A woman in one of my book groups gave me a copy of the Samuri’s Garden with a touching inscription: “To my beloved samurai: I love you now and forever. I respect and admire your brave heart.” Needless to say, I’ve been anxious to dive into the book for awhile, to learn about the inspiration for this beautiful sentiment.
The story takes place in Japan during the late 1930s, in a remote sea coast village. Stephen, a young Chinese man stays at his family’s vacation home while recovering from tuberculosis. He struggles to befriend the taciturn Matsu, the housekeeper and master gardener who also inhabits the home. Meanwhile, war breaks out, as Japan invades Stephen’s Chinese homeland. He struggles to interact with local villagers who regard him as the enemy while making unexpected new friends at a local leper colony.
Yes, I said leper colony. And really, that’s what I want to talk about, because it’s the most fascinating element of the book.
When I think of leprosy, I think about biblical times. I think of Jesus healing the lepers (Luke 17:11-19) and Miriam’s seven day leprosy (Numbers 12:10-15). But 20th century Japan? And a leper colony no less?
Gail Tsuiyama has a very fluid prose style. She creates peaceful worlds, rich with flavor and colors. Somehow, she even managed to lend beauty to the horrors of leprosy, which is no minor feat. Seeing leprous people in this way, for the first time, I wonder, is this how Jesus looked on them when he reached across the social, cultural, and religious barriers to touch and heal them?
Since reading the novel, I’ve tried to learn a little more about the disease. I asked Dr. Husband to share some of his medical texts on the topic, but they were incredibly obtuse. But I can now tell you that you can get leprosy from an armadillo. Bet you didn’t know that. I’ve also learned that today, it’s highly treatable. Modern day antibiotics go a long way to curing many plagues of the past. Even so, it seems like it wasn’t very contagious in casual contact, and only people with immune deficiency were most susceptible. Essentially, it makes those leper colonies unnecessary, but perhaps the colonies had a lot to do with the stigma and less with the contagion.
In Jesus’ day, lepers would hide in their colonies and emerge, only to say “unclean, unclean” whenever they would approach people, as a warning for them to stay away. Leviticus 13 details the method for detecting leprosy, and chapter 14 discusses the ritual cleansing if someone has been healed of leprosy. I love that there’s a plan for if God decides to heal someone from an incurable disease (as it was back then).
I’m not the first to create this analogy, but it’s worth noting anyway. It’s the similarities between sin and leprosy, as it was in Jesus’ time especially. It may start out small and barely noticeable, but it spreads and eats away life. Sin corrupts and destroys. Its end is death. It also isolates you from the people you love. It’s an incurable condition (or was back then), but Jesus brings healing. Jesus sees you in your sin and shame, as he saw the lepers with their ugly scabs, scars, and missing appendages. And he loves you and sees the beauty, despite all that.
In Tsukihama’s book, Matsu, the gardener “samurai,” loves the lepers. He has Jesus’ heart for them. Just as Jesus has a heart for you.