Shūsaku Endō Essay - Endo, Shusaku (Short Story Criticism)

Endo, Shusaku (Short Story Criticism)


Shusaku Endo 1923–-1996

Japanese novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and biographer.

Endo was one of Japan's foremost contemporary fiction writers. His short stories and novels were popularly and critically acclaimed in both Japan and other countries. As a Catholic novelist, Endo was frequently referred to as “the Japanese Graham Greene.” Among his central thematic concerns is the conflict of identity among Japanese Catholics, the clash of cultures between East and West, the persecution of Catholics throughout history, and the internal struggle of Christian faith. Endo was awarded nearly every major literary prize in Japan, and was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for literature.

Biographical Information

Endo was born March 27, 1923, in Tokyo, but spent his early childhood in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. When Endo was ten years old, his parents divorced and he moved back to Japan with his mother. An aunt influenced Endo and his mother to convert to Catholicism, and he was baptized at the age of eleven. Endo was uncomfortable with his new religion, which he later described as the feeling of wearing an ill-fitted suit. During World War II, Endo was exempt from combat due to illness. He received a B.A. in French literature from Tokyo's Keio University in 1949, and from 1950 to 1953 Endo studied Catholic fiction at the University of Lyons in France. His first novel Shiroihito (White Man) was published in 1955, earning Endo the Akutagawa Prize for promising young writers. In the same year, he married Junko Okada, with whom he had a son. In 1959, Endo contracted tuberculosis and the next year, while in France to study the works of the Marquis de Sade, he was hospitalized for two and a half years and underwent three operations, which left him with one lung. After this period of infirmity, Endo's fiction became more sympathetic toward characters suffering from both spiritual and physical weaknesses. Critics note that he began to conceptualize a more merciful, compassionate image of Christ in his fiction. Over the course of his life, Endo published seventeen short story collections, most of them not translated into English, as well as forty-five novels and many works of nonfiction. Endo died on September 29, 1996.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Throughout his fiction, Endo was concerned with the inner battles of faith as well as the outer fights against persecution suffered by Japanese Christians in both the East and the West. Ryugaku (1965; Foreign Studies) contains three stories, each about Japanese Christians living in Europe. These stories focus on the inability of the characters to reconcile their Japanese identity with Western culture, and their own interior trials over belief in a religion which is firmly rooted in European tradition. The characters experience both alienation and a crisis over identity concerning the disaccord between their Christian faith, their Japanese identity, and their experiences in European society. “And You, Too,” the longest story of the three, concerns a Japanese professor of French literature living in 1960s France and studying the works of the Marquis de Sade. While Endo's earlier fictions present a more dour view of the moral endeavors of the individual, often seen without chance of redemption, his later works offer mercy and salvation for those who grapple with their beliefs. Stained Glass Elegies includes eleven short stories collected and translated from Aika (1965) and Juichi no iro garasu (1979). Critic and translator Van C. Gessel observed, “The short stories in the [Stained Glass Elegies] collection are in a sense vignettes, dessin-like sketches of the weak who must bear the burden of guilt and the throbbing of their consciences.” Throughout this volume, Endo conceptualizes Christ-like symbols of salvation, particularly in the form of maternal Christ-figures. In “My Belongings,” the character Suguro (who appears in several of Endo's stories) sees “that Man” (Christ) in the tear-stained face of his wife, whom he has never loved, but will never leave. “Mothers” concerns a community of Japanese Catholics who are the descendants of those who outwardly renounced their Christianity in the face of persecution, but continued to worship in secret, hiding statues of the Virgin Mary behind the family Buddha. When the narrator finally sees the image of the Virgin Mary, which this community worships, he is struck by the fact that it is a “clumsily drawn” picture of a local farm-woman in a kimono, nursing her child. Thus, here the Holy Mother has taken precedence in the faith of this isolated community over God the Father. The story “Unzen” is about a character, Suguru, who reads about and visits a Japanese town where in the seventeenth century Christians were tortured and put to death for their beliefs. Suguru learns that a man had chosen to publicly renounce his faith in order to save himself and his family. As Suguru identifies with this apostate figure, Endo focuses on the pain of the man who has renounced his religion. In “Fuji no Tsuda,” the main character learns of a monk who saved the life of a Jewish man in a concentration camp by choosing to take his place. The Final Martyrs (1993) contains translations of stories originally published between 1959 and 1985, many of them autobiographical, such as “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” and “A Sixty-Year-Old Man,” which are sequels to an earlier story included in Stained Glass Elegies, “A Forty-Year-Old Man.” In a review in Studies in Short Fiction, critic Francis J. Bosha noted: “Throughout The Final Martyrs there emerges a clearly autobiographical pattern of the melancholy middle-aged man, haunted by guilt and saddened by his childhood spent in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, who, because of his mother, converted to Catholicism; yet he does not always feel comfortable with this religion, which in turn causes another round of guilt.”

