Study Guide

Heart of a Samurai Themes

By Margi Preus

  • Family

    Family is what you make of it in Heart of a Samurai. There's blood family, yes, but then there are also all the people Manjiro meets along the way as he travels from Japan to America and back again. Plenty of them become family, too, particularly Captain Whitfield and his wife and child. So though Manjiro longs to return to Japan—and ultimately does—this winds up seeming less like choosing between families in some ways, as embracing an expanded idea of family.

    Questions About Family

    1. Which is Manjiro more loyal to: his Japanese family or his American family?
    2. What's the connection between food and family for Manjiro?
    3. What makes a family a family?
    4. How does guilt figure into Manjiro's relationship to the people he loves?

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, family boils down to blood no matter how much Manjiro loves other people.

    Family isn't all about blood for Manjiro; it's about common interests and time spent together.

  • Language and Communication

    You might think that a book about a Japanese teenager living in America might be all about miscommunications—and sure, there's some of that in Heart of a Samurai—but what's surprising is how much understanding can still occur between people of different cultures with different primary languages. In fact, the book is more about the upsides of learning a new language and culture than the downsides. Which makes sense, since Manjiro is Mr. Optimistic, as well as super tuned in to those around him.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Is the novel too optimistic about Manjiro's experience learning English or does it get the process right?
    2. Do corrections from native speakers help or hinder Manjiro's ability to learn and communicate?
    3. Why do the white characters not learn Japanese?
    4. How do stereotypes affect the Japanese characters' ability to learn English?

    Chew on This

    This novel shows a bias and favors English over Japanese.

    If you're an immigrant to America, learning English is more important than keeping up with your native language.

  • Principles

    Principles are the bedrock of all the good characters in Heart of a Samurai. Captain Whitfield and his wife never waiver in their belief in equality for all people, and Manjiro never loses track of his ability to find the humanity in even the trickiest characters he comes across. More to the point, principles are what keep Manjiro a stable good guy in the midst of a lot of major changes, which means he doesn't just take center stage in this story, he earns it.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What principles do Manjiro and Captain Whitfield share? What principles are different?
    2. How do Manjiro's principles differ from his Japanese friends?
    3. How do Manjiro's principles relate to his ability to adapt to change?
    4. Are the principles in the book more Japanese, more American, or some hybrid of both?

    Chew on This

    It's Manjiro's Japanese principles that keep him strong through all the changes he goes through.

    There's no such thing as Japanese principles and American principles; principles are universal.

  • Art and Culture

    For this book, it might not be a bad idea to substitute nature for culture. This is because art and aesthetic pleasure in Heart of a Samurai come from a deep appreciation and bond with nature and its rhythms. But it's not like the characters are a bunch of grungy tree-huggers. Instead, the book offers up a stereotypical view of Japanese aesthetics: an observation of and appreciation for fine, natural details. To this end, the things that are beautiful and cultured in this book tend to be small and/or subtle.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Why is there such a focus on beauty in Manjiro's everyday scenery?
    2. Does culture come from nature or can you have culture without nature?
    3. What is the relationship between money and culture? Money and art?
    4. Who is considered cultured in this book and why?

    Chew on This

    Good artists need to have a fine-tuned relationship with nature.

    This book argues that the Japanese approach to daily life and culture is way more beautiful than the American approach to daily life.

  • Identity

    Identity is usually something that's in flux in coming-of-age novels, but in Heart of a Samurai, the protagonist's core identity is actually pretty constant. Identity for Manjiro is closely linked to his strong principles, so it's something that he uses to help him ride out all the worldly changes he goes through. There's still a little bit of a split or double identity since Manjiro has to straddle Japanese and American culture, but he isn't as conflicted as other immigrant characters might be, perhaps because his ultimate goal is still to go back to Japan and be Japanese—just with an American twist.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does nationalism affect Manjiro's identity?
    2. What principles guide Manjiro to form his identity?
    3. Does Manjiro's identity change significantly from beginning to end?
    4. How does America influence Manjiro's sense of self?

    Chew on This

    Everyone has multiple identities; there's no such thing as one, stable identity.

    An identity doesn't have to constantly change for a teenager; it is possible to have one stable identity.

