Heart of a Samurai and Japanese Culture

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Assimilating from one culture to another can be very difficult when you are not sure about the customs or traditions of the other culture, this can be especially difficult when you are only a young child and have to unexpectedly grow up in a different culture from your own. Migrating from Japan to The Western World, Manjiro is put in a unique position which puts him in contrast between his old life and his new one. In Heart of a Samurai, author Margi Preus shows culture assimilation by demonstrating Manjiro’s transition of assimilating from Japanese culture into American culture as he grows into adulthood.

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Upon his arrival to the United States, breaking that cultural barrier was very difficult for Manjiro. He was accustomed to many things that would be seen as abnormal in the United States. We are first introduced to the customs of his culture when Manjiro and the other fishermen are out at sea and the men become frustrated with Manjiro for asking too many questions. We see this when Toraemon tells Manjiro to be quiet and that he is a nuisance. Preus tells the reader that while Manjiro is asking all of his questions, he “[forgets] to apologize for his intrusion as he had been taught” (Preus, 2012, p. 2). This tells the reader that Manjiro was raised to not question his elders. 

Another example where we see that Manjiro must show respect to his elders is when the men are all telling each other what they were hoping to accomplish once they returned home and when they are all finished sharing, “Manjiro, at age fourteen the youngest and so the last to speak, said, ‘I had hoped to become a samurai” (Preus, 2012, p. 5). Here we can see that Manjiro and his friends are accustomed to the conversational etiquette that not only should adolescents respect their elders by not asking too many questions, but they should also be the last ones to speak in a discussion.

When the group of fishermen become stranded on an island after a bad storm that destroyed their ship, Captain Whitfield and his crew of American fishermen come to their rescue. Manjiro and his friends are all terrified of the strange men, having lived their lives calling men like them barbarians. Soon enough, Manjiro realizes that all of these men are not as bad as he was told they would be. He is specifically drawn to captain Whitfield, who also takes an interest in Manjiro. Captain Whitfield quickly explains to Manjiro that certain things that Manjiro grew up knowing as the norm in his society, were not something that was done in American culture. 

For example, when Manjiro’s curiosity overwhelms him and he begins to ask the captain questions, Manjiro feels as though he is being a nuisance again. The captain reassures him that is not the case when he tells Manjiro, “Stop apologizing for asking questions! How are you going to learn if you don’t ask things? Ask all the questions you like whenever you like to whoever you like” (Preus, 2012, p. 40). When Manjiro is about to bow showing his understanding, the captain stops him and tells Manjiro that “it is good to be respectful, but it would be well if you would stop all that incessant bowing!” (Preus, 2012, p.40).

When Manjiro decides to come to the United States with his new American father figure, Captain Whitfield, Manjiro experiences a bit of a culture shock seeing all of the movement and different people than what he is used to living back in Japan. “Manjiro had thought the port of Honolulu was a busy, crowded place, full of curious sights, but it was nothing but a couple of dusty streets compared to New Bedford” (Preus, 2012, p. 120). Manjiro is amazed seeing all of the “women [swishing] by, with skirts so full they could have hidden a giant sea turtle under them. 

The men’s long-tailed coats made them look like elegant birds…Manjiro was thrilled. It was a beautiful place, was a land filled with wonders!” (Preus, 2012, 121). Manjiro is immediately drawn into the exciting and new environment in which he will grow up in. He was even more excited when he and his new American family built a farm and “Manjiro had a room to himself, with land to roam and farm animals to tend, a stream to fish, and—just like a real samurai—a horse to ride. Like a character in a fairy tale, Manjiro found himself transformed from a poor fisherman into a prince” (Preus, 2012, 129).

Manjiro also is taken aback by the way that time is measured in America. He is accustomed to hearing the temple bell ring to signify the time of day and a day only consisting of twelve hours, and each hour is called a different animal name. Captain Whitfield explains to Manjiro the way that time works in the United States. Manjiro writes about other things that are strange to him that are done in America in a letter that he writes to his mother. He mentions that “’people greet each other by extending their right hands. They like to sing and often do this when walking down roads. They make a wonderful food out of flour and salt and eggs and water. It is called ‘bread.’ Ordinary people can become as wealthy as emperors. In this land, everyone has two names, instead of just one like common people do at home’” (Preus, 2012, p. 135-136). 

These are all things that Manjiro was not used to experiencing back in his homeland. These are things that he had to assimilate into now that he was living in the United States. Preus also mentions that “he didn’t know how to read and write even his own language. Now he was going to learn to read and write in English, and to do that, he would have to attend class with the little children.” In order to learn the English language, Manjiro had to start at a lower level with children younger than him at sixteen years old. When he was at a place where he could be with kids his age, Manjiro was faced with yet another culture difference when he was demonstrating a magic trick that he learned from his old friend from Captain Whitman’s ship. 

When Manjiro was trying to make it seem like he was pulling a coin out of a girl’s ear, “he stopped, his arm suspended in mid-air. What if he accidentally touched her! Something like this could never happen in japan, he suddenly thought—for a man and woman to be so familiar in public! But he was not in japan, he reminded himself—he was in America now, where men and women walked arm in arm on the street” (Preus, 2012, p. 150). Manjiro realized that some things which are not permitted in Japan are seen as completely normal in the United States.

Manjiro begins to think about how his life in Japan and his life in America are so different from each other. He recognizes that “he would never live so privileged a life again, he didn’t suppose. Not in Japan” (Preus, 2012, p. 194). When he was older and finally returned to Japan, he would see “mighty daimyos with their long processions [passing] by, the commoners dropped to their knees, heedless of dirt or mud, and pressed their foreheads to the ground. Manjiro often had the urge to ignore this custom…” (Preus, 2012, p. 267). After being in the United States for such a large part of his life, Manjiro became adapted to not bowing and doing other things that people of his culture would normally do. He quickly realized, however, that he was in Japan again and therefore had to continue to respect his Japanese culture, just as he did with American culture.

Manjiro must unexpectedly assimilate into American culture from Japanese culture when he decides to come to America. He had no idea what to expect, but as time went on and he grew older he understood American culture and how it differed from his own. This understanding of the two different cultures, traditions, and people allowed Manjiro to not only become wiser, but also eventually become a well-respected samurai and educator, among other things. He was able to open up the minds of the people of Japan as well as the people of the United States to not view each other as “barbarians,” but rather to respect and learn from each other’s differences.

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