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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1427

First published: Iesu no shōgai, 1973 (English translation, 1978)

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Edition(s) used: A Life of Jesus, translated by Richard A. Schuchert. New York: Paulist Press, 1978

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Biblical studies; biography

Core issue(s): Agape; Asians or Asian Americans; the Beatitudes; compassion; Gospels; Jesus Christ


In 1966 Shūsaku Endō published Chinmoku (Silence, 1969), a novel depicting the conflict between Catholic missionaries in Japan and the samurai government, which was determined to eliminate Christianity from the country. Captured missionaries were required to trample on an image of Christ called a fumie; Endō employs this image of a much-trampled-on Christ to create an image of a helpless, suffering, and loving Jesus very different from traditional European images of a triumphant, perfect Christ. After finishing this novel, Endō set himself the task of drawing a picture of Christ that other Japanese could understand, an actual Jesus rather than the ideal one of theologians and philosophers.

The first fruits of his biblical research were serialized between 1970 and 1973 in the magazine Shinchō; these working notes were compiled and published in June of 1973 as Shikai no hotori (near the Dead Sea). Endō polished and reorganized these notes and published his A Life of Jesus three months later, in September of 1973.

The title of the book is the first clue to Endō’s aim in writing the work; unlike the many volumes of nineteenth century piety entitled The Life of Christ, Endō’s work is simply A Life of Jesus. Christ is the anointed one, the king, the Messiah; Jesus is the human person, the concrete man, the actual living creature untouched by centuries of idealizing art and philosophy. Endō begins by trying to summon up for other Japanese the face of Jesus, the ordinary face of a man whose name was one of the most common names for men at that time.

If Endō finds anything at all unusual about the person of Jesus, it is a premature understanding reflected in his face, an understanding of people’s suffering and need for love. The Japanese writer draws a picture of Nazareth that is very realistic, emphasizing the misery and poverty of daily life. Against this background, Jesus moves as the Compassionate One, demonstrating and developing a love that will be his undoing as his followers come to misunderstand his powers of healing and compassion as a more earthly kind of power. In Endō’s portrait of Jesus there is, of course, a considerable Buddhist influence; Jesus as the Compassionate One who understands people’s suffering and suffers with them is very close to Buddha, who suffers, understands, and shows compassion.

Perhaps the greatest stumbling blocks for Japanese examining the life of Jesus and the content of the Gospels are the miracles that Jesus worked and the mystery of the Resurrection. Endō treads carefully in dealing with these matters, always emphasizing the miraculous nature of Jesus’ unending love. Devout Christians may experience the discomfort that early reviewers of the book expressed with Endō’s handling of the Resurrection; for the Japanese writer it is simply unimportant whether Jesus physically rose from the dead. What is miraculous is that the rather cowardly followers of Jesus, most of whom had mistaken the kingdom of God for a temporal domain, were transformed after Jesus’ death into courageous believers willing to suffer the pain of death to spread the message of the Gospels. The source of this transformation, Endō believes, was the memory of the all-encompassing love of Jesus.

Another stroke of Endō’s brush that furthers the inculturation of Jesus for Japanese readers is an emphasis on the maternal aspect of Jesus’ love. Endō shows this love first developing in Jesus’ encounter with John the Baptist. The charismatic prophet is portrayed as representing the spirituality of the Old Testament, a patriarchal tradition of anger, prophecy, and destruction. Endō shows Jesus reacting against this harshness, judging it to be inadequate for the tired people of his home and travels. Jesus’ heart, in Endō’s hands, becomes the heart of a mother who knows the exhaustion of her children and wants nothing more than to abide with them and ease their pain.

It is no surprise, then, that at the heart of Endō’s work, the Beatitudes are invoked repeatedly. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is a thread often used in Endō’s tapestry. He shows Jesus to be chiefly concerned with the ordinary, with the actual, with the suffering, unable to forget the misery of people’s lives even as his disciples and the crowds following him begin to imagine him invested with earthly power. Endō sees this maternal love as helpless in the face of the scheming world, and his portrait of the Passion pits this helpless, unrelenting love against the thwarted ambitions of a disillusioned crowd only too happy to see the symbol of their disappointment put to death.

Endō’s foray into biblical studies would prove to be very fruitful for him as a novelist. He would write and rewrite the story of a helpless love betrayed by someone with earthly ambition. His portrait of Judas in A Life of Jesus is a sympathetic one, a picture of a man who scorns Jesus’ otherworldliness but is unable to divest himself of a haunting love of him. This relationship is echoed in Endō’s final novel, Dipu riba (1993; Deep River, 1994), in which Endō takes his Japanese inculturation of Christianity a step further by questioning the arrogance of monotheistic belief.

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Christian Themes

A Life of Jesus portrays the unconditional, relentless, almost doglike love of Jesus. Endō sees Christ as an unforgettable figure and a permanent companion for all who encounter him. Sin functions for Endō as a sign of humanity, a weight pulling the individual deeper toward the center of other people, and somehow creating a capacity to understand others. After the encounter with Christ, the depth of humanity determines the depth of love the individual is capable of.

Endō avoids any talk of Christ as hero or Christ as king; he sees Christ as doomed to earthly failure, a helpless figure whose message no one understood. This portrait is meant to appeal to a Japanese consciousness that has, historically, seen a great deal of nobility in failure, but Endō’s theology has points in common with Western writers like Søren Kierkegaard. The Danish writer struggled to valorize the actual as opposed to the ideal world that philosophers (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in particular) had created. Kierkegaard complains that Hegel built ideal castles with no intention of living in them; Endō complains that the Christ of the West lacks actual dimensions, as well as an actual face. Without this actuality, Jesus cannot be embraced by the imagination.

Encountering the actual Jesus begins a kind of psychological reaction in the individual, according to Endō’s view. Jesus becomes movement (hataraki) or process in the individual mind. This sea change in the individual is the essential aspect of Christianity for Endō. It does not matter whether water became wine, or whether the loaves and fishes were mysteriously multiplied; what matters is the profound change that the world recognized in some cowardly fishermen who changed the dimensions of the world.

Sources for Further Study

  • Gessel, Van. The Sting of Life: Four Contemporary Japanese Novelists. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. The author looks at Endō and three of his contemporaries, and claims that their fiction brings something new to the exhausted form of the Japanese “I” novel. The chapter on Endō, entitled “The Salvation of the Weak,” connects with some of the Christian themes.
  • Kasuga, Hideyuki. “Endo and Yuishiki Buddhism: Solving the Dualistic Dilemma.” Bulletin of Nagoya Gakuin University 17, no. 1 (2005): 35-46. This article ties together Endō’s interest in Carl Jung and his discovery of the Yuishiki (Only Consciousness) sect of Buddhism. Endō’s excitement at finding a Buddhist version of the Unconscious is described.
  • Morton, Leith. The Image of Christ in the Fiction of Endo Shusaku. Melbourne: Japanese Studies Center, 1994. Morton traces Endō’s treatment of Christian themes from the early Umi to dokuyaku (1957; The Sea and Poison, 1972) to Sukyandaru (1986; Scandal, 1988). Interesting for his comparison of Francis Xavier’s and Matteo Ricci’s respective attempts to modify Christianity for Japan and China.
  • Williams, Mark B. Endō Shūsaku: A Literature of Reconciliation. London: Routledge, 1999. Williams was perhaps the first critic to notice that the integrity of Endō’s spirituality derives from something beyond an attempt to fuse East and West. Williams traces Endō’s concern with the unconscious and his interest in Jung through the major works.

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