Truth and Terroir in Shūsaku Endō's Silence

Brian Rottkamp

Shūsaku Endō, Silence (Picador Modern Classics, 2016).


For a long time I was attracted to a meaningless nihilism and when I finally came to realize the fearfulness of such a void I was struck once again with the grandeur of the Catholic Faith. This problem of the reconciliation of my Catholicism with my Japanese blood…has taught me one thing: that is, that the Japanese must absorb Christianity without the support of a Christian tradition or history or legacy or sensibility. Even this attempt is the occasion of much resistance and anguish and pain, still it is impossible to counter by closing one’s eyes to the difficulties. No doubt this is the peculiar cross that God has given to the Japanese.
 Shūsaku Endō, Thought, Winter 1967

To depict this “peculiar cross” in his haunting masterpiece, Silence (1966), the acclaimed Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō dramatizes the journey of Portuguese Jesuit missionary priests to the veritable crucible of life under the Tokugawa shogunate in seventeenth-century Japan. In Endō’s rich yet economical prose, the fundamental questions of his life, his identity and oeuvre as a Japanese Catholic are unpacked and examined. In addition to the theological questions addressed such as the nature of suffering and the problem of evil, the importance of terroir is central to the dramatic underpinnings of Silence. For the Western reader, it is particularly enlightening as Endō questions the viability of the tree of Hellenized Christianity taking root in the “mud swamp” of Japan. What was once hospitable, fertile ground for the seed planted by St. Francis Xavier in 1549, and confirmed by the flourishing of 300,000 Christians within several generations, becomes the land of a hunted and persecuted Christianity. In his writings, Endō often uses the metaphor of his homeland as a mud swamp to represent the national tendency to absorb all sorts of ideologies, transforming and distorting them in the process.

The novel opens with the news reaching Rome that the Jesuit provincial in Japan, Christóvão Ferreira, has apostatized after undergoing torture in Nagasaki, the city which has been the center of Christian life in Japan. Seeing as he had been a highly respected missionary who had spent thirty-three years in Japan, this humiliating news is treated with suspicion and disbelief. Was it a lie spread by the Dutch (who, valuing commerce over conversion, replaced Portugal as Japan’s European trading partner)? Or planted by the Japanese to embarrass and test the resolve of the Christian community? In order to glean the truth regarding Ferreira and minister to the vulnerable flock, three young Portuguese priests, former students of Ferreira, head east, tracing the pathway traveled by generations of missionaries. The young priests are filled with a zeal undimmed by the reports of horrifying persecution awaiting them and the need to travel secretly onboard a Chinese ship, as all Portuguese ships have been banned from landing in Japan. At this time, they meet their first Japanese and their own personal Judas: Kichijirō.

Arriving in Japan under the cover of darkness, two remaining priests (the third priest contracts malaria and is unable to proceed), Francis Garrpe and Sebastian Rodrigues (who narrates the story), meet the Christian community who have kept the faith for six years without a priest or brother. The joy experienced by both parties speaks to the unique nature of the pastoral relationship between shepherd and flock; a relationship which will be, in turn, cruelly tested by the feudal lords in their efforts to stamp out Christianity. As the impoverished villagers receive the sacraments, are given instructions on how to pray, and are shown to be deeply moved by receiving any outward symbols of the Christian faith (e.g. crosses, crucifixes, holy pictures, medals), Father Rodrigues unites his experience with that of ancient Christians celebrating Mass in the catacombs and deepens his understanding of the importance of priestly life. A dramatic tension reminiscent of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory permeates the novel, depicting the life and ministry of these underground priests in a land that has forbidden Christianity and offered 300 pieces of silver for disclosing the location of a priest.

Endō utilizes the onset of the rainy season to foreshadow the reckoning of the “mud swamp” and, in so doing, breaks with the prevalent motif in Asian literature of rain as life-giving. As the rain starts to fall and the ground begins to muddy (both literally and metaphorically), the community is discovered. Two of the community elders are arrested and—after refusing to apostatize by spitting on an image of the Virgin Mary―martyred by being placed upon crosses to be slowly battered by the sea. It is this event that profoundly changes Rodrigues, as the brutal reality of martyrdom contrasts sharply with the heroic martyrdom that he envisioned. A sense of disillusionment sets in―a crisis of faith―as he cannot find meaning in what he perceives to be God’s silence in the face of these events.

Given the inherent danger, Garrpe and Rodrigues separate and forge their own ways to minister to the Christian community. The interior monologue of Rodrigues is utilized by Endō to demonstrate the doubts and insecurities faced by the young Jesuit. On the run, without his brother priest, he becomes increasingly untethered. The reckoning of the “mud swamp” leaves him without any sense of time, Having given away his last rosary, his attempts of prayer prove hollow. He begins to doubt the existence of God. Then his life is unalterably changed as the trap is set: Kichijirō collects his silver and Rodrigues is imprisoned along with many other Christians.

Paradoxically, these early stages of his imprisonment represent a spiritual renewal for Father Rodrigues, as he leads a life of intense prayer and joyfully provides the sacraments to his fellow prisoners. While awaiting his interrogation by Inoue, the notorious magistrate of Nagasaki, Rodrigues is reunited with Garrpe who has also been captured and imprisoned. It is at this time that Rodrigues realizes the particularly cruel nature of his predicament. In a perverse and calculated attempt to destroy the Christian community, the feudal lords begin to execute the prisoners and threaten to continue to do so until Garrpe and Rodrigues apostatize. Rather than the shepherd being sacrificed, in love, for the sake of his flock, the impoverished Christians lay down their lives, one by one, for him. Rodrigues is deeply and profoundly troubled in this inability to reconcile his obligations to God and mankind. In serving God, he would continue to witness the executions of Christians; in serving mankind, he would have to publicly renounce his faith. The reader is presented with the chilling vision of a world in which there is only room for apostates and martyrs.

And yet, the eventual martyrdom of Garrpe, who drowns trying to save three Christians, provides Rodrigues with an example of a priestly life given serving both God and humanity. But instead of recognizing the beauty of a life laid down for one’s friends, Rodrigues instead perceives the martyrdom as an absurdity. In subsequent visits from Inoue and, finally, Ferreira (who recanted and apostatized), the novel reaches a crescendo as Endō depicts the many challenges impeding an understanding of the Christian God in an Eastern land. Exchanges reminiscent of Dostoyevsky present characters as proponents of various philosophies. The temptation of Rodrigues continues to mount.

Inoue and Ferreira expound upon the heresies of Cartesian dualism (especially in the context of what it would mean to trample upon the fumie of the Virgin Mary). They argue that God’s truth is not a universal truth, claiming that the Japanese are incapable of knowing a triune Christian God. The novel closes with the ultimate reckoning of the “mud swamp” as Rodrigues, the embodiment of the Western Christian tradition, is transformed and distorted, utterly unrecognizable both in name and form.

And all that remains is silence.

Brian Rottkamp, father of four, received a Master of Arts in Comparative Literature from the University of South Carolina.