Shūsaku Endō

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Kazumi Yamagata (interview date November 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5104

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

[In the following interview, Endō and Yamagata discuss Endō's Japanese-Christian upbringing and the unique perspective it gives his writing.]

Shusaku Endo (1923-) is one of the foremost contemporary writers in Japan. He is also Chairman of the Japan PEN Club and a graduate of Keio University who specialised in French Literature. He has been a member of the Catholic Church since his childhood. In his school-days, he wrote an essay entitled “Gods and God” (1945), and after graduation, he published an essay entitled “The Problems of Catholic Writers.” In 1950, he received a scholarship and went over to Lyons, France, to study contemporary Catholic literature in France. He stayed in France for two years and a half. After returning to Japan, he began to write profusely; he published “Metaphysical Criticism” (1954), “Christianity and Literature” (1954) and his first story, “To Aden” (1954). The following year, his story The White People, was awarded the thirty-third Akutagawa Prize (the most honourable literary prize in contemporary Japan), which launched Endo into the literary world. After that he published The Yellow People.

The following are the titles of his main works: The Sea and the Poison (1958) in which he depicts a vivisection actually done in war-time Japan. Obaka-san (Wonderful Fool, 1959) is a novel which entertainingly describes a wise fool. Chinmoku (Silence, 1966), his major work, which deals with loss of faith because of severe persecution. In 1973, he wrote On the Coast of the Dead Sea, a double-plotted story concerning a group of characters connecting Jesus and a group of Japanese pilgrims. The Resurrection of Jesus (1973) and The Birth of Christ (1978) are twin works about how Jesus was recognised as the Christ. The Samurai (1978) is a story of a Japanese knight who went over to Europe and was baptised. And Scandal (1986), a story in which the hero, a famous Christian writer, almost at the end of his career as a writer, suffers some very “evil” experiences.


Yamagata: First, I should like to ask you a very fundamental question: How, in the relationship of Japan and the Western world, have you regarded yourself, first, as a Catholic believer, and secondly, as a Catholic writer? Would you speak to the readers of the Chesterton Review about how you as a believer and a writer have thought of the relationship between the Japanese mentality and European Catholicism?

Endo: As I am a Japanese novelist, by necessity I write in Japanese. And those readers who read what I write are generally Japanese. The Japanese language is not a language developed under the influence of Christianity; it is a language immersed in other ways of thinking. That is the first point. The second point is concerned with my readers. The number of Christians in Japan is about one million, and of this million Christians about four hundred thousand read, or are interested, in literature. Thus most of the Japanese readers of literature are indifferent to Christianity. Or, even if they know something theoretical about Christianity, they are not believers, or they were not brought up in the atmosphere of Christianity. We must write with those readers in mind. At the same time, I myself am a Japanese who has been living in such a situation, and naturally I have been long forced to be conscious that my Japanese sensibility is separated so far from Christian ways of thinking. The most important problem for me has been how I should communicate my novels to those Japanese readers who are indifferent to Christianity or who are without the Christian tradition. Anyway, it is quite natural that in my case the problem of Christianity versus the Japanese should come to the foreground.

As I often say, not speaking literally, of course, I did not become a Christian of my own will; I became a Christian because my mother was a Christian. I also sometimes say, speaking metaphorically, that I have often felt as if I were dressed in clothes which do not fit me. Of course, I was often tempted to forsake this dress, but my attachment to my mother was the grace that prevented me from doing so. This fact is very important to me, worth being underlined. This thought was later to become a very important element when I got to think of the “motherly” compassion of God. Anyway, because my attachment to my mother would not permit me to forsake Christianity, I made one decision. I wondered whether it was possible for me to reshape this Western dress that my mother gave me and make it fit the Japanese body; that is, whether it was possible to adapt Christianity to our mentality without distorting Christianity. And I decided that I should make this problem the main theme of my novels!

With this purpose in mind, I have been writing novels; but then, of course, I had first to deal with the problem of the identity of the Japanese people whose inherited ideas are quite different from Christian ideas. This situation presents a very complicated problem, a very difficult one, but I might say this. We have rather many Buddhists here, and whether they are Buddhists, or Shintoists, or non-believers, the Japanese have an underlying sense of religion; that is, they feel that a Cosmic Life operates in various forms in man and in other beings. This feeling is not firmly dogmatic as we find Christianity to be, but I think it is a feeling like religion, because this very feeling makes connections between man and what is beyond man. This is the feeling shared by Japanese Buddhists, Shintoists, and non-believers in their deep psyche, the subconscious.

Were you conscious of this Inner Life even when you began to write novels?

Yes, I was, because it was in my school-days that I wrote my first essay on “Gods and God.” Gods of course, represents pantheism which means an attitude of finding a god, a Life, in everything, but, at that time, I did not clearly understand how Japanese pantheism was different from Greek pantheism. Pantheism, for us, means that the Japanese feel in their subconscious the possibility of communication or communion between man and other beings on the common ground of the great Life. I came to be aware of this feeling even more strongly since I became a Christian.

Did you feel this way before you became a Christian?

Yes, of course, but vaguely. But, since as a child I was constrained, as it were, to become a Christian, my Japanese mentality was highlighted from the Christian side, just as in a picture the foreground is highlighted by the background. The problem I was at most pains to solve was that the Christianity which I was taught, that is, the Christianity of fifty years ago which was under the shadow of the end of the nineteenth century and of the beginning of the twentieth century, seemed to indicate that God was outside man. We felt as if we did not look within to find God, but looked out of ourselves up to God. We found this feeling of “outside one-self” in Christianity to be the concept on which the image of God was somehow built. Secondly, the image of God which the old Christianity seemed to present was that of a God of punishment and anger.

And of justice?

Yes, a God of justice—this aspect was emphasised, and the God who came to Japan was rather without the sense of tenderness or of co-suffering. The God in Japan from the Meiji Era to the time of my baptism was exactly like that—no need to refer to the Protestant God in this respect. These two points are the main elements that made up the situation in which the Western dress I put on was unsuitable to me. That which is beyond self, can it be within self and envelop self? The great Life outside self, can it harmonise with the Japanese mentality? Secondly, is the angry and punishing God the only God? Whenever we imported a foreign religion, we accepted that religion by transforming it in accordance with our spiritual climate. Buddhism came to Japan via China and Korea in the form of the co-suffering and forgiving Buddha, not in the form of the just, angry, and punishing Buddha. This transformation made it possible for Buddhism to be established in our country.

I have been dealing with this problem in some of my novels, wondering if this transformed version is truly the original Christian doctrine. I have been speaking of Japan as a sort of “marsh” by which I mean that Japan is a country which transforms the religions that it accepts; if the just God continues to be exclusively emphasised, Christianity, when imported to Japan, will have its roots, rotted in this marsh; if it is to survive here, it must indeed be transformed in order to emphasise God's compassion. This I once said through the mouth of the character, Inoue Chikugono-kami in my novel Chinmoku (Silence.). But as the readers of the Chesterton Review know, Christianity itself in Europe and in America has greatly changed since that time of which I speak. That is, European Christianity became tired of the logic of Western Christianity.

Then we may say that European Christianity is not the Christianity, but only one version of it?

Yes, yes. It was no other than the Europeans themselves who became aware that their form of Christianity had developed in the European ways of thinking, and that that version was not all that Christianity represented. The European people, especially European Catholics, have begun to look at Oriental Christianity in the past twenty years. They have also shown interest in Zen-Buddhism, in other forms of Buddhism, and in Hinduism. American people, as well, have turned their eyes to the East. In this way, in the past twenty years, an approach to the East has been made from the Western side, and something revolutionary has been happening in the self-consciousness of Christianity.

You say that such a phenomenon began to appear twenty years ago. Then, can I say that, since you began to write novels more than twenty years ago, you anticipated this phenomenon?

Yes, I think you can, though I myself cannot say so.

Perhaps here I should have mentioned Mr. Schmude. Reading his article about you, I say only this: it seems that people like Schmude are aware of this obsession of yours, and have sensed in your novels painful efforts to transform Christianity in order to make it possible for it to take root in Japanese soil.

Ah, yes? So, I should be grateful if you emphasise that point, because the concept and image of God have changed within Christianity. Through its approach to Oriental religion, Christianity came to present not God-outside-man but God-inside-man, that is, a great Life enveloping man.

The presentation of Christianity has changed; but in essence it remains the same?

That's right. The Bible has already said the same thing: Jesus says that the kingdom of God is inside a person. Jesus emphasises this because until His time the people spoke too strongly as if God were outside man.

Indeed, too strongly.

I think so. I judge that such an emphasis happened under the influence of Judaism. I think Jesus transformed Judaism to show that God is inside man. Another influence of Judaism was seen in the angry and punishing God. I think that Jesus showed instead that God was forgiveness and love, a principle which distinguishes decisively the New Testament from the Old. Nevertheless, Christianity grew up in the West, and then it came to be preached in Japan. So, I discovered that another aspect of Christianity in Japan coincides, not totally but greatly, with Oriental Buddhistic ways of thinking. And those Europeans who became aware of this fact approached the East, showing interest in Eastern Christianity. Let's take Mariology as an example to show the difference between the two versions of Christianity. Whereas in the East devotion to Mary was warmly accepted, in the West it seems to me to have been accepted only as a peripheral devotion; and only in comparatively recent times has it been given official approval. As this example shows, Western Christianity had the tendency to emphasise rigorous justice and to disregard motherly love. And it was Europe itself that became tired with this version of Christianity. And moreover, in Christianity, consciousness has been emphasised as rational, as reasonable, in theology; what goes beyond consciousness, what is subconscious, has been refused with fear, with anxiety.

That is shown in the repudiation of Freud by the Church?

Yes, yes, but for the past twenty years the tendency to reconsider the subconscious, that is, what is beyond reason and logic, has been appearing in various forms in professional fields. This trend is now detected in linguistics as well as in religion. Christianity, of course, must needs be influenced by this tendency. Christianity as a rational religion, Christianity as a religion which can be expressed by language, is changing into Christianity which goes beyond reason and language. And we find this version is exactly what the Eastern people have been thinking about—the problem I raised in my novel Chinmoku (Silence). I could later put that problem in a hopeful, bright situation, because I discovered that there were in Christianity elements congenial to the Eastern mind.

Oh, I see. At first you were, as it were, afflicted—torn between pantheism and monotheism when you wrote “Gods and God.” But in this Eastern pantheism, which is the “marsh” itself, you have discovered the illogical. Is it true?

Yes, it is.

Then, what could only be represented as pantheistic now emerged gradually as a positive element, and when Christianity came to Japan and underwent this transformation, it was connected with this positive element. Am I right in understanding it this way?

Yes, you are. I mean that there is in Christianity that which can aufheben [uphold] pantheism; we can find in Christianity Omnipresent Life.

I see. How positive Eastern pantheism has become!

Indeed, it has. Christianity has the power to aufheben pantheism. This upheld pantheism does not present God as outside man, but God as inside both man and other beings; and the important thing is that the latter God aufheben the former God. Pantheism is said to be one-dimensional, but I have come to think that it has the power to bring forth things which are many-dimensional.

I understand. To go back a little, why did you come to write novels? At first you used to write critical essays. After a little while, you wrote a story, “To Aden,” in which you described your response to things European. After this came a story The White People, which suddenly launched you into the world of letters. This was the period of your career as a novelist. Of course, since that time, you have been writing criticism as occasion arises, but if we are to describe you, you are a novelist. Why did you choose a novelist's career?

Well, I am a novelist. That is entirely because of the strife between my being Japanese and being Christian. A critic depends on language, deals in language logically, while for a novelist, what cannot be dealt with by language must come foremost. Therefore, however well a novelist may write, his sincerity must finally reveal itself. When a work is finished, division of intention and performance can easily be detected through the style and imagery of the work. For me, Christianity should not be performance but sincere intention. The most difficult but surest way to get to such Christianity is by being a novelist. A critic can variously write about how far Christianity has become his flesh and blood, but a novelist must verify Christianity by image after image. So, I steered myself to the way of a novelist.

I found that the style of your critical essays is very clear and distinct, and I find, comparatively speaking, that the style of your novels is also clear and distinct, logical in the best sense of the word. Not only the style, but also the structure of your novels is superb. Do these features of your novels have anything to do with your critical activity?

Yes, they have much to do with it.

Just as I expected.

Yes, very much. My strong point as a novelist is structure or composition. I must have prepared the structure of a novel before I set to write it, because I am making something. But that's not all. Structure, in a sense, will come out while the work is going on. With some other writers it may be that an image will call forth another image, but for me the structure creates structure.

Some years ago I wrote a book on Graham Greene, believing that the inherent significance of his works cannot be caught except by reading into the structure of each work. As far as I have read, your novel On the Coast of the Dead Sea has double plots which are parallel with each other, just as we see in William Faulkner's Wild Palms.

Yes, William Faulkner.

Yes; but, in Faulkner's novel, the two plots have nothing to do with each other, while in your novel the two plots, which are separated from each other by distance of time, are, as it were, internally connected with each other. By this technique you seem to have aimed at producing a great effect in the reader's mind. The reader can construct for himself another, a third, plot.

That's right.

And in Chinmoku (Silence), I have found that the narrative structure is perfect except in one point of inconvenience.

Up to now no one has seen my novels from that angle.

I have sometimes done that kind of work, and I hope I will write a book on your works mainly from that angle. Your recent novel Scandal is extremely complicated in its structure; and, unless we are careful, we are liable to misunderstand the intention of the author. As you know, Jean Paul Sartre said that the technique of a writer is equivalent to his metaphysics. A look at your efforts in the technique of composition will never fail to give us an insight into your metaphysics. I understand your object is to catch fish with the net of technique.

Ah yes, I catch with a net!

By the way, I understand that you have been influenced by some foreign writers. Is the Marquis de Sade one of these?

Yes, I have read and studied much of de Sade. The problem of evil has come up.

Don't you think there is something optimistic about de Sade's evil? He may be understood in the context of optimism.

Yes, I have come to think that de Sade's evil is the negative of Christian good; it highlights the positiveness of Christianity by contrast.

Then, how about Mauriac?

I have read and thought really much of Mauriac. I have thought that sin is a prelude to regeneration. One tells a lie because one dreams of happiness that one cannot get. Thus, I think there runs through Christian literature the idea that out of sin comes good, an idea similar to the Buddhistic idea of the co-existence of good and evil. But I felt on hearing the news of Auschwitz that there might be some things with no possibility of salvation. To kill two thousand people in the gas chambers during the day and to listen to the music of Mozart on that very evening! In my twenties, that gave me the greatest shock. It made me feel the deep and horrible nature of man, and, at the same time, I wondered how a writer like Mauriac would deal with such a matter. I have found that no Christian literature has dealt with this topic. I continued to write novels mainly about “sin” in the usual form of Christian literature. But at some stage, I began to feel that I should turn my attention to the problem of “evil.”

George Steiner in his Language and Silence says something to the effect that the greatest enigma is that out of the mildest of European literates sprang Nazism.

And Arthur Koestler says that such a situation arises only when men attempt to reach that which is beyond man's proper limits. In the case of a religion, massacres will happen when people believe that they are executing some duty. In the case of an individual “sin” results while in the case of a group “evil” results. That is roughly what Koestler says. But I think “evil” results not only in the case of a group. Then, I presume Freud's death wish, not the instinct of eros, but the instinct of—


Yes, thanatos. I presume that thanatos has connection with that evil. In my novel, Scandal, I associated Masochism with the problem of evil; whereas before that, I wrote about the world of sin from Chinmoku to The Samurai. So, I can say that my works have traversed the full circle on the plane of sin, as well as on the problem of the relationship of Japan and Christianity, and now I am ready to write exclusively about evil.

Then, you have already made a plan for your next work?

Yes. I will write my next work focusing on Madame Naruse, one of the main characters in Scandal, and publish it in a few years. Madame Naruse is for me just like Mauriac's Thérèse Desqueyroux.

You began to write about Graham Greene while you were young. The problem of Pity—

Some time ago in London I happened to meet George Bull who has written about Greene. We talked about Greene. I believe that the concept of God in Greene's novels has greatly changed from what it was in The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair to what it is in The Travels with my Aunt. I detect some element of Gnosticism there. In The Travels with My Aunt, God doing good and God doing evil are seen as parallel with each other. Of course, Greene himself tries to hide this situation, but it flickers through words in the work. Bull said that Greene has begun to have interest in the daemonic. I myself am rather interested in the diabolic. Anyway, I asked Bull if anyone has written on this aspect of Greene, and he answered “no”. Of course, he would like to do it himself. In some of the novels written before The Travels with My Aunt, Greene's technique was superb, but my present interest in him centres on how he will develop the daemonic in his future works. I am not sure whether he is conscious of this problem or not. I may, of course, have misunderstood him.

Are you interested in G. K. Chesterton?

Yes, I am, but I have not read much of him, though I have always felt that I should read him. Of course, I have read Orthodoxy, and some of his detective stories.

Schmude pointed out the similarity between your Obaka-san (Wonderful Fool) and G. K. Chesterton's writings.

I have not read much of Chesterton, and so I cannot say that I have been influenced by him. But we, being Catholics, our forms of thinking naturally become the same. It is as easy to find in my works G. K. Chesterton as it is to find there Greene and Mauriac.

But, even if we can find points of similarity, the novels of Endo are clearly Endo's.

It cannot be helped.

Greene, since he became a Catholic, had to think of the conflict between his freedom as a writer and the laws of the Church as an establishment; and he says that what an individual writer thinks rarely coincides with the laws of the establishment to which he belongs. He is also thinking of the Soviet Union. He preached, at least to himself, the “virtue” of disloyalty, which should keep a writer free. Mr. Endo, have you suffered such a conflict with the Church?

Well, the Catholic Church in Japan used to be “old,” but not now. When I wrote Chinmoku, I was much rebuked, and some priests even preached at Mass to the congregation telling them not to read my novels. But now my works are the objects of study in the Church. I suffered such conflicts a little, only a little, but the Japanese Church, unlike that of Greene or Mauriac (Mauriac had the performance of his drama prohibited in Bordeaux), has no strong social power. So, even though my books are not sold in Catholic book-stores, the Church need not be troubled, for my books are sold in other stores. And when I heard slanders, I did not receive any actual damage. As time went on, more and more priests and common readers began to read my novels. Different situations—

This I can understand, but—

But my personal problem is another matter. What I detest most is that some people began to go to the Church only after they had read my novels.

Your novels have inclined them to go to the Church?

Yes. That's disgusting. I felt myself to be a hypocrite. When I received such a letter, I felt uncomfortable because I was confident that I was not writing novels with such a purpose in mind. Moreover, I felt that I should be responsible for other persons whom I might be influencing. Non-Christian writers can accept such readers as their fans, but we Catholics are concerned with their souls.

That's exactly what troubled Mauriac?


And that is why he was attacked by Maritain?

Mauriac was afraid of contaminating his readers by the world of carnal desire that he was depicting. But my case is—

Your case is the opposite?

Yes, opposite.

That is to say, literature is not primarily intended to convert people, is it?

That's right. You can go to the Church apart from my novels, but do not put on my novels the responsibility for your soul.

Then, we have come to the problem of literature and Christianity. What do you think about this problem?

I think that the best solution is that of Greene: the way of saying “I am not a Christian writer—my novels happen to have Catholic priests as characters.” I can understand this quite well.

However, to take a nasty view-point, don't you think Greene made his escape in pretending to be like that?

Nasty, yes. I think the matter must be heart-rending to Greene.


I think his response is to the utmost limit. “Happen” … yes, I think he made his escape. As a matter of fact, when he was writing, he must have been hoping that his religious sense would ooze out, and influence the reader. If we say that this was not the case, we are telling a lie. For example, in The End of the Affair, Greene wrote of the miracle of Sarah; he made her a saint. It is impossible to say that this novel happens to depict a saint, because the author wished her to have the beauty of a saint.

Indeed, impossible.

Therefore, as you say, he made his escape. Only, we cannot help sometimes inflicting burning pains or trauma on those whom we come in touch with in this life—even more so when we write novels and poems. That even proves the genuineness of art. Every genuine artist will have some effect on his readers, but the degree or intensity of the effect is different according to the writers. How different the case of, for example, Yasunari Kawabata will be from the case of Endo will be a problem, but I have not heard of any person who has been converted to the faith of metempsychosis through reading the novel of Yukio Mishima which deals with the theme of metempsychosis. Then, my novels may happen to be very deeply involved in the belief or non-belief of my readers.

Then, I can say that Jesus causes trauma for those who meet Him, as you depicted in your On the Coast of the Dead Sea. You also experienced trauma in writing this novel.

Yes, indeed.

And those of us who read your novels also experience trauma; trauma is the common thread connecting all of us.

So, I feel I am a writer who is, in a sense, read in the most proper way, because my readers have experienced trauma through reading my novels. They have actively accepted my works, not like cinema-goers, but like the audience at a drama. What I hold as most precious is this active response on the part of my readers. I want to raise strife in them, to give them problems. I feel troubled to see the sentimentality that induces them easily to go to the Church.

I understand. Our time is almost up. How do you feel about your literary activity? Could you give it up?

What do you mean by “giving it up?”

What part does your literary activity play in your whole life?

Now I see—[in a low voice] I do not know all of myself; some parts of me only God knows. But I say that I use consciously half of myself as a writer, emotionally seventy percent.

I asked you this question partly because I know that recently Greene has written against social evil. What this social response has to do with his novel-writing is a big problem.

I do think that each has much to do with the other, as can be seen in his novels. Oh, by the way, recently in London I happened to see Greene. One night, coming back to the Hotel Litz, I entered the lift with another person. He kindly asked me what floor I was going to. He pushed the button. In my room I found myself wondering who that old person could be; I remembered him vaguely. Then suddenly I came to recognise him; he was Greene himself. So I called up information. And in a few minutes I was hearing Greene speaking on the phone, asking me to come down to the bar.

That must have been a very nice experience. Greene and I had agreed to meet either in London or in Paris during my stay in Cambridge, but it did not come about, unfortunately. Many thanks for this interview. Finally, I sincerely hope that you will finish another interesting novel soon.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Richard E. Durfee, Jr. (essay date March 1989)

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SOURCE: Durfee, Jr., Richard E. “Portrait of an Unknowingly Ordinary Man: Endo Shosaku, Christianity, and Japanese Historical Consciousness.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 16, no. 1 (March 1989): 41-62.

[In the following essay, Durfee addresses the question of whether or not it is possible to be both fully Japanese and fully Christian, and examines the ways in which Endō handles the seeming paradox in his writing.]


In many ways, Endō Shūsaku is anything but an ordinary man. He possesses the peculiarity of living as a socially unorthodox and religiously radical minority in a nation of people who strongly value homogeneity and conformity. Endō Shūsaku is a contemporary novelist who lives the somewhat unordinary life of what some consider to be a profound paradox; he is both Catholic and Japanese. Many, both foreigners and native Japanese alike, see being Christian as denying much of what it means to be genuinely Japanese, and view being Japanese as excluding the possibility of being completely Christian. Endō is to some extent an enigma because most of his literary work has been a response to this unordinary situation. Furthermore, by responding publicly, he has become a spokesman of sorts for those who share his dilemma. All of these things combine to render Endō Shūsaku something other than an ordinary man.

Over the course of his career, Endō's response to his historical situation has evolved as the historical condition itself has changed. His early experiences as a convert to Catholicism living in post-war Europe had considerable impact upon his writing. Initially, through the characters and stories of his novels, the majority of his efforts went toward making people aware of the apparent mutual incompatibility and the self denial that he felt in being a Japanese Christian. His aim was to clarify the supposedly irreconcilable differences between Japanese and Western religious sensibilities. His arguments centered around the Japanese propensity to change everything they adopt from abroad, conflicts between European and Japanese understanding and experience of sin, and the Japanese inability to comprehend an absolute, transcendent and yet loving, father image of God. Eventually, Endō brought his Catholicism home to Japan, and his emphasis self-consciously shifted away from informing others about the problems associated with cultural incompatibility to finding a means to resolve the conflicts. This evolution of Endō's approach signifies a newly awakened historical consciousness. In other words, Endō discovered his historicity or the need to find and make meaning in the present world he inhabits by reconciling it with his own particular past.

From the larger perspective, the conflicts that arise in reconciling one's past with one's present are quite ordinary; ultimately, virtually everyone is faced with this task. For some, like the culturally and historically homogeneous Japanese, this reconciliation may be unconscious because the past and the present can become fused in today's tradition and the conflicts concealed beneath contemporary cultural continuity. If, in his Japanese world, Endō were an entirely ordinary man, he might have avoided the specific conflicts and consequential attempts at resolution that his life has represented. In such a case, he may never have gained any awareness of his historicity at all. However, because he is faced with being different and out of the ordinary in his Japanese world, his appropriation of his own past has been raised to a level of self consciousness.

The sense of isolation within his own culture has prompted Endō and many others to conclude that Japanese Christians are alone and unique in having to deal with the dilemma of historicity. The inclination to see himself as unique in the world is aggravated by his historical conditioning. Notwithstanding Endō's confrontation with pluralism, the presumptions underlying his efforts to show the differences between East and West have prevented him from completing his historical consciousness and realizing that no one in the world can escape their own historical grounding and the need to find meaning in the present. Endō's blindness to the fact that the rest of the world participates in his historical dilemma is a result of the fact that he is grounded in Japanese culture. In particular, Endō's analysis has been tainted by the collective myth1 of Japanese uniqueness or nihonron.2 Consequently, in spite of the partial realization of his historicity, he has consistently failed to see from the vantage point of the larger perspective from which he is, although unknowingly, no more and no less than an ordinary man.

For religious studies, Endō's response to his religious environment makes his work significant, not necessarily for what he says about his religion, but certainly for the meaning of what he says as a religious event. When viewed in terms of being a religious phenomenon in response to a changing pluralistic situation, Endō's way of dealing with his circumstances is a significant manifestation of the Japanese historical consciousness. Studying what Endō has said, and understanding how he perceives himself historically, afford us considerable insight into the nature of the conflicts implicit in being both Japanese and Christian, the Japanese attempt to resolve these conflicts, and how the Japanese in general view themselves in terms of such conflicts and resolutions.


Endō Shūsaku was born in Tokyo in 1923. As a three year old child he lived for a short time in Manchuria, but soon returned to Japan with his divorced mother to live with her sister who was Christian (Endō 1973, p. 3). At the age of 11, without considerable personal investigation, Endō submitted to the wishes of his mother and aunt and was baptized a Catholic with the Christian name of Paul (Endō 1978, intro. p. 5). In a frequently quoted comment made later in his adult life, Endō describes how his youthful conversion to Christianity affected his literary efforts, and practically gives an outline of his entire literary career.

I received baptism when I was a child … in other words, my Catholicism was a kind of ready-made suit. … I had to decide either to make this ready made suit fit my body or get rid of it and find another suit that fitted. … There were many times when I felt I wanted to get rid of my Catholicism, but I was finally unable to do so. It is not just that I did not throw it off, but that I was unable to throw it off. The reason for this must be that it had become a part of me after all. The fact that it had penetrated me so deeply in my youth was a sign, I thought, that it had, in part at least, become coexistensive with me. Still, there was always the feeling in my heart that it was something borrowed, and I began to wonder what my real self was like. This I think is the ‘mud swamp’ Japanese in me. From the time I first began to write novels even to this present day, this confrontation of my Catholic self with the self that lies underneath has, like an idiot's constant refrain, echoed and reechoed in my work. I felt that I had to in some way reconcile the two.

(Endō 1969, p. 13)

Endō was a small and sickly child, and grew up to be a small and sickly adult. He was eighteen years old when the United States entered World War II. Japan had already been at war for some time, and Endō grew to adulthood as a Christian in a non-Christian nation at war with the Christian west. He was able to avoid the draft on account of his poor health, but served briefly in the civilian war service. Near the end of the war Endō entered Waseda University as a pre-med student, but finally graduated from Keio University in French literature instead (Endō 1972, p. 1). In 1950 he left for France as the very first Japanese to study abroad since the war. Near the end of his three year study period in France, he was hospitalized and eventually had to return home severely ill to undergo two more hospitalizations and serious surgery (Endō 1973, p. 3).

