Shūsaku Endō 1923-1996
Japanese novelist, short story writer, essayist, and playwright.
Regarded as one of Japan's most important contemporary novelists, Endō explored themes related to the conflict between Christianity and indigenous Japanese culture, Eastern and Western morality, and belief and skepticism. As a Roman Catholic in a largely Buddhist country, Endō frequently drew on his minority status to dramatize what he considered modern Japan's spiritual indifference. Often compared to such Catholic writers as Graham Greene and François Mauriac, Endō wrote passionately moral fiction in a realistic style frequently embellished with lyricism and humor.
Born in Tokyo in 1923, Endō spent his early childhood in Manchuria. After his parents divorced, he and his mother returned to Japan to live with a Catholic aunt. His mother soon converted to Catholicism, and at the age of eleven Endō was baptized, an event he later described as the most crucial of his life. At the time, however, Endō felt pressured to become a Catholic and compared the feeling to putting on an ill-fitting suit. Endō was uncomfortable with his Catholicism for many years, but instead of abandoning his faith he clung to it, exploring his doubts in his writing. Endō battled lung disease his entire life, and because of his ill health was exempted from service in World War II. He studied French literature at Keio University and later became one of the first postwar Japanese students to attend a foreign school, enrolling in the University of Lyons in 1950 to pursue his interest in twentieth-century Catholic fiction. Endō's first novel, Shiroi hito (1955; White Man), won the Akutagawa Prize, an award for promising young Japanese writers. Endō was a prolific writer, and won nearly every major Japanese literary award and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature several times before his death at the age of seventy-three.
Much of Endō's work is autobiographical in nature, drawing on his experience as a member of the Catholic minority in Japan. Endō often portrayed Japan as lacking spirituality and morality. In his novels Kazan (1959; Volcano) and Chinmoku (1966; Silence), Christian Westerners are unable to survive in Japan, forced to martyr themselves or apostatize. In the same way, in Endō's short story collection Foreign Studies (1989), Japanese Christians cannot survive in the Christian West. The characters who appear in these stories are alienated from Japan, the Christian West, and even themselves. The struggle between defiance and cowardice, martyrdom and apostasy, consume these works, and the reader is left with very little hope that faith can survive. However, as Endō's faith took root, the characters in his fiction began to embrace their faith. More Christ-like characters appear who retain their faith even in the face of rejection and betrayal, as in Obaka-san (1959; Wonderful Fool). Endō began to express a maternal Christianity with the focus on forgiveness. His portrayal of this aspect of the religion made it more understandable to an Eastern audience and more compatible with Japanese culture. Further influenced by his religious beliefs, Endō composed Umi to Dokuyaku (1958; The Sea and Poison). In this exploration on the consequences of amorality, Endō attacks Japan's World War II-era medical establishment, describing the recruiting and training of participants in the vivisection of an American POW. In Scandal (1988) the protagonist, Suguro, closely resembles Endō himself: he is an older, well-respected Japanese writer who has been nominated for a major literary award. Suguro finds himself at risk of losing his prize and his reputation as he learns of a mysterious look-alike who haunts Tokyo's underworld of perversion and sadomasochism. Thematically, Scandal breaks from Endō's earlier explorations on the nature of sin to explore the nature of evil and the fundamental differences between the two. Iesu no shogai (1973; A Life of Jesus), his one foray into pure theology, embodies Endō's notion of Christ as a compassionate, earthly figure worthy of adoration less for his divinity and miracles than for his willingness to stay by the side of the suffering, the dying, and the weak.
Endō is perhaps the most popular Japanese writer in the West, and many critics theorize that it is his Christianity that makes his work more accessible to the Western reader. Many reviewers assert that the issues of cultural conflict prevalent in his fiction are universal themes that make his work powerful and substantive. Endō has been praised as courageous in addressing questions of faith and sin in his work, in which his understated style and his infusion of humor prevent his moralizing from becoming off-putting to the reader.