The first Christian missionaries arrived in Japan in 1549. By 1583, an estimated 200,000 Japanese, from both the upper classes and the peasantry, had converted to the new faith, convincing the Catholic Jesuits who had started the mission that Japan was their great hope in the Far East. This period of success, however, was followed by a sharp reversal. Japanese rulers, many of whom had themselves been baptized, decided that Catholicism was not suited to Japan, and suddenly, in a complete about-face, banned the religion completely.
There followed a persecution of extreme brutality. Through burning, crucifixion and a wide variety of other tortures, the new Japanese Christians were forced to renounce Christ. To the astonishment of the rulers, many brave souls refused even under such duress. These ended up martyrs.
Churches were destroyed, possession of Christian objects (icons, crosses, rosaries) was strictly forbidden, and ultimately the number of those who gave their lives in refusal of the ban reached over 5,000.
In Christian tradition to be a martyr is preeminently to refuse to obey an order that offends against one’s faith, and to hold to this refusal even unto death. Dying as they did, the Japanese were in perfect harmony with the ancient martyrs of the Western Church. The phrase still heard from the lips of Christians today, “Jesus is Lord”, had an additional meaning in the ancient West. For Christians living under the Roman Empire of the first centuries, to say “Jesus is Lord!” was also to say “Caesar is not Lord!”
Though ancient Western Christians were often model citizens, obeying the law and paying taxes, there were customs of life under the Empire in which they could not take part. One of these was the worship of the emperor as divine. In cities across the Mediterranean, when people came together to bow down to some image of the current Roman emperor as a living god, Christians stood out for their refusal. This refusal led to their persecution, and, for many, finally to death.
For ancient Western Christians, to bow to an image of Augustus or Tiberius was to renounce one’s faith. The theological term for such renouncing is apostasy. The officials of ancient Rome, precisely like the rulers of 17th century Japan, resorted to torture and other devious forms of psychological manipulation to compel the faithful to apostatize--to make a statement of renunciation against their faith.
In Japan the rulers tested people suspected of being Christian by forcing them to step on the fumie, an image of Christ affixed to a wooden plank. Of course those who refused the gesture were immediately subject to brutal punishment. But those who complied, depending on their demeanor during the process (their facial expression as they performed the gesture, the degree of hesitancy in their step) might also be judged Christian. In the secret Japanese Christian communities that survived under the ban, there was naturally much handwringing over whether it was not simply better to step on the fumie, as an outward gesture, while remaining faithful to Christ in one’s heart. Under pagan Rome, the early Western Church also saw many debates about whether one might in good faith perform outward gestures of obeisance to paganism while remaining a good Christian in spirit. The Western Church’s conclusion was that one could not. One’s outward demeanor must correspond to one’s faith as a Christian. Many Japanese understood things this way as well.
Shusaku Endo’s extraordinary novel Silence is set in this 17th century Japanese milieu of strict secrecy and religious persecution. Its success in capturing the dynamics of persecution and resistance, along with the sheer beauties of its structure and evocations of place, led Graham Greene to hail Endo as “one of the finest living novelists.”
Endo, a Catholic who had himself struggled with the oddness of Catholicism in a Japanese context, was perfectly suited to writing this tale. He focuses his narrative on the fate of two Portuguese Jesuits, Sebastian Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe, who in 1637 made the long journey to Japan in order to tend the persecuted flock and discover whether it could possibly be true, as they had heard, that their former beloved teacher Christovao Ferreira apostatized under torture. Their superiors in the Jesuit order try to dissuade them from going, as the situation in Japan is dire and they would almost surely die martyr’s deaths. In the end, however, the zeal of the young men wins out. They are given permission to undertake the journey.
Making it from Portugal to Japan in the 1630s was hard enough, as Endo’s narrative reveals, but the difficulties only begin in earnest once the young priests set foot on Japanese soil.
Under cover of darkness, their ship anchors near a coastal peasant village of clandestine Japanese Catholics. The people’s joy upon learning that two priests have come is palpable. For years they have had no one to administer the sacraments. The two learn that the Japanese faithful, in the absence of priests, have developed their own indigenous hierarchy to keep the faith alive. And that the villagers are in a life-and-death struggle to ensure that their adherence to Christ is absolutely invisible to the authorities, who periodically conduct surprise visits and offer payment in silver to anyone who will betray a Christian.
The fathers are set up in hiding in an abandoned shed on the mountainside above the village. And here they wrestle with the first of many moral dilemmas to come. As priests, as Christians, they are called to proclaim the faith to all, regardless of consequences. Jesus himself taught: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from housetops.” (Matthew 10:27) Yet here in Japan they live in hiding, like criminals, not daring to show their foreign faces openly. As this life drags on for months, Garrpe and Rodrigues try to justify it by reminding themselves that they are the only priests in the whole of Japan; that their deaths would be useless; that someone must continue to teach and administer the sacraments to the villagers who have become their congregation. But what, they ask themselves, of all the other terrorized villages, who now likely believe that the Church over the seas has abandoned them to their fate?
Events catch up to the fathers before they can resolve their dilemma. Their flock’s adherence to the outlawed foreign creed is unmasked by authorities. Two of the peasants who refuse to apostatize are martyred in a grueling ordeal that the priests must witness from their hideout on the mountain, and soon after the fathers are forced to flee from the now utterly broken community they’d served. None of this alleviates the feeling that they are getting off lightly: that their status as priests, making them precious to the Japanese faithful who’ve lacked priests for so long, is protecting them from the brutality suffered by their flock.