Like a child that had stepped unsuspecting into adulthood where all pretensions of innocence are shattered, Endō's early writings are symptomatic of the conflicts brought about by his coming of age in Europe. His writing reflects that he was somewhat immune from concern over Japanese loss or victory in the war; he felt no particular personal setback with Japan's defeat. Endō went to France as a Christian going to a Christian country, with the assumption that he would find at least as much congruity for himself there as he did being a Christian in Japan—a non-Christian country. What he found instead was frustration. The open pluralistic society of Europe was incomprehensible from a perspective shaped in isolated and homogeneous pre-war Japan. Endō was surprised to find European culture so alien and inaccessible. Because he had identified his Christianity with European culture, Endō was not prepared to find it so diverse and difficult to appropriate. The mutual lack of understanding between himself and Europeans greatly aggravated the intensity of his internal conflict over being a Japanese Christian.

Endō was forever altered by the internal turmoil awakened within him in the West. From the time of his return from Europe, Endō's work has dealt with the conflicts he felt from being both Japanese and Christian, and from his inability to completely enter European culture. He has been preoccupied with apostates, foreigners, unfeeling Japanese, and renegade priests. Such characters are construed in almost every story he has written. Even though Endō's Christianity facilitated his first venture into a more pluralistic world, something which many of his countrymen continue to avoid, his essential “Japaneseness” hindered a complete entry.


Nowhere does Endō develop more clearly the idea of Japanese alienation from European culture and reveal so much of how his early travels affected him than in his autobiographical work Ryūgaku (Study Abroad). Chronologically this book does not appear until the middle of his career, but in it he supplies us with a look at how his experiences in Europe had deeply affected him. This story is about a Japanese student of French literature living in post-war France. At first, the student, Tanaka, is enamored with “the river” of European culture and tries to drink it all in. However, he soon becomes discouraged and alienated when he is unable to adequately absorb or even understand it. His discouragement leads to serious illness, and eventually his spiritual and physical disillusionment reaches a climax when both he and his friend are hospitalized for tuberculosis. The comment made to Tanaka by his friend characterizes their dilemma:

It isn't surprising that I should be worn down, since I tried to make my own in one or two years the culture that this country had taken two thousand years to build up. Though I knew from the beginning that it was impossible, I set out with nerves taut as a bow to see everything, to overlook nothing. Tanaka, this illness is the pitiful outcome of losing my fight with this country.

(Janeira 1970, pp. 201-202)

Perhaps one of the most insightful passages in the book is the following one which reflects deeply Endō's attitude toward the relationship between Japanese Christianity and “the stream” of European culture.

My one wish was not to be like so many Japanese scholars abroad who, like petty thieves, make off with only a portion of the stream and thus proceed to imitate it with their own meager talents. I thought that unless I succeeded in forcing into confrontation the essential nature of this river and the Japanese in me, the whole meaning of coming to France would be lost.

(1970, pp. 201-202)

These passages reveal some of the reasons behind the seemingly paradoxical coexistence of Endō unwillingness to accept the inevitable changes that come to Christianity by its growing in Japanese soil, and his later desire to make Christianity into something genuinely Japanese. Endō did not want just a poorly done imitation of something European. He either wanted to possess and embrace Christianity completely in an unchanged form, or he wanted to force a confrontation between the foreign and the Japanese within himself in order to yield something genuinely Japanese and not foreign at all. All of his writings can be interpreted as either a complaint that he could not do the former, or an attempt to do the latter.

At first, his novels were a kind of nihilistic lament that the ready made suit of European Christianity did not fit his Japanese body. Endō built his early stories around Japanese and foreign characters who epitomized his own personal conflict in order to show the vast differences between Japanese and Western sensibilities. In his early books, Christianity was either rejected outright by the Japanese, or in the guise of acceptance, unknowingly changed into something other than what its propagators intended. Both of these were serious problems to Endō. Even when his early works did not deal directly with Christianity, he wrote to show the Japanese inability to understand or appreciate certain Western Christian sensibilities. He considered this to be one of the main reasons for Christianity's meager and short lived success in Japan. He was eager to argue vicariously through his characters that the Japanese were culturally and historically different to such an extent that they were incapable of comprehending and adopting Christianity in the same way that Europeans do. In these early works his goal was to explicate precisely how the ready made suit of Christianity did not fit a Japanese body, and what kind of changes were unconsciously being made by the Japanese to make it fit.

Endō's great concern over the differences between European and Japanese Christianity is the first inkling of his historical consciousness. In his realization that it is impossible for him to completely comprehend an unaltered form of European Christianity, Endō recognized that his own Christianity was conditioned by his particular historical perspective. Endō has always been troubled by his historicity, and was long unwilling to accept it. When he tried to absorb the European culture which he had identified with his Christianity, he found that it was inaccessible to him because he did not share its historical roots. But because he did not want just a cheap copy of the European version, he resisted any historically grounded Japanese Christianity, and felt as if the only Christianity that he was capable of participating in was somehow tainted and/or less than the Christianity that foreigners possessed. Eventually he realized that he was unable to escape his historically conditioned self, and began on the course that would lead him to recognize that his own Christianity must become meaningful to that self within him which is inescapably Japanese, or it would not be meaningful at all.3


His first novel Shiroi hito (White Man), which was written after his return from France and won the Akutagawa prize in 1955 (Janeira 1970, p. 201), and its sequel or partner novel, Kiiroi hito (Yellow Man), which he wrote the following year, both deal with the vast and apparently irreconcilable differences between “white” and “yellow” sensibilities. The conflicts in these works center around members from each culture: a non-practicing Catholic Japanese, and an apostate French priest in Japan, who have both “sinned” (Endō 1972, p. 3). Endō employs these characters to show his perception of the vast differences in Japanese and European attitudes toward sin and the experience of guilt. At one point Chiba, the Japanese character says:

A yellow man like me has absolutely no experience of anything so profound and extreme as the consciousness of sin you white men have. All we experience is fatigue, a deep fatigue—a weariness murky as the color of my skin, dank, heavily submerged.

(Endō 1974, pp. 6-7)

This passage reveals not only a conviction that the Japanese cannot experience genuine guilt for sin, and consequently Christianity as Europeans do, but also a certain alienation from the white races of Europe in general that Endō probably felt in his first travels to the West.

Elsewhere he gives a more openly analytical insight into the Japanese attitude toward sin. In Shūkyō to bungaku (Religion and Literature), a non-fiction work, Endō explains that “the Japanese consider sin an act against social contract and aesthetic harmony,” not as we presume in the West, a violation of some universal God given or natural moral law (Janeira 1970, p. 356). Endō argues that, because of the historical background of Japanese religious sensibilities, which are firmly rooted in Shinto and Buddhist traditions, they are categorically incompatible with European thought. In spite of the fact that his motive is to show how different Japanese and Europeans are, in undertaking such a task he demonstrates an awareness that his historical particularity is an inescapable fact which he must eventually reckon with. He felt that Japan has no historical background or cultural orientation on which he as a Christian could base his religious experience. It is this infant historical consciousness that goads Endō into recognizing that the Japanese and European peoples think of and experience sin differently.

Endō struggles to some degree with his perceived absence of guilt over sin in the Japanese throughout all his writing. However, nowhere is this conflict more poignant and powerfully presented than in The Sea and Poison. This novel centers around a young Japanese doctor who was involved in lethal medical experiments performed on captured American pilots near the end of the war. In spite of the fact that he had agreed to it beforehand, when it came time to perform the surgery the young doctor was unable to actually go through with his role in the experiment. Through the guilt ridden doctor's thoughts as he leans against the wall and feels the angry and accusing looks from others in the room, Endō gives us insight into the denial of his “Japaneseness” that backing out of the experiment constituted for the doctor.

“What's the matter with you, afraid?” those eyes asked. “How can a Japanese be so weak?”

He writhed under the officer's stare, aware of what he seemed: a doctor unable to carry out his duties.

The young doctor felt morally derelict because he failed in his socially contracted duty, in spite of the fact that he did so because he could not bring himself to kill another human being. When this young doctor complains to Dr. Toda, a colleague who also participated in the experiment, that someday they would have to answer for their actions Toda replies:

“Answer for it? To society? If it's only to society, it's nothing much to get worked up about.” Toda gave another obvious yawn. “You and I happened to be here in this particular hospital in this particular era, and so we took part in a vivisection performed on a prisoner. If those people who are going to judge us had been put in the same situation, would they have done any different? So much for the punishments of society.”

Toda felt an indescribable sense of weariness and stopped talking.

(Endō 1972, pp. 166-167)

In this passage, which is strongly reminiscent of the “yellow man's” complaint that he felt only fatigue in the place of guilt, the message we get is that any Japanese would have done the same thing as a matter of social duty; and consequently, most would have no particular reason to feel bad or guilty about doing it. Endō feels certain that any European would feel deeply guilty over such an atrocity, and ascribes this feeling to his European characters like the apostate French priest Duran who appears in both Study Abroad and Volcano. Likewise, he is convinced that, generally, the Japanese would not and could not feel that way. In his eyes the Christian suit of moral consciousness does not, and can not be made to, fit the Japanese.

The underlying irony of Endō's complaint is that it is self denying and ultimately proves his assertions at least partially wrong. Endō feels guilty over the apparent Japanese inability to feel guilty. Obviously, in spite of his complaints to the contrary, Endō and the Japanese must have some sense of what guilt is because both he and his Japanese characters experience it. Endō correctly observed that Europeans and the Japanese experience guilt differently, but in emphasizing too strongly the differences between the experiences, Endō inadvertently ignored or obscured the similarities. Endō must have had a subliminal sense of this incongruity in his observations because the focus of his works gradually shifted to compensate for it.


His novels Wonderful Fool and Volcano, which were written at the same time, both show evidence of subtle changes beginning to appear in Endō's attitude toward Christianity in Japan. He approaches the differences between Japanese and Western sensibilities in a little different manner, and introduces a new character type that plays an important role in much of his later material: the Christ figure. In these books, Endō retains his conviction that the Japanese inability to feel genuinely guilty and their obtuseness toward self sacrificing love is a barrier to understanding Christianity, and is a source of alienation between Japanese and Europeans. But he also displays the beginning of his realization that Christianity had become a part of himself, and was there whether or not he wanted it or knew it. He also begins to show a growing conviction that the locus of genuine Christianity is not necessarily in either European culture or the Catholic Church.

Wonderful Fool centers around a weak, unattractive, ineffectual, and simpleminded individual who loves unconditionally, but is constantly abused by those he loves. Endō chose a foreigner to be his first Christ figure for the probable reason that he felt like the unconditional love his Christ figure must possess was more European than Japanese. He still wanted to show that love and Christianity are a part of the vast incongruities between Western and Japanese sensibilities. Through his wonderful foreign fool, who is a puzzle to his Japanese hosts, Endō deals with the Japanese inability to understand the motives of a person inspired by nothing other than love. It was not until he opened up the possible resolution to his nihilistic lament in the later novel Silence that he employs Japanese Christ figures. At this point for Endō, Christ and his love are still something beyond the Japanese ability to fully comprehend.

Volcano is a highly symbolic work that deals with the love of God (the volcano) which looms unavoidably on the horizon, but which is somehow still mysterious and misunderstood even by those who appreciate and comprehend it best. While all the characters in the story make predictions about the volcano's behavior, and make plans to exploit it for their own limited purposes, none of them really understand it. The volcano eventually upsets all their predictions and designs. Even the priest's well intended refuge for the Japanese Christians at the foot of the mountain, which he was certain would be protected by God, ends up being destroyed. In this respect, Volcano is a metaphor for the history and experience of Catholicism in Japan. The love of God is something now subtly portrayed as not only beyond the comprehension of the Japanese, but also the Catholic Church. Endō displays a growing dissatisfaction with institutional religion that becomes even more evident in his later works. His choice to express such ideas in a symbolic form is probably a result of more than just the fact that symbolism and metaphor are the media of his profession. Such a symbolic expression is one that will reach the Japanese because it is framed in their own terms, and also one that will avoid attention as a direct criticism of the Church.


Both the apex of his conflict between East/West sensibilities and Endō's way to its resolution are found in his book Silence, and in the play The Golden Country. These books contain all of the elements of the conflict that Endō has struggled with in his previous works. They also include the first indication of Endō's recognition that there may be a resolution to his situation. In these two works Endō abandoned the metaphor of Volcano and wove his social commentary into fictionalized accounts of real events surrounding the Christian persecution and proscription that took place in 17th century Japan.

In the first, two young Jesuit priests make their way to Japan, in spite of the intense persecution and the rumors of mass apostasy. It is the firm aspiration of both men to help the few remaining Japanese Christians in their plight. One of the priests, Sebastian Rodrigues, is also determined to redeem his fallen teacher Ferreira who had apostatized after years of missionary labor in Japan. After arriving, the priests' efforts meet only with disaster as the Christians they want to help suffer because of their presence. Rodrigues witnesses the other priest's death in an attempt to save a few Christian peasants, and suffers a crisis of faith when his former teacher Ferreira not only rejects his arguments, but also aids the inquisitor Inoue in his interrogation. The apostate Ferreira becomes a metaphor for Japanese Christianity which, although European in origin and in spite of the years of labor by the Church, had “apostatized” or strayed from European norms and orthodoxy. This sets the stage for Endō to both bring the difficulties that arise from the presence of Christianity on Japanese soil into clear focus, and to offer a possible way out of the dilemma.

Christianity is condemned by both the Japanese interrogators and the foreign apostate alike as something completely inadequate to the “mud swamp” of Japan. They assert that Christianity simply cannot grow in Japanese soil because its roots will inevitably rot away. Their contention is that because Japan is a “mud swamp,” even when Christianity is not fully rejected by the Japanese, they will none the less, in the guise of acceptance change it into something other than what the foreign priests intended. Most Japanese feel no particular guilt when they apostasize, only practical expediency. And the Church with its father image of God and foreign priests, is something totally alien to Japan. Reflecting a motive based on practical political aims, they conclude with the argument that to Japan, Christianity is so utterly useless, and that the Japanese are so set in their ways, that it must unavoidably fail. The bottom line is that in spite of and/or because of its European origin, Christianity in Japan will either be rejected or modified into something Japanese; either way the European aim of converting the Japanese will be frustrated.

Because of the great time and energy that Endō devotes to unpacking, understanding, and overcoming these issues, they are certainly conclusions that he came to himself in his own confrontation with his dual Japanese and Christian heritage. However, even though these were his own conclusions, he has always struggled with them and tried to avoid them. In his early career, Endō was convinced that because of the vast differences in religious sensibilities, Christianity could not succeed in Japan. To Endō the Japanese are so radically different from Europeans that Japanese Christianity could be only a mockery of the European version with its great and lengthy history. This conclusion persists in all his works even after Silence. However, in this book he comes to grips with the fact that not only are changes unavoidable, but that they are also preferable. Thus, he finds a painful and reluctant resolution to his unwanted conclusions. The intensity and anguish of the argument and circumstances in Endō's writing surrounding this resolution attest to the difficulty with which he reached it.


When Rodrigues is brought to his final test, in a way that seems strangely appropriate for Japan, he keeps his faith by denying it, and articulates Endō's solution to his own dilemma. In order to save a few suffering Christians who are hanging in the dreaded “pit,” Rodrigues, who was determined to rekindle the faith of his former teacher, takes to heart his apostate teacher's argument: “For love Christ would have apostatized. Even if it meant giving up everything he had.” So when he is brought to choose between keeping his faith and easing the suffering of others, he hears the sacred image of Christ, which he must step on to signal his apostasy, tell him to do exactly that which he was most determined not to do.

Trample! Trample! I more than anyone else know the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross.

(Endō 1969, pp. 269-271)

The image told the priest that the only way he could be genuinely Christian was to apostatize. Endō comes to the extraordinary conclusion that, in spite of how painful it was, apostasy was the only way for the priest to break the silence of God and actualize his love in this world. It would have been more of a denial of his faith for the priest not to save the suffering peasants by refusing to symbolically desecrate that which he loved the most.4 This conflict and its paradoxical resolution is nearly identical to Endō's own determination to assimilate an unaltered form of European Christianity; in the end he could only keep his faith by giving up the goal to make it retain its European shape. Endō's own revelation was that he must step on the holy image of the Church and European culture, and make the ready made suit of Christianity, which he had inherited, fit his own body.

Thus in the final hour, God was not silent for either the priest nor Endō; he spoke to tell the priest that, even if it meant the ultimate sacrifice of giving up his most valued possession, he must keep his faith by loving enough to understand and alleviate the suffering of others. For Endō, God spoke to say that sacrificing, even what is cherished above all, in an act of love, is the true and essential message of the Christian faith.

In this conclusion Endō makes his first attempt at grounding his faith in his own history. He gives meaning to his own cultural history in the suffering and apostasy of the early Japanese Christians, and he identifies their actions as important precedents for the way in which he must solve his present day conflicts. He gives up his former resolution to find and keep an untainted European faith, and submits to his historicity. From this point on, Endō's emphasis shifts from complaining that the Japanese simply cannot understand Christianity, to identifying the love which he feels is essential to Christianity within the range of Japanese history and experience.


One of the first steps to bringing Christian sensibilities within range of Japanese comprehension and experience is to re-interpret the central symbol of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ, according to Japanese values. Endō directly takes on this task, which is not an easy one for him, in the non-fiction book A Life of Jesus. For the religious historian the book has little if anything new to add to what is actually known about Jesus; but it constitutes a significant religious phenomenon because it openly and self consciously seeks to re-appraise Jesus in Japanese terms.

A Life of Jesus represents a significant turning point in Endō's literary career. Up until this book he had been primarily occupied with demonstrating the incompatibilities of Western and Eastern religious sensibilities. In this book he retreats from that position slightly, and in spite of his previous convictions of inescapable irreconcilability between the two, he re-presents a portion of his Christian faith in such a way as to illuminate its compatibility with his Japanese self. There is an ironic twist in this equaled only by his earlier and frequently expressed guilt over not feeling guilty. Where he was once bothered by the fact that Japanese Christianity can be no more than a meager replica of the European version, now he is determined to at least move that issue to the back burner, and make Christianity into something as totally Japanese as possible. His own comment on the nature and difficulty of this switch in attitude is illuminating:

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 by the grandeur of the Catholic faith. This problem of the reconciliation of my Catholicism with my Japanese blood … has taught me one thing: that is that the Japanese must absorb Christianity without support of a Christian tradition or history or legacy or sensibility. Even if this attempt is the occasion of much resistance and anguish and pain, still it is impossible to counter by closing one's eyes to the difficulties. No doubt this is the particular cross that God gave to the Japanese.

(Janeira 1970, pp. 205-206; Endō 1969, p. 14)

Finally, in this statement, Endō comes to terms with his inability to throw off his Christianity and recognizes that it had become a part of him. He recognized that Christianity is a part of his own historical heritage from which he could not escape. His historical consciousness expanded to the point where he realized that he must self consciously appropriate his own history, and make it meaningful in his own life. This is the enterprise he undertook by re-interpreting Christianity in such a way that is comprehensible to his Japanese countrymen. In the “Preface to the American Edition” he makes this comment about his motives and purposes for writing A Life of Jesus:

I wrote this book for the benefit of Japanese readers who have no Christian tradition of their own and who know almost nothing about Jesus. What is more, I was determined to highlight the particular aspect of love in his personality precisely in order to make Jesus understandable in terms of the religious psychology of my non-Christian countrymen and thus demonstrate that Jesus is not alien to their religious sensibilities.

(Endō 1973, p. 1, emphasis added)

Endō is painfully aware of the fact that he is historically grounded. A Life of Jesus is one of his first attempts to actually resolve the conflicts he feels because of his historicity.

Among the major religious sensibilities that Endō seeks to identify with both his Christian and his Japanese history is the self sacrificing love of a mother. He argues that the father image of God is essentially alienating to Japanese who traditionally fear only fires, earth quakes, and thunder more than they do fathers (Endō 1973, p. 4). He identifies love as the essential element of Christianity regardless of cultural bounds, and that it is something with which the Japanese already possess something in common. In terms Endō might use himself, he is trying to communicate, in a way the Japanese will understand, the revelation that Rodrigues received before his apostasy: Christ is the one who loves all, perfectly and unconditionally, and this is what he requires of those who follow him. He gives special emphasis to his particular interpretations of Jesus' love for those around him. Endō wants to make it clear that self sacrificing love is something which the Japanese have cultural and historical precedents to help them understand.

This new direction is directly counter to Endō's prior arguments regarding the inability of the Japanese to understand or experience Christian love. Endō apparently changed his mind about Japanese obtuseness towards self sacrificing love when he was able to locate analogous experiences in his own culture. At the close of the work, Endō makes a comment that gives us insight into how the decision to bring Jesus to Japan, so to speak, has subsequently affected his writing:

I think that in my remaining lifetime I would like to write once more my life of Jesus, writing it from my own further accumulation of life experience. And when I finish it, I still shall not have rid myself of the urge to take up my writing brush for yet another life of Jesus.

(Endō 1973, p. 179)


The two novels that chronologically follow A Life of Jesus characterize this desire perfectly. They are works that further seek to bring within the Japanese range of experience and understanding the unconditional love which Jesus had, and which is central to Endō's Christianity. The books When I Whistle and The Samurai both deal almost exclusively with Christ figures that are not only Japanese, but are tied up in the Japanese collective cultural/historical experience and memory. In these books, he employed the same kind of characters and conflicts as earlier in his career to reinterpret the essentially Western Christian tradition into something meaningful to the Japanese. Endō does not completely abandon his previous opinion that the Japanese do not readily understand Christian sensibilities; both stories are replete with examples of where the Japanese are extremely insensitive and lacking in appreciation for the love manifest by his Christ figures. But in terms of making the Christ figures comprehensible to the Japanese, these two books complete the circle of bringing Endō's Christian sensibilities within reach of his Japanese self.

When I Whistle is a story about a Japanese youth, who unconditionally loved someone for his entire life, and ended up bringing something good into the lives of the ones he touched with his love, even after his death. Like Endō's other Christ figures, the boy, named Flatfish, is simple minded, smelly, and weak—a sorry clown that is by most worldly standards an undesirable person. He suffers often as a consequence of his unconditional love; and he eventually gives his life in a final act of duty and love for his country. One of the most significant things about this Christ figure is that he is totally Japanese. If Endō did not have a literary history within which the book could be interpreted, it might not be suspected of having anything particular to do with Christianity at all. In his short life, Flatfish is caught up in all the things that are familiar and real to the Japanese. He goes to school; he gets in fights; he has an unfulfilled love; he gets a job; and he finally goes to war where he dies an obscure death, all things which are familiar to Endō's generation of Japanese. Flatfish, the absurd character of the story, is the first of Endō's Christ figures to fit totally within the realm of Japanese experience.

Endō's latest work The Samurai is probably the crowning masterpiece of his literary career and the apex of the struggle with his dual Christian and Japanese heritage. He brings all of the character types and elements of his former conflicts between being Japanese and being Christian together in a totally Japanese drama of grand scale and historical significance. The story is, to a large extent, a true one. And although much of it takes place in foreign lands, the primary participants are Japanese, and the events they are involved in are historically significant to both the Japanese in general and especially to Japanese Christians. In The Samurai, Endō finds a metaphor or expression for the love that he values in Christianity which is totally and completely within the Japanese cultural and historical milieu.

The samurai of the story is an obscure country-born man who lived and gave his life according to the Japanese ideal of complete and unfailing loyalty to his liege lord. His greatest desire was to be with his family and work the land where he was born, along with the peasant families in his charge. But instead, he is sent as an emissary of his lord across the ocean with a special mission to fulfill. On his journey he encounters time and time again the strange Christianity which is so alien to his understanding. In reference to the icons and statues that always decorated the walls of the many monasteries where they stayed the samurai thought:

This ugly, emaciated man. This man devoid of majesty, bereft of outward beauty, so wretchedly miserable. A man who exists only to be discarded after he has been used. A man born in a land I have never seen, and who died in a distant past. He has nothing to do with me, thought the samurai.

(Endō 1982, 167)

The samurai was continually confronted with all of the reasons why, as a Japanese, not to become a Christian. And yet, at the same time, he was under extreme pressure to convert in order to make his mission a success. Eventually, and only after months of agonizing indecision, in the course of giving his all to fulfill his commission and out of loyalty to his lord, the samurai chooses to go through the formality of becoming Christian. In spite of this, in the end his mission was a failure and even the Church refused to intercede and help. The samurai had no choice but to return home after years of difficult travel as a failure.

In this account Endō reveals considerable discontent with the Church and institutional religion along with its formal rules and open self interest. One dialogue between the Franciscan priest who accompanied the samurai and his companions on their journey, and a Cardinal in Rome who refused to assist the samurai, gives insight into this event and some of Endō's underlying resentment.

“Those believers [the Japanese] … no longer have a Church. There are no missionaries to encourage them … Aren't they now like the one lamb separated from the flock of which the Bible speaks?”’

“If in searching for the one lamb the other sheep are exposed to danger …,” the Cardinal said sadly, “the shepherd has no choice but to abandon the lamb. It cannot be helped if one is to protect the organization.”

“That reminds me of the words of the High Priest Caiaphas when the Lord was killed. To save an entire nation, there is no choice but to sacrifice a single man. Those are the words Caiaphas spoke.”

… “That is true … I do not wish to concur with the high priest Caiaphas's remarks. But at the same time the Lord did not direct an organization, while Caiaphas did. Those who run organizations, like Caiaphas will always say—to protect the majority, we have no choice but to abandon the one. Even we who believe in the Lord place ourselves in the same position as the High priest Caiaphas from the moment we create religious orders and set up organizations. … I have no choice but to adopt Caiaphas's attitude towards the faithful in Japan.”

(Endō 1982, p. 193)

When the Church was compelled to withdraw from Japan, it abandoned the faithful and faltering Christians alike to face their fate alone. When the samurai returned from his long and arduous journey in the service of his lord, he too was abandoned by the ones he sought to serve. During the samurai's long absence, the political climate had changed significantly. When he came home, not only was his mission a failure, but it had been aborted by those who had sent him. His return was somewhat of a surprise, and more of a problem to the government than anything else. His entire sacrifice had been for nothing. And then, in an act which only emphasized the futility of it all, the samurai is taken by those for whom he had done the very act out of loyalty, and executed because he had converted to Christianity. In the final exchange of words between the samurai and his one trusted friend, the meaning of the ugly and undesirable man comes to light, and the samurai finds comfort in the one who suffers with him and understands his pain better than any other. After a lengthy journey abroad in Endō's writing, the self sacrificing love of Christ and his suffering for mankind, finally find a home in the culture and history of Japan. Endō discovers a cultural analogue to the unconditional love of Christ in the unconditional loyalty and devotion of the samurai and his ultimate personal and spiritual sacrifice.

So in the end, in spite of his early fears, Endō's Christianity ultimately has historical roots and cultural precedent in Japan. The dominant symbol of Endō's Christianity is the weak, ugly, self sacrificing and unconditionally loving Christ: the one who, more perfectly than any other, can comfort and understand mankind's suffering; the one who gives everything for the sake of love. Endō's Christ is anyone who makes that kind of sacrifice, from the strange foreigner, to the love struck school boy, and finally to the loyal samurai. Endō's faith is not found in the graven image of self interested bureaucratic pronouncement and policy, nor are its roots in some alien culture; it is evident in the yearnings of those who suffer; it is found in the acts of those who love without wanting or expecting anything in return. These are things which, however difficult, are not beyond the range of experience and expression for the Japanese. They are a part of the Japanese world. Thus, in the end, Endō has made his Christian suit fit his Japanese body.


The dawn of Endō's historical consciousness began when he realized the impossibility of quickly absorbing the entire Western culture that had taken millennia to build. It was refined when he began to identify some of the historically and culturally grounded differences between Western and Eastern sensibilities. It grew more clear when he accepted the need to self-consciously appropriate his own historical heritage. And it bore fruit when he actually began doing so. Endō has displayed a considerable level of historical consciousness in his recognition and appropriation of his own historicity. But, in spite of all this, there is one level of historical awareness that Endō and many other Japanese have consistently failed to achieve.

Regardless of how greatly he has developed a consciousness of his own historically grounded condition, Endō falls short of the realization that in being historically grounded, he is very much the same as everyone else in the world. His conviction that the Japanese are the only ones who are required to appropriate their own history is clearly evidenced in the above quoted passage: “No doubt this is the particular cross that God gave to the Japanese” (Janeira 1970, p. 356). Because many Japanese and Western sensibilities are different, it only followed for Endō to conclude that Christianity not only inescapably will, but also must be placed in Japanese frames of reference to be meaningful to Japanese. Endō reluctantly came to acknowledge the inevitability and necessity of the Japanese propensity to change what they adopt from abroad, and self consciously invested his efforts in helping that process along. However, in bringing this about, Endō has persisted with the assumptions implicit in his early efforts and unwittingly failed to see that the rest of the world, Christian and nonChristian alike, has always been involved in essentially the same kind of activity. Endō has allowed the differences between East and West to prevent him from seeing the similarities.

