Liam Neeson in Martin Scorsese's Silence

Liam Neeson in Martin Scorsese’s 2017 Film Silence. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Novelist Shusaku Endo sought a Christianity that speaks to the Japanese soul. Professor Emeritus of English Luke Reinsma reflects on Endo's great novel.

By Luke Reinsma, Professor Emeritus of English

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Autumn 2004 issue of Response. We’ve republished it here because of the recent release of Martin Scorsese’s film, based on the same novel.

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.” The 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 ill.

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 soil.

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.”

Will Rodrigues 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.

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