Shūsaku Endō

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Shūsaku Endō Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2668

Shsaku End has been called a “Japanese Graham Greene” by several enthusiastic Western critics. For a writer to be so compared with a successful, highly visible novelist such as Greene is frequently a heavy burden. Whatever the actual merits of a writer so described, a reader too often reminded of a resemblance to another writer will be tempted to dismiss the writer’s work as either inferior to that of the presumed counterpart or merely derivative. In introducing a Japanese writer to a Western audience, however, such comparisons can be useful, even indispensable—and, in this case, entirely apropos. End was one of the few Catholic novelists in the East, and his compelling though sinful and often stumbling characters captivate and endear themselves to the reader in the same way that Greene’s faltering saints do.

A more pertinent comparison, however, could be drawn between End and the American Catholic novelist Walker Percy. Percy’s seriocomic exploration of the disintegration of authentic Christianity in the jaded West and his attempts to redeem it novelistically from its secular trappings resemble End’s own agenda in addressing both his Eastern and his Western readers. Like Percy himself, End saw his task as taking Jesus out of the realm of commonplaces in his native culture, disarming his Japanese readers and getting past their syncretizing defenses. The key themes in his work are nearly always intertwined with an evocation of Japan as a “mudswamp,” that is, a land pervaded by moral apathy and a desperate need to find an ethical center rooted in eternal values—something that, in End’s view, only Christianity can ultimately provide.

End’s Christianity emanates from a childhood conversion to Catholicism, a Catholicism tempered by an education in France, where he was exposed to such French Catholic writers as François Mauriac, Paul Claudel, and Georges Bernanos. End recognized that as a Japanese Christian he was a walking oxymoron, an anomaly in his native culture. His own faith, he candidly admits in Silence, was a struggle against tradition and cultural identity: 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 bloodhas 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.

When End looked at his nation through the eyes of a believing Christian, he saw a “swamp” that “sucks up all sorts of ideologies, transforming them into itself and distorting them in the process.” As a Christian novelist whose readers have no “objective correlatives” for the concepts he wished his fiction to incarnate, End saw his personal task as a novelist much differently from his contemporaries in Japan. Rather than mirroring the moral and social malaise about him, End sought to foster and exemplify such religious concepts as sin, redemption, and resurrection.

Like most works in translation, End’s novels have been brought into English not in the order in which they appeared in his native country but in the order of the prestige and interest they have engendered in the West. It is possible, then, to get a somewhat distorted view of End’s concerns and craft if one considers his work only in terms of what is available in English translation. In fact, End’s long fiction shows clear signs of development and maturation over time, and can be best and most conveniently discussed and analyzed within two main periods.

First period

The first period covers 1953-1959, the years immediately following his return to Japan from France and during which End wrote the short work Aden made (1954; till Aden) and five novels. Each dramatizes, in End’s words, the Japanese “numbness to sin and guilt” by juxtaposing it to the conventional Christianized conscience of postwar Europe. End’s earliest novels, untranslated into English, bear the marks of a genuinely talented writer who is still seeking the most appropriate voice and characterization to express his thematic vision. The early short piece Aden made and the novels Shiroi hito (white men), and Kiiroi hito (yellow men) deal graphically with the spiritual contrasts between East and West in the postwar period but with thin characterization and heavy sentimentality.

The Sea and Poison and Volcano

End’s first two important novels, The Sea and Poison and Volcano, emerged as flawed but stirring problem works that scathingly indict the Japanese conscience for its insensitivity to the basic humanitarian impulse End saw in Western Christian nations. Set six months before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Sea and Poison stands out as particularly stirring and harrowing thematically in its exploration of the inhumane operations performed by the Japanese on captured American pilots during World War II and their impact on two young medical interns. Volcano is the first End novel that features fully drawn, credible characters, examining the complex relationship between a defrocked French priest and a Japanese volcanologist as they grapple with the natural and the supernatural at the foot of a newly active volcano.

