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Shūsaku Endō: 沈黙 (Silence)

Christianity had a difficult time in Japan when it was first introduced. Initially, it was well received, with the Catholics from Portugal and Spain making the running and converting large numbers of Japanese, often with the support of the rich and powerful in Japan, who were usually more interested in trade than salvation. In the sixteenth century, when Japan was still very much divided, the missionaries were able to move around if one region was less than welcoming. However, in the seventeenth century, particularly when the Tokugawa shogunate came into power, things changed. An edict was issued which said the Kirishitan band have come to Japan … longing to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow true doctrine, so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land. This is the germ of a great disaster, and must be crushed. And crushed it was. There were around 300,000 Christians in Japan at that time. Initially, Christians were burned but the shogunate realised that making martyrs of them was not a good idea, so torture was applied to make them apostatise. At first no missionary apostatised but then Cristóvão Ferreira did. Following the Shimabara Rebellion, which was more about high taxation and oppression but had a religious element, the shogunate felt that it had been assisted by outsiders and closed off Japan entirely to foreigners. Some missionaries, including Giuseppe Chiara, the model for the hero of this book, Sebastião Rodrigues, did get in. Those that were captured generally died a horrible death. Japan remain closed to Christianity till the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Sebastião Rodrigues is a Portuguese priest who had been a pupil of Cristóvão Ferreira. He and other priests, who were former pupils of Ferreira, were determined to go to Japan, firstly, to find out if Ferreira really had apostatised (they did not believe it) and, if he had, to atone for his apostasy. The three of them get permission from their reluctant superiors. They have a very difficult journey and, eventually, one of them has to drop out because of ill heath. Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe carry on. In Macao, however, they are stuck. Their superior says it is far too dangerous and will not let them proceed and, besides, there is no way of getting to Japan. They also learn of Magistrate Inoue, a man who persecutes Christians and is not only cruel, like his predecessor, but very clever. Eventually, they meet a Japanese man, Kichijirō. He is a drunk and in rags and appears to be a Christian or apostate Christian, though he furiously denies this. With great difficulty, they find a ship and together with a crew and with Kichijirō, they set off for Japan.

Much of the novel is concerned with their travails in Japan and, in particular, with the travails of Rodrigues, when the two priests get separated. The key figure is Kichijirō, who is a superb creation. He seems to be a Christian but seems also to be a Judas. Though it is not totally confirmed, it seems that it is he who betrays the priests and the various Christian villages to the authorities for his twelve pieces of silver (actually, three hundred for betraying a priest). Yet, despite his (alleged) betrayals, he also seems to turn up to help and it is clear that they could not have made what progress they did without him. That he is a coward, is clear. On more than one occasion, he is prepared to walk on pictures of Christ (a sign of apostasy demanded by the Japanese authorities) to avoid torture and martyrdom, yet he comes back, wanting to help the priest, confessing that he is a Christian to the authorities and doing what he can to ease the path of the priests. He is clearly a troubled man, a man with a conscience, while, at the same time a man who is a coward.

Rodrigues is also somewhat troubled. He went to Japan, knowing full well what awaited him and that he may well be tortured and executed. He has a clear idea of what his duty is, namely to convert as many Japanese to Christianity as possible and to assist in any way any Christians who need his assistance, even Kichijirō, whom he does not like and does not trust. However, the title of the novel gives us a clue to what he faces. The silence of God. Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent. He struggles with this silence throughout the book. Why has God not intervened, assisted him and other Christians to practise their faith and to proselytise? He cannot come up with a satisfactory answer to this question.

The other closely related questions are why did the Japanese adopt Christianity in so many numbers (when other countries, like China, did not) and can Christianity take root and flourish in Japan? We have an answer to the second question, because we know that, when the restrictions were lifted, some Japanese did become Christians but, according to this article, only about one percent. The second question is more difficult. Magistrate Inoue is of the view that it is not relevant to Japan. Father, we are not disputing about the right and wrong of your doctrine. In Spain and Portugal and such countries it may be true. The reason we have outlawed Christianity in Japan is that, after deep and earnest consideration, we find its teaching of no value for the Japan of today. Ferreira says The one thing I know is that our religion does not take root in this country. He goes on to say What the Japanese of that time believed in was not our God. It was their own gods. For a long time we failed to realize this and firmly believed that they had become Christians. Rodrigues cannot, of course, accept this.

This raises the question, hinted at but never really discussed, as to whether there is just one model of Christianity and one model of God. Given that Christianity, though, of course, founded in Palestine, is essentially a Western European construct, is the Western European model the only one that can and should apply? There are relatively few countries in Africa and Asia where the majority of the population is Christian. In other words, it has not generally taken root in these countries. Nevertheless, there are some African and Asian countries where there is a significant Christian population and I would imagine every country in the world has at least some Christians. So do these people have the same Christian model as, for example, the people of Spain and Italy (for Catholics) or the people of Britain and the Netherlands (for Protestants)? I am not competent to judge but I would imagine not. The fact that there are different Christian sects in Europe and the Americas already indicates this.

As to why the Japanese did adopt Christianity, Endo gives one possible reason. He shows, on several occasions, the grinding poverty and hardship of the Japanese peasants and the oppression they suffer at the hands of the samurais and their lords. Christianity offered a way out, if not in this life, then in the next. This fact is mentioned on more than one occasion and why some of the Japanese Christians are prepared to suffer martyrdom, precisely because they feel that, in the next life, which they are about to enter, they will be rewarded for their suffering. Clearly, the poor elsewhere in the world were suffering in the same way and had similar views.

Apart from the interesting ideas about Christianity and the Japanese that Endo raises, he also tells an excellent story. Rodrigues is a conflicted man but Endo also likens him in some way to Christ. Like Christ, he has his Judas, he rides to his punishment on the back of an ass and is mocked by the crowd and asks God why he has forsaken him. But for me, it is the even more conflicted Kichijirō who is the most interesting, as he vacillates between supporting his faith and declaring it and then renouncing it. In short, he is the ideal literary hero, a man torn between his weaknesses and his faith. We know historically what happens to both Rodrigues/Chiara and Ferreira, just as we know what happened to Christianity in Japan but Endo’s skill is showing us what we do not know historically and taking us inside the minds of Rodrigues and Kichijirō.

Publishing history

First published in 1966 by Shinchōsha
First English translation by Sophia University in 1969
Translated by William Johnston