Heart of a Samurai

23 09 2012

In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy helped open the borders of Japan to the rest of the world.  Before then Japan was a “closed country,” refusing to trade or communicate with any foreign lands.  They were especially concerned with the Western nations of Europe and North America, fearing that the people of those countries were devils out to corrupt them and destroy their society and traditions.

The Newbery Honor book, Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus takes place about fifteen years before Perry’s treaties with Japan that opened the country to the rest of the world.

In the book, Manjiro is a fourteen-year-old boy on a Japanese fishing boat.  Manjiro has always dreamed of growing up to be a samurai, but since he’s from a poor, lower class family, he never will be.   When the boat is destroyed in a storm, Manjiro and the other four fishermen are forced to swim to an unknown island where they attempt to live on sea birds and their eggs.  Eventually they are rescued by an American whaling ship.  Not only will Manjiro never be a samurai, but it doesn’t look like he’ll ever see his homeland again.

The Japanese fishermen are reluctant to speak with the American sailors, because if they ever return home, their countrymen will imprison them, maybe even kill them – fearing that they were corrupted by too much contact with foreigners.  Manjiro realizes this and decides that he will probably never be allowed to return home, so, going against the warnings of the other fishermen, Manjiro begins learning English and how to work on the whaling ship.

The story tells the true story of Manjiro’s life over the next decade or so – his adventures on the whaler, his experiences living in New England, his attempts to find riches in San Francisco during the gold rush, and eventually his return to Japan – where he’s imprisoned as an outsider.  Manjiro may not be a true warrior, but throughout all of his adventures, he proves that he does have the heart of a samurai.

Manjiro’s story isn’t a well-known one, but without his efforts and experiences, Commodore Perry never would have been successful in his efforts to open trade lines with Japan.

Margi Preus tells this exciting adventure with quick chapters filled with illustrations (many drawn by Manjiro himself).  Even though this book was published in 2011, it feels like you’re reading a classic adventure story from 100 years ago – and that’s a good thing.  This one is destined to be a classic.

This school year I’ve challenged my students to read 40 books.  I took that challenge myself.   Heart of a Samurai is book #6 for me.  

In a Grove

2 08 2012

In a Grove is a Japanese mystery story written in 1922 by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.  

It is perhaps the coolest mysteries ever written.  The story is a series of interviews – a police detective getting the story from a series of witnesses to the murder of a samurai in the middle of a bamboo grove.

A local woodcutter begins by telling his account of the murder, based on what he saw as he stumbled across the dead man in the forest.

Next, a priest that saw the samurai earlier in the day traveling with his wife, tells the police what he saw. Some of what he says matches the story of the woodcutter, but there are a few small discrepancies.

The rest of the story gives different accounts of what people saw that day.  We hear from a bounty hunter, an old woman, a criminal, the dead man’s wife, and the dead man’s ghost.  Each story confirms some of what we heard earlier, but contradicts other aspects of the testimonies.

The idea of the story is to make you think about truth and people’s ability to give an objective version of events.  Even though it’s only about 20 pages long, this is one of those stories that really makes you think, and probably one that many people will want to read again and again.

In my quest to read 90 books in 90 days this summer, this was book #48.  

Barefoot Gen

27 06 2012

Every once in a while you read a book that hits you hard, beats you down emotionally, or gives you a metaphorical punch in the gut.  Barefoot Gen is one of those books.

The main character of this moving graphic novel is Gen Nakoaka, but really it’s Keiji Nakazawa, the author of the book.  You see, just like Gen (the character), Nakazawa was in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 – the day the U.S. dropped an atom bomb.   This first volume (out of 10) focuses on the weeks before the bomb, and how Gen’s family is affected by Japan’s war against England and America.  His oldest brother enlists in the army, another brother is sent out of the city to work for the government farms, his father and mother are trying their hardest to keep the family together and properly fed, and his sister and younger brother are slowly starving.

In front of the Peace Bell in the Hiroshima Peace Park, a group of Japanese 6th graders interviewed me to practice their English and ask me about my thoughts on world peace. I said it was a good idea.

