Heart of a Samurai

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
Heart of a Samurai Book Poster Image
Fish-out-of-water adventure swimming with historical detail.

Parents say

age 9+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 11+
Based on 3 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

This well-researched story is a great primer on a specific time and place in history, giving a sense of the United States and Japan in the larger world. It paints a vivid portrait of the whaling industry, as well as life in early 19th-century America. A glossary, historical notes, and suggested reading further enrich the book.

Positive Messages

This book teaches that even a humble fisherman can help change the world. Curiosity, aspiration, and an open mind lead Manjiro to speak up, to engage with his rescuers, and to explore a new land. Racism and discrimination are shown to be the refuge of the ignorant.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Manjiro embodies both traditional Japanese values (such as a group work ethic and respect for authority) and touted American ones (ambition, self-reliance, individualism). He’s a wide-eyed traveler, eager to soak up all he can. Captain Whitfield is an idealized authority figure, fair and noble.

Violence

Drunken sailors gang up on two of the Japanese fishermen, threatening them with a knife and trying to rob them. Manjiro deeply fears a shipmate will try to harm him and takes to hiding to ensure his safety. Some of the descriptions of the whale hunt and processing can be intense. A schoolyard bully harasses Manjiro and later takes a beating from his own father.

Sex
Language

No curse words, but there are a few ethnic slurs, appropriate to the story, including "slant-eyes" and "butter stinkers."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Sailors become drunk and threatening while on shore.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this Newbery Honor book is based on fact and dense with historical interest, delving into Japanese isolationism, the whaling industry, and prejudice and racism in both the U.S. and Japan in the early 1800s. The author is fair and balanced in her portrayal of brutal whaling practices as well as often-clashing cultural values in Japan and the U.S. Examples of violence and racial prejudice are minimal, and always in service to the story.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent Written bymasemomof2 December 17, 2012

MUST read!

it is a fantastic book, based on a true story. great role model who overcomes barriers of prejudice, language and social status. there is a little violence as s... Continue reading
Kid, 10 years old February 18, 2016

Great adventure!

I liked this book because it was interesting and exciting. You will learn about the whaling life, American history, and Japanese culture. I liked the way the au... Continue reading
Kid, 10 years old February 18, 2016
I liked this book because it was exciting and educational . I learned about many different cultures and the whaling industry . Also the author painted a pictur... Continue reading

What's the story?

Stranded on a barren island after their ship sank in 1841, five Japanese fishermen find themselves rescued by an American whaling ship. Manjiro, 14, and his crewmates thought non-Japanese were barbarians and monsters, but Manjiro gives himself over to the adventure. Unable to return to Japan, he learns English and the ways of the Western crew, and settles briefly in New England as the captain’s adopted son. Manjiro – believed to be the first from the closed country of Japan to visit America – enters school, confronts racism, and eventually heads west in search of gold to finance an attempt to return to Japan. Through it all, the boy who thought his fantasy of becoming a samurai was beyond reach proves himself worthy of the honor.

Is it any good?

Based on the true story of Manjiro’s travels, this story offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of the early 19th century. It touches on American aspirations as a global power as well as Japan’s isolation. The author's descriptions of life on a whaling ship feel particularly authentic, and she ably uses Manjiro’s adventures to touch on economic, cultural, and political themes.

Readers may find thin characters more educational than interesting, and dialogue overstuffed with eager historical notes. Indeed, the characters never quite get off the page, but the broader tale itself is captivating. Like Manjiro, readers will find much to pique their interest, and the author helpfully recommends plenty of extra reading. The book is beautifully presented, with drawings by Manjiro, quotations from Hagakure: Book of the Samurai, and extensive supporting material.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the difference between historical fiction and biography. Why do you think the author chose to write Manjiro's story this way?

  • Manjiro forever lived under a “cloud of suspicion” after his homecoming, the author says. By the novel’s end, he seems restless, fully at home neither in America nor in Japan. How do you think his experience compares to that of immigrants today?

Book details

For kids who love history and historical fiction

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