If Endō had been able to complete his historical consciousness, he would have recognized that the Japanese are not the only ones to change Christianity and other things adopted from abroad into something different from their originals. Every time Christianity crosses any cultural or linguistic boundary it is changed. Any time it passes from one generation to another it is changed. Anyone who knows anything about it only understands Christianity in terms that are meaningful to them in their own historically rooted situation. And this is not true of just Christianity; it happens with all religions, and all peoples, in all times, and in all places. To realize this is to take historical consciousness that one step further which Endō has not been able to do. If he had, he would not have been so concerned about his “mud swamp” Japan. He would have realized that what he saw going on with Christianity in Japan was an utterly non-unique phenomenon. He would have recognized that it would be far more appropriate to speak more broadly of a “mud swamp” world, and not limit the analogy to Japan. His own historical grounding in Japanese culture prevented Endō from consummating his historical consciousness and recognizing that his condition is shared by all the world.

In his failure to see what he shares with the Western world, Endō is witnessing loudly to just how culturally grounded he actually is. His assertion that the Japanese, out of all other peoples in the world, are the unique possessors of some problem is strong evidence that he has been greatly affected by the Japanese myth of uniqueness. In spite of Japan's entry into modernity, the Japanese have remained a people who are largely isolated from any direct personal contact with cultures and histories significantly different from their own. Consequently, they have avoided the kind of historical awareness that results from being immediately confronted with a radically pluralistic and diverse society. Endō is, in part, an exception to this because of his personal contacts and conflicts with foreign culture and history. However, his confrontations only lasted long enough to convince him of certain irreconcilable differences between foreign and domestic Japanese sensibilities, and that he must ground his faith in his own culture and history. After that he turned back to his own culture and history and was prevented from recognizing that the rest of the world is engaged in basically the same struggle.

The difficulties that arise from the Japanese conviction of their own uniqueness are compounded when Endō concludes that because of certain historical and cultural orientations the Western world and Japan are forever beyond the reach of each other's understanding. He thinks that the differences between the Japanese and the West are so vast that they cannot be reconciled. He concludes that, because of the way in which his historical situation has conditioned him, Western sensibilities are forever unavailable to him.

Ironically, Endō finds the solution to his conflicts within a context of cross-cultural comparison. It is the foreign apostate who first suggests that the faith can only be kept by denying the Christ. However, even when he realizes, for example, that the Church is historically grounded in terms of the care and preservation of its institutions as he does in The Samurai, Endō does not extend to them the acknowledgment that they also must make their past and present meaningful in terms of each other. In the end, the Church's betrayal of the believers in Japan is parallel to Endō's paradox of keeping his faith by apostatizing. Each must sacrifice its most highly valued possession in the service of its particular god. However, Endō is blinded to his common struggle with the rest of humanity by the Japanese myth of uniqueness.

The Japanese myth of uniqueness fails to take some very important things into account. We in the West are not dead; we are present with them in the same world. Endō and the Japanese are less separated from Western ideas than any of us are from our own past. At least people who hold Western sensibilities are available to be experienced, interacted with, and engaged in dialogue. But there is an insurmountable obstacle in the way of anyone accessing their own past. We have surely inherited a few relics, both tangible and intangible: governments, traditions, books, other people, memories, language, values, and presuppositions about the nature of reality. These both unavoidably shape us and give us clues about the nature of our histories. But we can never actually go into the past. The past is forever unavailable to our experience. Our understanding of the distant past is necessarily more an intuitive result of being shaped by it than any actual participation within it. Members of dissimilar cultures, however, can interact meaningfully by virtue of their immediate availability to experience. Contrary to Endō's convictions, mutual understanding between members of the same present world is probably much more likely, because they are mutually accessible.

In spite of the vast differences that may or may not exist between East and West, the necessity to appropriate one's history is not unique to the Japanese; no one understands anything except in terms of their own historical and cultural background. It is equally required of Europeans and Americans to appropriate their own history in order to understand themselves, as well as it is for Endō and the Japanese. In some if not most cases, this appropriation is not as self conscious as it was for Endō. However, regardless of whether it is consciously done or not, all peoples can only understand themselves and their pasts in terms that are meaningful for them now, in the present. Where there are cultural and historical differences, the task takes on various shapes and expressions. For some, the conflicts are no doubt less severe, making such reconciliations as Endō's less painful. But none of us is able to escape our own historicity. Thus, in appropriating his own past Endō Shūsaku is, although unknowingly, no more and no less than an ordinary man.


  1. I use the word “myth” not in the religious studies term-of-art sense referring to a narrative, but in the popular pejorative sense meaning something that is uncritically held to be true which is actually false.

  2. For a discussion of an entire genre of Japanese literature devoted to extolling Japanese uniqueness, see Davis 1983, p. 213.

  3. This raises the theological question of whether Christianity is truly universal and hence authoritative. It also brings up the issue of how completely any religion can be translated into different languages and cultures and the question of to what degree cultural transformation is implicit in genuine conversion to a foreign religion.

  4. This is not without theological precedent, most notably Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac which was a type for God's eventual sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son.


Davis, Winston

1983 The hollow onion: The secularization of Japanese civil religion. In The Challenge of Japan's Internationalization: Organization and Culture, Harumi Befu and Hiroshi Mannara, eds. Tokyo: Kōdansha.

Endō Shūsaku

1969 Silence. William Johnston, transl. Rutland, Vermont, and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

1972 The Sea and Poison. Michael Gallagher, transl. London: Peter Owen.

1973 A Life of Jesus. Richard A. Schuchert, S. J., transl. New York: Paulist Press.

1974 Wonderful Fool. Francis Mathy, transl. London: Peter Owen.

1978 Volcano. Richard A. Schuchert, transl. London: Peter Owen.

1982 The Samurai. C. Van Gessel, transl. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Janeira, Armando Martins

1970 Japanese and Western Literature. Rutland, Vermont, and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

Principal Works

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Shiroi hito [White Man] (novel) 1955

Umi to Dokuyaku [The Sea and Poison] (novel) 1958

Kazan [Volcano] (novel) 1959

Obaka-san [Wonderful Fool] (novel) 1959

Chinmoku [Silence] (novel) 1966

Ougon no Ku [The Golden Country] (play) 1969

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

Seisho no naka no joseitachi (essays) 1975

Juichi no iro-garasu [Stained Glass Elegies] (short stories) 1979

Sakka no nikki (diary excerpts) 1980

Samurai (novel) 1980

Scandal (novel) 1988

Foreign Studies (short stories) 1989

The Final Martyrs (short stories) 1993

Fukai kawa [Deep River] (novel) 1994

Elizabeth Beverly (essay date 22 September 1989)

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SOURCE: Beverly, Elizabeth. “A Silence That Is Not Hollow: The Mindfulness of Shusaku Endo.” Commonweal 116, no. 16 (22 September 1989): 491-94.

[In the following essay, Beverly provides an overview of Catholicism in Endō's life and works.]

There was a time when one of our daughters loved a book that scared her. She was only four, and the book was wonderful. But it scared her. Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. She wasn't frightened when we read the book in the small West African village where we were then living and working, but when she and I traveled back to the states to visit my mother for a month, a ritual began. At bedtime Miranda would ask for Wild Things, I would read it, and later she would wake in fear.

One night, feeling that the pattern we had entered was unnecessary, I told her that I had already chosen another story. I'd bought a new book; wasn't that great? What followed was worse than her predictable nightmares. She raged and begged for the Sendak, hugged her pillow, sobbed out a frenzy of grief. I don't remember how I calmed her, but after a time she slept.

What I do remember is my mother waiting in the darkened hallway to take me by the hand and remind me of something. When your parents, whom you love and who, for all you know, run the world, put all your toys in storage, and pack you off to a life where even the language is unknown, you may go happily. But simply because you trust them to make good choices, it doesn't necessarily follow that you want to make no choices at all. One way in which Wild Things was vital to Miranda was that, in a life that seemed to be determined by the whim of others, she had chosen this bedtime book herself, and the life that surrounded this choice felt like hers. Even the nightmares and the calling for me in the night. “Let her choose something,” my mother told me, “even if she chooses wrong.”

Shusaku Endo is Japanese, a Catholic. As far as he knows, he has chosen neither of these identities. Being Japanese in Japan is a fact of birth. Being a Catholic began as an intention of his mother, who had her son baptized in 1934 when he was eleven. Then followed a disturbing struggle with his faith during his college work in Tokyo, studies of French literature in Lyons, return to his native Japan, and three long years in the hospital. Throughout this time, Endo was wondering what made him Catholic. As he attests, “There were many times when I felt I wanted to get rid of my Catholicism, but I was finally unable to do so. It is not just that I did not throw it off, but that I was unable to throw it off. The reason for this must be that it had become a part of me after all.”

Choices. Being Japanese and being Catholic are not choices for Endo; neither is his frail health. These identities have claimed him, shaped his life, created his sense of self. But this doesn't mean that Endo has made no choices at all. He has chosen to be a fiction writer and, as such, within the field of language and vision in his eight novels and one collection of stories, he has been free to play out choice after choice, to create the world again and again. Some of us, given a life that seems arbitrary, might find art appealing precisely because it can let us escape our helpless state and have some fun. Some of us might write because we believe that our suffering has privileged us and through such privilege we can model better ways of being. Behind each of these impulses lies the desire to control something about the human lot. At times, we may believe that such desire is what calls art into being.

But Endo's desire lies elsewhere. It matters that he is Japenese; it matters that he is Catholic. Most of all it matters that his embrace of these two identities puzzles and hurts him, sends him right into a still place, full of yearning and gentle suffering, from which he writes. If the harsh counterclaims of Japanese culture and Catholic tradition have made life seem perilous, then the labor of fiction has made it seem bearable. Fiction that lies outside the narrative realm of simple cause and effect always promises that unreconcilable elements may be held side by side on the same page where they find a home together in words. Endo wants nothing less than to draw upon his chosen work in order to embody the mystery of the unchosen life.

It's important to remember that Endo is writing for a Japanese audience. We are his accidental, Occidental readers and, as such, run the risk of misunderstanding the way in which his narratives function. If it is hard for us to understand how a writer can embody mystery without employing techniques of magical realism or surrealism, English translations of Endo's work can give us hints. Near the end of his delicate but sinewy nonfiction account of Christ's life, A Life of Jesus (1973), Endo addresses his Japanese readers: “That's the whole life of Jesus. It stands out clean and simple like a single Chinese ideograph brushed on a blank sheet of paper. It was so clean and simple that no one could make sense of it, and no one could produce its like.”

The image of ideograph as ideal story may be hard for us to understand. We are used to reading with speed along smooth lines of print; black brushstrokes on a white sheet stop the eye. The meaning of the ideograph lies not in its motion, but in the relation of black to white, of field to ground. The meaning within the black strokes can emerge only because the white space contains it. It's not common for most American readers to notice the paper as well as the print, but such notice yields rich rewards. An aesthetic experience may be one reward, but that's not the point. It's not what language looks like that matters, but how it makes us think. If literacy suggests that we respond to black and white together, we can see that all perception is, at least, twofold. Implicit in our knowledge of speech is the silence that cradles the sounds. Implicit in the motion of the dance is the stillness between the steps of the dance. Implicit in the lover's absence is his or her presence. Within the experience of health lies illness.

Nothing is known by itself; all experience is relational.

The compact form of the ideograph is amplified in haiku. Elementary school may teach many of us that this form of Japanese poetry is easy to write, if only we can count, but the finest haiku essentially concerns that which cannot be written. Here's eighteenth-century Buson:

the sound of the bell
as it leaves the bell.

We don't have to be Japanese to be lifted by the feel of bell-sound even as it wells forth, but it's no secret that most of our familiar literatures don't engage in this simultaneous play of sound/sight/emotion/pace. This haiku stops us in time, in midfeeling. Although we know that such attentive reading requires our senses, we may not want to know that it requires more than what we usually give when we read, even in the case of poetry. It calls on the spirit. The sound and glow of the lines resonate with this spirit. Buson's spirit. My spirit. Yours. We're all packed in there together. There's no skimming this kind of verse; we either get it, because we choose to allow it within us, or we don't get it and call it really simple.

Endo may not write haiku, but this is precisely the kind of attention his work requires if we are to probe the mystery within it. Taken singly, and at breakneck American pace, Endo's novels easily resemble other kinds of work: historical novels, philosophical ruminations on the banality of evil or the crisis in cross-cultural relations, fictional exposés of the sexual underworld in contemporary Japan or of corruption in the hospital or the government, the story of midlife suffering, an inquiry into the torments of faith, etc. Read as a pile of “stories,” Endo's fiction seems to cover a wide range of topics. But if we insist on such reading, we miss the heart of Endo's moral universe, his instruction through illumination.

Ultimately, all of Endo's novels are about the same predicament: being misunderstood or mis-“taken.” Living in a perilous world in which people cannot or will not resonate with one another, or with the life around them. Silence (1969), the most widely read of his novels in English translation, quite deftly explores this predicament in a setting charged with religious tension. Set in seventeenth-century Japan, the novel brings to life a period of religious persecution when to be Catholic was knowingly to embrace martyrdom or to apostatize by trampling on the fumie, an embossed image of Christ's face. Between 1614-1640 it is estimated that between five and six thousand believers were martyred.

Endo has chosen to follow a fictionalized Portuguese missionary, Sebastion Rodrigues, through the test of faith that leads to his eventual apostasy. The account of Rodrigues's ordeal is stunning in its vividness (Endo employs the device of reproducing his character's letters to his superiors), but relatively simple in its premise; the main question that the novel seems to pose is whether or not Rodrigues will deny his God. As harsh circumstances mount and the priest's weaknesses are revealed, we suspect that Rodrigues will apostatize, just as his former teacher, Christovao Ferreira, had done before him. The suspense in the plot derives not so much from our interest in Rodrigues's eventual action, but in the nature of God's silence. It seems that the priest wants to use this silence against God; if God won't speak to him, then Rodrigues won't speak on his behalf. When Christ finally speaks, as Rodrigues raises his foot over the fumie, he urges the priest to trample upon him. When silence is broken in this manner, the priest's apostasy seems like a shocking betrayal.

But stop. If what you just read sounds like the real story of Silence, let me remind you of the premise from which this “real story” unfolds. I said that it seems that the main question is whether or not Rodrigues will deny his God. There's no doubt that this may be the main question that arises in the reader's mind, for the Western reader is lodged in a world of curiosity over human motivation, a world in which actions stand for something, a world in which plots unfold.

But I'm not convinced that this is the question that Endo is asking himself and his characters as he writes them into life. I think Endo is asking something much simpler: does apostasy really mean the denial of God? The church certainly believes so, as well as the Japanese government. They're satisfied. But what about Rodrigues? And what about God?

Isn't it possible that built into the very act of apostasy is an error of human logic, both emotional and rational? The act of trampling Jesus' face, taking one's foot and stepping on Christ's face, calls Christ's presence into being. To deny Jesus would be to be unable to see him at all. Trampling a presence does not deny the presence. And if the presence is a voice who reminds you that he lived just so that you could, at this very moment, be as weak and cowardly as you are being, then the act of apostasy is one not merely of affirmation, but of faith. God exists; he knows you and lives for you.

In the slim final chapter, following this apostasy, Rodrigues the ex-priest functions as a real priest, offering the sacrament of absolution to Kichijiro, the man who surrendered Rodrigues to the authorities. Finally the priest understands love; there is no betrayal in a world of love. Pain may flourish, but life is possible because people are at least trying to be good to each other. This is lonely knowledge for Rodrigues, even for Endo. Because to everyone else, apostasy means betrayal. It means sin.

If apostasy is not a sin, then what is? Rodrigues, within his cell, listening to the guards chatting outside, for a moment understood a deep meaning of sin. He reflects: “[T]hese guards, too, were men; they were indifferent to the fate of others. This was the feeling that their laughing and talking stirred up in his heart. Sin … is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

To be oblivious. To be mindless. For Endo, this is sin. Evil exists; it is produced by humans. But it happens only because people stop thinking. Distracted by pride, or even by humility, they forget. And such forgetfulness is the source of all human sorrow. Mindlessness creates the atmosphere in which evil thrives.

All of Endo's work brims with the sorrow of this knowledge. Mindlessness plagues us all as individuals, but our collaboration in a forgetful state produces evil that even society detests. In Endo's early novel The Sea and Poison (1958), a startling collection of first-person narratives describing the life surrounding the vivisection of American POWs in World War II Japan, we understand how easily the unthinking individual helps to create the murderous institution. In Scandal (1988), Endo's most recent novel, the nature of sexual evil in contemporary Japan is explored. Once again the inquiry begins not with the problem of pleasure, but with the problem of selfishness. To forget the meaning of another's life, another's body, is to sin against that life, that body, and against us all.

If sin derives from mindlessness, then no one is immune. Acts of murder and sexual damage are clearly antisocial, but what happens when a whole community chooses to stop thinking? What happens when the Catholic church believes its doctrine on apostasy, and forgets the life of the single Christian locked within the moment of being seen by God? What happens when the hospital chooses to forget that the lives of the elderly are real lives, and decides that this population is ideal for certain types of casual care? What happens when a city government chooses to believe the study that assures them that the volcano hovering over the planned convention hotel will not erupt, even though another study suggests it will?

What happens? What happens? We all know what happens. The mystery that startles Endo is that with this knowledge, we keep forgetting to do something. We keep being surprised by our capacity to be disappointed. It is not God's silence we need to fear, but our own silence. If this is the darkness in the soul of Endo's fiction, then where is the light?

Our chances of being blinded are slight, because the light that sparks the world of Endo's fiction emanates from the characters: some glimmer faintly, some erupt in bursts of momentary clarity, some just flicker and die. No great shafts of light from heaven illuminate this world; it is human terrain. What distinguishes Endo's “heroes” from his other characters is their ability to remember, even occasionally, what they are doing, what they have done. Take Kichijiro, the man who betrays Rodrigues. He is not sufficiently mindful to avoid sin, but at least he achieves moments in which he knows and claims the magnitude of his sin.

Suguro, the protagonist of Scandal (1988), provides us with another model of hope. He's one of those characters whose biography so closely resembles his author's that the novel bristles with an extra-textual intrigue. But Suguro doesn't have any idea what he has done in the past; all he knows is what he must do in the future in order to redeem his own mindlessness.

Then there's Flatfish from When I Whistle (1974). Flatfish is ridiculous in the eyes of his fellow classmates, but he alone understands the meaning of devotion. He may seem foolish in his longing for the unattainable dream girl, but he never forgets who she is. Such characters pace the pages of all the stories, all the novels. Almost always they are unappreciated and misunderstood. Often they are pathetic, unattractive, even repulsive.

If these are the models of redemption offered to us by Endo, how can we take heart? How can we be drawn to such unattractive characters? How can we trust them to show us the right way to live? We can't; that's not what Endo offers us. His fiction does not exist to attract us, to invite us; his fiction exists in order to bear witness, to permit us to see the way it is with us. Here. Now. Everywhere. Catholic or not. Japanese or not. This is the way it is.

For Endo, Jesus alone can show us how to live. Endo's belief in Jesus, both man and God, is the essential truth of his Catholicism. It's not the church that sustains him with its Western dogmas and sacraments. But Christ, the one who was and is forever mindful. When Endo brings this Jesus to life in his remarkable A Life of Jesus, we hear a warmth and excitement that is simply not present in the fiction. Warmed by the glow of Jesus' love, Endo can liken Christ to the ever-mindful mother, the loving woman. He can understand the miracle of Jesus' companionship, can imagine what it might feel like to touch the hem of his garment. He can construct the lives of the disciples as they danced around Jesus and longed for him to be someone else, someone not quite so disappointingly unworldly.

More than that, Endo is not afraid to imagine what it must have felt like to be Jesus, the man, alone, misunderstood, always disappointing the crowd. Endo knows, as Jesus did, that “a person begins to be a follower of Jesus only by accepting the risk of becoming himself one of the powerless people in this visible world.” How did Christ feel about this? Was all-embracing love not sufficient to change the world? Endo's Christ, the embodiment of mindfulness, knows that love is meaningless if it is simply indiscriminate. He can pass through a crowd and feel the touch of a single woman who needs his care. What Jesus really offers is the gift of being known, and being loved anyway.

Endo's Jesus loves the people who betray him partly because they are free to betray him. Love does not control; love accepts. And in a world in which choice seems to be limited by the conditions of birth or health, the knowledge that God always offers one the choice to think and to act is a serious charge. Endo offers us a Christ who doesn't simply tolerate human choice, but loves it. A Christ who calls out, “Trample me!” A Christ who might sound like my own mother when she says, “Let her choose something, even if she chooses wrong.”

I think of little Miranda in her dark American nights, torn between cultures, calling out for a story that is all about being torn between cultures. The story made her cry, and she wanted to cry. How deeply we need to choose, again and again, the story that tells us exactly what we already know.

I think of Shusaku Endo, not a child, but a man of such mindfulness, such gracious poise, telling the same story about the world time after time. We, his audience, can find his work more or less accessible, more or less successful, more or less well-executed. But finally this hardly matters.

Endo has taken Jesus quite seriously; he has decided to write from the world of the sorrowful, the weak, the cowardly. As Endo spins their lives onto the page, he doesn't glorify them or heal them; he is their companion. He can do this because the act of writing so perfectly resembles the act of prayer. All that is needed is faith and the knowledge that a single voice counts, and an essential unwavering listener waits.

Elizabeth Wills (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Wills, Elizabeth. “Christ as Eternal Companion: A Study in the Christology of Shusaku Endo.” Scottish Journal of Theology 45, no. 1 (1992): 85-100.

[In the following essay, Wills explores the role of Christ and the theme of suffering in Endō's works.]

In his book A Life of Jesus Shusaku Endo talks of Jesus' compassion for those who were suffering in terms of his ‘suffering with them, carrying their burdens with them, becoming an eternal companion for them’.1 In several of his novels this understanding of Christ as one who suffers alongside humanity is given extraordinary dramatic power. The image of eternal companion is not explicitly discussed but it seems to underlie many of the themes which Endo employs, providing a remarkably versatile vehicle for his creative exploration of how God's power in Christ can transfigure human lives, bringing the possibility of hope and re-creation.

Christ is understood as the one who, through the suffering of his life and death, has identified fully with the sufferings of all humanity and, by means of this identification, offers the reality of present hope to those who suffer; one who reflects the ‘maternal aspect’ of God's tenderness and compassion and mediates this tenderness to those engulfed by fear or shame; one who in his vulnerability and foolishness challenges the world's concepts of power and wisdom; one who has passed through the confines of death so that he is able to make real for his followers the ‘tangible realisation’ of his presence. The novels speak as literature: we cannot expect to analyse and assess them in the same way as we would a theological argument, but as we respond to their imaginative or dramatic power we may discover much to enrich our Christology.

In many of Endo's novels there is an acute perception of the depths of human suffering. This suffering takes many different forms, often caused by external forces, but the deepest pain of mental and spiritual anguish comes from loss of hope and faith as time after time Endo traces the stripping bare of human hearts. In Silence the central theme is that of God's apparent silence in the face of the unendurable and seemingly endless suffering of his children.

We are made to enter into the agony of the hunted priest Rodriguez for whom the sea becomes the image of God's silence, raising in him the persistent, tormenting question of whether in fact God exists. When he watches the death of the Japanese Christians Mokichi and Ichizo, tied to stakes at the sea's edge, the emphatic power of Endo's restrained, bare prose conveys the sense of Rodriguez' desolation as every detail of landscape and figure adds to the searing pathos of the scene. The inexorable movement of the tide completing its terrible task is emphasised by the silence which images God's silence.

This silence plagues Rodriguez through one harrowing experience after another, attacking him with culminating ferocity when he listens to the groaning of the Japanese Christians in the terrible torture pit and is told that he alone can save them. It is the power of this dramatic build up of tension inexorably pursuing Rodriguez which gives such force to the critical scene where the silence is eventually broken when the priest places his foot on the fumie2 and hears the bronze Christ invite him to trample on his face. Through the agony of his torment in committing this act of apostasy Rodriguez hears the tender voice of Christ speaking to him: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross.’3 This compassionate, suffering Christ lies at the heart of Endo's Christology.

For Rodriguez, as for Job, conventional religious arguments about the reasons for suffering are completely undermined by the stark reality of innocent suffering borne inescapably in upon him. For Job questions of theodicy remain unanswered but God's self-revelation is enough, for his deepest need is answered when God's silence is broken. Similarly, the words of the bronze Christ to Rodriguez offer no explanation as to why the Christians have had to endure such torture, yet they are the moment of transformation for the priest's faith, for they show that he has not been abandoned by God. In the lonely agony of his journey he has felt his suffering was a sign of God's absence; now the voice of the fumie declares that God's presence is to be found within that very suffering. Rodriguez had expected God to break through the silence, to intervene with a mighty act to deliver his followers from their agony. Such a God is indeed absent, but Endo finally points to a positive interpretation of this absence by suggesting that Rodriguez has been seeking God in the wrong place: he discovers that God is to be known not as mighty Creator but as the Christ of the fumie, a God revealed in a face that has been trampled upon by countless feet.

This face is very different from the pure and beautiful face of Christ that Rodriguez has treasured all his life:

‘It was not a Christ whose face was filled with majesty or glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by endurance of pain; nor was it a face filled with the strength of a will that has repelled temptation. The face of the man who then lay at his feet was sunken and utterly exhausted.’4

In the compassionate eyes of this ‘new’ face Rodriguez discovers Christ as the eternal companion who was not absent but suffering beside him.

Unlike Job Rodriguez does not have a triumphant restoration of good fortune. Rather there is sadness and loss in his realisation that he will never again return to his native land, in his rejection by the church and in his restricted life in prison. This points us to a critical feature of Endo's Christology. Many of his novels question the triumphalism of much that he sees portrayed in traditional Western Christianity. Against this portrayal he shows the victory of Christ as inseparable from the suffering, vulnerable, crucified Christ, the Christ of the fumie.

In this Christ we are offered the creative possibility of understanding the atonement as God's way of sharing in the agony of his creation, an understanding such as that explored by Frances Young. She suggests we might understand the meaning of Christ's death as ‘God bearing the painful consequences of his own act of creative love’ and ‘the cross as indeed a symbol of all the pain that ever was, but more than a symbol—a kind of gathering up of all pain, a reservoir of all pain which becomes God's way of sharing the agony and ecstasy of his creation’.5 Endo's narrative realises in a dramatic way how such a sharing might transform the lives of men and women. Transformation for Rodriguez comes not through escape from suffering but in the realisation that God shares in his agony. It is this which enables him to continue living after his apostasy with hope and not despair.

The face of Christ revealed in the fumie is strongly reminiscent of the portrayal of the suffering servant in Isaiah chapter 53, a face not marked by majesty and beauty but marred by ugliness and pain. Such a face also plays a critical part in Endo's novel The Samurai. Here Endo traces the two contrasting inner journeys of the humble Japanese samurai Hasekura, raised in a tiny marshland in seventeenth century Japan, and Velasco, the ambitious Catholic priest filled with a zeal to spread the Gospel by ‘strategy and diplomacy’ to Japan.