Critical Reception

English critics applaud Endo's short stories for their explication of such subjects as the cultural conflict between East and West, the moral groping of the individual concerning the nature of belief, and the paradoxical identity of Japanese Christians. Endo has stated that he uses short stories as a testing ground for ideas which may later be expanded to novel length, and critics frequently note that the seeds of his later novels can be detected in a number of Endo's short stories. Francis Mathy commented of the stories in The Final Martyrs: “Much as the painter will do a number of preliminary sketches before setting his hand to a larger canvas, so Endo uses his short stories to sketch characters and themes that appear later in his novels.” Mathy also added, “There may be greater artistry in these sketches than in the novels themselves.” Paul Binding said of The Final Martyrs: “each of the stories in this wonderful volume has something of the novel's richness and discursiveness.” Some commentators have observed that Endo tends to subordinate character and plot to motif in his novels, but his short stories manage to convey a thematic message without overburdening the story. As Gessel observed: “There is a familiar, even popular tinge to virtually all Endo's stories; by rooting his narratives in common soil, he is able to attract the attention of readers who might have little interest in his metaphysical concerns. Plot functions rather like the New Testament parables, relying upon the elements of the earth in order to convey insights into the essences of heaven.” Critics have observed that while Endo's earlier stories offer little chance of salvation, later stories increasingly focus on Christ as a figure of maternal suffering—whether glimpsed in the face of a bereft, wife, a stray dog, or the painting of a woman nursing her child. Most scholars agree, however, that Endo eschews a tone of simplistic sermonizing, as his characters maintain an uneasy relationship to their faith, thus avoiding tidy, superficial resolutions to their ethical undertakings. Gessel remarks that Endo's popularity is in part due to the skill with which he conveys a virtuous message in stories which remain accessible and entertaining to the common reader: “Endo is able to placate not only the weary but also the wary, the simple as well as the skeptical. … If in fact the art of storytelling hinges upon the ability to draw the reader into a narrative with the bait of familiarity and then lead the way to a higher plane of understanding in the realm of the new and unfamiliar, Endo qualifies as a master storyteller.” Critics have also commented on other prominent motifs in Endo's writing, namely his fractious vision of personal identity and human culture, and his chief subject in fiction, “the human condition.” Jeffrey Renard Allen, in a review in Christian Century, said of Foreign Studies that the stories' subject matter is “the mystery of identity.” Allen concluded that: “If Endo's characters are alienated from the West, they are equally alienated from themselves. … Given the dark recesses of the soul, we are all foreigners.” As critic Marleigh Grayer Ryan remarked, Endo's representation of “profound cultural disjunction” ultimately “leads us to the most serious questions about the human condition.”

Principal Works

Aika 1965

Ryugaku [Foreign Studies] 1965

Yumoa shosetsu shu 1974

Kitsunegata tanukigata 1976

Juichi no iro garasu 1979

Stained Glass Elegies: Stories [includes translations of stories from Aika and Juichi no iro garasu] 1984

The Final Martyrs: Stories 1993

Shiroihito [White Man] (novel) 1955

Chinmoku [Silence] (novel) 1966

Iesu no shogai [A Life of Jesus] (nonfiction) 1973

Samurai [The Samurai] (novel) 1980

Sukyandaru [Scandal] (novel) 1986

Fukai kawa [Deep River] (novel) 1993


John B. Breslin (review date 1985)

SOURCE: “Shusaku Endo: Martyrs and Moralists,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 15, No. 25, June 23, 1985, p. 10.

[In the following review, Breslin discusses religious themes in Endo's Stained Glass Elegies.]

God and death, the ineffable and the irrevocable, haunt these stories as they do the more well-known novels of Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic novelist whose considerable oeuvre is steadily, if slowly, making its way into English. These 11 short stories represent two decades of Endo's work, from 1959 to 1977, and have been selected, the translator informs us, “with the aim of demonstrating the range of the author's talents in the short story form.”...