Wonderful Fool

At the end of this period, End published what may be his most characteristic and ultimately most enduring novel for Western readers, Wonderful Fool. Because Wonderful Fool is a transitional work that demonstrates End’s versatility as a novelist with a penchant for combining humor and pathos in his pursuit of a serious theme, and that bridges the gap between End’s two periods, it warrants special attention. In this novel, End’s comicnarrative style merges with a mature grasp of characterization to balance his central themes. Wonderful Fool features asprotagonist the bumbling Gaston “Gas” Bonaparte, a “fool for Christ’s sake” whose selflessness and genuine love for his fellow humans reflect the Christlike attributes that End wants his reader to recognize. Gaston is a “fool” in a Shakespearean sense, one who may unexpectedly speak as well as live the truth in a most poignant way.

Set twelve years after the end of World War II, Wonderful Fool tells the story of Gaston Bonaparte, a bona fide descendant of Napoleon himself, who arrives in Japan on a third-rate steamer, surprising his sometime pen pal, Takamori, a clerk, and Takamori’s sister, Tomoe. After their first meeting, neither Takamori nor Tomoe could have suspected that Gas, as they come to call him, is a failed French seminary student who has launched out on his own to spread the news of faith and love to the long-neglected Orient. Upon first acquaintance, Gas seems to be a bumbling, clumsy oaf, well-intentioned but utterly ineffectual. In an early encounter, the gangly, uncoordinated Frenchman scandalizes his Japanese hosts by brandishing a loincloth in the place of table napkin. Later, he mistakes the advances of a prostitute for the simple congeniality of Japanese people.

Gas is clearly a stranger in a strange land, a wayfarer whose language and whose thought processes set him apart from everyone. Eventually Gas leaves behind the warmth and comfort of Takamori’s home to set out on his own pilgrimage, accompanied only by the mongrel dog that has taken up with him. As Gas moves through the squalor of Tokyo’s underworld, he steadily gropes toward his own destiny, toward his own Gethsemane and later his own Golgotha.

The key relationship in the novel, however, occurs between Gas and the gangster End. Kidnapped by End, Gas repeatedly manifests the innocence and love that is uncommon in the streets of Tokyo, endearing himself to the hardened and morally drained underworld figure. Compelled by End to assist him in getting revenge against another criminal, Gas thwarts him twice and eventually dies in saving both men from killing each other. Gas’s climactic and heroic acts on behalf of two criminals beyond redemption earn for him the reverence from Takamori and Tomoe that his tenderness and tolerance so clearly warrant. In a final scene, Gas, apparently drowned in his mission of mercy, is remembered as a “lone egret, flapping snow-white wings,” a traditional Japanese figure of peace and transfiguration.

Wonderful Fool is thus a parable about faith, the inevitable fate of a trusting soul who determinedly opens his life and his heart to all he encounters. His naïveté leads him to offend every significant social norm of Japanese society and even most patterns of everyday common sense. The final scenes of the novel powerfully capture End’s vision of contemporary Japan: a mudswamp in which a wise fool battles with all of his strength to redeem two hoodlums who want neither redemption nor life, but whom he redeems all the same.

Second period

The second period in End’s development as a novelist comprises his work after 1963 and includes his most celebrated works, exemplified in Silence, When I Whistle, and The Samurai. Silence and The Samurai are historical novels that focus attention intently on Japan’s often ferocious rejection of Christianity in the seventeenth century and mirror its modern-day ambivalence toward Christianity; these works are best examined together.

Because few of End’s lighter, more comic novels and his numerous historical and theological essays—works no less interesting and provoking than his other works—have been translated for Western readers, it is possible for such readers to form a view of End as a rather somber, overly moralistic writer. Certainly, if one knew only End’s interpretive biography, A Life of Jesus, and his historical novels, Silence and The Samurai, one would gain a distorted picture of both his range of concerns and his innovation as a writer. Nevertheless, Silence and The Samurai are rightly regarded as two of End’s major works, and clearly they have drawn the most critical attention and applause in the West. They detail the dismal record of Christianity in Japan, bitterly chronicling both the shallow ambitions of the missionaries who dared to invade the Japanese shores in the seventeenth century and the moral malaise of the Japanese themselves, who first welcomed the visitors and then condemned them to brutal martyrdom.