In the bewildering and often distressing events of his journey across the world as an envoy Hasekura seems almost to be pursued by the face of Christ which seems to him utterly foreign and repulsive. For Hasekura reverence and respect were commanded by the figures of his overlords, men of power who controlled his life by a mere word. They represented true majesty. He can feel no interest or concern for the man Jesus, the ‘loathsome, emaciated man’ he sees on the crucifixes in the churches of Mexico and Spain. Driven by desperation to try at all costs to succeed in the mission entrusted to him he eventually succumbs to Velasco's pressure to be baptised, but he does so in outward form only, still believing that ‘this ugly, emaciated man—devoid of majesty, bereft of outward beauty, so wretchedly miserable’ has nothing to do with him.6

It is striking how time and time again Endo stresses this picture of the ugly, emaciated Christ rather than the Christ of glory or majesty and it is this image which eventually does become filled with rich meaning for Hasekura. However it is only after his return home, when the agonies of his wasted journey are compounded by the betrayal of the Council of Elders in whom he had placed his trust that he begins to look upon Christ with different eyes. He recognises in himself a deep yearning for ‘someone who will be with you throughout your life, someone who will never betray you, never leave you’.7 Endo's concept of Christ as the ‘eternal companion’, which we have seen in Silence is most poignantly portrayed in the closing pages of this novel when Hasekura, made the scapegoat for his masters' political schemes, realises he is going to be killed. The strained voice of his faithful servant Yozo, who has accompanied his master on all his journeys but can no longer do so, speaks behind him: ‘From now on—He will be beside you’: ‘From now on—He will attend you.’ With a delicately restrained touch Endo allows these simple, broken sentences to express the conviction that Christ is an eternal companion, whilst the information that finally Hasekura himself shares that conviction is expressed with equal restraint: ‘The samurai stopped, looked back, and nodded his head emphatically. Then he set off down the cold, glistening corridor towards the end of his journey.’8

The reasons for Endo's emphasis on the image of Christ as ‘ugly’ and ‘emaciated’ are made explicit in The Samurai in the words of the renegade Japanese monk working amongst the poor Indians in Mexico. Answering the envoys' puzzled questions as to how he could worship someone so ugly and emaciated he says:

‘I can believe in Him now because the life he lived in this world was more wretched than any other man's. Because he was ugly and emaciated. He knew all there was to know about the sorrows of this world. He could not close His eyes to the grief and agony of mankind. That is what made Him emaciated and ugly. Had he lived an exalted, powerful life beyond our grasp, I would not feel like this about Him.—He understands the hearts of the wretched, because His entire life was wretched. He knows the agonies of those who die a miserable death, because He died in misery.’9

It is Christ's ability to enter into and to share the experiences of suffering and wretched human beings which is the focus of much of Endo's imagery. Thus Hasekura can compare him to ‘a sick, mangy dog’ because he also sees that Christ—‘that man’—‘became such a miserable dog for the sake of mankind’.10 Like Isaiah's descriptions of the suffering servant these images strip away all the vestiges of human dignity from the figure of Christ but they also emphasise his humility and loyalty. Indeed in the figure of Yozo, who even before he becomes a Christian has many Christlike qualities, inarticulate humility and unquestionable loyalty are shown to have their own deep dignity.

Velasco is a very different character from Hasekura. Like Rodriguez, he is at first confident in his Christian faith; as for Rodriguez it is when this faith is deeply challenged and he is near to despair, ignoring the Church's strictures, that we sense in him a deeper faith, born of anguish in the face of harsh reality. For when he is made aware of Tanaka's suicide Velasco obeys a deeper prompting and disobeys the Church to perform an act of mercy for the dead samurai. As he responds in compassion to the needs of another, Velasco discovers a new meaning for his life, recognising that ‘a priest lives to serve others in this world, not for his own sake’.11

Again, as in the picture of Yozo, the image of ministering to others predominates, an image which has deliberate echoes of the words of Christ: ‘I am come to minister unto many—and to give them life’. ‘I have suggested that Endo's depiction of Christ is strongly reminiscent of Deutero-Isaiah's portrayal of the suffering servant. Both the elements of suffering and servanthood are important in Endo's Christology: they are inextricably linked. In Velasco's and Yozo's service to others we are able to see a reflection of the truth about Christ—for both such service involves suffering, but in this suffering there is the possibility of giving life to others.

Unlike Rodriguez and Ferreira Velasco does not apostasise; he returns to Japan knowing that in doing so he will face death and, despite his fear, he remains true to his faith, going undaunted to a martyr's death at the stake. However, to say as Van Gessel does that Velasco, ‘once he has cast off his pride, is allowed to worship and serve a glorified Christ with a rational and aggressive faith’,12 is I think to misunderstand the novel. It is to overlook a critical scene whilst Velasco is in prison awaiting his death. In this scene a fellow prisoner, a Dominican missionary, dies a degrading and wretched death and, watching his pitiful body being removed by the guards Velasco comments:

‘As I watched the scene—I had a flash like a revelation from Heaven. This was reality. No matter how much we try to camouflage or idealise it, the real world is as wretched as the dirt-stained, mud-caked corpse of Father Vasquez. And the Lord did not avoid this reality. For even the Lord died covered in sweat and dirt. And through his death, He cast a sudden light upon the realities of this world.’13

It is in the light of this understanding that Velasco sees a purpose in his own death. It cannot therefore be seen as Van Gessel sees it as ‘an undiluted reflection of his dynamic Western beliefs’. Although his manner of dying and his journey of faith may take a very different form from those of Hasekura, in this crucial perception of Christ as not avoiding but sharing ‘miserable reality’ they concur. Here, as so often in Endo's novels, there is a touchstone for what may be seen as the true image of Christ.

In the very different world of Endo's novel The Wonderful Fool a similar picture of Christ emerges. Set in modern day Japan Christ himself is never mentioned but, throughout the novel the enigmatic figure of the awkward, foolish, vulnerable Frenchman, Gaston, displays important Christlike features. His actions—ridiculously foolish in the eyes of contemporary Japanese society—are used by Endo to question our notions of foolishness and wisdom. His refusal to retaliate when attacked by the gang of thugs; his devotion to the stray mongrel; his intervention to prevent Endo murdering the man he holds responsible for his brother's death and, supremely, his determination not to desert the gangster whatever the cost to himself, provide us with an alternative set of values. In the eerie scene in the swamp when Gaston saves Endo's life by interposing his body between him and the sharp blows of Kobayashi's shovel the image of Christlike vulnerability and self-sacrifice is powerfully portrayed. Is such action sheer folly or do we see here ‘Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’?14

In other novels we have seen how Endo portrays Christ as meeting people especially in their weakness and suffering and entering into that suffering with them. Here Gaston's attempts to help the Tokyo prostitute, his meeting with the old diviner, his compassion for animals and children and especially the involvement with the murderer Endo—all quite incomprehensible to the ordinary members of Japanese society—reveal a similar idea in a modern setting. In the light of the book's final image—Tokamori's vision that Gaston will return some day to ‘take upon his back once more the sorrows of people like these’—we might fairly view these actions as echoes of Christ's shouldering of his cross for the sake of suffering humanity.

If the image of eternal companion provides Endo with a means of expressing his conviction that Christ enters into and shares humanity's suffering, it also offers a way of exploring how human beings can experience salvation. Novels such as When I Whistle and The Sea and Poison show that Endo has a deep realisation of the depths of sin and evil, but whereas their mood is predominantly one of pessimistic foreboding, Scandal traces the possibility of salvation even in the face of ‘the fathomless pit’ of evil ‘yawning at the bottom of the human heart’.15

In this novel the ‘fathomless pit of evil’ is given vivid and horrifyingly specific form in Madame Naruse's sadistic pleasure in the thought of the screams of the women and children dying in the flames of fires set alight by her soldier husband; a thought which enflames her sexual desire. It is seen, too, in Motoko's masochistic obsessions as she discovers ecstasy in the violence perpetrated on her. At the culmination of the novel's action Suguro, the central character, has to admit this evil within himself as he watches his shadowy imposter—now inescapably identified as himself—seeking to derive vitality from the young girl Mitsu's body, sucking at her body and tightening his hands around her throat to strangle her. This acknowledgment of evil in himself is starkly, insistently portrayed in the sentences where Suguro faces his complicity in the evil of Madame Naruse's husband and in the mob's violent rejection of Jesus. In words of searing accusation he identifies himself as the one who—‘set fire to the huts of women and children’, the one ‘who cast stones at the frail, bloodied man who bore a cross’.16

As for the priests Rodriguez and Velasco, the possibility of hope for Suguro seems first to necessitate self-knowledge. All these characters who have grown up within the Christian faith go through a process in which their previously comfortably held beliefs are stripped away. Rodriguez makes his lacerating journey into the silence of God; in his final confession Velasco acknowledges his haughty pride and delusion. For Suguro the journey to self knowledge is complex for it is portrayed through the sneering face and depraved actions of his double, the ‘imposter’ who haunts and pursues him throughout the novel. It is only finally after his horror at his response to Mitsu at the hotel that he has to admit that this double is in fact an aspect of himself and he accepts ‘this filthiness as a part of himself’. He realises, too, that now he has ‘to begin searching for evidence of salvation even within this filthiness’.17

If Endo suggests that for these characters this self knowledge is a prerequisite of salvation he does not imply that in itself it is the means to salvation. This can be clearly seen from the comparison with the figure of the disgraced priest, Durand, in Volcano. Like Velasco, Durand is brought to a sharp realisation that his earlier religious zeal has caused him to abuse and harm others. But for Durand self-knowledge leads not to a transformed faith but to loss of faith, disillusion and bitterness: he becomes a man who takes a perverse pleasure in taunting and tempting others and finally commits suicide. In contrast to this we might set the experience of Rodriguez where the voice of the fumie transforms his faith. Durand equates the whole of Christianity with his former false understanding of it, so when this fails him he rejects Christ, whereas Rodriguez is open to discover a ‘new’ Christ.

The hope Suguro finds in the confused realisation of the depths of darkness in his own heart is not as clearly linked to Christ as it is for Rodriguez. Rather it is conveyed through Endo's use of imagery and restrained, evocative description. As he walks down the wintry street, consumed with horror at himself, Suguro sees his ‘double’ ahead of him:

‘The man did not turn his way, but kept walking intently towards Sendagay. A myriad white flecks hit by the streetlights whirled ahead of him. The thin flakes of snow seemed to emit a profound light. The light was filled with love and compassion, and with a maternal tenderness it seemed to envelop the figure of the man. His image vanished.

He (Suguro) felt a rush of vertigo. He peered into the space where the man had disappeared. The light increased in intensity and began to wrap itself around Suguro; within its rays the snowflakes sparkled silver as they brushed his face, stroked his cheeks and melted on his shoulders.’18

The light here is not sharp and penetrating but ‘filled with love and compassion’, an effect emphasised by the warmth of verbs such as ‘envelop’, ‘wrap’, ‘brushed’ and ‘stroked’. Perhaps the fact that the light first envelops Suguro's double suggests that even the depraved evil ‘filthiness’ of this aspect of himself is not beyond redemption.

In this description Christ is not mentioned; the image of light is allowed to speak for itself, yet, significantly, Suguro's response to this experience is ‘O Lord have mercy!’ There are also fascinating links between this passage and a comment made by Endo: ‘I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterise Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus.’19 Does the ‘maternal tenderness’ of the light enveloping Suguro's double suggest Endo's perception of the ‘maternal aspect of God’ which he sees as revealed in Jesus? Is this therefore for Suguro an experience parallel to Rodriguez’ discovery of Christ in the fumie? We are given no explicit answer to these questions but we might well surmise that this is so.

The path to hope is somewhat different in the case of Hasekura. Unlike Rodriguez, Velasco and Suguro, he does not have to re-learn the Christian faith, nor is there an emphasis upon his need for self-knowledge. Certainly his experiences ‘strip him bare’, but it is his trust in his lord and the Council of Elders, deeply rooted in his family tradition, which is shown as worthless. However, like them, his discovery of hope springs both from a painful recognition of reality and from an awareness of need. Different images are used to convey hope—an enveloping light, the voice of Christ speaking from the fumie, a friend who remains faithful even beyond death—but for all of them this hope comes through the conviction that they are ultimately not abandoned. We may therefore posit that this conviction is central to Endo's understanding of the hope of salvation.

The example of Hasekura highlights an interesting aspect of Endo's presentation of the way to salvation. There seems to be no particular emphasis on repentance as a prerequisite of God's forgiveness. Self-knowledge is not the same as repentance: in the moment when Rodriguez hears the voice of the fumie he is not convicted of sin nor called to repentance; although Suguro is filled with shame at his depravity the enveloping light does not focus on that depravity. Indeed in Endo's novels there seems little concern for God's anger at sin.

In this there is a striking contrast with the theology of the Japanese theologian, Kazoh Kitamori. At first Kitamori's concern to emphasise the pain of God might seem very close to Endo's approach, for the Christ of the fumie surely suggests a sharp realisation of the pain of God. Yet for Kitamori God's pain springs from the conflict within himself between his love and his wrath: God's wrath against sin is given considerable prominence in his thinking. Here he still seems to be focussing on the image of God as a stern father, however much that father may be torn between love and wrath. Endo's understanding in his novels is closer to the view which elsewhere he attributes to Jesus: ‘He believed that God by his nature was not in the image of a stern father, but was more like a mother who shares the suffering of her children and weeps with them.’20 This view is perhaps given most forceful expression in the novels in Rodriguez' final understanding of Jesus' response to Judas. Rodriguez sees the command of Jesus—‘What thou dost do quickly’—not as the voice of judgment for this act of betrayal—so often seen as the epitome of human sin and therefore most deserving of God's wrath—but rather as the voice of compassionate understanding. He hears Jesus explaining to him: ‘Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you are now.’21 It is this compassionate understanding which opens up the possibility of transformation and salvation.

Endo has a sharp awareness of the horrifying power of evil, an awareness also found in the contemporary Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, yet a comparison between Endo's novels and Mishima's Runaway Horses shows they have sharply contrasting views of salvation. For Mishima hope appears to lie in a return to traditional Japanese standards and pieties. He places great emphasis upon purity and the nobility of those who attempt to purge evil by force and are willing to offer themselves as sacrifices in the ritual suicide of ‘seppuku’. For Endo hope is found amidst those who could be considered far from pure and noble. Salvation comes not from an individual's efforts to purify himself, nor from a fierce opposition to evil and corruption, but in the recognition of being loved. The strength and power of this love reveals itself in different ways, not always explicitly Christological, yet its characteristics are those which find supreme expression in the Christ of the fumie. Sacrifice is not demanded by the gods of human beings; rather it is of the very nature of divine love itself which, through its compassionate ‘suffering-for’ and ‘suffering-with’, elicits a response which transforms the one who responds.

It is this transforming power which gives incarnational force to Endo's Christology. His stress upon the suffering and wretchedness of Jesus' life might lead us to question whether he sees Jesus only as a man, however good and noble, rather than as God himself. If the face of the fumie, or of the ‘emaciated, ugly man’ which haunts Hasekura is so emphatically the face of a suffering man can it also be the face of God? It is when we consider the change that appears in Suguro that any doubts can be answered for here, to borrow some words from T. F. Torrance, salvation penetrates ‘to the underlying structures of human existence’, effecting a ‘profound cleansing of the roots of human conscience’ and the ‘radical transformation or rebirth of human being’.22 In such a change we can perceive the salvific power of God. In the case of Rodriguez, too, the transformation wrought by the fumie is no mere superficial change but a paradigmatic shift, as is indicated by his altered attitude to the Judas-like figure Kichijiro and the fundamental difference in his perception of Christ.

Grace is clearly a central element in Endo's soteriology; the vulnerable, suffering love of the eternal companion offers hope of salvation with no demand even for repentance. Salvation is always a gift and never merited. However, the lack of any emphasis on God's judgment of sin raises the question of whether this is cheap grace. The stress placed on Christ's suffering both in his life and on the cross underline the costliness to God of this free offering of grace, but it is a cost which stems from the extent of God's identification with suffering humanity rather than from a struggle between wrath and love within God himself, caused by the requirement that sin must incur judgment. Grace is not cheap, but I would question whether, however powerfully he may convey the effects of evil, Endo takes seriously enough the depth of human sin in its communal manifestations within the very structures of society.

Salvation for Endo is seen primarily in personal, individual terms. He describes in realistic detail the harsh realities of his characters' lives—whether these are the tortures inflicted upon the early Japanese Christians, or the slums of modern Tokyo—but, in striking contrast to contemporary Liberation theologians, he does not see the structures which produce these realities as being directly challenged by Christ. It is not that Endo shows no concern for the poor and oppressed; indeed, as an examination of Wonderful Fool showed, Christ is seen as being particularly involved with the outcasts of acceptable society, ‘taking upon his back’ their sorrows. However this involvement is interpreted in terms of acts of compassion and tenderness towards individuals, rather than as solidarity with the oppressed.

Resurrection is also presented in Endo's novels in terms of the essentially individualistic image of Christ as eternal companion. In A Life of Jesus Endo writes that the scene of the resurrection is ‘the pivotal point of the passion narrative and indeed the key to the entire New Testament’.23 It is pivotal, I would suggest, because it is through the resurrection that Christ was able to become humanity's eternal companion, the one who could accompany his followers in this life and even beyond death.

In commenting on the Emmaus story Endo describes the disciples' vivid feeling that Jesus was still very close to them as a ‘non-metaphysical, tangible realisation’.24 This would also be an apt description of Rodriguez' experience in Silence, not only in the critical scene with the fumie but also later in the conversation with Jesus about Judas. It is the vivid reality of this presence which makes the meaning of Christ's past suffering on the cross so powerfully relevant to Rodriguez' predicament, transforming his faith.

Life after death is assumed in Endo's novels but it is not explored in the same depth as questions about suffering or evil. In Scandal Suguro's ambiguous attitude towards death is reflected in dreams: first in the dream of being pursued in fog and later in the dream where he is being driven powerfully out from the protective environs of his mother's womb towards the cervix and birth. In both dreams there is fear and yet also the image of light which conveys hope—light shines through the cervical opening and in the fog a soft light brings an indescribable peace which prompts Suguro to wonder whether this is death. In this dream although Christ himself is not mentioned the light is expressly linked with some of Christ's words: ‘There was not a trace of menace or condemnation in the light that enfolded him in its arms. It was the incarnation of tenderness. “Come unto me—for I am meek and lowly in heart.” The voice was like, and yet in some ways unlike, that of the old priest.’

This passage may suggest that Endo sees Christ as still being present beyond death, continuing to welcome and embrace those who seek him, but the image is left to speak through its own delicate strokes: it is suggestive rather than dogmatic.

This is true also of Endo's treatment of Hasekura in The Samurai. His journey towards death is seen as ‘setting off for another unknown land’.25 There are no images of what that land may hold for him but there is Yozo's voice assuring his master, ‘From now on—He will be beside you.’ Once again it is the image of eternal companion which seems best to express Endo's Christology. There is hope after death not because there are clear pictures of Paradise or heaven—all is unknown—but because whatever the future may hold Christ is to be found there journeying with us.

Fumitaku Matsuoka sees Endo's understanding of the resurrection as ‘God's eternal accompaniment’ as peculiarly Japanese in character.26 Endo himself sees his depiction of Jesus in A Life of Jesus as being rooted in his being a Japanese novelist,27 whilst there are striking similarities between his Christology and Kosuke Koyama's emphasis on ‘the spat-upon Jesus Christ’ and ‘the torn and mutilated Christ’ who ‘heals the broken world’.28

However, his vision of Christ is by no means relevant only to a Japanese context. His insights transcend the limits of a particular culture. The medium of fiction, which allows Endo to provide such penetrating explorations of his characters' inner journeys, also enables the reader to address questions of theodicy and salvation central to Christology. The figure of the trampled-upon Christ of the fumie, the eternal companion accompanying Hasekura on his final journey into the unknown regions of death, the tender light enveloping Suguro: all pose for us with arresting force the central question of all Christology, Jesus' question to Peter: ‘Whom do you say that I am?’


  1. A Life of Jesus (London, Pantist Press, 1973) p. 85.

  2. A fumie is a figure representing Jesus mounted on a piece of wood or copper plate. Japanese authorities in the seventeenth century forced those suspected of being Christians—under threat of torture—to trample on the fumie, thereby proving either that they were not Christians or that they were renouncing their allegiance to Christ.

  3. Silence (Tokyo, Sophia Univ. Press, 1969) p. 271.

  4. Ibid. p. 276

  5. Can These Dry Bones Live? (London, SCM, 1982) p. 58.

  6. The Samurai (London, Peter Owen, 1972) p. 167.

  7. Ibid. p. 245.

  8. Ibid. p. 262.

  9. Ibid. p. 220.

  10. Ibid. p. 245.

  11. Ibid. p. 215.

  12. In the postscript to the English translation of The Samurai p. 271.

  13. The Samurai p. 254.

  14. 1 Corinthians 1 v. 25.

  15. Scandal (London, Peter Owen, 1988) p. 129.

  16. Ibid. p. 217.

  17. Ibid. p. 221.

  18. Ibid. p. 222.

  19. In the preface to the American edition of A Life of Jesus p. 1.

  20. A Life of Jesus p. 80.

  21. Silence p. 297.

  22. The Mediation of Christ (Exeter, Peternoster Press, 1983) p. 72-73.

  23. A Life of Jesus p. 156.

  24. Ibid. p. 174.

  25. The Samurai p. 262.

  26. Theology Today October 1982 p. 294.

  27. A Life of Jesus p. 1.

  28. No Handle on the Cross p. 8 and p. 38.

Further Reading

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Breuer, Hans-Peter. “The Roots of Guilt and Responsibility in Shusaku Endo's The Sea and Poison.Literature and Medicine 7 (1988): 80-106.

Explores the moral implications of the doctors' actions in The Sea and Poison

Quinn, Philip L. “Tragic Dilemmas, Suffering Love, and Christian Life.” Journal of Religious Ethics 17, no. 1 (spring 1989): 151-83.

Examines the dilemma of simultaneously devoting oneself completely to love of Christ and to loving one's neighbor as oneself, using Endō's novel Silence to prove the possibility of fulfilling both obligations.

Shafer, Ingrid. “Shusaku Endo and Andrew Greeley: Catholic Imagination East and West.” Midamerica: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature 18 (1991): 160-73.

Examines religious imagery in the fiction of Endō and Andrew Greeley, noting differences between Eastern and Western interpretations of Christianity.

Additional coverage of Endō's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R, 153; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 21, 54; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 14, 19, 54, 99; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 182;Discovering Authors, 3.0; Discovering Authors Modules—Novelists Module; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century; Major Twentieth-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature Eds. 2, 3; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 48.

J. Thomas Rimer (essay date April 1993)

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SOURCE: Rimer, J. Thomas. “That Most Excellent Gift of Charity—Endô Shûsaku in Contemporary World Literature.” Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 27, no. 1 (April 1993): 59-66.

[In the following essay, Rimer discusses Endō's meaning for a largely Western reading audience.]

There is no question but that, in the United States at least, Endô Shûsaku has attained widely-recognized status as a world-class writer. His more recent books to arrive in English translation, in particular The Samurai and Scandal, have received lengthy reviews in such widely-read publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other similar publications by which status is doubtless conveyed and measured in this country. Translations into other European languages have been effective as well in spreading real interest in his work.

The problem for Western reviewers, however, comes in finding an appropriate means to dismember Endô's unique and colorful psychic portraits and landscapes so as to force them into the appropriate Western-style frames; they don't always fit, and so for the careless reader, certain aspects of the author's vision risk being snipped away. The easiest, now most banal, method of dealing with Endô's work is to suggest that he is the “Japanese Graham Greene.” This is by no means an insult; Greene, as the recent testimonies that followed his death have shown, retains his high reputation as one of the finest British authors of our century. The reason for putting Endô in such a slot, however, has to do with the fact that, in addition to the Catholicism these two writers share, they show similar careers: both have composed a few plays, an impressive series of serious, often profound novels on the human condition, and a plethora of lighter “entertainments” as well. So, in some loose fashion, the model fits.

Endô, in my view, does show one important trait in common with Graham Greene that has been less commonly observed. Both writers have the ability, through their novelistic skill, first to make the reader comfortable, by providing a vision of contemporary life beautifully realized in significant details; then, once this atmosphere is created, to make the reader extremely uncomfortable by raising, in the midst of what still seems familiar, profound questions that pertain to both the deep exaltation and to the dark ambiguities of which the human spirit is capable. Mr. Greene must have recognized something of himself in Endô's work; after all, he wrote at one point that “Endô is to my mind one of the finest living novelists.”

Many of us would concur. How, in terms of reference provided by postwar world literature, does Endô achieve his level of excellence? First of all, I am inclined to make the obvious point, and one that goes too often unmentioned, that Endô is a superb literary craftsman. He can achieve any effect that he wishes: he can shift his tonalities, mix humor with pathos, broaden a theme to farce, then quickly narrow it to irony. Such verbal and literary talents are rare and precious enough in any period. Another of his skills that is perhaps less obvious to a reader unfamiliar with a wide range of modern Japanese literature is Endô's ability to create altogether believable non-Japanese characters. Just as there are few Western novelists who have found the ability to create perfectly delineated Japanese characters without descending to cliché or stereotype (we certainly have enough of those, starting with Madame Butterfly up through the brightly-tinted confusions of James Clavell), there are very few foreign characters in modern Japanese fiction whose portraits can strike a contemporary reader as altogether appropriate. Even such justly celebrated writers as Kawabata or Mishima use foreign characters sparingly, and those they create often teeter between pastiche and perhaps inadvertent parody. Endô, however, inhabits a more genuinely cosmopolitan world, and his Western characters are as touching, real, and involved as his Japanese protagonists.

Perhaps this cosmopolitan aspect of Endô's vision comes from his early experiences in France, where he made friends and involved himself in the everyday life, as well as in the thought, of his newly chosen surroundings. Psychologically and spiritually speaking, Endô as revealed in his writings is a complex man, with many tiers of cultural insight, some of them seemingly contradictory. In this regard he is more typical of our own time, but perhaps less typically Japanese in his mentality than many other significant Japanese writers in his generation, who have found themselves less exposed in any personal fashion to the daily challenges and confusions of living in another culture.

Related to this cosmopolitan strain is Endô's own openness to others, his refreshing lack of amour-propre as a writer. I have been particularly impressed with this aspect of Endô's character in reading portions of his new autobiography published in 1989 entitled Rakudai bôzu no rirekisho, which might be roughly translated as “The personal history of a failed rascal.” (Incidentally, this is a particularly delightful work of Endô's that should certainly be made available in English and other foreign languages.) As Marcel Proust has written with great eloquence in one of his essays, the reality of the personality of the writer lies virtually altogether in what he writes, not in the daily habits of his exterior life; with this conviction as a starting point, it can be argued that Endô's enthusiasms and refreshing modesty are, at least in literary terms, genuine indeed.

Thinking back to his years in Lyon shortly after the war, Endô remarks in his autobiography that:

I had not been in communication with my friends in France for such a long time. I'm sure that none of them ever dreamt that their Japanese student friend, to whom they taught slang and salacious popular songs, would have become a novelist.

Two years ago, I received a letter from France. Along with it came a photo of an older woman I had trouble recognizing; she was standing by an older gentleman, holding a baby.

“Do you know who I am? I am the same Monique, who, in 1951 and 1952 was in our group with people like A, P, and M, and you. Quite by accident I mentioned your name to a Japanese company official who happened to be in Lyon. He explained to me that you had become a novelist. How surprised I was! Can you understand why? Yes, I was truly amazed. After all, at that time in your life, you never so much as mentioned the idea of writing a novel.”

Could this older lady be the lovely Monique? And the old man near her was H, a man I had known. The baby was their grandchild.

Perhaps I should be ashamed to admit it, but looking at this photograph, my eyes filled with tears. I had grown old, but, then, so had they.

When Monique wrote that she never imagined that I might become a novelist, she was quite right. I certainly never had any such confidence in myself; and even if I had harbored such feelings, I would have been ashamed of myself, and would certainly never have dared mention anything to my friends there in France.1

Endô writes that, once he received the letter, he put himself immediately back in touch with the group in order to learn of their own subsequent careers. His friend A sent photographs and wrote back:

You remember G, I'm sure. Unfortunately, he has cancer and is in a hospital in the suburbs. Recently four of us went to see him. We took along with us the French translation of Silence. He too was so happy that you had become a writer.2

A touching incident, and the author's gentle satisfactions are simply but artfully conveyed.

Most of us, when we first travel abroad, count among our most significant experiences the development during our travels of our own self-awareness: we are pushed into realizing who we are ourselves, personally, spiritually, nationally. Endô's sojourn in France apparently struck the same chords in his psyche.

Endô's major novels chart a process of understanding and of self-understanding. For him, the question, as it has been for so many in this century, both Japanese and others, remains how to achieve openness while retaining and developing one's own sense of personal authenticity. Endô is eloquent on the point. In his new introduction to the translation of his 1965 novel Foreign Studies, first published in England in 1989, Endô writes that:

During the first year of my studies [in France] I was able to experience at first hand everyday life in post-war France, and I made some progress in my study of the language. I devoted all my time to my subject of study, twentieth-century Christian authors (focusing in particular on some of the grands écrivains of French literature like Mauriac, Bernanos, and Julien Green). I was also able to establish friendships with several of the French students at my university. Optimistically I began to believe that I had taken the first steps towards acquiring an understanding of Europe.