(The entire section is 933 words.)

Norma B. Williamson (review date 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Stained Glass Elegies, in National Review, Vol. 38, No. 5, March 28, 1986, pp. 68–9.

[In the following review, Williamson focuses on the theme of Japanese Christianity in Endo's Stained Glass Elegies.]

This is one of those rare instances when a book's title is perfectly appropriate to its contents, for, in this delicately wrought collection of stories, the most ordinary aspects of life are viewed as if through stained glass, revealing previously unseen colors and shadings. In addition, Endo's prose has the elegance and economy of poetry. Each word is weighted with meaning. Endo writes of “Old Friends,” “The War Generation,”...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Sidney DeVere Brown (review date 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Stained Glass Elegies, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 4, Autumn, 1986, pp. 688–89.

[In the following review, Brown considers the theme of heroism in Endo's Stained Glass Elegies.]

That fiction is principally autobiography in the hands of modern Japanese writers becomes evident in the eleven short stories which make up Stained Glass Elegies. At first glance, Shūsaku Endō's self-revelation takes on the quality of medical naturalism, as he describes his massive lung surgery in graphic detail. The reader is impelled to cry “Enough!” at the bloody descriptions, until he realizes that the hospital room provides the setting,...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Van C. Gessel (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Salvation of the Weak: Endo Shusaku,” in his The Sting of Life: Four Contemporary Japanese Novelists, Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 233–41, 243–49, 257–68, 280–81.

[In the following excerpt, Gessel—who has translated many of Endo's novels and story collections into English—discusses the “moral idealism” of Endo's fiction, as exemplified in the stories: “Despicable Bastard,” “My Belongings,” “The Day Before,” and “Mothers.”]

… The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. … But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God...

(The entire section is 11043 words.)

Marleigh Grayer Ryan (review date 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Foreign Studies, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 196–97.

[In the following review, Ryan discusses Endo's treatment of the experiences of Japanese in Europe as a means of expressing broader concerns about the human condition.]

In three tragic stories of varying size and dimension [in Foreign Studies] Shusaku Endo conveys with striking intensity the experience of the Japanese in Europe. It is clear from his introductory remarks that Endo is drawing on the memory of his own life in France, a life that must have been filled with profound psychological and physical pain.

In the first...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

John B. Breslin (review date 1990)

SOURCE: “Pilgrim Between Two Worlds,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 20, No. 18, May 6, 1990, p. 8.

[In the following review of Endo's Foreign Studies, Breslin discusses the theme of culture clash between Japan and the West.]

I had just finished teaching Shusaku Endo's novel Silence in an undergraduate course on Catholic fiction when Foreign Studies arrived for review. As always, Silence provoked a variety of responses among the students who found its hero, the 16th-century Portuguese Jesuit Sebastian Rodrigues, alternately an arrogant Westerner intent on winning glory as a missionary or martyr, and a sympathetic victim of a cruel...

(The entire section is 1100 words.)

Scott Baldauf (review date 1990)

SOURCE: “Between Two Cultures,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 82, No. 169, July 27, 1990, p. 13.

[In the following review of Foreign Studies, Baldauf discusses Endo's focus on the persecution of Christians in Japan.]

When Portuguese missionaries landed in Japan in 1549, they proclaimed the Japanese to be the most spiritual race in Asia. Peasants and noblemen converted by the hundreds of thousands.

Fearing a loss of sovereignty, Japanese warlords booted the Portuguese out in 1614, and Japanese converts were forced to recant or face torture and death. Until the arrival of Admiral Matthew Calbraith Perry's warships some 240 years later,...

(The entire section is 622 words.)

Jeffery Renard Allen (review date 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Foreign Studies, in Christian Century, Vol. 107, No. 30, October 24, 1990, pp. 973–74.

[In the following review of Foreign Studies, Allen discusses the alienation felt by Japanese intellectuals in the West, concluding that Endo's “true subject” is “the mystery of identity.”]

The clash of cultures is an old theme of universal relevance. Shusaku Endo is a Japanese Roman Catholic who writes about the social and cultural distances between the East and the West. [Foreign Studies] is a collection of three stories first published in Japan in 1965 and now translated by Mark Williams. All three stories concern Japanese...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Elizabeth Beverly (review date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Tyranny of Our Incarnation,” in Commonweal, Vol. 117, No. 20, November 23, 1990, pp. 700–02.

