't so stuck on tradition like his friend Goemon here—otherwise, we wouldn't have a story to read.

Before Manjiro's father had died, he had taught Manjiro about Bushido, the samurai code of honor. "I wouldn't be that kind of samurai," Manjiro said. "I'd 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." (1.2.36)

Manjiro's interesting because he's faithful to his father and the whole tradition of the samurai—kind of. The fact that he "wouldn't be that kind of samurai," the samurai his father told him about, means that he's willing to go his own way. But "his own way" still isn't exactly his own way—it's just an even more traditional form of samurai he says he wants to be. It's like the only way he can feel okay about deviating is if he goes one up on his father and becomes even more traditional.

Each of them was also given a metal stick, with four prongs on one end.

"Fork," the sailor said—and showed them they should use it to eat the rice. The fishermen recited their prayer before eating.

"Itadakimasu—I will humbly receive." (2.3.50-52)

Even eating is something completely specific to a culture, right down to the utensils used. But the prayer before eating seems to be a shared custom in this case. It may be in a different language and from a different faith, but the sentiment seems pretty universal.

"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)

It's hard not to do an inner cheer for Captain Whitfield. Yeah, Manjiro has different cultural customs—like bowing—which should be respected, but Preus makes Manjiro's buddies so restrictive and uptight about his inquisitive mind that Captain Whitfield comes off like a hero just because he allows Manjiro to express himself.

Manjiro told the captain how two gods, Izanami and Izanagi, had created an island—his home—out of sweet-smelling mist and fog. Something like that was happening with their friendship, he thought. It was like a tranquil island in a stormy sea. (2.8.42)

Izanami, a goddess, and Izanagi, a god, wanted to mate, which was how they ended up creating an island. So… if we're supposed to take Manjiro at his word that "Something like that was happening with their friendship," what does Manjiro mean exactly? Does he view himself and the captain like Izanami and Izanagi? Are they together supposed to create some kind of new home from their bond? Something to think about…

Captain Whitfield pointed to the small island where the fishermen had been found, and then to another group of islands that lay to the northwest of that island. "Your home," he said.

"No!" The fishermen shook their heads.

"Our country is much, much bigger than that!" Denzo said.

Captain Whitfield smiled. "Perhaps since your country does not allow anyone in or out, they do not know the true size or shape of the world—even of their own country."

Manjiro did not translate that for the others, fearing it might anger them. (2.9.15-19)

Captain Whitfield may have a point: The Japanese maybe don't have the best perspective on their string of islands. But does he have to be so patronizing about it? He doesn't exactly come off as respectful here.

It was true the Americans were somewhat uncivilized. They were loud and dirty and let their hair grow in unruly knots and tangles. They swore and cussed and spat. They often ate with their hands, and rather like animals. They didn't smell too good! And their whaling practice was a very bloody business indeed.

But they knew a lot of things about which Manjiro knew nothing, and the thing they knew the most was the thing he knew the least: the size and shape and scope of the world. How could you not want to understand the world in which you lived? (2.9.24-25)

This passage comes right after the Captain shows the Japanese guys their country on the map and basically disses them in English. Manjiro's response in the first paragraph above is kind of similarly condescending, except that it's in his head. But the second paragraph shows how appealing it is to Manjiro to bridge that divide between the Japanese and the Americans because, to him, "contrasting regions" isn't so important as knowing his larger context: the world.

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)

Westerners don't come off so good here. Manjiro is giving an underbelly view of Western "influence" on Hawai'i—and he frames it all in terms of a colonial power taking away a native cultural custom.

The next day was May Day. The custom was to fill a little basket with flowers along with a handwritten note, then drop it at the door of a girl whom you liked. Upon hearing your knock at the door, she was supposed to chase and catch you and—most unbelievably—kiss you! (3.24.1)

Okay, so we definitely don't celebrate May Day like this anymore. Do we have any contemporary customs that are as sweet as this?

Back on board the Franklin, his hands shook as he tied on his old tunic—once rough and stiff, now worn so thin you could practically see through it. He tied his cloth belt around his middle and grabbed his ragged tenugui—his headband. (4.27.34)

Manjiro is donning traditional Japanese garb he had when he left Japan because he wants to make sure that the Japanese men on the boat he sees will recognize him as Japanese. His hope? Traditional fashion will overcome the Japanese fear of strangers (even Japanese strangers). Too bad his clothes don't have as much symbolic weight as he would like them to have…