An Introduction to Silence, by Shusaku Endo
By Daniel Webster
Shusaku Endo (1923-1996) is considered by many in Japan to be the foremost Japanese novelist of the 20th century. However, until Martin Scorsese came out with an English-language film adaptation of his novel in 2016, he did not receive nearly as much attention as his near-contemporary Yukio Mishima, in spite of the fact that so many of his works were translated into a number of languages. A great deal of this must certainly have to do with the fact that Endo was a Catholic, with Christians making up only about 1 percent of the Japanese population. To many Western enthusiasts for Japanese literature, Endo may not have seemed “exotically Japanese” enough, especially in comparison with Mishima, whose works were steeped in Japanese tradition.
Silence, first published in 1966, and translated into English in 1969 by William Johnston, is thought to be Endo’s masterpiece. It deals with the efforts of a group of Portuguese missionaries in the early 17th century to convert the Japanese to Catholicism at a time when Christianity was seen as a threat by the Shoguns who ruled Japan with an iron hand during the Edo Era (1603-1868).
In this novel, Endo has fictionalized certain events and historical figures, although the overall description of the characters and their fates is true to historical fact. The main character in Silence is a Portuguese priest named Sebastian Rodrigues, who was based on the real-life Italian missionary Giuseppe Chiara.
Rodrigues arrives in Japan in 1639, directly after what was called the “Shimabara Rebellion,” one of the few serious challenges to the Shoguns’ power during the Edo Era. This rebellion broke out because of the excessive taxation levied against peasants in Nagasaki Prefecture, most of whom were Christians, in order to build a castle there. The rebellion was ruthlessly put down, after which the persecution of Christians began in full earnest. The most notorious form of torture meant to force Christians to renounce their faith was hanging them upside-down over a pit until they died—a process that often took several days. In this torture, the victims’ bodies were bound, but one arm was left free for them to signal that they had apostatized. The Shogun’s government also used that old European (and American) standby of burning at the stake, as well. Another, less cruel, way of forcing Christians to abandon their faith was to have them step on an image of Christ, which was called a fumi-e (literally translated as a “step-picture”).
Having said that Rodrigues is the main character in this novel, I must backpedal a bit by saying that a character of perhaps even more importance is a weasely-looking Japanese named Kichijiro, who (in my view) personifies both human weakness in general and the alien nature of Japan in relation to Christianity in particular.
To my understanding, the main theme of this riveting book is that Japan was—and is—what Endo called a “mud swamp,” incapable of adopting Christianity, or indeed other Western ideas, without distorting them to the point that they become unrecognizable, in order to fit a Japanese mold.
Daniel J. Webster, who is among the vanguard of the New Formalists writing poetry in English today, in addition to having completed several volumes of verse has translated poetry and short stories from German and Russian. He now resides in Japan, where he teaches English at Keio University, as well as at the Universities of Waseda and Meiji.