[In the following review, Beverly discusses the theme of moral struggle in Endo's Foreign Studies.]

Consider this book [Foreign Studies]. The author calls it a novel even though it consists of one twenty-five-page-long, perfectly realized short story, one swift historical account in twelve pages, and a long (one-hundred-seventy-nine page) narrative that is primarily novelistic in impulse. The book was written in the mid-sixties, in Japanese; finally, in 1989, the English translation appeared. In the preface, the author likens his former authorial self,...

(The entire section is 1249 words.)

Paul Binding (review date 1993)

SOURCE: “Sad in Japan,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 6, No. 250, April 30, 1993, p. 44.

[In the review below, Binding explores Endo's attraction to Catholicism and the autobiographical elements in the collection The Final Martyrs.]

“Dogs and little birds still appear frequently in my fiction,” says the novelist-narrator of the story “Shadows” [in The Final Martyrs], “but they are no mere decorations … Even today, the moist grieving eyes of dogs somehow remind me of the eyes of Christ. This Christ I speak of is, of course, not the Christ filled with assurance of his own way of life. It is the weary Christ, trampled upon by men and looking up...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Karl Schoenberger (review date 1994)

SOURCE: “A Voice of Moral Reasoning,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, Vol. 38, September 18, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following review, Schoenberger discusses moral struggle and Christian charity in Endo's The Final Martyrs.]

In a country where the conservative Establishment remains unapologetic about the stain of naked aggression during World War II, and where a ranking cabinet minister recently denied the veracity of the Nanking Massacre, Shusaku Endo stands out as a lonely voice in a wasteland of moral reasoning. This Roman Catholic writer, often described as Japan's Graham Greene, has been struggling with the slippery themes of right and wrong, defiance and...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Francis J. Bosha (review date 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Final Martyrs, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1994, p. 712.

[In the below review, Bosha discusses Endo's attempts to reconcile his Japanese and Catholic identities in The Final Martyrs.]

The Final Martyrs is Shusaku Endo's second collection of stories to be translated into English by the capable Van C. Gessel. This new book provides the reader with a fresh opportunity to reassess the work of the now 71-year-old writer whom some have dubbed “the Japanese Graham Greene.”

The title story, which is the collection's earliest, dates back to 1959. Set early in the Meiji era in Uragami, near...

(The entire section is 962 words.)

Francis Mathy (review date 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Final Martyrs, in America, Vol. 171, No. 16, November 19, 1994, p. 28.

[In the following review, Mathy describes Endo's short stories in The Final Martyrs as preliminary sketches for his novels.]

The Final Martyrs is a collection of 11 stories written by the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo between 1959 and 1985. With a writer as parsimonious with his characters, plots and themes as Endo, there is much in these pages that will be familiar to those who have read other works of his. “The Final Martyrs,” the title story, for example, reads like a testing out of themes he would later develop in his novel Silence and his...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

Patricia O'Connell (review date 1995)

SOURCE: “Deep Endo,” in Commonweal, Vol. 112, No. 10, May 19, 1995, pp. 34–5.

[In the following excerpt, O'Connell describes Endo's short fiction as either “intriguing or exasperating.”]

In two newly translated volumes, a novel and a story collection, Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo reiterates and sometimes expands upon his major theme—the frustration of trying to fuse Western Christianity and Eastern culture. …

Familiar themes also resonate throughout his second story collection. In the title story of The Final Martyrs, Endo again reveals his fascination with apostasy. In “Shadows,” an epistolary piece, we see a grown man...

(The entire section is 386 words.)

Further Reading


Billington, Rachel. “A Long Way from Tokyo.” New York Times (6 May 1990): 34.

Review of Foreign Studies in which Billington discusses central themes in Endo's fiction.

Endo, Shusaku with Kazumi Yamagata. “Mr. Shusaku Endo Talks about His Life and Works as a Catholic Writer.” Chesterton Review 12, No. 4 (November 1986): 493–506.

Interview with Endo by Professor Yamagata, a Japanese literary critic.

A review of The Final Martyrs, by Shusaku Endo. Kirkus Reviews 62, No. 13 (1 July 1994): 865.

Discusses central thematic concerns and...

(The entire section is 255 words.)