Shusaku Endo’s Silence
Novelist Sought a Christianity That Speaks to the Japanese Soul
If a gardener were to uproot a Christian sapling from its Western soil in order to transplant it into Japan, would its branches still
bear Christian fruit? If a tailor were to disassemble a Western suit in order to fashion
a Japanese kimono, would it still be a suit?
These are some of the questions that the Japanese Christian novelist Shusaku Endo asks in his spare and elegant novel Silence, long a staple in the University Scholars
program at Seattle Pacific University. Set in 17th-century Japan at the height of its
persecution of Christians, this harrowing account of the Portuguese priest Sebastian Rodrigues ultimately asks the big questions: How should Christians engage a culture when that culture is foreign? And what does the word “engage” mean, exactly?
Conquest? Marriage? Accommodation? A suit or a kimono?
Until his death in 1996, the Catholic Endo, Japan’s own Graham Greene, explored these issues in nearly two dozen novels. But nowhere are these questions more probing nor their answers more disturbing than in Chinmoku, which won the coveted Tanizaki Prize in 1966 and which William Johnston translated three years later into the taut, heart-breaking novel called Silence.
Since this melancholy tale of martyrdom is little known in
the West, a bit of historical background may be useful. Europeans
first set foot on Japanese soil in 1543 when a Portuguese trading
vessel heading for China was blown off course and landed on
the coast of Kyushu. Soon traders and merchants gained a foothold,
and missionaries inevitably followed in their wake. St. Francis
Xavier, one of the leaders of the newly founded Society of Jesus,
arrived in 1549, and within two years he won a thousand converts.
Japan is “the delight of my heart,” he declared, “the country
in the Orient most suited to Christianity.” Encouraged by local daimyo, or barons, who enlisted the support of Christians in their struggles
for political control, the ranks of the believers swelled over the next 40
years to roughly a quarter million.
By the end of the century, however, quarreling
missionaries from England, Holland, Spain, and Portugal further threatened
the stability of a country already torn apart by the warring daimyo. In
1587, the Jesuits were ordered to depart, and 10 years later
26 Christians, including six Franciscan missionaries, were crucified at Nagasaki. By 1603, when the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country, the persecution of Christians began in earnest.
In 1614, the shogun expelled all Christian missionaries and
issued an edict requiring all Japanese to register as Buddhists.
Hunted down by Japanese inquisitors, nearly 6,000 of the remaining
Christians were tortured and killed. These were the martyrs,
whose blood, as the early church father Tertullian once put
it, was the “seed of the church.” Th e survivors — the
more, or less, fortunate — were forced to renounce their faith by treading
upon a fumie, a bronze icon that bore the image of Christ on the cross. These survivors were the apostates, the fallen ones.
It was a fumie, blackened
with the footprints of hundreds of long-forgotten apostates, that caught
the eye of Shusaku Endo in the early 1950s, as he visited a museum
in Nagasaki that had collected relics of the early martyrs.
Would he, too, have apostatized? History has long celebrated
the triumph of The Final Martyrs (to cite the title of yet
another of Endo’s works). But what of the fallen? he wondered.
What of those doubly damned by the silence of God and history alike?
The Christian faith never did rest easily on Endo’s shoulders.
Ever since his baptism at the age of 11 at the behest of his
mother, Endo often spoke of a faith as awkward as a forced
marriage, as uncomfortable as a Western suit of clothes. “This clothing did not suit me,” he later wrote. “The clothes
and my body were not made for each other.”