And yet, in about the middle of my second year, I learnt that towering beyond the hill I had scaled lay an enormous mountain. Further on lay an even more imposing mountain. I now found myself wondering whether there was any way that a visitor from the Far East could ever comprehend France. As a Japanese confronted with the tradition, the rich cultural heritage and confidence of Europe, I came to sense an unfathomable distance.3

Eventually, out of this experience, came the growth of a greater sense of self.

Some time during the second year of my stay, I gradually became more aware of my identity as a Japanese. The more I came into contact with European art and culture, the more aware did I become that they derived from emotions and a sensibility that remained alien to me.4

Of what does this self-understanding consist? To answer the question fully, one would have to read and contemplate all of Endô's work, but one thing seems clear from a perusal of his major writings to date: what gives Endô's work its moral resonance and contemporary social relevance is the fact that with self-understanding comes the inevitable realization that evil exists in the world. An unhappy truth, perhaps, but for Endô, an essential one. Again, a look at his autobiography reveals several examples of this insight gained from the years he spent in France. In his case, as for so many in his generation, the images he retained are those of war, evil, loss.

In front of our dormitory a rickety train went creaking by. Every day, when evening came, we could see a middle-aged woman standing near the train stop, chewing on the brim of her hat.

“Ah, I feel so sorry for that woman,” A, my best friend in the group, said to me. “Her husband was killed in the war, but she still can't believe it. Every day, she waits for him at the hour when he should be returning home.”

Even now, I can remember all this. The clanging sound of the little electric train. And the woman, standing absolutely still, like a small stone statue, holding her bag in the darkening shadows of the buildings.5

War brought evil.

Once, when I was walking on Place Belcour, in the middle of the city, with my friends A and P, I saw a metal plate fastened to the side of a building. I read what was written there, word by word.

“In the basement of this building, the Nazis tortured French citizens.”

The three of us peeked into the cellar window, through its rusty screen and broken glass. I felt an infinite darkness. Not so much of the room itself; rather, I thought that I had peeped into the darkness that lies at the depth of the human soul.6

It was perhaps the sobering nature of this self-understanding that may have led Endô to seek the possible links that tie together all humanity, whatever the superficial and differing aspects of their culture. Perhaps, he posited in 1989, one must go down into the layers of the unconscious to find these links. The tradition of Japanese literature, he stressed, provided one means to do so.

The theme of the unconscious was prominent in Eastern writing long before it was taken up in Western literature. Since about the fifth century ad one of the sects of Buddhism divided the human soul into several levels, drawing a sharp distinction between the conscious and unconscious worlds. In contrast to this, Western Christianity has tended to view the world of the unconscious as belonging to the world of evil (a belief that has influenced the works of Freud) and, as such, heretical. Even the Spanish mystics, who touched on the concept of the unconscious world, failed to treat it seriously, and it was left to Buddhism to claim that it is the unconscious which lies at the heart of man.7

Endô's own eloquent remarks on his ambiguous sense of self show his commitment to this multilayered vision. In speaking of his own Catholic faith, Endô insists that:

There were many times when I felt I wanted to get rid of my Catholicism, but I was finally unable to do so. It is not just that I did not throw it off, but that I was unable to throw it off. The reason for this must be that it had become a part of me after all. The fact that it had penetrated me so deeply in my youth was a sign, I thought, that it had, in part at least, become coextensive with me. Still, there was always that feeling in my heart that it was something borrowed, and I began to wonder what my real self was like. This I think is the “mud swamp” Japanese in me. From the time I first began to write novels even to the present day, this confrontation of my Catholic self with the self that lies underneath has, like an idiot's constant refrain, echoed and reechoed in my work.8

If our unconscious being, that lowest layer we can sometimes sense but not define, is the stratum that unites all of us human beings together in some vast Jungian structure, then perhaps in some fashion a kind of human democracy can be established. One of the things that this hidden world of equals allows us to discover, indeed demands that we discover, is an acute consciousness of our own individual flaws. Endô's own fictional characters constantly seek self-definition, and there are few heroes among them. The whining, fawning Kichijirô of Silence is thus perhaps representative of all us human creatures, who, whatever our vaunts and boasts, can only cry for help when real difficulties come.

Such is one aspect of Endô's message, his insight into the basic nature of the human condition. It is a message that other great writers in many cultures have carried with them, among them Natsume Sôseki in Japan, Graham Greene himself in England, and the grands écrivains of modern France of whom Endô spoke.

Endô's work, I am convinced, shows three great themes which place him altogether in the mainstream of world literature, and these insights will give his work a permanent place among the greatest fiction composed during this part of our century.

First, as I have mentioned, is his conviction, revealed so clearly in a novel such as Silence or The Sea and Poison, of the need for humanity to acknowledge, and to take upon themselves, a full conviction of the existence of evil in the world.

Secondly, Endô would have us renew our understanding of the fact that God, and Christ, represent a core of understanding and forgiveness around which our human lives revolve. This message, woven through so much of Endô's fiction, is nowhere more clearly stated than in his Preface to the American edition of his A Life of Jesus. There Endô writes:

The religious mentality of the Japanese is—just as it was at the time when the people accepted Buddhism—responsive to one who “suffers with us” and who “allows for our weakness,” but their mentality has little tolerance for any transcendent being who judges humans harshly, then punishes them. In brief, the Japanese tend to seek in their gods and buddhas a warm-hearted mother rather than a stern father. With this fact in mind I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterize Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus.9

For the West, now in the throes of rethinking many of its own traditional ideas, such a passage has a strongly contemporary and sympathetic ring. There are many devout Christians today who would find themselves responding with approval to Endô's emphasis, and, in the current climate of thought, Endô's insights can play a powerful role.

Thirdly, Endô has with great finesse separated out the strands represented by art, sensibility, and culture, in order to show that they do not represent or constitute, in and of themselves, a religious sensibility. In the Japanese case, as a book like Silence or even Wonderful Fool can suggest, there is a risk in confusing the religious and the artistic sensibility. As Endô remarks so succinctly in the Preface to A Life of Jesus:

… I do not think that my portrait of Jesus touches on every aspect of his life. To express what is holy is impossible for a novelist. I have done no more than touch the externals of the human life of Jesus.10

Such are these messages that Endô delivers to us, and they are messages that the world of literature should and must be able to assimilate, particularly in these troubling spiritual times. Indeed, it is precisely now that we most need to hear them, however uncomfortable these messages may make us.

What is more, Endô has found a way to deliver these messages in an astonishing variety of styles, sometimes in a stern and gloomy fashion, sometimes with impeccable lightness, humor, and grace. Indeed, these insights represent his gift to us, gifts that grow from his artist's sense of humility, of love, and of charity.

I have entitled this short essay “That Most Excellent Gift of Charity” because I believe that Endô's work at its best, when read and well-pondered, can give rise to this same spirit within ourselves. Brought up not in the Catholic faith but in the Episcopalian tradition, I myself find that this collect from the Book of Common Prayer, written for the Sunday before Lent, manages to capture something for me of the role that Endô's writing can play in the larger world, and hopefully, of course, for Japanese readers as well:

O Lord, who has taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of Charity, the very bond of peace and all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee.

Endô would have us alive, not dead; full, not empty. If we can accept his gift, then we too, from whatever culture we come, can move further in a search for our own authenticity. Could any writer dare more, accomplish more?


  1. Rakudai bôzu no rirekisho (Nihon Keizai Shinbunsha, 1989), pp. 88-89.

  2. Ibid., pp. 90-91.

  3. Foreign Studies (Ryûgaku) (London: Peter Owen, 1989), pp. 7-8.

  4. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

  5. Rakudai, p. 89.

  6. Ibid., p. 90.

  7. Foreign Studies, p. 10.

  8. Silence (Chinmoku) (Sophia University and C. E. Tuttle, 1969), pp. 12-13.

  9. A Life of Jesus (Iesu no shôgai) (New York: Paulist Press, 1973), p. 1.

  10. Ibid., p. 10.

Van C. Gessel (essay date April 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3606

SOURCE: Gessel, Van C. “Endô Shûsaku: His Position(s) in Postwar Japanese Literature.” Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 27, no. 1 (April 1993): 67-74.

[In the following essay, Gessel attempts to expand Endō's literary significance beyond his reputation as a Japanese Catholic writer.]

It is no simple matter to define the position which Endô Shûsaku holds in contemporary Japanese letters, since he does not occupy a single, easily definable position as most of the prewar, confessional writers did. He belongs to a uniquely distinguished list of less than a dozen writers who over the last six decades have held the office of President of the Japan P.E.N. Club (that list also includes such names as Shimazaki Tôson, Masamune Hakuchô, Shiga Naoya, Kawabata Yasunari, and Inoue Yasushi). But we tend sometimes as puzzled readers of foreign literature to seize upon labels and classifications for writers that are overly-simplified and all too facile.

Most familiar, of course, is his moniker as the “Japanese Graham Greene.” There are several problems attending such a label. Certainly some Greene works, especially The Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory, have influenced Endô's own writings. But such a blithe categorization ignores the even more important influences of Mauriac, of Bernanos, of Julien Green, and of course, of such Japanese antecedents as Akutagawa, who presaged some of the cultural and philosophical insights of Endô's Chimmoku (Silence) and Samurai (The Samurai) in some of his Christian stories, notably “Kamigami no bishô” (The smile of the gods); Natsume Sôseki, the first twentieth century author in Japan to probe the moral issues of betrayal and personal responsibility that lie at the heart of Endô's work; Shiina Rinzô, the first important postwar Christian author; and a host of others. Worst of all, such a label is meaningless for the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who loyally read Endô's works.

Similarly, is it all that useful to call Endô “the leading writer in Japan today?” To my mind he certainly is, but such titles are fundamentally the invention and province of advertising departments at greedy Western publishing houses. Precisely the same problem attends the use of the phrase “Japan's chief contender for the Nobel Prize.” The list of potential Japanese honorees is fraught with problems; and why would anyone attempt to read the distinctly capricious and politicized minds of the Stockholm committee anyway?

Space will not permit an examination of the entire range of diverse positions which Endô occupies in contemporary Japanese literature. In terms of surface honors, he has received every major prize which can be offered to a writer in Japan, from the early Akutagawa to his recent dubbing as a “person of cultural merit” (bunka kôrôsha), which often precedes elevation to the elite company of recipients of the Bunka Kunshô; has served with distinction on the selection committees for several prominent literary awards, once again including the Akutagawa Prize; has served as editor of Mita Bungaku; and, as noted at the outset, held the position of President of the Japan P.E.N. Club, the most influential assemblage of writers in the country. But a very large portion of the Japanese populace considers Endô a “popular” writer, by virtue of the fact that he has published an enormous number of humorous novels, entertainments, and light-hearted essays, has appeared on Japanese television in many less-than-serious formats, manages Kiza, the largest amateur theatrical troupe in the country, and many years back was the chief commercial spokesman for Nescafe coffee. He is widely regarded as a prankster and a practical joker, and as a droll essayist he combines the irreverence of a Dave Barry with a typically Japanese preoccupation with bodily functions. These facets of Endô's career are not widely recognized in the West, and likely will continue to be downplayed by his Western publishers. For me there is nothing problematic about them, since they fit in with a larger project that has consumed much of Endô's time and energies—the convincing of the non-Christian Japanese public that one can be a Christian and a fun-loving human being at the same time.

It is worthy of mention that Endô also holds a central position in contemporary Japanese letters as a writer of the war generation which attained maturity at the zenith of the Second World War. Although the focus of these remarks will be on the varied Japanese reactions to Endô as a Christian writer, it will also be necessary to highlight the fact that his writings simultaneously focus upon the anxieties, and sense of loss, and the desperate search for reconciliation that is typical of the generation of Japanese who suffered the shocks and scars of the war and its aftermath.

I do not for a moment want to take issue with the label of “Christian writer” which we have nailed onto Endô, but I reemphasize at the outset that it represents only one of the many facets of his work, and the one which we as Westerners are swiftest to seize upon. There can be no question that of the perhaps score of major writers in Japan today who would identify themselves as Christians, Endô is the most important, the most creative, the most prolific, and the most widely read and respected author. No Christian writer working in Japan during this century has been more direct or more forthright in exploring the conflicts inherent in practicing the imported faith as a member of the Japanese race and nation. I will be exploring these conflicts in more detail below, but perhaps I can simply suggest here the possibility that Endô has attained his position as the leading Christian writer in Japan precisely because the religion was bequeathed to him at a relatively young age through his mother, and not something he chose of his own volition. Keenly sensing the moral responsibility that such an encounter with Christianity has thrust upon him, Endô has taken it upon himself to act as the godfather (and I intend that to be taken in a Christian, not a Coppolaen, meaning) of Japanese Christian writers. He has fostered publication of their works, provided intellectual guidance, established a Christian Literary Association, served as creative advisor for the Christian pavilion at Japan's 1970 world exposition, and even acted as a spiritual go-between for some at the time of their baptism. His preeminence in the Japanese Christian writers' community is unassailable.

However, it might be instructive to point out here that the overall Christian population in Japan is neither large nor monolithically unified. Something less than one percent of the hundred and thirty million Japanese claim adherence to Christianity, and because the Japanese Christian is, by definition, an anomaly, the centrifugal tug toward even greater marginality often threatens to pull apart an organized church structure altogether. The Christian writer in Japan is an outsider's outsider, an aberration among anomalies.

The result for a writer like Endô is that his work is not universally embraced and venerated by Japanese Christians, not even by Japanese Catholics. The case of Silence, one of Endô's finest literary achievements, is instructive. The work was, in fact, acclaimed almost unanimously, and it became a major best-seller in Japan at a time when the best-seller list actually had some connection with literary quality. But a close look at the composition of the readership for Silence reveals a very interesting piece of information. We might conclude that the Christian faithful in Japan had rallied around their literary spokesman, and that his novels had also struck some kind of responsive chord within the collective spiritual unconscious of the Japanese people. In point of fact, however, the strongest critics of Silence emerged from within the ranks of devout believers, and the novel managed to meet with some official forms of disapproval from the established Church. The readers responsible for elevating it to best-seller status came not from amongst Christian believers and sympathizers, but rather from largely left-wing college students, who saw in the torture and apparent apostasy of Father Rodrigues a paradigm for Japanese Marxists of the 1930s who had been imprisoned, tortured, and forced to recant their seditious political beliefs publicly in a practice often described as “forced intellectual conversion” (tenkô). I would enjoin serious caution in any attempt to assume that Endô's novels are read by the average Japanese reader of serious fiction in the same way that we Westerners read them.

I do not for a moment wish to imply that Japanese readers have not been moved, either consciously or otherwise, by the spiritual import of Endô's writings. Endô very clearly recognized from the outset of his career that the distinctive cross he must bear as a writer is the fact that much of the Christian imagery, metaphor, and substance of his writing will fall upon unprepared ears amongst his kinsmen. Perhaps part of the reason his most recent essays and stories focus upon the quest for a pan-cultural and pan-religious unconscious mind linking all of humanity—a quest that has led him to combine Christian, Jungian, and Buddhist thought—can be traced to his desire to break through the barriers that separate Japanese culture from Christian culture.

The truly unique position which Endô occupies in modern Japanese fiction becomes evident when he is lined up with his cohort. While his contemporaries in the Japanese literary world have either been absorbed in their own narrow autobiographical spheres or struggling with the loss of individual prerogative in the wake of defeat in 1945, Endô has stretched wide the confines of the Japanese narrative and added to it the one element most essential in the creation of a true literary “drama”—a consideration of the relationship between man and God. Endô's early works, such as Kiiroi hito (Yellow Man), Umi to dokuyaku (The Sea and Poison), or Kazan (Volcano), suggest that the spiritual climate in Japan is lacking in a partiality for the absolute and is bereft of a sense of the moral consequences of human behavior. But no Japanese reader can help being struck—if not fully persuaded—by passages such as the following, taken from the story “Yonjussai no otoko” (“A Forty-Year-Old Man”):

I still don't know what life means, what it is to be a human being. I'm idle and I'm lazy, and I go on deceiving myself. But, if nothing else, I have finally learned that when one person comes in contact with another, it is no simple encounter—there is always some sort of scar left behind. … One ripple expands into two, and two grow into three. And it was he who had cast the first stone. …

One can long scan the landscape of Japanese fictional narratives without finding too many other bodies of work that focus so persistently upon the basic moral responsibilities shouldered by each of us as a result of our actions. I don't think it is too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the vast majority of Japanese authors in the last century have concerned themselves almost exclusively with the impact that an individual's actions have on himself or, at best, on those who immediately surround him. The higher moral perspective—given metaphorical shape through the plaintive eyes of dogs and myna birds and drab, plump wives who look with compassion on all the frenzied transgressions of man—is the dominant perspective in Endô's fiction, and I doubt that very few readers in Japan can be shown life through such a perspective and reject its relevancy outright.

The agony of personal weakness, the torment of inescapable sin, the horrifying allure of evil—whether or not the Japanese reader of Endô's works would give them such labels, these experiences of loss and separation are familiar to Japanese who have endured the war, the unprecedented humiliation of defeat, and the stigma of foreign occupation. And so the quest for a source of relief, of compassion, of forgiveness is a yearning of the spirit that many Japanese today share in common. By providing these readers with a Christ figure whose primary function is to mourn with those that mourn; to suffer alongside those who suffer; and to provide companionship to those who are despised and rejected by the world, Endô has set himself apart from the ranks of postwar Japanese writers who have chosen to focus almost exclusively on the pain without offering any proposals to alleviate it.

The evolution of this image of a forgiving, compassionate, Mother-like Savior in Endô's writings is fascinating to examine. After proposing in his earliest stories and novels—from his initial novella Shiroi hito (White Man) in 1955 through Ryûgaku (Foreign Studies) of 1965—that a massive cultural and spiritual wall separates Japan from the Christian West, Endô set about doing his “homework” as he himself describes the process of development in his writing. The most conspicuous signpost of change dotting the Endô fictional landscape is of course Silence, because in this work Endô first posits the existence of a pinhole of hopeful light, a way out of the mudswamp of Japanese pantheism and spiritual stagnation. Many readers, both Japanese and Western Christians, have been overly disturbed by the questions raised by the antagonists in the novel—both the Japanese magistrate and the apostate priest—who question whether Christianity can ever take root in Japan without having its essence rotted away by the native soil. But the arguments of the magistrate Inoue are, after all, words emerging from the mouth of a literary character, not direct expressions of an authorial point of view. Endô himself has emphatically made that point. Readers should rather hear the significance of the voice that speaks comfort to Rodrigues as he is about to trample on the sacred image. Is that voice to be taken as a hallucination within Rodrigues' is the voice of a forgiving Christ, accepting the gift of Rodrigues' pain and urging him to choose the better part of mercy on behalf of others who suffer. With all due respect to William Johnston's translation of the novel, the words that fill Rodrigues' mind at the height of his passion are, in the original Japanese, not so much an imperative, a command to “Trample!”, as they are benevolent words of permission: taken very literally, they tell Rodrigues that it is “all right to trample” (fumu ga ii) on the holy image.

There were, certainly, a number of Japanese readers who were disturbed by the systematic demolition of Rodrigues'—and the West's—version of Christianity. It seemed to some that the elevation of the forgiving, maternal form of Japanese Christianity at the end of the novel was achieved at the expense of Rodrigues' confident, judgmental brand of religion, that in fact the message of the novel was that the demands of justice had to be trampled upon in order for the intercessory act of mercy to take effect. And, indeed, one can certainly read the novel in this manner. But 14 years after the publication of Silence, Endô published what is to my mind a far more open, expansive, even, if you will, “catholic” novel in The Samurai. In this novel it seems to me that the Western priest's dynamic version of faith and the Japanese warrior's subtle, even passive embrace of Jesus are both affirmed as viable strains of the large, universal symphony that is Christianity. It is not the conflict between differing qualities of faith that energizes The Samurai; it is rather the struggle between self-serving human institutions—whether political or religious—and the cravings of the individual heart for a binding link with deity that produces the stirring drama of the novel.

But the reaction to The Samurai in Japan was disappointing. While a handful of critics read the novel with sensitivity to its many layers of meaning, including the spiritual journey it traces, mainstream critics for the most part dismissed the work as a piece of ambiguous historical fiction without relevance to the Japan of today. Perhaps Japan in 1980, having achieved a position of extraordinary economic power in the international community, was not feeling sympathetic toward a denunciation of temporal institutions, the very kind of institutions that had made their remarkable success possible. If The Samurai can, on one of its many levels, be read as a critique of a people who place all their faith in political and economic organizations and forsake the spiritual realm because it does not so readily offer tangible profits, then it becomes obvious why such a message would clang uncomfortably in the ears of many contemporary Japanese.

If The Samurai made uncomfortable, or even incomprehensible, reading for some in Japan, you can imagine what the response to Sukyandaru (Scandal) must have been like. As Japan's war generation has settled back comfortably into seats of power within the various institutions of society—just as the figures of authority do in The Samurai, and as a younger generation which has experienced none of the losses of the war and occupation years single-mindedly pursues its quest for worldly success, the critical response to Endô's writings in Japan has become less and less insightful and supportive. When Scandal was published, virtually the only review that came close to grasping the essence of the work came not from a literary critic, but from Kawai Hayao, a professor of clinical psychology at Kyoto University. This suggests that the more Endô probes into the mysteries and dualities of the human heart, the less comfortable is the Japanese reading public. Japan today, I am afraid, would much rather cling complacently to an image of itself like that which the Christian novelist Suguro has of himself at the opening of Scandal. On his way to receive an important literary prize, Suguro leans back against the cushions of his chauffeured car:

Now that he had passed the age of sixty-five, he could not quite repress the feeling that tonight's honor was a bit overdue. Still, the accolades showered upon the novel massaged his sense of pride. There was more to it than pride, though. The harmony he had finally been able to achieve with this recent work, both in his life and in his writings, was deeply satisfying.

But throughout Endô's literary career, one of his primary tasks has been to shake his characters from their complacency, to force them to stare directly at their deluded senses of stability and pride, and to awaken them to an awareness of their own fragility and dependency, their inherent duplicity, and their desperate, but largely unrealized, need for the companionship of one who will save them from their endless wavering between sainthood and satanhood. Scandal is perhaps the boldest of such attempts, precisely because Endô creates a main character who is essentially his own double, and proceeds to shake himself to the foundations of his self-satisfied ego. It is an awe-inspiring struggle, as Suguro tiptoes along the edges of the pit that falls directly into unredeemable evil and catches a quick glimpse of the faint but unmistakable light of saving grace. But the novel ends without resolution, with Suguro lying awake at night listening to the nagging ring of a telephone that seems to be calling him from the void beyond. A dramatic difference between Silence and Scandal, then, is the fact that in the more recent novel, the voice from the other side of the veil does not speak. It offers no words of either condemnation or forgiveness. As he draws ever closer to death, Suguro is going to have to do even deeper probing of his innermost being before he will be prepared to pick up the receiver and hear the final words of reconciliation with his maker. That, perhaps, is the “homework” that remains for Endô in the wake of Scandal.

There is no sure way to predict how the Japanese reading public will respond as Endô delves deeper and deeper into the human soul, searching for that tiny dot of light that he is convinced dwells within the heart of darkness. It is clear, however, that Endô's work reverberates in the hearts and minds of his countrymen, whether Christian or not. In a sense, the tales of Christian torture and apostasies from an earlier day merely function as a metaphor for the intellectual and moral struggles of all Japanese in the postwar age. By describing those who are too frail or too frightened—or too often betrayed—to cling to any single saving dogma, Endô has depicted the plight of many contemporary Japanese (and Europeans and Americans) who grapple with the anxiety of living in a time when virtually every traditional source of strength and security has been snatched from our grasp. The Christian martyrs of Endô's fictions become types for us all, as we yearn for the reassuring verities of the past and cringe in their absence. Whether we can be comfortable having such images thrust before us is open to question, and the apparent unwillingness of Japanese readers to respond to Endô's most recent efforts suggests that such indications of lurking weakness may not be welcome.

But the sword of Endô's writing will continue to pierce the hearts of those who remain unconvinced that material success is the be-all and end-all of contemporary existence. And whether he receives the honor he deserves in his own country or not, I for one am persuaded that as we continue to read Endô's fiction, none of us will be able to feel either completely comfortable, or completely alone. That is the real power of Endô's writing.

Michael Gallagher (essay date April 1993)

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SOURCE: Gallagher, Michael. “For These the Least of My Brethren: The Concern of Endô Shûsaku.” Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 27, no. 1 (April 1993): 75-84.

[In the following essay, Gallagher discusses Endō's honorary degree from John Caroll University.]

About thirty years ago, it was very popular in American Catholic literary circles, such as they were, to argue about what constituted a Catholic writer. In more enlightened times, this sort of thing has become passé. But now, the emergence of Endô Shûsaku on the stage of world literature gives me cause enough to bring it up once more.

To borrow a phrase from the old Latin Mass, “Dignun et justum est”—it is right and just—right and just that John Carroll as a Catholic school should honor Endô Shûsaku with an honorary degree. In John Carroll's more than a century of existence, we have never given an honorary degree to a writer. The Catholic Church, like Plato, is wary of writers. You never know what a writer is going to come out with next, and those in authority don't like to be surprised.

The Church is especially wary of writers who seem to betray an interest in matters theological. The attitude of many of the hierarchy was well expressed by the Anglican bishop in Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall. When two laymen get into a heated discussion on the date of the introduction of the rood screen, the bishop mildly observes that it was his experience that any concern on the part of the laity for Church matters was usually a prelude to insanity.

It is also right and just that John Carroll as a Jesuit school should honor Mr. Endô. For, whatever his mental state may be, Mr. Endô is not only interested in religion, but he has a special affinity—maybe to the point of obsession—for a period of Japanese history that is almost unknown in the West, a period that, despite its obscurity, has a deep significance to the Catholic Church and to the Society of Jesus in particular. The pages of the Jesuit martyrology are filled with the names of priests, brothers, and seminarians—Japanese, Portuguese, and Italian—who died in the most horrible ways imaginable during the great persecution that began at the end of the 16th century and didn't end until 1869.

It was one of the most thorough and systematic persecutions that the Church has ever suffered. One of its most infamous artifacts was the dreaded fumie—literally “step-on picture”—a metal plaque with a bas-relief image of Christ or the Virgin that suspected Christians had to step on either to prove their innocence or to deny their faith. And one of its most infamous tortures was anazuri, in which the victim was hung upside down, with his or her head—there were women martyrs as well as men—thrust down into a pit that had been filled with excrement and other foul-smelling material. The forehead was lightly slashed to prevent the blood from congesting, though after a while blood flowed from the mouth, the ears, and even the eyes.

The martyrs include Camillo Costanzo, burnt to death in 1622 on an island off the coast from Nagasaki, whom Endô mentions in his short story “Mothers” (Haha naru mono), and the remarkable Japanese Jesuit Pedro Kasui Kibe, the hero of Endô's untranslated novel Guns and the Cross (Jû to jûjika). At Edo in 1629, Kibe steadfastly endured anazuri. Two elderly priests tortured with him recanted the second day, but Kibe not only persisted in his refusal to do so but kept encouraging the Christians who were forced to witness his agony, and the Shogunate officials finally ordered him to be burnt to death.

We are not honoring Mr. Endô, however, simply because Jesuits figure quite prominently in his novels. We are honoring him because his novels challenge us as Christians and challenge John Carroll as a Jesuit school. Mr. Endô's novels do not edify. They do not give you a warm pious glow.

There once was a writer who wrote popular novels based on the lives of the saints. His novels were edifying, so edifying that the Vatican made him a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher—an honor not likely to be accorded to Endô, as it wasn't to Waugh, Greene, Bernanos, or Mauriac. Churchmen don't like unpleasant or incongruous details. For most churchmen a single wart, like a single mortal sin, is enough to warrant condemnation, and Mr. Endô is a portrait artist who lays on the warts with a lavish hand.

I once had a job working for the Church in which I was supposed to pass moral and critical judgment on movies for the guidance of the pious faithful. Whenever there was a film that presented problems, I had to confer with two or three other people. One of them was our titular head, a genial Jesuit who liked to travel all over the world to film conferences but actually didn't like movies much and seldom went to one. This worthy man would grow restive whenever I started to give details. “Never mind all that,” he'd say. “What's the moral of the story?”

