Shūsaku Endō’s Silence is the story of, Sebastião Rodrigues, a Jesuit missionary who goes to 17th century Japan to be a priest to an oppressed church and to find his mentor, Fr Ferreira, who is reputed to have apostatized. Fr Rodrigues finds that he becomes one of the Kakure Kirishitan, one of the “Hidden Christians” be persecuted in the 1630 and 1640s. The story of Fr Rodrigues is told through a number of epistolary perspectives, including historical notes, diaries, shipping logs, and letters that Fr Rodrigues can never be sure will reach his superiors in the west.
As I am teaching an upcoming Japanese Religion and Culture course, I could use Endō’s Silence to discuss a definitive point in Japan’s history, when it repelled Western attempts to colonize, limited its trade, and successfully crushed the spread of Christianity. This age, the Edo period from the early 17th century to the Meiji restoration of Western relations following the American civil war in the 1860s, has defined Japan’s history and identity. Silence works as historical fiction in the period of persecution, which was peculiarly effective.
However, Silence isn’t about history—even the history of Roman Catholicism in Japan. It is a story about what it means to be faithful. And this is what draws me to the novel. Fr Rodrigues’ narrative is not so much his historical moment but the struggle within himself of what it means to be faithful Christ’s face—an image he loves—when the result is great suffering for himself and others.
Fr Rodrigues is always thoughtful and questioning, but solid and compassionate. He is set against Kichijiro, an ingratiating and intemperate Japanese convert who apostatized numerous times. While it looks at first like Kichijiro is merely the priest’s means to connect to Japan and a foil for Fr Rodrigues’ own struggles in faith, the link between the two men becomes more intricate and complex as the story goes on.
Ultimately, the question the book asks is captured in this quotation from the end of the novel: “This country of Japan is not suited to the teaching of Christianity. Christianity simply cannot put down roots here.” In one way, this is historically untrue. There are more than a million Christians in Japan, most concentrated where the persecution was greatest (in Nagasaki). But, though I never read Silence when I lived there, it was something I wondered about Japan. A third or more of Koreans are Christian, perhaps 10% of China or a little less. But only about 1% of Japan is Christian, and there are no signs of a radical shift. More than that, in my experience, the Japanese looked at Christianity as foreign, other. And for many, to become a Christian is to betray something Japanese in themselves.
That Shūsaku Endō makes a gaijin, a foreigner, the protagonist of Silence is intriguing. This device, with the native Kichijiro as the counter-voice, is quite brilliant. “Betrayal” is the heart of Silence—not just about betraying the image of Christ that Christians must stomp upon to avoid persecution, but about betraying others and God’s betrayal of us in silence. The twist in perspective in Silence is an effective way for Endō to work out his own Catholic faith as a Japanese person.
While I think this is a profound story of faith and betrayal by a uniquely situated author, I struggled to really love this book as a story. I have only read it once, and I suspect it is better as a reread. And perhaps I was too focused on the theological aspects, but I had trouble connecting to the characters and have never understood the epistolary structure. I also don’t know how this book sits in the Japanese realist tradition, which (like Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata) is in conversation with three traditions: nature, court tales like Genji, and the contrasts of movement and stillness we see haiku poetry. The contrast, the juxtaposition is there, and it is nature that provides the contrast to Fr Rodrigues’ own silence.
Artistically, I don’t know how to read this book, personally, I struggled to get into it as a novel—when it comes to Japanese fiction, all I want to do is read Haruki Murakami: if Shūsaku Endō is the Grahame Greene of Japan, then Murakami is Japan’s Kafka. But as a work of theological fiction, it really is an effective work. I have not come to a resolution in my mind about Christian faith and Japan, but it certainly is a provocative book.