  • Change

    Heart of a Samurai may be all about how a young Japanese guy changes the fate of Japan (and America) in the 19th century, but the book also shows how huge transformations (in society and in the protagonist's life) can only come from a constant, principled, stable character. Our protagonist may have a totally dramatic life-story, but he's about the least dramatic main character you can imagine. Which is important because he's like a rock in the middle of a bunch of major social changes.

    Questions About Change

    1. How does Manjiro change and stay the same as a character?
    2. How does Manjiro's character compare to all the events that go on in the novel?
    3. How does technology introduce change into both America and Japan in the 19th century?
    4. Is change a good thing in the book or is it instead simply inevitable?

    Chew on This

    Manjiro doesn't actually impact Japanese society in the 19th century all that much; the Americans have a greater impact than he does.

    Technology is really what changes everything in the novel.

  • Society and Class

    In Heart of a Samurai, everything is about class. Even though Japan and America are totally different, the one thing they share is a hierarchical society (even if America is supposed to be class-less). But our main man Manjiro isn't exactly a revolutionary, bent on making everything more equal, so through his young eyes, we see how people come from and stay in different classes. But we also see how societies, even closed ones like Japan in the 19th century, can slowly change and become more open to movement between classes.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How is America's way of dealing with class different from and similar to Japan's class structure?
    2. How does Manjiro's own position as a poor fisherman's son affect the way he deals with class?
    3. What prompts Japan to change its approach to class by the end of the book?
    4. Is it possible to have a classless society?

    Chew on This

    America in the 19th century was way more fluid and open in terms of class structure than Japan during the same time period.

    America in the 19th century may seem to have less class issues than Japan, but the two countries' class systems are far more alike than different.

  • Tradition and Customs

    Heart of a Samurai is all about comparing the 19th-century traditions and customs of Japan to those of America. But there's a larger question that underlies all these comparisons: Is there any kind of connection or bond that can be made between two countries that seem to have such different cultural traditions? Are their ways of life that different? When we dig deeper than the superficial differences, we find that there's perhaps more in common between these two places and cultures than most characters in the book would like to believe.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. How does technology affect traditional culture in both Japan and America?
    2. How does bushido, the code of the samurai, influence Manjiro's take on life?
    3. Does tradition hold a society back or can it help move it forward?
    4. What is the relationship, if any, between Japan's isolationism and its traditions?

    Chew on This

    Japanese traditions and customs are great and all, but they totally hold back the advancement of the country.

    It is an American tradition and custom to believe that the country is on the forefronts of progress.

  • Foreignness and the Other

    There's definitely a lot of "othering" in Heart of a Samurai, and not just from the white characters. Being anti-foreigner is a thing that both the Japanese characters and the American characters alike are guilty of. Those who are successful in the book—like our main guy Manjiro and his surrogate dad Captain Whitfield—tend to be the ones who embrace foreignness rather than turn away from it. Those who are the most closed minded, well, their futures look a lot dimmer.

    Questions About Foreignness and the Other

    1. What is the relationship between national politics and personal attitudes toward foreigners?
    2. What does "barbaric" mean to the Japanese and to the Americans?
    3. Whose anti-foreigner attitude is worse: the Japanese or American characters?
    4. Does the book show alternative ways to treat foreigners that don't include treating them like they're the "other"?

    Chew on This

    Treating a foreigner as an outsider is a failure to recognize that we are all human.

    It is possible to accept and welcome foreigners in a way that doesn't make them feel foreign, but to do so, you must acknowledge your differences.

  • Contrasting Regions

    How different can Japan and America be from each other in the 19th century? Good question. And this is a big part of what Heart of a Samurai explores. From geography to people to culture, the novel takes on the idea that the two countries are total opposites—one insular (Japan), the other open (America)—and challenges both notions. Sure they may seem different at first, but neither country is quite what it seems or claims to be once we explore a little further.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. What's the relationship between geography and political mindset for both countries?
    2. How does John Mung's (a.k.a. Manjiro's) artwork show off each country's geographical and architectural qualities?
    3. Why is life at sea appealing to Manjiro?
    4. How do the politics of both countries affect the way the characters deal with foreigners?

    Chew on This

    Japan's isolationism comes from its small, island geography; America's openness comes from its massive amount of space and land.

    The two countries may be completely different geographically, but Japan and America are more alike toward foreigners than not.