Think of it! The moral of the story. What's the moral of Hamlet? He who hesitates is lost. What's the moral of King Lear? There's no fool like an old fool. Romeo and Juliet? The course of true love never did run smooth. Shakespeare even supplies you with it.

The moral seekers don't want to be bothered with details. They want answers. They want everything perfectly clear.

Behind this demand for the meaning, the moral, to exclusion of all else, lies a distrust of literature and a desire to domesticate it. For, once broken, once made subservient, literature can be used to further worthy ends.

Francois Mauriac, as loyal and conservative a Catholic as can be imagined, once gave voice to a certain sad frustration. As a writer he was obliged to look deeply into the most secret recesses of the human heart, the very wellsprings of evil, and write accordingly. For years, he said, he had been looking for a pious priest with whom he could discuss this, but he never found one. Greene went further than Mauriac. In one of his critical essays, he made the disconcerting assertion that a writer has a “duty to be disloyal.”

Mr. Endô seems to have fulfilled the duty admirably. Some of his critics contend that he has indeed gone above and beyond the call of duty. He has not only been charged by some of his Japanese fellow Catholics with disedificaton—by some Japanese Protestants too, to make it an ecumenical condemnation—but, worse yet, with dishonoring the memory of the Japanese martyrs, calling into question the validity of Japanese Catholicism, and coming up with the seemingly blasphemous assertion that Jesus would have stepped on a fumie to save others from suffering.

Let me briefly review Mr. Endô's alleged sins. Not all of them of course—just the ones he's been willing to have published.

Twenty three years ago Mr. Endô's novel Silence imposed itself upon the tranquil and painfully respectable world of Japanese Catholicism like a tiger crashing a cat show. A historical event inspired Silence: the apostasy in the early 17th century of the Jesuit provincial Christopher Ferreira, who after a heroic life of some twenty years as hunted priest and an inspiration to the persecuted Church, finally fell into the hands of the Shogunate officials and broke under the torture of anazuri. After apostatizing Ferreira was forced to accept a Japanese wife, and thenceforth, so it seems, he cooperated with the Shogunate in the persecution of Christians.

Endô's hero is fictional, a young Jesuit priest named Sebastian Rodrigues. Rodrigues comes to Japan flaming with zeal, intent on making up for the great scandal caused by Ferreira's fall. He too is captured, however, and eventually, he too apostatizes—not because of the fear of torture but because of the effect of a meeting with Ferreira, who had once been his theology professor at the University of Coimbra.

Ferreira tells him that the Japanese can never be Christians, that Japan is like a vast swamp that freely draws in whatever comes its way but changes it intrinsically in the process of absorbing it.

When the young priest counters by saying that he has seen peasants endure horrible torture and die heroic deaths for the Faith, Ferreira shakes his head sadly and tells him:

They died not for the faith we know—which they never really understood—but for something of their own creation. We had no right to come here with our strange creed and disturb their lives and cause them such terrible suffering. If Jesus himself were here, he would step on the fumie willingly to spare them further suffering.

This is what Rodrigues himself finally does. Like Ferreira, then, he too seems to admit defeat—vanquished by the swamp that is Japan.

A later novel Samurai ends on the same note of apparent defeat and oblivion. The Spanish Franciscan Velasco had once hoped to become the first bishop of Japan by accompanying an extraordinary trade mission sent by the daimyo of Sendai to Europe by way of Mexico—again, an actual historical event. The mission fails, and he is burnt to death on a beach with a Portuguese Jesuit. Afterwards, soldiers gather up their mingled bones and ashes in a rush mat and throw the mat into the water. The novel ends with these lines:

The frothy waves which swept onto the beach swallowed up the rush mat, collided, and retreated. Those movements were repeated several times, and then the winter sun beat down upon the long beach as though nothing had happened, and the ocean stretched out beneath the sound of the wind.

As though nothing has happened. All that passion, love, yearning, sacrifice, and suffering come to nothing. It is a denouement that's not very edifying, to be sure. Quite the contrary, it's one that is scandalous and disturbing to the simple faithful—not to mention simple prelates.

Nor does it help matters much that Velasco dies joyfully. Just before he perished at the stake, he had gotten the news that Hasekura Rokuemon, the eponymous hero of Samurai, had died a martyr. Hasekura, one of the vassals of the daimyo of Sendai, had converted to Christianity while a member of the mission. But things were less clear-cut than Velasco let himself believe. Hasekura had converted to Christianity simply because he realized that his master wanted him to do so for the good of the mission. And once the daimyo of Sendai realized that the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was dead serious about cutting off relations with Spain and Portugal and intended to enforce his edict, a Christian retainer became an embarrassment. And so he simply had Hasekura executed as a gesture of fealty to his own master in Edo. Hasekura was a mere pawn with no voice in his fate.

But was Velasco altogether wrong? There is a crucial dialogue between Hasekura and his servant Yozo before the samurai is led off to be executed. Yozo too became a Christian during the course of the mission. Unlike the other converts, however—the samurai who did it out of a sense of duty to their lord and the merchants who did it out of greed—Yozo became a Christian because he had come to believe. And what first drew him to the faith was the behavior of Velasco. Now Velasco was not a paragon of heroic Christian virtue. He wasn't especially fond of the Japanese. He loathed outright his brothers in Christ, the Jesuits. He had to struggle with the temptation to masturbate. He was in some ways a small-minded man, not immune to vanity. Velasco liked the idea of being a bishop though he told himself it was for the good of the Church. But Velasco, for all his faults, believed in Jesus, and, believing, he tried to do what Jesus commanded us to do. Like Greene's famous Whisky Priest in The Power and the Glory, he was, as one French critic put it so well, “faithful to the essential.”

So it was that Velasco nursed the merchants who fell sick during the interminable voyage across the Pacific. So it was that he shared his dry clothing and bedding with them when everything they had became soaked in a storm at sea. Hasekura too noticed this extraordinary behavior—all the more extraordinary to a samurai because merchants were a class held in low esteem by the Japanese—and Hasekura also knew that Yozo's conversion was sincere.

Now, as Hasekura is about to die, Yozo whispers that Jesus, who was himself betrayed, who was himself condemned to death by an arrogant ruler, will be standing with him at the end. This Jesus is the outcast Jesus, the powerless Jesus with skinny arms, with blood and spittle on his face, the Jesus whose image Hasekura had seen in the huts of Mexican peasants, an image that had at first repelled him. But then when he saw the triumphant images of Jesus in the vast churches of Madrid and Rome, Hasekura began to recall the ugly Jesus with a certain affection.

Hasekura nods to Yozo. We don't know what he's thinking at this moment. Perhaps he's just trying to comfort his grieving servant. But he does nod.

Yozo is one of those unheroic figures who abound in Mr. Endô's fiction. Hasekura too, despite his samurai rank, is a quite ordinary man with quite ordinary hopes and fears. So, as we've seen, is Velasco himself. Other portraits, warts and all, in the Endô gallery include: the vacillating Rodrigues in Silence; Suguro, the young intern in The Sea and Poison, who is pressured into taking part in a deliberately lethal operation performed on a captured American airman; another Suguro, in the short story “A Forty-Year-Old Man” (Yonjussai no otoko), who summons up courage enough to confess his adultery to a myna bird, whose solemn black feathers remind him of a cassock; still another Suguro, in the short story “My Belongings” (Watakushi no mono), who is trapped in a dead-end marriage but can't break free because the sorrowful face of his wife reminds him of another sorrowful face, that of Jesus; still another Suguro, in Scandal, the eminent Catholic author heaped with honors, who is haunted by a loathsome doppelganger who he fears may be his true self; the cowardly German monk in the short story “Fuda-no-Tsuji,” whom the students ridicule and nickname “Mouse” (Nezumi); the student Egi in the short story “Despicable Bastard” (Iya na yatsu), who hates himself because he is unable to hide his fear of contagion during a baseball game with a team of lepers; and, finally, the sniveling Kichijirô in Silence, who betrays Rodrigues and then begs his forgiveness. And not just once.

I think that understanding such people is the key to understanding Mr. Endô. Mr. Endô loves these people. He loves them extravagantly. It is they, I believe, who—as Lady Murasaki would say—have moved Mr. Endô to an emotion so passionate that he could no longer keep it shut up in his heart. It is they who have made him feel that there must never come a time when people do not know their story.

How congenial to such a passion is Christianity, which dares make the incredible assertion that the Word was made flesh and, by becoming flesh, sanctified every element of human life—no matter how ugly, how wretched, no matter how despicable—and made it worthy of celebration?

It is also for their sake, I think, that Mr. Endô incurs most of the charges laid against him. Does he dishonor the martyrs? Of course, he doesn't. Because of Mr. Endô a far greater number of Westerners know about the martyrs than would otherwise have been the case. He has focused world-wide attention on the martyrs and their heroism, but—and I can't emphasize this too strongly—his main concern as a writer lies elsewhere.

Mr. Endô's passionate concern is for those who lack the courage to die as martyrs. Those who stepped on the fumie and went through the form of recantation and then went back to their miserable hovels and begged Jesus' forgiveness. Those who prominently displayed a statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, but thought of her in their hearts as the Virgin Mary. We see this concern most clearly in his short story “Mothers,” in which the kakure appear. The kakure—literally “the hidden”—are secret Christians whom centuries of oppression and isolation have so alienated that, in modern times, they've refused the opportunity to reunite themselves with the Church.

Mr. Endô's short story “Unzen” is named after a modern hot springs resort on a site where Christians were once tortured hideously. A Catholic writer from Tokyo—nobody we know—visits the resort in the off season and learns of a certain Kichijirô, who lacked the courage to die a martyr, but, nonetheless, made no secret of his faith and hung about like a whipped dog, begging forgiveness. In Kichijirô—who would, of course, later take his place in Silence—the writer at last finds somebody who behaves as he was sure he would have behaved had he the misfortune to live in a time of persecution.

The Spanish say that God can write straight with crooked lines. One of the most glorious pages in the history of Christianity occurred one day in 1865 when a French priest was about to say Mass in Nagasaki for the foreign community. A group of Japanese, poor local fishermen, approached the priest and asked him three questions, the three questions that Jesuits had given to their ancestors two and a half centuries before to put to any ministers of the gospel who came to Japan: do you obey the Pope, do you honor the Virgin Mary, and are you married? It was indeed a glorious event, a testimony to centuries of faith. But if all their ancestors and they themselves had been heroic instead of ordinary, it would not have taken place. Christianity would have been wiped out.

What about the charge that the missionaries were wrong to bring their disturbing Gospel, to disrupt the lives of these poor peasants, to set events in motion that would cause hundreds and hundreds of them to die horrible deaths? Not to be facetious, but I feel rather sure that Mr. Endô himself does not believe this. Had the missionaries not come and stirred up so much trouble, Mr. Endô would never have been given one of his major themes.

Jesus said: “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Contrary to popular belief, Christianity does not prize harmony above all else. It's a terribly unbalanced religion. How could it be otherwise when its symbol is the cross?

In Flannery O'Connor's marvelous short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”—this is a funny story, mind you—an entire family—grandmother, father, mother, two children—is wiped out by a psychopath called the Misfit and his similarly maladjusted accomplices. (The two children are really obnoxious if that makes it any easier.)

When it comes down to just the grandmother still alive, she and the Misfit get into a discussion on Jesus. The Misfit brings him up. Did Jesus raise the dead or didn't he? The Misfit won't say one way or another because he wasn't there. But how he wishes he had been there, he says, because then he would know. And that would make all the difference in the world. What Jesus did, says the Misfit, “is throw everything off balance.”

And so the Jesuit missionaries, preaching Jesus, threw the Japanese social structure off balance. They brought the Gospel, the good word. They brought a message of hope, of solace from suffering, of the ransom of captives, of triumph over death, of universal love, and, by their own way of living and dying, they gave eloquent testimony that they themselves believed what they preached.

Did the Japanese martyrs die for a distorted version of Christianity? Well, let's look around and see if we can find an undistorted version of Christianity.

Ferreira makes this charge. Ferreira was Portuguese. What had Portugal done with Christianity? Think of the terrible Alfonso de Albuquerque, who put the proper fear of God into the enemies of Portugal and Christ by mixing in Muslim skulls with the cannon balls he fired into besieged cities. Catholic Spain? Think of Cortez and Pizzaro. Think, too, of the sailors of the God-fearing Columbus testing out the keenness of their swords on the flesh of Indians as well as raping and enslaving them. Think of Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York, letting photographers take pictures of him sitting behind a machine-gun in Vietnam and saying: “My country right or wrong.” The most demonic distortion of Christianity is the marriage of cross and flag.

John Carroll University awarded Mr. Endô an honorary degree. Thirty-nine years ago, when I graduated from John Carroll in June of 1952, someone quite different from Mr. Endô received an honorary degree.

The honoree in 1952 was Curtis LeMay. General Curtis LeMay was an authentic American hero. It was LeMay who led the B-29s in the first low-level fire bomb raids against Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. So it was that our honoree of thirty-nine years ago spent about two years doing his best to kill our honoree of 1991. There was nothing personal in it, of course.

Nothing personal, but in one such raid, the great Army Day raid of March 25, 1945, LeMay's men killed some 90,000 Japanese, and the next day the canals of Tokyo and the Arakawa and Sumida Rivers were clogged with corpses.

This kind of warfare, the direct killing of civilians, is totally contrary to the Just War theory, which has been much discussed of late. You simply cannot intend the death of civilians according to Catholic moral theology. Yet the only American Catholic voice raised against the deliberate slaughter of the civilian populations of Dresden, Tokyo, and Osaka was that of Dorothy Day in the pages of The Catholic Worker. The Catholic Worker, needless to say, didn't have a place among the reading material on Harry Truman's bedside table, and so, since there had not been a peep out of the mainline Christian churches about the fire bomb raids, there was nothing to give Harry, a good and decent man, pause when it came time to give the green light to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Nagasaki bomb fell directly on the Urakami section of the city, a place hallowed in the history of Christianity in Japan and a place that has a tenacious hold on Mr. Endô's creative imagination. The bomb destroyed the cathedral and wiped out three congregations of nuns.

I think maybe Mr. Endô, a great writer, is also a better theologian than he himself realizes. In Silence he was ahead of his time. If we can believe the New Testament, Jesus himself shares Mr. Endô's special regard for the wretched and the outcast. His love in fact is even more extravagant and unreasonable. And this insight has now become one of the main themes of Liberation Theology, with its preferential option for the poor. And Liberation Theology has arisen in Latin America, where the image of Jesus is not the triumphant Christ the King but the wretched, suffering Jesus, whose face is covered with blood and spittle.

Mr. Endô, as we see in “Mothers” especially—the kakure pray before a crude picture of a bare-breasted peasant woman holding a child—wants to emphasize the motherly nature of God because fathers are fearsome figures in Japanese society. Western theology, under the influence of feminism, has come around to this same view.

It is not only the Japanese who need the image of a feminine God and of a Jesus who is a wretched outcast. The gravest threats to American life today, and to the Christian faith, is the macho spirit, the arrogant celebration of power that has made violence endemic to our society.

Why did we give Mr. Endô, the writer, an award? Because we owe him a great deal. Let us go back to Flannery O'Connor for a moment—the grandmother and the Misfit. The grandmother had begun by babbling frantically, desperate to stay alive. But if you talk about Jesus, it affects you. She notices a change in the Misfit's face. He doesn't look frightening anymore, but weak and helpless. She stretches out her hand to touch his face and says: “Why, you're like my own boy!” The Misfit jumps back and pulls the trigger of the shotgun pointed at her chest.

“She was sure a talker, wasn't she?” says one of his accomplices. And the Misfit replies: “Yes, she would of been a good woman if there had been somebody there to shoot her every day of her life.”

As it was with the grandmother, so it is with Holy Mother Church. And Mr. Endô is the Misfit.

I hope the dignity of an honorary degree does not spoil our Misfit. May he keep his rhetorical shotgun loaded and leveled. Mother Church needs him very much—and so do we all.

Thomas W. Burkman (essay date winter-spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Burkman, Thomas W. “The Historical Novels of Endo Shusaku: Alien Christianity in the “Mud-Swamp” of Japan.” Fides et Historia 26, no. 1 (winter-spring 1994): 99-111.

[In the following essay, Burkman addresses Endō's artistic handling of the incompatibility of Western religion with Japanese culture.]

The National Christian Council of Japan in 1991 published a thorough review of the state of Christianity in Japan covering the two decades since 1971. It is widely known in Christian circles that baptized believers in Japan number about one percent of the population. The 1970 statistics indeed revealed that Japan's 722,942 Protestants and 371,148 Catholics constituted 1.06 percent of the population. The interesting revelation in the 1991 report is that, while the Japanese citizenry by 1991 had increased by some 21 million, the number of Christian adherents had actually dropped by 2,056, with the result that the Christian portion of the population stood at 0.88 percent.1

Japan has a long history of borrowing and ingesting culture and ideology from other societies. In the evolution of patterns of thought and rituals of life, the Japanese are deeply indebted to the Indian religion of Buddhism, while the rules for human interaction applied in Japan are taken from Chinese Confucianism. Students of cultural transfer have no simple answer to the question of why Japanese society, which has obviously drunk so deeply of Western technology, material culture, and popular culture, has been so impenetrable to the Christian faith—and this despite a modern century and a half of nearly uninterrupted legal freedom to adhere and proselytize, as well as the presence of more foreign missionaries per capita than in any other non-Christian land. The question becomes all the more baffling when the unimpressive numerical progress of Christian evangelization in modern Japan is compared to the growth of neighboring churches in the East Asian cultural sphere—in Korea, Taiwan, and even of late in the People's Republic of China.

The issue of the Western religion's incompatibility with the Japanese cultural context has been given fresh and vigorous expression in Japan in the last three decades by historical novelist and playwright Endo Shusaku.2 Endo deals with the matter not rationally, but artistically as a writer of fiction; yet the historical and philosophical import of what he says is undeniable. As a popular and award-winning literary figure, he has confronted a wide segment of the Japanese public, otherwise disinterested in religious discourse, with the person of Christ and the question of what Christian commitment means in the Japanese setting. At the same time, as an unapologetic—yet self-effacing—Christian, Endo has offered the church at home and abroad a new model of the biblical Jesus and new understanding of salvation which issues from his Japanese-ness. The concepts he has advanced have drawn mixed reactions from fellow Christians. The message to the church conveyed by his literature is not edifying; in the words of one of his translators, his novels “do not give you a warm pious glow.”3 For some Japanese, he makes Christ comprehensible and compelling. For some Christians outside Japan, Endo's writing can be an agent in the emancipation of their faith from the encrustation of Western culture.


Endo Shusaku was born in 1923 in Tokyo and spent his early childhood years in Manchuria. After his parents' divorce, he and his mother returned to Japan to live with a devout, Catholic aunt in Kobe. First his mother and then he at age eleven were baptized in the Roman Catholic faith. Several of Endo's short stories and novels depict persons who undergo baptism passively or for ulterior motives, who parrot “I believe” at the altar of the church—yet whose lives are permanently imprinted by the force of the sacrament.4 In reflection, Endo has styled his baptism as an arranged marriage, devoid at the time of the enviable, conscious love for Jesus that motivated the conversions of other Japanese writers who share his faith.5 Elsewhere Endo compares his entry into the church to the donning of ill-fitting clothing:

I have not … chosen Christianity. … Christianity to me was like a western suit my mother made me wear when I was growing up. … However, from my youth, I began to suffer from the fact that this western suit did not fit. To my body, this Western suit was a western suit and not an eastern dress. Either the sleeves were too long or the pants too short. How often have I thought of throwing away this suit. How often have I tried to wear something which fits my body. That I, nevertheless, was unable to throw it away, was because I had nothing else to put on, and moreover because of my love for my mother and of the strength of Christianity which my mother made me wear.6

Endo majored in French literature at Keio University and left Japan in 1950 to pursue graduate work at the University of Lyons—the first Japanese to study abroad in the postwar period. There he studied Mauriac, Bernanos, and other French Catholic writers. Endo's fiction is often compared to that of English novelist Graham Greene. Despite recurring respiratory ailments, Endo in the four decades of his literary career has written on the average one full-length novel a year, as well as several plays and a dozen volumes of short stories. Eight of his full-length works are available in English translation. In Japan he has received the coveted Akutagawa Prize and the Mainichi Cultural Award and served as president of the prestigious P.E.N. Club (a society of writers). The Pope in 1971 conferred on him the Order of St. Sylvester, and three American universities have awarded him honorary doctorates.7

Let us look briefly at two of Endo's historical novels, Silence and The Samurai, both set in the seventeenth century when the curtain was being lowered on Japan's “Christian century.”


Silence [Japanese: Chinmoku] became a best seller soon after it hit bookstores in 1966. Its central figure is Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit who steals into the southern island of Kyushu in defiance of recent measures by the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) to stamp out the Catholic faith and prevent the entry of all Westerners (except a few carefully restricted Dutch) onto Japanese soil. Rodrigues comes to encourage the faithful kakure [hidden] Christians, but is also moved by a private desire to discover what led his former superior, Fr. Ferreira, to apostatize. Rodrigues has reliable information that Ferreira escaped a martyr's death by trampling on the fumie [a bas-relief image of Christ or the Virgin] and is actually assisting the authorities in ferreting out recalcitrant Christians and getting them to renounce their religion. Rodrigues escapes detection for a few months, assisted by kakure for whom he officiates at the mass. At a distance he witnesses the destruction of a whole village and the execution by drowning of unswerving Christian peasants. In the midst of this hardship he is sustained by his love for the face of Christ.

From hideout to hideout the priest is guided, and eventually betrayed, by a wretched, foul-smelling, cringing man named Kichijiro. Kichijiro has apostatized many times, can never purge his sense of guilt, and begs the priest repeatedly for absolution. While this Judas-figure is clearly the most despicable character Endo has created, Kichijiro is the one for whom the novelist has the greatest affection. “Kichijiro is I,” he has confessed in public, for this is how Endo fears he would act under circumstances of ultimate stress.8 In Silence Kichijiro voices the classical dilemma of the defeated pilgrim: “God asks me to imitate the strong, even though he made me weak. Isn't that unreasonable?”9

When Rodrigues is captured and incarcerated in Nagasaki, Ferreira enters his cell. The aged, former missionary begins the dialogue:

“For twenty years I labored in the mission. … The one thing I know is that our religion does not take root in this country.”

“It is not that it does not take root,” cried Rodrigues in a loud voice, shaking his head. “It's that the roots are torn up.”

“At the loud cry of the priest, Ferreira did not so much as raise his head. Eyes lowered he answered like a puppet without emotion: “The country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

“There was a time [retorted Rodrigues] when the sapling grew and sent forth leaves. … When you first came to this country churches were built everywhere, faith was fragrant like the fresh flowers of the morning, and many Japanese vied with one another to receive baptism like the Jews who gathered at the Jordan. …”

“What the Japanese of that time believed in was not our God. It was their own gods. For a long time we failed to realize this and firmly believed that they had become Christians.”

Rodrigues agonizes over this encounter. Ferreira appears again in the climactic scene. The groans of native Christians, bleeding and suspended upside down over a pit of excrement, form the background for their conversation. Ferreira recounts his own moment of apostasy:

“When I spent that night here five people were suspended in the pit. Five voices were carried to my ears on the wind. The official said: ‘If you apostatize, those people will immediately be taken out of the pit, their bonds will be loosed, and we will put medicine on their wounds.’ I answered: ‘Why do these people not apostatize?’ And the official laughed as he answered me: ‘They have already apostatized many times. But as long as you don't apostatize these peasants cannot be saved.”’

“And you …” The priest spoke through his tears. “You should have prayed. …”

“I did pray. I kept on praying. But prayer did nothing to alleviate their suffering. …”

Ferreira launches his final assault on the wavering priest:

“You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation. It's because you dread to betray the Church. You dread to be the dregs of the Church, like me. … Yet I was the same as you. On that cold, black night I, too, was as you are now. And yet is your way of acting love? A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here. …”

For a moment Ferreira remained silent; then he suddenly broke out in a strong voice: “Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.”

As the fumie is placed before the feet of Rodrigues, the captured missionary gazes for the first time since he came to Japan upon the face, that face whose beauty has been the vision that sustained him through danger and near despair. What he sees now is a face worn down and hollow from repeated trampling. It is, in Endo's words, “the ugly face of Christ, crowned with thorns and the thin, outstretched arms.”

He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.10

Silence, like many of Endo's writings, depicts the unbridgeable gap that lies between Eastern pantheism and Western monotheism. According to the Dutch translator of Silence, Fr. Francis F. Uyttendaele, the difference is one

between a systematized, clearly differentiated and organized view of the universe (the West) and an undifferentiated, unlimited merging of all beings into one whole (the East). … Endo emphasizes Eastern man's lack of the sense of God, sin, and death. For if there is no basic distinction between man and nature, between man and God, then man is but a fragment of the cosmic whole; then death is but a change which absorbs man back into this whole; then evil, rather than being something that places man in opposition to the supreme being, is but a disturbance of the cosmic order. Then, too, the problem of God lacks any serious dimension, any finality.11

Endo has also spoken of the need of the Christian writer to see the saving love of God at work in the hidden center of each person, even those who have fallen into terrible sin.12 That is not to say that Endo denies the stark reality of human sin. He challenges his native cultural context in his novel The Sea and Poison by depicting atrocities committed against prisoners of war in the Pacific War. Yet his pen is merciful toward the likes of Kichijiro. Even Rodrigues's act of treading on the fumie is treated as a salvation moment in the journey of the priest. In an epilogue scene of Silence, Kichijiro comes once more to the fallen priest Rodrigues to ask divine forgiveness. The apostate cleric recounts the pain in his own foot as he trampled on the face, and hears Christ say that He understands his pain and suffering. “I suffered beside you,” says the Jesus inside Rodrigues. Endo's lead character then shakes the conventional understanding of the Passion narrative even further by noting that Jesus commanded Judas to do what he was going to do. Rodrigues administers the sacrament to Kichijiro. As Kichijiro turns to leave, the fallen priest knows that even in the moment of denial, his Lord had not been silent.13

Those attracted to the work of Graham Greene will recognize in the mestizo in The Power and the Glory a prototype of the Judas figure, Kichijiro. The Whisky Priest of the same work bears many similarities to the hunted cleric Rodrigues.14

The historian instinctively asks how much of Silence is verifiable history. The setting of the novel is factual. That there was a successful planting of Catholicism in Japan in the work of Portuguese Jesuit Francis Xavier and his successors in the latter half of the sixteenth century is widely known. Equally well known is the turning of the Tokugawa Shogunate against the foreign faith and the expulsion of all missionaries. After the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637 (framed as a Christian uprising by the Shogunate), the policy to stamp out this potential political threat became all the more determined, and the means to reclaim its kakure adherents all the more ingenious. There was a real Christovao Ferreira, the Portuguese Provincial, who after being suspended in the pit for six hours gave the signal of apostasy, and whose grave can still be seen in a temple in Nagasaki. His defection and subsequent collaboration with the persecutors sent shock waves through the Jesuit community worldwide in the 1630s. In 1643 there came a group of ten missionaries who tried to enter and undo the damage done by Ferreira. They were quickly captured and all apostatized after long and terrible torture. Among them was Giuseppe Chiara, Endo's model for Rodrigues. Chiara died in Japan some forty years later, stating that he was still a Christian.15 Endo's detailed narrative of Rodrigues's clandestine work, capture, turmoil of the soul, and apostasy is, of course, a literary creation.

Truly impressive are the soundness of Endo's depiction of the life of impoverished peasants in early Tokugawa Japan, down to details of diet and clothing, and his grasp of the provincial and local officialdom of the Shogunate which effected the proscription policy. One mark of Endo's skill as a world-class writer is his creation in Silence and other novels of wholly credible non-Japanese characters true to their culture and their times. How many Western artists, including Giacomo Puccini and James Clavell, have succeeded in constructing believable Japanese figures?16 The notion that baptized Japanese illiterates never understood true Christianity and that the faith they embraced was at its core a collage of Buddhism and Shinto thinly overlaid with Christian trappings is not unique to Endo. Jesuit-trained historian George Elison, author of the premier Western study of Japan's Christian century, describes the Jesuit strategy of employing native religious terminology (such as the Buddhist “Dainichi” for God). “It is not difficult to see,” reasons Elison, “why some Japanese listeners could mistake the Christianity preached by Xavier for just another sub-sect of Buddhism.” As for the kakure to whom Rodrigues ministered, Elison states that their faith “gradually deteriorated and merged with the grassroots of native popular religion.” The sixteenth-century Jesuit missionaries themselves were reluctant to admit Japanese to the priesthood and the Order for the very reason that they believed most Japanese to be incapable of true orthodoxy. After three decades of evangelization when the baptized numbered 130 thousand, there were only fifty-five Japanese members of the Society of Jesus—and only twenty-three of them priests.17


When it appeared in 1980, the novel The Samurai won Endo the Noma Prize, one of the most important literary awards in Japan. The story begins in northeastern Japan at the time when the move to ban Christianity was gaining momentum in the councils of the Shogun. Endo builds the novel around a mission of Japanese sent by the lord of a northeastern domain and the Shogunate across the Pacific on the ship San Juan Baptista to Mexico and then across the Atlantic to Seville, Madrid, and finally the Vatican. While this little-known embassy in fact took place in 1613-1615, the paucity of first-hand reports on its purpose and activities gives Endo almost a free hand in creating a work of speculation. In any case, the mission serves Endo simply as a framework on which to weave a chronicle of the inner spiritual struggle of its chief envoy, samurai Hasekura Rokuemon.