Silence is a dark epistolary novel of apostasy and betrayal, a narrative as told from the perspective of a Portuguese missionary priest. It is a tale of faith and faithlessness among both Western and Eastern men, men whose integrity as believers and as human beings is under constant attack. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Edo emperors came to the conclusion that Christianity did not “fit” Japan, banishing Christian missionaries and persecuting their flocks of converts. In Silence, End turns that conclusion on its head, establishing that Christianity and Christ fit nowhere yet everywhere, inasmuch as they dramatize and respond to humankind’s homelessness in the world, the loneliness of human beings, and their forlorn hope of finding compensation for the pain of life in eternity, if at all.

The Samurai

In The Samurai, written nearly fifteen years after Silence, End again picks up the themes of martyrdom and betrayal. As a novel, it reminds many readers of Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940) and its heroic whiskey priest. The Samurai focuses on the enduring faith of a humble, despised servant, Rokuemon Hasekura, a warrior in the service of a powerful feudal lord in seventeenth century Japan, and his cohorts, who escort Father Velasco, an overly ambitious Franciscan missionary, from Japan to Mexico to Rome in his attempt to secure Japanese trading privileges with the West. Velasco’s aim is to use his diplomacy to become bishop of Japan. Hasekura is a reluctant envoy who first despises the emaciated man on the cross who serves as the symbol of this baffling faith Velasco represents and later embraces him as the only light in a civilization growing darker day by day. The Samurai takes the reader on the ill-fated diplomatic journey of Velasco and Hasekura, during which both men, stripped of their illusions about self and motive, embrace a common faith. The two return to Japan as fools for Christ’s sake, true believers without pretense or pride, facing inevitable martyrdom.

When I Whistle

Between these two historical novels, End wrote When I Whistle, a study of contemporary Japan and the relationship between two generations that focuses on a father and son. Here End reveals another aspect of his talent, the ability to write with realism and subtlety, avoiding sentimentality while evoking the antiseptic, forbidding images of hospitals and technology gone mad. Effectively using flashbacks from prewar and postwar Japan, End ironically juxtaposes the “new” Japan with the old and finds modern Japan, presumably more open to the West, in its own way even less congenial to Christian values and to simple human kindness. Ozu, the protagonist, is a humble clerk; his ignorance and general nostalgia for the older Japan are in vivid contrast to the preoccupations of his more successful and sophisticated son, Eiichi.

Eiichi is an opportunistic doctor willing to do anything to rise within his profession. His Japan is that of the grim Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima: minimalistic, technological, spiritually barren. Ozu longs for the Japan just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in which “at last the time for a confrontation between the spiritual civilization of Japan and the material civilization of a foreign country has come!” Father and son are united at the hospital bed of Ozu’s old flame from grammar school days, Aiko, who is dying of cancer. For Eiichi and the other young doctors, Aiko is not a person deserving of care, attention, and love but a convenient depository for experimental cancer treatments. Ozu parts from his old love and his son in muffled despair, confronting a predatory Japan conquering no longer with bayonets or aircraft but with sheer economic and technological prowess, devoid of a spiritual center.

Christian vision

End’s early works, such as Volcano and The Sea and Poison, cleared his vision and provided the foundation for transitional works such as Wonderful Fool and, later, more mature works such as Silence and When I Whistle. The backdrop for each of these novels and, indeed, all of End’s works is the congenital failure of Japanese culture to nurture a transcendent faith and to recognize the eternal relevance of such a faith for its people. In the novels, End attempts to craft an authentically Eastern vision of Christian faith obstinate enough to endure even in soils that have never been fertile for its growth.

The Christian vision of Shsaku End thus has at its center a dramatically Eastern Jesus, the humble but single-minded “fool” who abandons all to reach those who are not so much hostile as they are indifferent, not so much faithless as they are cynical. This “foolish” Jesus—distinguished from the often bombastic and authoritarian Jesus imported from the West—drives his readers beyond the shallow, impotent Christianity lurking behind much modern faith. To reach them, End is challenged to defamiliarize Christ in his conventionally distant and supernaturally holy character, portraying him instead as a profoundly self-sacrificing, tender, and moral human being—an elder brother, not an omnipotent Lord.

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, End’s ancient brother in the Catholic faith, once wrote, “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” In commenting on this passage, the American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once remarked, “No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.” Shsaku End refuses to turn away from the dragon or the storyteller, and he asks of his audience—East or West—the same courage.

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