Whether studying French
Catholic novelists at Keio University in the late 1940s or traveling
to France in 1950 to seek out the roots of his faith, Endo was
always a stranger in a foreign land. Singled out by Japan for
his belief and by France for his race, he experienced rejection
at every turn. To make matters worse, he contracted tuberculosis
while abroad and had a lung removed. In an ensuing crisis of
faith, it seemed to him as if Christianity itself had made him
Only upon returning to his country by way of the Holy Land
did he discover, as he would write in his popular Life of
Jesus (1973), a Jesus as scorned, rejected, and betrayed as
he. Only then did he discover an alternative to the lofty cathedrals
and the militant triumphalism of Western Christianity. And
only then did he discover his life’s quest: the search for a
compassionate Christian faith that might take root in the Japanese
Widely regarded as Endo’s
supreme achievement, Silence tells the story of this era and
of this quest. It tells of Sebastian Rodrigues’ arduous journey
halfway around the world to Japan in the 1630s, in order to
track down a rumor that his beloved mentor Father Christovao
Ferreira had abandoned his faith.
Smuggled into the island nation
with the help of a cringing apostate named Kichijiro, Rodrigues
and a fellow priest are sheltered in a mountain hut by Japanese-Christian
villagers on the sea coast. In a series of letters brimming
with confidence and self-assurance, Rodrigues writes to
his superiors of the heroic work of Christ that he has been
privileged to accomplish: “After Sunday Mass for the
first time I intoned and recited the prayers in Japanese
with the people. … As
I speak there often arises in my mind the face of one who
preached the Sermon on the Mount; and I imagine the people
who sat or knelt fascinated by his words.”
But if Rodrigues is a Christ-figure, Kichijiro is his Judas,
betraying him to the shogunal authorities for a handful of
coins. When the captured priest is brought down to the sea
coast and then taken to Nagasaki, the narrative shifts from
first to third person, catching Rodrigues in the crosshairs
of the author’s omniscient perspective.
Helpless to avert the martyrdom of his fellows, he strains
to hear the voice of God, still silent as Japanese Christians
are drowned in the leaden-gray, murderous sea. “He had
come to this country to lay down his life for other men,” he
thinks about himself, “but instead … the Japanese were laying
down their lives one by one for him.”
Braced for martyrdom,
riding astride a donkey, much as his Lord had ridden into
Jerusalem, Rodrigues makes his way into Nagasaki, where he
is thrown into a dark prison cell. Here he finally meets
his former teacher and present tormentor, the apostate priest
Ferreira, whose task it is to persuade Rodrigues to tread
upon the fumie as well. “This country is a swamp,” says
Ferreira. “In time you will come to see that for yourself.
This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine.
Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin
to rot, the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted
the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”
succumb to Ferreira’s pessimism? Will he fail when he, too,
is subjected to the dreadful anazuri, an infamous torture
that suspended its victims upside down above a pit, the blood
dripping from their mouths, their noses, their eyes, until
they either apostatized or died? But what if only his apostasy
will rescue his fellow Christians, even now moaning in anguish,
from the pit? And what is it that Jesus will say, if his
voice ever breaks though the excruciating silence?
Silence is an extraordinarily haunting novel. Although it is never
a comfortable read, in its deceptive simplicity it is as
stark and unyielding, as elegant and lean as the lines
of a Japanese print. Without ever moralizing, it is an intensely
moral book as well. And, like all great works of literature,
it hovers in a middle ground, taut with expectation, caught
in the tension between West and East, answer and question,
logic and intuition, strength and weakness, hope and loss.
It is, in short, a novel for most of us, most of the time,
as we wend our way between heaven and earth with our longing
souls and our feet of clay.
— BY LUKE REINSMA, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH
Join the University Scholars
in Reading Silence
IN THE PAST SIX Autumn issues, Response has
introduced readers to some of the texts taught in the Common Curriculum,
a general education program that requires SPU students to explore a
common set of literary, artistic, musical, and theatrical works over
the course of their university career. This year, we are focusing
on a text in the University Scholars Curriculum, the sequence of general
education courses taken by a cohort of gifted students.
Response offered limited free copies of Silence, but the magazine has now given away its entire supply of Silence. You can find the book in most bookstores, or order it at barnesandnoble.com or amazon.com.
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