The Spanish interpreter for this mission, Velasco (modeled after an actual Fr. Luis Sotelo), embodies everything distasteful about aggressive Christian missionary culture. He will stoop to any connivance or dishonesty to open the door of Japan to evangelization. As a Franciscan, he detests the Jesuits who planted the cross in Japan and blames them for the government's growing disaffection with the foreign faith. The depth of his desire to see the Jesuits supplanted by his own order in Japan is surpassed by only one passion—to be appointed himself by the Pope as Bishop of Japan. Preoccupied with maintaining his own purity, he binds his wrists each night to prevent indulgence in self-gratification. Abusing his task of interpreter, he subverts the mission from its original purpose to secure trade with Nueva Espana and leads it on to Rome as a showy demonstration of the success of the Franciscan enterprise in Japan. Using Spanish language classes aboard ship as a vehicle, he earnestly catechizes the Japanese, who for their part display incredulity and boredom at the stories Velasco relates from the Gospels. Velasco reflects dourly on how the Japanese seek in religion the benefits of this life, and on the inability of Christianity to penetrate what Endo in Silence calls the “mud-swamp of Japan”:

“When I look at the Japanese, I sometimes wonder whether a true religion—one that seeks after eternity and the salvation of the soul as we understand them—can develop in that country. There is too great a gap between their form of godliness and that which we Christians know as faith.”18

Matsuki, the most perceptive and cynical of the samurai envoys, counters Velasco's summons to true happiness.

“Your brand of happiness is too intense for Japan. A strong medicine turns to poison in the bodies of some. The happiness you padres preach is poison to Japan, … a nuisance for our little islands.”

After observing the depredations by the Spanish conquerors in Mexico, Matsuki tells Velasco, “This country would have lived in peace if the Spanish ships had not come. Your version of happiness has disrupted this country.” Matsuki refuses to accompany the mission to Europe and returns to Acapulco for passage to Asia.19

Velasco resolves to fight fire with fire, to “channel their carnal ambitions towards God's teachings.” He convinces the thirty-eight merchant members of the group that their embracing of the Christian faith is essential if they expect to sell their wares in Christian Nueva Espana, and orchestrates their baptism in a Franciscan chapel in Mexico City. The three samurai envoys know that their honor depends on returning to Japan with a Pacific trade agreement in hand. Hasekura and his colleagues grudgingly acquiesce in the sacrament, and mouth “I believe” in a crowded cathedral in Seville. Here one cannot miss the autobiographical connection to Endo's own passive baptism as a child. Throughout the journey, Velasco arranges for the Japanese to be awed by the pageantry, wealth, and power of the church, to which even the king of Spain subordinates himself. The mission in the end is thwarted by intelligence, supplied to Rome by the Jesuits, that decrees have been issued in Japan banning the faith and expelling missionaries. The disheartened Samurai retraces his path across the oceans back to Japan, finally to face death at the stake for his superficial conversion. The merchants, being of commoner class, are allowed to fade back into the fabric of Japanese society.

Velasco is a model of the self-assured, assertive person of religion that Endo dislikes most in his literary works and in real life. It is a mark of Endo's charity that, before The Samurai ends, the Franciscan is allowed a mellowing process and death as a true Christian martyr, and is accorded a place in the eternal mansions.

The Samurai differs from Silence in that it lacks a dramatic clash of ideologies. Hasekura is a rather subdued, introspective character when compared to Rodrigues. His faith, which shows itself in his death, is passive, non-rational, and internalized.20 But a significant tie between the two novels is found in the symbol of the face of Christ. On the journey across Mexico and Spain, Velasco arranges for the Japanese mission to lodge in Franciscan monasteries. From every bed the Samurai gazes up at a crucifix. At first, Hasekura's reaction is to question why anyone would worship an emaciated man with both hands nailed to a cross, with head drooping. He is reminded of a prisoner he once saw paraded about, ugly and filthy, with stomach hollow and ribs protruding. He contrasts the image of Jesus on the crucifix with the stately Buddhas in the temples of Japan: “What would the people in the marshland think … if I worshipped someone like this?”21 On the eve of his baptism, he glances at the image:

“This ugly, emaciated man. This man devoid of majesty, bereft of outward beauty, so wretchedly miserable. A man who exists only to be discarded after he has been used. A man born in a land I have never seen, and who died in the distant past. He has nothing to do with me. …”22

It is only after the frustration of his mission at Rome that the Samurai begins to warm to the face in the crucifix:

[T]he samurai closed his eyes and pictured the man who had peered down at him each night from the walls of his rooms in Nueva Espana and Espana. For some reason he did not feel the same contempt for him he had felt before. In fact it seemed as though that wretched man was much like himself. …23

For Endo, Jesus is not to be found in the sermons of priests or the edifices of Christendom, or even in the character of the saints. In “Shadows,” a very autobiographical short story, a youthful central character finally gathers the courage to voice, by letter, his frustration to his priest-mentor:

“If there are the strong and the weak among human beings, in those days you were truly one of the strong. And I was a spineless weakling. You had confidence in your way of life, in your faith, in your body, and you performed your missionary labors in Japan with firm conviction. In contrast, not once in my life have I been able to feel confidence and conviction about every facet of my life. … But weren't you forced to learn, some fifteen years later, that unexpected perils and danger spots like thin ice lurk within such strength, and that amidst such perils come the beginnings of true religion?”24

Endo finds disciplined, consistently virtuous Christian role models to be intimidating.25 In The Samurai, the lead character discovers the Jesus of the cross in a renegade monk he meets living in poverty in an Indian village in Mexico. This man, who wears a pigtail, had run away from the cloisters of the church to share the burdens of the dispossessed natives of Mexico. That man too is sick and dirty. His words to the samurai describe Endo's Christ:

“I can believe in Him now because the life He lived in this world was more wretched than any other man's. … He understands the hearts of the wretched, because His entire life was wretched. He knows the agonies of those who die a miserable death, because He died in misery. He was not in the least powerful. He was not beautiful.”26

When they part, the pigtailed man gives the samurai a note with these words:

He is always beside us.
He listens to our agony and our grief.
He weeps with us.
And He says to us,
“Blessed are they who weep in this life, for in the kingdom of heaven they shall smile.”(27)

When he returns to Japan, Hasekura is placed under house arrest and awaits a sentence of death. He reads the note again.

The samurai imagined the pigtailed man putting these words to paper in his hut at Tecali. Nights in the swamp at Tecali were probably as dark and deep as those here in the marshland. The samurai felt he had a vague idea now why the pigtailed man had been impelled to write these words. He had wanted an image of “that man” which was all his own. He had wanted not the Christ whom the affluent priests preached in the cathedrals of Nueva Espana, but a man who would be at his side, and beside the Indians, each of them forsaken by others. … The samurai could almost see the face of the man who had scribbled these clumsy letters.28

As the story draws to a close, the samurai reflects on his trip across the seas:

“I crossed two great oceans and went all the way to Espana to meet a king. But I never met a king. All I ever saw was that man.”29


Endo Shusaku is vitally concerned with conveying to his countrymen a representation of Christ which they can comprehend. In one of his writings he pictures the streams of people in Shinjuku and Shibuya, places of human traffic in Tokyo familiar to every Japanese. “Nowhere is there a Christian atmosphere,” he observes. “There is not even a ‘stepping stone” which would lead to a demonstration of the existence of God.”30

As his contribution to providing such a “stepping stone,” Endo in 1973 published Iesu no shogai [trans. A Life of Jesus, 1978]. In his words, Endo wrote this book

for the benefit of Japanese readers who have no Christian tradition of their own and who know almost nothing about Jesus. What is more, I was determined to highlight the particular aspect of love in his personality precisely in order to make Jesus understandable in terms of the religious psychology of my non-Christian countrymen and thus to demonstrate that Jesus is not alien to their religious sensibilities.31

Endo writes as a novelist, drawing his material from the four Gospels, and disclaiming the qualifications of a theologian. In this work we find a Christology consistent with the Christ and Christ-figures which appear in his novels.

Moving chronologically through the life of Jesus, Endo begins by contrasting the authoritarian, father-image of God purveyed by John the Baptist with the feminine, mother-love image of God he sees in Jesus. Endo perceives Jesus' mission on earth as the emancipation of the Jews and then all humankind from a God of vengeance and silence, before whom supplicants could assume no other posture than awe. Endo adds drama to the contrast by bringing in Jesus' inquisitors—the Pharisees and doctors of the law—who are offended by Jesus' direct and indirect attacks on the stern, legalistic God they were pledged to protect. The softer Jesus image, Endo believes, can appeal to the Japanese because it parallels their cherished model of the ideal Japanese mother—one who forgives, suffers, and sacrifices for the love of her children.32 It is noteworthy that Endo voiced this idea a decade prior to the appearance of feminist theology as a movement.

As Jesus conducts His Galilean ministry, Endo pictures a steady decline in the effectiveness of His ministry. As their expectation to be politically freed by a savior goes unmet, the crowds diminish. The demand that He perform miracles, the tired man with the sunken eyes will not and cannot meet. Contrary to the expectations of the people, He conveys over and over again in word and deed the message of the Beatitudes—“Blessed are the poor in spirit. … Blessed are those who mourn.” He wipes the sweat from the brow of a fever-racked patient whom others have abandoned, and holds the hand of a mother who had lost her child—just like He never abandoned Rodrigues and the samurai. Jesus realizes that what people need more than miraculous cures is love. But in the visible world, Jesus is a helpless failure, a feckless has-been. Meanwhile, His enemies in religion and politics become more resourceful in their scheming and more ruthless in their attacks. By the week of His trial, His band of “followers” shrinks to a bickering handful, themselves unable after three years of intimacy to comprehend the powerless Jesus. “As things turned out,” writes Endo, “Jesus showed no sign of any power whatsoever. All he did was to die in a way more dreadful and more wretched than most other sinners.”33

Endo has studied the works of Japanese Christian theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, and acknowledges their influence upon his thought. There are clear similarities between Endo's model of the emaciated Jesus and the Theology of the Pain of God which bear further exploration. This school of thought was expounded in the postwar years by Protestant theologian Kitamori Kazo. Kitamori acknowledges indebtedness to his Buddhist cultural milieu and the Buddhist theme that all existence is suffering. Kitamori teaches that pain is the essence of God, that human pain is used by God as a symbol of His own pain, and that love is based on pain. This concept is not easily understood in the West where the God of joy is centerpiece and where suffering is considered an aberration from the Divine order. Like Endo, Kitamori tried to craft, on the basis of Scripture, a view of God readily comprehensible in Japan which historically views itself as a land of suffering.34

Conventional Christians readily agree with Endo that in worldly terms Jesus was a failure. But where they and Endo part ways is the standard Christian view that Jesus somehow deliberately restrained himself from exercising the full power that was His at any time as God; or that the rejected Jesus, divinely capable of seeing His future glory, was all the while triumphant at heart. Endo would argue, I believe, that God Incarnate was as powerless as any other man would be, and that He was self-consciously so. It was, in fact, only by experiencing and feeling genuine powerlessness that Jesus was, and is, able to credibly pity and stand beside mortals in their moments of impotence. Yet God somehow—and this is the real “miracle” of Jesus—enabled Jesus, in the midst of failure, to maintain trust in the God of love and to consistently exercise that love toward fellow human beings. In the resurrection—which Endo affirms—the powerless Jesus was reborn into the all-powerful Jesus, and His followers likewise were transformed into confident witnesses to the God of love.35 In several of his writings, Endo features fictional Christ figures—innocent persons, apparently ineffectual, who suffer at the hands of those they love, and in the end exert an unexplained spiritual influence.36

Endo rejects the historicity of the miraculous acts of Jesus, believing that those chronicled in the Gospels were added to the accounts by adoring followers after His death. On this point Endo has been the recipient of criticism from fellow Christians of orthodox conviction. Sako Junichiro, a literary critic-turned-pastor in the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan), has questioned the empirical basis for Endo's denial of the miracle stories. He would have Endo view miracles of healing as acts of love. Sako also accuses Endo of selective emphasis on those parts of the Gospel narratives which imply Jesus' weakness. He asserts that the crowds rejected Jesus because of his strength rather than His weakness, and that in Jesus' most glaring moment of weakness (the cross) His actual power was displayed in His forgiveness of His murderers.37 Catholic critics in Japan have also attacked Endo on the subject of miracles, and have accused him of denigrating the memory of the seventeenth-century martyrs and vindicating acts of apostasy and betrayal.

Is there a valid Christianity which is compatible with the Japanese social setting? Being neither dogmatic preacher nor systematic theologian, Endo Shusaku gives answers to this question which are oblique. But taking his historical novels and his writings on Jesus together, one can infer a negative. East and West do not meet on the plain of religion. In this regard Endo parts company with a noble tradition of modern Japanese thinkers such as Nitobe Inazo who asserted the existence of fundamental common convictions which make possible a bridging of the philosophical and religious gap between the Occident and the Orient.38 In this Endo speaks unintentionally in an anti-colonial, anti-modern mode, in which a Christianity which is valid for Japanese need not harmonize with the classical dogmas and practices established in the West and transported to Japan by missionaries. Also by anti-modern critique, Endo can be faulted for making Japanese cultural habits and world views appear unique, intrinsically hostile to Christianity, and forever unchanging.

Nonetheless, Endo remains in search, for himself and his compatriots, of the “Eastern dress” that the Japanese believer in Jesus may comfortably wear. In this search he does not dissociate himself from his Buddhist surroundings, much as St. Paul wrote Christian theology self-consciously as a Jew, and St. John expressed the Gospel in the Greek conceptual vocabulary in which he was at home. Hence Endo's God is one of maternal love, in the tradition of a Japanese Buddhism which transformed the Bodhisattva Kannon from its Chinese androgynous expression into the image of a female goddess of mercy. Endo makes it clear that the sought-after dress will be alien to both the pantheist East and the triumphalist West. Its Savior will be the Jesus weak and broken, the person who identifies with our inadequacies because He on earth also failed, who takes pity on us, and who plants in us in our moment of pain a seed of salvation which can grow to eternal life.


  1. Kumazawa Yoshinobu and David L. Swain, eds., Christianity in Japan, 1971-1990 (Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1991), xiv. Because of questionings about the orthodoxy of certain groups, the 1991 count did not include Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, which were included in the 1971 totals. However, if current membership figures for these groups are added to the 1991 totals, the number of Christians relative to the Japanese population still drops below the one percent figure.

  2. This paper follows the Japanese convention of placing family name before given name.

  3. Michael Gallagher, “For These the Least of My Brethren: The Concern of Shusaku Endo,” unpublished paper presented at John Carroll University, 18 May 1991, 5.

  4. E.g. Endo, “Shadows,” Japanese original 1968, draft trans. by Van C. Gessel, 1992, 3.

  5. Sako Junichiro, “The Life of Jesus in Literature: A Criticism of Endo Shusaku's Understanding of Jesus,” in Rengo (July 1980), 4.

  6. Endo, “Watashi no bungaku” [My literature], in Ishi no koe, translated in Interboard Bulletin (February 1972), 1.

  7. Francis Mathy, “Shusaku Endo: Japanese Catholic Novelist,” in America 167:3 (August 1-8, 1992), 66-67.

  8. Endo, speaking at “Silences and Voices: The Writings of Shusaku Endo,” a symposium at John Carroll University, 18 May 1991. The application of the Judas motif to the artist is also seen in the well-known Christian print artist Watanabe Sadao (1913-). In Watanabe's “The Last Supper” (1966), Jesus and eleven disciples face the viewer, while Judas sits in the foreground with his back toward the viewer. Judas hence is positioned in same direction as the artist and the spectators. Watanabe intends for the viewer to recognize that in the Passion, “we are Judas.” Hans-Ruedi Weber, “Watanabe's Dream: Art for the People,” in One World (August-September 1986), 5.

  9. Endo, Silence, 186.

  10. Endo, Silence, trans. William Johnston (Rutland VT: C. E. Tuttle Co., 1969), 236-239, 267-271.

  11. Francis F. Uyttendaele, “Shusaku Endo,” in Japan Christian Quarterly 38:4 (Fall 1972): 203.

  12. Mathy, “Shusaku Endo,” 67.

  13. Endo, Silence, 296-298.

  14. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (New York: The Viking Press, 1946); Michael Gallagher, “A Japanese-Catholic Novel,” in Commonweal 85:5 (4 November 1966), 137.

  15. William Johnston, “Translator's Preface,” in Endo, Silence, 2-10. The careers of Ferreira and of inquisitor Inoue, another important figure in Rodrigues's apostasy, are detailed in George Elison, Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), ch. 7.

  16. […]

  17. […]

  18. […]

  19. Endo, The Samurai, 112-113.

  20. Gessel, “Voices in the Wilderness,” 445, 448.

  21. Endo, The Samurai, 159.

  22. Endo, The Samurai, 167.

  23. Endo, The Samurai, 242.

  24. Endo, “Shadows,” 8.

  25. It is noteworthy that Christian thinkers in the West are beginning to warn against glib and arrogant claims to spiritual health. E.g., J. I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1992).

  26. Endo, The Samurai, 220.

  27. Endo, The Samurai, 242.

  28. Endo, The Samurai, 243.

  29. Endo, The Samurai, 258.

  30. Endo, “Watashi no Bungaku,” 3.

  31. Endo, “Preface to the American Edition,” in A Life of Jesus, trans. Richard A. Schuchert (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 1.

  32. Endo, A Life of Jesus, 1, 2, 24.

  33. Endo, A Life of Jesus, 80, 152-154.

  34. Kitamori Kazo, Theology of the Pain of God (Richmond VA: John Knox Press, 1965); and Carl Michalson, Japanese Contributions to Christian Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), ch. 3.

  35. Endo, A Life of Jesus, 159, 177-178.

  36. Richard A. Schuchert, “Translator's Preface,” in Endo, A Life of Jesus, 4.

  37. Sako, “The Life of Jesus in Literature,” 5.

  38. E.g., Nitobe Inazo, Japanese Traits and Foreign Influences (London: Kegan […]

Robert Coles (essay date 8 November 1996)

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SOURCE: Coles, Robert. “Shusaku Endo: At the River's Edge.” Commonweal 123, no. 19 (8 November 1996): 7-8.

[In the following essay, Coles eulogizes Endō.]

With the recent death of Shusaku Endo, in Tokyo, at seventy-three, after a long struggle with hepatitis, Japan lost one of its foremost novelists, short-story writers, and playwrights. Endo's readers across the continents will surely feel deeply the departure of a major literary figure whose special interest and talent was to offer a repeated (and each time brilliantly original) consideration of our moral and spiritual fate as creatures of language, all too aware of the mere second of eternity granted us—at least biologically. For his Japanese compatriots, Endo was a learned interpreter of the Christian story, many of whose mysteries have not been either understood or welcomed on an island-nation determined for so long to exclude foreign influences. For us in the West, Endo has naturally been a helpful observer of his country's modern life, with its mix of an aggressive (and sheltered) capitalism and a traditional culture; and too, he has been an eager chronicler of Japanese history as it has been connected with the West's commercial and religious expansionism.

Endo was brought up by a mother who divorced his father a few years after their son was born, then became a Catholic, and had the boy baptized at the age of eleven. He went to college, did graduate work, and very important, spent three years of study during his late twenties in France, where he became admiringly familiar with the novels of François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos. Indeed, his Catholicism is close kin to theirs—personal, passionate, humbly and self-critically confessional, anything but triumphal. His fictional priests, not to mention his Jesus, are like those of Mauriac and Bernanos, innocents all too readily betrayed, vulnerable at every turn to the cynical manipulations of a world whose nature, of course, their presence paradoxically both confronts and defines.

If those two twentieth-century French novelists helped Endo to get his spiritual bearings, it is the seventeenth-century of attempted Catholic penetration of Japan that inspired two of his most important novels, Silence, the one best known to Westerners, and Samurai, the one that was the most successful in Japan. Silence draws on the ill-fated effort of the Portuguese missionaries to convert Japan's ordinary people to Catholicism—the novel tells of a priest's search for the truth of another priest's encounter with the fierce, persecutory response of Japan's religious and civil authorities to Western evangelism. Soon enough the priest as investigator becomes the priest as pursued outsider, and in time, the priest as captive, threatened with torture and death, but threatened even more by the huge moral choice put to him by relentless and cruelly ingenious persecutors, who in their own way have absorbed enough of the Catholic faith's tenets and values to know how to use them to stunning effect on those who have come to Japan. If the priests apostatize, they spare others torture and death. All these men of the cloth need to do to save their fellow Catholics is to desecrate an icon, trample on it. The alternative, naturally, is their own martyrdom—but accompanying such a slow and painful death would be the knowledge that many fellow Christians will go down with them and would endure unspeakable suffering, which it is given to these priests to prevent. Here a theology (and psychology) becomes exceedingly complex: apostasy as, in effect, a cowardly self-serving renunciation of faith, elaborately rationalized to be an act of compassionate generosity, a sacrifice of one's principles on the behalf of others; or apostasy as itself a leap of faith, a victory over the sin of sins, pride—in this instance, the pride of martyrdom. Not that the novel ever gets didactic or smugly sure of what is right or wrong. Rather, we are drawn into the gripping story's enormous ethical and spiritual dilemmas, its dramatic, surprising plot, its compelling evocation of character, of priestly inwardness as it tries to come to terms with social reality, political power, and most challenging of all, the conceits and deceits to which we are all heir, including, of course, men of the cloth.

Silence scandalized some in Japan's relatively small Catholic community, as it has others in countries more populously Catholic, even as many Catholics and non-Catholics have regarded it as a major witness to Christian introspection. The novel's central protagonist is not unlike the curé in Bernanos's The Diary of a Country Priest, with his learned skepticism of his own church, his lovely, endearing innocence (which, however, can set in motion its very own kind of evil), and ultimately, his terrible frailty—his physical and moral jeopardy a prelude to his spiritual salvation, we begin to realize.

In Samurai, Endo also calls upon the seventeenth century. A Japanese warrior goes West (to Mexico, Spain, even the Vatican) in pursuit of trade agreements for Japanese merchants; to that end, he feigns conversion to the Catholic church, but all to no avail. History betrays his mission (the doors to open trade are yet again shut) and the samurai (who had only pretended his conversion) becomes a persecuted outsider. Through suffering, the protagonist grows to understand how Jesus lived, what he tried to do and to be, and to love him dearly. As in Silence, Samurai renders a spiritual journey, connects it to an intercontinental one (Endo's inevitable East-West preoccupation), and most tellingly, makes use of a many-layered, subtle psychology (deceptions, self-deceptions, pretenses that become hauntingly, ironically, sincerely held convictions). Endo studied psychoanalysis intently, especially Jung's version of it, and no doubt got a bit of help from that knowledge in his representation of his characters' interior life.

A last novel of this Japanese master, Deep River (New Directions), was published earlier this year in an English translation. A plane load of Japanese men and women, well-to-do but far from well-off mentally or spiritually, go to India, and journey to the awesome, puzzling, unnerving shores of the mighty Ganges river; a secular world of comfort and unease, of self-assurance and apprehension, boredom, disappointment, and melancholy arrives at the banks of Hinduism. As he has in many of his novels and short stories, Endo yet again confronts contemporary affluence (its achievements, its sway and might) with its other face, the hunger and thirst for meaning, the moral neediness of so many of us. The result is a story that addresses a universal audience, pilgrims, wayfarers, seeing yet blind, hoping against hope for a visionary break-through. The history of such a break-through is what Shusaku Endo has offered us secular materialists who with him have inhabited this century of great progress, this century of unparalleled murderousness: a sense of moral distinction, a glimpse of what moral choices and responsibilities await us, even a sighting, as it were, of the Lord himself. (Endo, like his mentor Mauriac, wrote A Life of Jesus.) That is no small gift in a time that has presented us with hazards, trials, and possibilities as momentous as any faced by those martyrs, those much-beleaguered, much-challenged seekers of the past who populate Silence or Samurai.

Francis Mathy (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Mathy, Francis. “Shusaku Endo: Japanese Catholic Novelist.” In Catholics on Literature, edited by J. C. Whitehouse, pp. 69-77. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, originally published in The Month in 1987, Mathy discusses Endō's Catholicism and surveys his writing career.]

Shusaku Endo's latest novel Scandal (1986) begins with Suguro, the hero of a number of Endo's semi-autobiographical novels and stories, about to receive still another literary prize. As he listens to a fellow novelist make the presentation speech, Suguro, now in his late sixties, reflects with great satisfaction upon his long career as a novelist. He feels that with this latest novel everything he had been aiming at all through the years has been achieved. His life and his writing have at last reached a point of harmony.

Now entering his sixty-fifth year, Endo himself must be feeling a similar satisfaction. In the first place, he has been by any standards an eminently successful writer. He has written over thirty full-length novels, even more books of non-fiction, including several biographies, over a hundred short stories, a handful of plays, and newspaper and magazine articles too numerous to count. And he has been richly recompensed for his work. His books have sold well and many of them have gone through many editions. A large number of his novels and stories have been made into movies and television dramas. Being shown in Japanese movie theatres at this moment is the movie made from one of his earliest novels, The Sea and Poison, which the movie critic for one of the Tokyo English newspapers called ‘the most powerful Japanese film of the year (1986)—indeed, for considerably longer’.

Endo has also been rewarded by critical success. His very first novel, White Man, received the coveted Akutagawa Prize, a prize for new writing that has often launched its recipients on to successful writing careers, and since then he has received many additional literary prizes. He is currently president of the Japan PEN Club and is even considered by many to be the writer most likely to receive a Nobel Prize in literature, should the Nobel committee train its sights upon Japan again in the near future.

Abroad too his reputation is steadily growing. Beginning with the English translation of Silence in 1969, a number of his works have been made available in English: The Golden Country (1970), The Sea and Poison (1972), Wonderful Fool (1974), A Life of Jesus (1978), Volcano (1978), When I Whistle (1979), and most recently Samurai (1982) and Stained Glass Elegies (1984). The latter two are now available in Penguin Books.

The novelist mentioned in the first paragraph begins his presentation speech by referring to Suguro's uniqueness in being a Christian writer in a country like Japan, whose cultural climate is so resistant to theological thought. ‘From the first, Suguro agonized over how to get Japanese, who had no ears for it, to listen to the story he most wanted to tell—the story of God.’1 Suguro wrote a number of stories based on materials from early Japanese Christianity: he dramatized the pitiful lot of the Christians as they were mercilessly pressed to abandon their Faith. For thirty years his constant theme has been: how can Christianity, a foreign import, be made to harmonize with the climate of Japan?

For the speaker, Suguro's most laudable quality has been that he has never sacrificed literature for religion. He has not made literature religion's handmaid. ‘As a writer, he was continued to probe those ugly, unpleasant, even hateful parts of man that his Faith must condemn. He has been able to discover meaning and value in what he calls ‘sin’. In every sin, he demonstrates, is to be found a hidden longing for life, a yearning to find a path out of the suffocating air of the world as it is today. It is here that the uniqueness of Suguro's literature is to be found’.

The above is undoubtedly Endo's own estimate of himself and his works. He considers himself a Catholic writer in the tradition of François Mauriac and Graham Greene, to both of whom he acknowledges a great debt of gratitude. (On a recent ten-day visit to London he spent most of his time wandering about the streets of the city, The End of the Affair in hand, retracing the steps of Sarah, and even a casual reading of Silence will reveal the great influence of The Power and the Glory. No wonder Greene has called Endo one of the greatest living novelists.)