One of the great triumphs of Endo’s novel is the character Kichijiro, a Japanese Catholic drunkard whose perverse meld of comradely warmth and devious cowardice is worthy of Dostoyevsky. A man of impossible paradox, Kichijiro ends up being the moral fulcrum around which the plot twists and tilts. Endo’s conception and use of this character show a master at work. The various Japanese officials depicted, from the interpreter up to Lord Inoue himself, who plays an elaborate game of cat and mouse with Rodrigues and Garrpe, are also brilliantly conceived.
The only element in the novel that rang false for this reader was Endo’s thematization of his title as the silence of God. Here one feels the writer is missing something in the Christian tradition; that the theology he gives his 17th-century Jesuit Rodrigues has been too affected by 19th and 20th century existentialism. Repeatedly Rodrigues complains of God’s silence and supposed lack of action in the face of the suffering of his Japanese followers. Facing the overall situation of the mission the Jesuit is led to ponder:
Why has Our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? [It is] sickening. 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.
Later, overhearing Christian peasants praying in their prison cell, Rodrigues is led to remark bitterly to God: “Yet you never break the silence. You should not be silent forever.” (55; 104)
This kind of discourse, though put in the mouth of a 17th century priest, is more Camus (Endo was a devoted student of French literature) than it is Christianity. The writer would have done better to engage more seriously with the biblical book of Job, but that isn’t half the problem. By allowing Rodrigues to conceive of God this way, as a kind of failed Deus ex machina, Endo neglects a core New Testament teaching--that Christ is always already present in his suffering faithful. As St. Paul put it:
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts make up one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized in one Spirit so as to form one body--whether Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free . . . Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (I Corinthians 12: 14-15; 27)
For Paul, God is not somewhere else, watching and considering whether to take action. Rather, he is present already in his church. Writing of his own suffering, Paul put it this way: “I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24; emphasis mine) The relevant point here is clear: Christians who suffer persecution are not asking what Jesus would being saying if he were present; they are asking what he is saying because he is present.
A Jesuit of the early modern period would have been thoroughly grounded in this deeper theology of Paul; it would have informed his spirituality of suffering through and through. The real Rodrigues would have known from the start that God’s love was already there in the grace granted to those who suffered in His name. Indeed, he would have known that their suffering, however grievous, was the suffering of Christ himself. Endo, a master novelist, seems to have missed this crucial Christian truth, with the result that Silence is more 20th century and secular in conceptual terms than it need have been.
And yet the theological failures of Endo’s missionaries, though they seem anachronistic to me, do serve one worthy novelistic purpose: they level the playing field between his Japanese and European characters. How so? Taken as a group, the Jesuit fathers, though they’ve benefited from their formation in a Catholic order, are no better than the Japanese when push comes to shove. Like the Japanese, some of the Portuguese face death heroically and refuse to apostatize even under the most extreme torture; but also like the Japanese, some of the missionaries begin to make excuses for themselves and finally do apostatize. In short, the Europeans here, though they’ve been raised in the heart of a thoroughly Christian culture, have no monopoly on Christian zeal.
This evened playing field also serves to make Silence yet more thought-provoking for the modern reader. Any devout religious person reading Endo’s book, given the harrowing subtlety of the sufferings he depicts, is finally forced to ask him- or herself the salutary question: Under such torture, would I be one of the brave and hold out to the end or would I give up and betray my deepest beliefs? Clearly one of Endo’s central points is that no one can predict for sure how he or she would fare in such straits.
Another, secondary thematization of the title is the question of the believer who remains silent or invisible. Above I mentioned Garrpe and Rodrigues’ doubts as to the rightness of their policy of remaining in hiding. They justified doing so as a means of protecting the mission. Their dilemma, the question of whether keeping one’s faith secret is an act of wise prudence, or whether it is rather mere cowardice in disguise, is not unique to the ancient world or 17th century Japan. Christians struggled with the same dilemma during decades of official atheist rule in the Soviet bloc, and many continue to struggle with this dilemma in the countries where the faith is still persecuted.
According to both the Pew Research Center and The Economist, Christians are now the world’s most widely persecuted religious group. Though followers of Christ in the modern West are largely unfamiliar with persecution to the point of imprisonment, many have, in recent years, had to face serious dilemmas when the tenets of their faith come into conflict with newly minted secular teachings on marriage or “reproductive rights”. In particular, how many orthodox Christians in our liberal West must now squelch their true beliefs on marriage or risk losing their careers? The answer seems to be: Millions. Which only underlines the fact that, even in our supposedly “inclusive” and liberal societies, many of the Christian faithful are being put to dilemmas of silence in everyday life.
If I’m writing this belated review of Endo’s novel, it is partly because of the great Italian-American director Martin Scorsese’s recent film based on it. Scorsese’s Silence stars Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, and Ciaran Hinds. The director had wanted to adapt Endo’s novel to the big screen for decades, describing the project as an obsession of his. Filmed mainly here in Taiwan, where I live and work, the film doesn’t disappoint. I would say, in fact, that the American Catholic director manages to negotiate the theological subtleties with more realism than Endo had in his novel--though admittedly that’s a hard call to make, given that the media of prose and film are so different. Still, in Scorsese’s interpretation, there is not nearly the same thematic stress on silence as “the silence of God” that one find’s in the Japanese novelist.
I was lucky to attend an early Taipei screening of the film with Scorsese present. He gave a gracious introductory talk thanking the people here, also in attendance, who’d helped him on the project. I only wish I’d had time to talk with him on his own reading of Endo’s novel in terms of the issues I hope I’ve managed to raise here.
A version of this article was recently published in BookishAsia.
A new edition of my novel A Taipei Mutt is now in print. The Asian capital unmuzzled.