The book is a history lesson rolled up into a personal narrative, with funny moments, touching bits, and a whole load of horror.   It was especially moving to me, considering the fact that I bought it in the Hiroshima Peace Museum, just a few hundred yards from the spot where the bomb exploded 67 years ago.

With the brand new book in my backpack, I strolled through Hiroshima, past the A-Bomb dome (one of the few buildings that survived the blast), the Peace Memorial, and groups of young Japanese school kids practicing their English by interviewing American tourists about their wishes for peace in the world.  It was a moving, emotional day.

Minooka TAP students in front of Hiroshima’s A-Bomb Dome.

We can argue all day about whether or not America should have dropped the bomb, but that’s not the point.  It happened and we can’t change it, but we should understand how it impacted regular people.  This book humanizes the tragedy in a similar way that the Maus books, Anne Frank, The Book Thief, and Number the Stars gave faces to the Holocaust victims – Gen becomes a face for the tragedy on the other side of the war – an innocent boy, who endures countless horrors through no fault of his own.

This is the 29th book I’ve read this summer.  I’m shooting for 90 books in 90 days over break, and I’m sure that the next 9 Barefoot Gen books will be among the ones I read this year.  

The Big Wave 5

24 05 2011

To give you an idea of how the Japanese people work... The picture on the left is March 12, 2011 - the day after the earthquake. The picture on the right is just 6 days later.

Pearl S. Buck wrote The Big Wave more than 70 years before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, yet there are so many similarities between what happened in the book and what happened in real life.

Often times “life imitates art,” which means that things often happen in real life just they way they’ve happened in a story, a book, a play, or a movie.  This might be one time when it’s true.

Think about what you know about Japan, as well as what you learned from the story about the Japanese mindset and their attitudes toward life and death.     Have your thoughts on Japan’s recovery from the 2011 tsunami changed since reading The Big Wave?  How?  Predict what you think will happen in the affected areas of Japan over the next year or so.

Be sure to type out your answers in complete sentences.  Be sure to back up your ideas with some examples, evidence, or proof.   Be sure to check back and see what other people say too.  Be sure to comment on what they say.

The Big Wave 4

23 05 2011

In The Big Wave, Jiya is put in a difficult position.  After his village is destroyed and his family killed, a rich old gentleman offers to adopt him.  With Old Gentleman, Jiya would have everything he’d ever need – a beautiful home, riches, the best education… however, when it comes time to decide, Jiya chooses to live with Kino’s poor family – selecting a life of hard work, no money, and wondering if there will be enough food for everyone.

Tell me in your own words why you think Jiya made the right choice.  Also tell me why he may have made the wrong choice.

Be sure to type out your answers in complete sentences.  Be sure to back up your ideas with some examples, evidence, or proof.   Be sure to check back and see what other people say too.  Be sure to comment on what they say.

The Big Wave 3

19 05 2011

In Pearl S. Buck’s novel, The Big Wave, a young Japanese boy named Jiya has just survived a horrible tragedy, but the difficult times have just begun for him.  After losing his whole family and the village he lives in to the tsunami, his body, mind, and heart all have a lot of healing to do.

Make a prediction:  How will Jiya survive and heal from the horrible events of the first part of The Big Wave. 

Be sure to type out your answers in complete sentences.  Be sure to back up your ideas with some examples, evidence, or proof.   Be sure to check back and see what other people say too.  Be sure to comment on what they say.

The Big Wave 2

17 05 2011

In The Big Wave,  we just saw Jiya watch his entire village swept away by a tsunami.  It’s hard to imagine what he felt as he saw everything he knew and loved be destroyed, so spend a little time looking for interviews and stories from survivors of the 2011 Japan tsunami or the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and read their descriptions of the wave, the destruction, the feelings they had, and the aftermath.

Once you’ve read an article, compare what you learned from your research to what you heard in The Big Wave.  Tell us what the sounds, smells, and feelings were in both the novel and the real thing.  Tell us what both tsunami’s looked like.  Be sure to include a link to your article so other students can read your article too.

Be sure to type out your answers in complete sentences.  Be sure to back up your ideas with some examples, evidence, or proof.   Be sure to check back and see what other people say too.  Be sure to comment on what they say.