Shusaku Endo was born in Tokyo in 1923 but spent his early years in Dairen in Manchuria. When his mother and father separated, Shusaku went with his mother to live in the house of a Catholic aunt in Kobe. There under the aunt's influence, Mrs Endo soon became a Catholic herself and also had her ten-year old son instructed and baptized. In university Endo majored in French literature and became especially interested in the works of twentieth-century French Catholic novelists. As one of the first post-war students to go abroad for study, Endo was able to pursue this interest further at the University of Lyons. Illness forced him to interrupt his studies and return to Japan, but it was while he was in France that he decided to become a writer. He already had in mind the plot of White Man, which was to initiate his career as a novelist. This novel, as mentioned above, won him the Akutagawa Prize and he began work immediately on his second novel, Yellow Man. Other works followed in quick succession. But his career was interrupted for several years while he battled with tuberculosis. He underwent a series of operations and had a close brush with death. It was after his recovery that he wrote his first short story that made use of early Japanese Christian materials, ‘Unzen’, and followed this up with the novel Silence and the play The Golden Country.

To understand what Endo was trying to do in Silence, and, in fact, in most of his work, it is necessary to take a closer look at his early experiences in Kobe and France and to see how the writer was shaped by them. Endo's baptism, like that of Suguro in ‘My Belongings’ in Stained Glass Elegies, had been a mere formality. As he has stated on several occasions, he soon became aware that, in being baptized, he had been attired in a Western-style suit that did not fit him and which he had not chosen. While in his teens, he had tried again to get out of it, but always unsuccessfully. Finally, he had decided to restyle it into a Japanese kimono more to his taste.

While in France, he became even more aware of how alien Western Christianity was to his Japanese temperament. In an early essay, he maintained that the Japanese are insensitive to God, sin, and death, and he wondered how it is possible to make Christians of a people who dislike extreme ways of thinking about evil and sin and who are totally indifferent to the question of the existence of God. Japan, he averred, is a moral ‘mudswamp’, a metaphor which was to pervade his works. When Fr Ferreira, the apostate priest in Silence, is trying to convince a young confrere to apostatize, he tells him that Japan is a mudswamp, that the Faith could never take root there. The seeds that are planted may germinate and grow, but soon the roots begin to rot and the leaves to turn yellow and wither. A Japanese official tells Ferreira, in The Golden Country, that he has been conquered by ‘mudswamp Japan’. ‘The Christian teachings’, he adds, ‘are like a flame and will set a man on fire. But the tepid warmth of Japan nurtures sleep’. Almost all of Endo's novels are concerned with this ‘mudswamp Japan’, and several of them contrast the tepid warmth of the mudswamp with the penetrating flame of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that one of the main concerns of his novels has been to show that there can be salvation also for the denizens of the mudswamp.

But the symbol of the mudswamp does not derive solely from Endo's speculative ruminations on the differences between East and West. It has more personal roots. Endo's mother could by no stretch of the imagination be considered a ‘mudswamp’ character. She was made of the stuff that saints are made of. A woman of strong will and passion, she threw herself with great energy into whatever she undertook. She began her life as a convert with this same passion.

A slightly fictionalized but generally accurate account of those early days in Kobe is given in Endo's short story ‘The Shadow Figure’. In her great desire for sanctity the boy's mother places herself under the direction of a young Spanish (in reality, German) priest of very much the same passionate temperament as herself. Learned, handsome, well-groomed, and with a very attractive personality, this priest soon becomes a powerful influence in the boy's home. ‘Like a nun’, the narrator writes, ‘she imposed on herself and on me a life of strict prayer. Every morning she took me to Mass and whenever she had time she said the rosary. She even began to act as if she were thinking of bringing me up to be a priest like you’.2 (In fact, Endo has written somewhere that when he was a middle-school student he did for a time consider becoming a priest.)

The priest would come to the boy's home once a week and his mother would gather people of the neighbourhood to listen to his stimulating talks. The boy found these soirées boring and even painful. But more painful to him was the discipline that this priest began to demand of him. He was getting poor grades at school. (Endo writes that he himself began middle school in the top A class and fell one class each year until he wound up in D and graduated 116th in a class of 118). The priest, by way of imposing discipline on the boy, had his mother get rid of his beloved dog, who was for him the only being who could share a boy's inexpressible loneliness.

It was typical of you to act that way. Weakness, laziness, slovenliness—you hated these things more than anything. A man should grow strong. He has to make efforts. He has to train himself both in life and faith. You never said that in so many words, but you put it into practice in your daily life. Everybody noticed how zealously you carried out your mission work and how earnestly you devoted yourself to theological study. You were above reproach. Everyone (just like my mother) respected your noble character. I alone, mere child that I was, began to be irked by your irreproachableness … I could not conform physically to your ideal of life. I do not try now to excuse myself for those days. All I want to say is that your kindness and enthusiasm brought good results to the strong but were harsh on the weak, and at times meaninglessly inflicted suffering on them.3

A sickly boy, ungifted in studies, Shusaku could not but realize the tremendous gap that separates the naturally strong, like his mother and the priest, from the naturally weak. If as he grew older he had given up his Faith completely and accommodated himself to an easier life, it would not have been strange. In a magazine interview Endo once stated:

There were many times when I felt I wanted to get rid of my Catholicism, but I was finally unable to do so … The reason for this must be that it had become a part of me after all … Still, there was always that feeling in my heart that it was something borrowed, and I began to wonder what my real self was like. This I think is the ‘mudswamp’ Japanese in me. From the time I first began to write novels even to the present day, this confrontation of my Catholic self with the self that lies underneath has echoed and reechoed in my work. I have felt that I had to find some way to reconcile the two.

But this was not the only reconciliation that had to take place. Endo seems to have had a love-hate relationship with his mother's confessor. The man had become a kind of a father to him. When, after graduation from college, Endo did not immediately find a job, the priest took both Shusaku and his brother to help out with his new work as editor of the Japanese edition of Catholic Digest. So it must have been a great shock to Endo when this very strong priest, a veritable avatar of God the Father, left the priesthood and religious life and married a Japanese woman. How could such strength and such weakness in the same person be reconciled?

Endo's speculative concerns about the distance that separates East from West, and his more personal concerns outlined above, are at the heart of two of his early novels, Yellow Man and Volcano. In both, the moral apathy of the Japanese characters is contrasted with the ferocious struggle between good and evil that takes place in the spirit of a foreign priest, who eventually loses the struggle and gets involved with a Japanese woman. The Sea and Poison is also about the Japanese mudswamp: the moral apathy of a group of doctors and nurses who conduct fatal medical experiments on captured American airmen during the war. But it was when Endo began to do research on early Christianity in Japan that he came across material exactly suited to his purpose.

Endo admits frankly that from the first he was not interested in the kind of Christians who held firm to their beliefs and convictions and refused to apostatize. ‘My concern lay rather with the weaklings who compromised their convictions and stepped fumi-e because they were forced to do so’. Still more exactly to his purpose was the strong man Jesuit Provincial Christopher Ferreira, who had not only given up his Faith and married a Japanese woman, but who had also helped the persecutors in their attempt to stamp out Christianity. From this material Endo fashioned the novel Silence and the play The Golden Country. In stepping on the face of Christ, thereby apostatizing, both Ferreira (in the play) and his younger confrere Fr Roderigo (in the novel) discover a new and different Christ, an Oriental Christ, who understands their pain in sinning and continues to love them all the same. By stepping on the fumi-e Western priests become naturalized citizens of the Japanese mudswamp and all are saved by the all-understanding love of Christ. This, Endo seems to hope, is a Christianity that the Japanese will be able to understand and accept.

Catholics in Japan were greatly offended by the novel, not so much by the unorthodoxy of the climax, in which Christ himself urges the priest to go ahead and sin, assuring him that he understands his pain in stepping upon the face of the one who is dearest to him, but rather in the fact that the writer completely falsified history in warping it to his theme.

The missionary enterprise in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Japan was one the Church has a right to be proud of. In less than a century as many as 700,000 Japanese (out of a total population of only twenty million) from all strata of society became Christians, and their faith was strong enough to support an estimated fifty to sixty thousand in their choice of martyrdom over apostasy.4 It had also been strong enough to preserve itself in hidden settlements until the end of the 19th century when the missionaries returned to Japan. Endo, with no historical basis and solely for the purposes of his theme, suggested that this early Christianity had not been a true Christianity but an Oriental deflection from it. ‘The God the Japanese pray to in our churches is not the Christian God, but a god of their own making’, asserts Ferreira. ‘Our God, when he came to Japan, like a butterfly caught in a spider's web, retained only the external form of God but lost his true reality and became a lifeless corpse’.

In proposing his solution to the seeming incompatibility of Western Christianity and the Japanese sensibility, Endo became an elitist in reverse. It is the weak and sinful that have first crack at salvation—not, it is to be noted, the sinner who repents of his sin and attempts to do better, but rather the one who continues to sin but feels pain in doing so. These are able to reach a high level of love. The priest in Silence, after stepping on the fumi-e, reflects that he loves Christ now in a completely different way from before. ‘To come to know this love, everything that has taken place was necessary’. In short, sin born out of love leads to a higher sanctity.

It is not surprising that Endo should next have attempted a life of Jesus, depicting a Saviour who is completely powerless except to love, one who could work no miracles but continued to love. Perhaps to emphasize the overwhelming degree of Jesus' love, he involves all the apostles in Judas' betrayal: they are all equally guilty. But Jesus forgives and continues to love them. The final image of Jesus that emerges from the book is that of a joyless man with tired and sunken eyes, but eyes that overflow with love more profound than a miracle, even toward those who had deserted and betrayed him. Not a word of resentment passes his lips as he gazes with sadness at those who have hurt him.

One Japanese critic reviewing Silence had written that the face of Jesus on the fumi-e ‘is the mother's face in Japan. I know nothing of Mr Endo's personal experience with his mother, but their relationship is depicted in Jesus's face on the fumi-e’.5 This was a very shrewd observation. All the sadness Endo felt at having disappointed his mother (perhaps he even felt it a kind of betrayal), and the sad love she had continued to show toward him, found expression in his portrayal of Christ.

Further confirmation of this identification of Christ with mother is to be found in Endo's short story ‘Mothers’. Visiting an island where there is a village of hidden Christians not yet reunited with the Church, the writer-narrator, who is never given a name, has a dream of his mother. He is surprised that twenty years after her death she should still appear so vividly in his dreams. He recalls how often he disappointed her, especially after he stopped going to church even on Sunday. One day after such a disappointment, ‘she said not a word, but only looked at me. I watched her face slowly collapse and tears fall down her cheeks’. Until late that night, he could hear her sobbing in her room. He recalls with great sadness that even on the day of her death, at the very moment of her dying, he was engaged in an act that he is now heartily ashamed of.

When he meets the hidden Christians and is shown the ancient painting of Mary which they venerate, he recalls his mother's statue of the Sorrowful Mother. He had kept the statue with him in his hospital room. It has been greatly damaged in an air raid and ‘the face looked sad and seemed to be staring at me … The bombing and the passage of time had cracked the face and disfigured the nose so all that seemed to remain was the expression of sadness’. At some time or other he had come ‘to associate the expression on my mother's face when she came to me in a dream with that of the statue’.

At the end of the story, the narrator feels that the hidden Christians, who had been able to hold on to their religion only by stepping each year on the fumi-e, are in the same condition of heart as he is. Near the end of the story is this telling paragraph:

The missionaries long ago brought to this country the teaching of a Father God. But in the course of time, after the missionaries had been driven out and the churches destroyed, the hidden Christians gradually threw over all the elements of the religion that didn't suit them, replacing them with what is most essential in all Japanese religion, devotion to Mother. At that moment I thought of my own mother. She seemed to be standing beside me, a grey shadow. She was not playing the violin nor was she praying the rosary. She stood there hands folded, looking at me with sorrowful eyes.

Thus Christ, for Endo, in his tender, all-forgiving love for men is more mother than father. The weakest and most vicious dwellers in the mudswamp are ever looked upon by the loving eyes of Christ. He will never desert them, even while they are committing their crimes. It is the maternal love of Christ that makes it possible for even a Japanese to be a Christian, that rescues the Japanese from the mudswamp.

In a series of novels, Endo depicted characters who were Christ figures and showed how their great love effects changes in those around them, empowering them to take at least the first step out of the swamp. Typical of these novels is Wonderful Fool, in which Gaston, a kind of holy fool, rescues the killer Endo (sic) from death in an actual mudswamp and succeeds in turning him aside from his path of revenge.

Suguro in Scandal, as we have seen, considers his latest novel to be the culmination of everything he has tried to accomplish as a novelist. Here Endo is undoubtedly making reference to his own novel Samurai, a novel which does indeed represent a kind of culmination to Endo's career as a Catholic novelist.

In the early 17th century the Japanese feudal lord Masamune Date sent emissaries to Mexico to try to establish trade relations with that country. In return, Christian missionaries would be welcomed in the realm and given freedom to evangelize. The chief emissary was Rokuemon Hasekura, a low-ranking samurai, whose lands were literally swampland. (He hopes that if his mission is successful he will be given better land.) Accompanying the samurai are twenty or so Japanese and a Franciscan friar. Their mission carried them first to Mexico and then on to Spain and Rome. In Rome, the samurai received baptism. (In the novel the baptism is merely a political expedient; Hasekura never intended to become Christian). But the mission is unsuccessful. Moreover, when the samurai returns to Japan, he finds the political climate is completely changed. Masamune is no longer interested in trade with Mexico, and Christianity is now proscribed throughout the country. What finally became of the historical Hasekura is not known, though according to one account he died a martyr. In the novel, when it is learned that he received baptism, for whatever reason, he is apprehended and killed.

The point of view of the novel is equally distributed between the samurai and the Franciscan friar, so that here again we have the familiar dichotomy: the passionate Western priest fighting a furious battle against evil, and the apathetic mudswamp Japanese who wants nothing more than to enjoy an ordinary sort of contentment in life. In this novel both are victorious. In the words of Van G. Gessel, the translator of Samurai:

Here Velasco (the friar), once he has cast off his pride, is allowed to worship and serve a glorified Christ with a rational and aggressive faith, and his martyr's death is an undiluted reflection of his dynamic Western beliefs. In contrast, Hasekura accepts the companionship of Jesus in an almost passive way. His faith is primarily non-rational and thoroughly internalized … Endo in this novel grants both men a place in the eternal mansions of heaven.6

Endo himself says of his protagonists:

Velasco and Hasekura are like two men climbing a mountain from different sides and reporting to each other all the time. At the top they realise it's the same mountain. They meet in the last chapter, which I didn't write.’7

Thus it can be seen that Shusaku Endo is well deserving of the epithet ‘Catholic novelist’. From the beginning of his writing career until now, he has been literally obsessed with Christ. And through his life and work he has succeeded in interesting in Christianity many Japanese who would not otherwise have been reached. These include a number of intellectuals and fellow writers, several of whom have consequently received baptism.

All the same, it must also be said that the scope of Endo's Catholicism is very narrow. In Endo's religion there is no Church, no community, no sacraments other than baptism, no Vatican Council II, no empowering Spirit. In reaction to the sin-conscious, duty-oriented, Jansenist-tinged Church that he was introduced to in his childhood,8 Endo has created a Christianity in no need of Church or, indeed, as is well illustrated in the case of the samurai, of any intermediary between God and man.

This is not to fault Endo as a novelist, but readers should be aware of the fact that in Endo they are getting not the whole symphony but only the solo flute.9 As for the persistent claim that there is something in the Japanese sensibility that cannot receive Christ, thirty-four years of evangelizing in Japan have convinced me that this is false. The main obstacle I have encountered is the busyness of the Japanese, but once they can be led to inner silence, they very quickly hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and encounter Christ and his Church.


  1. Translation of Endo, unless noted, are my own.

  2. Japan Quarterly (Tokyo, Asahi Shimbun), Vol. XXXI, No. 3 (1984) pp. 169 (translation by Thomas Lally, Yumiko Oka and Dennis J. Doodlin.)

  3. Ibid., pp. 169-70.

  4. These statistics were given me by Fr Hubert Cieslik, SJ, an authority on the Christian period in Japan and the teacher to whom Endo went for information about the early Christians.

  5. Quoted by Endo himself in his essay ‘The Anguish of an Alien’. Cf. Vol. XI, No. 4 (Fall 1974) of the Japan Christian Quarterly, p. 181. Endo acknowledges there the truth of the critic's observation.

  6. Postscript to Samurai (New York, Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 271-2.

  7. Quoted in Asia Week (October 21, 1983), p. 63.

  8. The Catholic Church in Japan today still suffers from the harsh, joyless, penitential, individualistic brand of Christianity that the new missionaries of the 19th century brought to Japan. The 17th century Church was far more joyful and had a far greater sense of community.

  9. Endo uses this same image. In a magazine interview he once stated: ‘It seems to me that Catholicism is not a solo, but a symphony. It fits, of course, man's sinless side, but unless a religion can find place for his sinful side in the ensemble, it is a false religion. If I have trust in Catholicism, it is because I find in it much more possibility than in any other religion for presenting the full symphony of humanity. The other religions have almost no fullness: they have but solo parts. Only Catholicism can present the full symphony. And unless there is in that symphony a part that corresponds to Japan's mudswamp, it cannot be a true religion.’

William T. Cavanaugh (essay date 13 March 1998)

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SOURCE: Cavanaugh, William T. “The God of Silence: Shusaku Endo's Reading of the Passion.” Commonweal 125, no. 5 (13 March 1998): 10-12.

[In the following essay, Cavanaugh discusses Endō's handling of “the paradox of a crucified God” in his novel Silence.]

A tree which flourishes in one kind of soil may wither if the soil is changed. As for the tree of Christianity, in a foreign country its leaves may grow thick and the buds may be rich, while in Japan the leaves wither and no bud appears. Father, have you never thought of the difference in the soil, the difference in the water?

Shusaku Endo's Silence

The difference in the soil, the difference in the water, are what haunt the life and writings of Shusaku Endo, the great Japanese novelist who died in 1996. Endo was seared by the terrible homelessness of being a Christian in Japan, and most commentary on his work focuses on the awkward encounter of Christianity and Japanese culture. However, Endo is misunderstood if this struggle is limited to a Japanese context. What Endo was really after, I think, was nothing less than a glimpse of a homeless God.

Endo's work can be read as a profound exploration of the twisted logic of the Incarnation—the journey of God from heaven to be emptied into earthly flesh and the assumption of weakness by omnipotence. Endo's personal struggle as a Christian in Japan was the setting for his investigation of the paradox central to the lives of all Christians: the paradox of a crucified God. Thus Endo weaves together the spiritual anguish of his characters with an embattled and paradoxically orthodox theology. Here I want to examine Endo's theological search in his novel Silence and invite other Christian voices—including that of John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis splendor—into the novel's strange moral universe.

Lean and spare, the prose of Silence captures the most harrowing anguish with a stark restraint. Suffering, sacrifice, and God's own silence lie at the heart of the novel. A deep moral ambiguity suffuses the story and opens a wound that endures long after the reader puts the book down. Moreover, I think Endo would argue that this wound is not one created by the writer, but belongs to the one who returned to his disciples after the Resurrection, asking his disciples to probe his unhealed wounds. It is this God who refuses to close the wound. He has chosen not to eliminate suffering, but to suffer with humanity. It is this Jesus who haunts Father Sebastian Rodrigues, the main character of Silence.

Rodrigues is a Portuguese Jesuit. He risks his life by going to Japan at a time when the small Japanese Christian minority is being fiercely persecuted. Rodrigues is motivated by a missionary concern for peasant Christians who have persevered in their faith in a clandestine church without priests. But he has a more personal motivation as well. His Jesuit mentor, the great provincial Cristovao Ferreira, the man who imbued Rodrigues with a fiery passion to spread the gospel in the face of every danger, has apostatized under torture. Rodrigues goes to Japan to face probable martyrdom, in part to discover the truth about Ferreira, and in part to offer himself as atonement for the unspeakable affront of apostasy.

Ferreira's apostasy is a historical fact. Francis Xavier had brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. In a mere thirty years a community of 150,000 Christians was flourishing. However, the unification of Japan under a central governing power in the late sixteenth century was accompanied by an increasing suspicion toward foreigners. Persecution erupted periodically, culminating in an edict of expulsion for all foreign missionaries in 1614. In the following years priests and ordinary Christians were ruthlessly suppressed. At first, Christians were publicly executed, but the blood of such martyrs, to paraphrase Tertullian, proved to be the seed of the church's persistence. At its height, the Japanese Christian community numbered 300,000. Eventually, however, the magistrates hit upon a sinister torture designed to change the public spectacle from one of a heroic acceptance of death to an ignominious public renunciation of faith. The torture, called the ana-tsurushi, consisted of hanging the victim upside down in a pit. A small incision made on the victim's forehead allowed blood to drain, thus intensifying the agony. Still, no missionary apostatized until 1632. But when Cristovao Ferreira, leader of the mission in Japan, did so under torture, the blow to the remaining Christians was devastating.

In Silence, Endo's fictional Ferreira serves as a goad to Rodrigues's pride. It is Rodrigues's pride, hidden behind his self-abnegating journey toward martyrdom, that sets up the climactic scene in the novel. As he sets his face toward Japan, Rodrigues writes in dread-filled yet fascinated tones of the perils that await him. Rodrigues is haunted, and feels himself pulled toward Japan, by a vivid vision of the face of Christ. Endo compels us to admire the Jesuit's willingness to face up to any torture for the sake of the gospel, and we have no doubt that he has the strength to die for Christ. But the novelist subtly lets Rodrigues overplay his courage until it touches on pride. In the end, the Jesuit risks violating the church's stern admonition that a Catholic must never seek martyrdom.

The antithesis of Rodrigues is Kichijiro, the Japanese who serves as his guide. Kichijiro is a cringing, lying, cowardly drunkard, a thoroughly untrustworthy character who sports the expression of a beaten dog, yet with a hint of cunning. Though Kichijiro denies being a Christian, gradually we learn his secret: he, too, is an apostate. His entire family had been brought before the magistrates and given the customary chance to apostatize by treading on an image of Christ's face called a fumie. Kichijiro was the only one to submit. He later watched his brothers and sisters being burned at the stake. Rodrigues regards him with a mixture of annoyance, contempt, and pity.

What is remarkable about the novel is the way in which, as Rodrigues and Kichijiro move through the countryside eluding capture, Endo begins to blur the sharp moral line which separates them. Rodrigues's presence, much like that of Graham Greene's whisky priest, brings terrible suffering and death to the faithful who harbor him. As Kichijiro, Rodrigues, and the reader look to God for some relief from the unrelenting suffering, Endo allows the Jesuit to articulate the theological problem which gives the novel its name. Rodrigues writes:

Everything our Lord does is for our good. And yet, even as I write these words I feel the oppressive weight in my heart of the last stammering words of Kichijiro on the morning of his departure: “Why has Deus Sama imposed this suffering on us?” … I suppose I should simply cast from my mind these meaningless words of the coward; yet why does his plaintive voice pierce my breast with all the pain of a sharp needle? Why has our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? No, Kichijiro was trying to express something different, something even more sickening. The silence of God.

Rodrigues watches as two Christian peasants are tied to stakes and left for the ocean's waves to bring a slow, merciless death. The martyrdom he has read about in his native Portugal is a glorious thing, a triumphant ascension to paradise accompanied by the sound of angels blowing their trumpets. But the martyrdom he witnesses in Japan is a miserable and squalid affair. And while the voices of the peasants cry out in anguish, “God remains with folded arms, silent.”

Rodrigues's growing doubts stand against the backdrop of the enduring faith of the peasants. However, rather than soothe his doubts, Rodrigues finds the simple faith of the peasants a further irritant. The more the peasants suffer for their faith, the more Rodrigues seems to recoil from the whole missionary enterprise. Against his will, he begins to struggle with the idea that faith is a mere escape from reality; worse, he is haunted by the dim awareness that the suffering of the peasants is increased because of his own presence. And much worse still, their faith now appears as a cruel burden laid on them by a God who refuses to speak.

More than half of Silence takes place in prison. Rodrigues is betrayed by Kichijiro for a few silver pieces, but then Kichijiro visits him in jail and confesses his weakness and apostasy. If only he had died before the persecution began, Kichijiro whimpers, he would have gone to heaven as a good Christian. Why has God made him weak, then set him in such an awful time of persecution? Rodrigues finds it impossible even to identify the strength and beauty of evil in the filthy and foul-smelling Kichijiro. Suppressing disgust, he gives Kichijiro absolution, then hurriedly retreats to his bed. There he recalls how Christ sought out even the most unattractive and despised of people, those whom no one else could love. Rodrigues again sees the face of Christ, and he is filled with shame.

At this point in the novel, the Christian reader is still in a recognizable moral universe. Ah yes, we think, this is the paradox of the cross. The Christian imperative is to love even that which is poor and despised in the world's eyes. But in the agonizing dilemma which sets up the climax of the novel, Endo turns even this paradox inside out. The dilemma is remarkably simple. Ferreira appears, in the employ of the Japanese magistrates, and reveals the reason for his apostasy. Christian peasants had been hung in the pit, and Ferreira was told that they would not be released until he denied his faith. The same choice now faces Rodrigues. Three peasants hang in the pit moaning piteously. Unless Rodrigues tramples on the fumie, on the face of Christ that he has loved for so long, the peasants will die a slow and terrible death.

The dilemma itself may be simple, but the questions it raises are not. Can a Christian let others suffer for his beliefs? One thinks of precedents in Christian history. For example, the martyr Perpetua refused to deny Christ, even though her infant son would thereby never know his mother. Endo hints that the peasants in the pit have already apostatized, but will not be saved unless Rodrigues follows suit. The Japanese magistrates believe that the key to choking off the Christian communities is to target the priests. Can the peasants be made to suffer for Rodrigues's faith?

The deeper issue here is suffering for the sake of Christ. Jesus makes clear in the Gospels that his followers must take up their cross. As Jesus says in Luke, “They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

Thanks be to God?

As perhaps only a novel can, Silence probes the strangeness of the Incarnation and death of Christ, the mystery of a God who does not simply wipe away the world's suffering, but chooses to share in it. This goes to the heart of Rodrigues's questions about God's silence. Why does God not speak in the face of so much human agony? How can God sit and do nothing, arms folded, while innocent and simple people not only die, but die in God's name? Endo drops hints that Rodrigues is tempted to apostatize to save the peasants, precisely because he believes God will not save them; he has lost his faith in God to save.

On the other hand, Endo suggests that Rodrigues does indeed hear God break the silence. Rodrigues imagines he hears the voice of Christ speaking from the fumie: “Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross.” God has spoken to the suffering of the world in giving the Word, Jesus Christ, made incarnate to suffer the pain of humanity. Ferreira puts the argument to Rodrigues: “A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. … Certainly Christ would have apostatized for [these peasants].”

The early Christians regarded murder, adultery, and apostasy as the three most heinous crimes; many commentators considered apostasy to be the “sin against the Holy Spirit” that in Matthew 12:32 Jesus says cannot be forgiven. Could Jesus himself have apostatized, that is, denied himself, as Rodrigues imagines he is told to do?

Equally intriguing is the problem of squaring Rodrigues's apostasy with John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis splendor. There the pope is at great pains to stem a tide of proportionalist Catholic moral theology that appears to measure the consequences of an act before determining if it is evil. In condemning proportionalism, John Paul puts forth the traditional doctrine of “intrinsic evils.” Certain acts, in other words, are evil “always and per se … quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.” Presumably apostasy would be an intrinsically evil act. The pope includes an examination of martyrdom in his encyclical, with the implication that it is only because certain moral truths cannot be compromised—regardless of the circumstances—that Christians would be willing to go to their deaths to defend them. Otherwise martyrdom makes no sense.

In effect, Silence asks if there is only one kind of martyrdom. Could one sacrifice not only one's body, but one's very moral integrity for the sake of others? The novelist gently inflates Rodrigues's pride precisely to raise this question. The Jesuit seeks physical martyrdom as a prize. He wants to atone for the sin of Ferreira and share in a martyr's glorious triumph over sin and death. But Endo suggests that a deeper martyrdom may await Rodrigues—the death of his very self as a Christian and as a moral person. This suggests that the standard concept of heroic virtue is radically effaced by the logic of God's kenosis, by God's self-emptying to take the form of a slave, as Paul puts it in Philippians. In Silence, Endo provocatively pushes basic Christian logic, already paradoxical, to a more extreme conclusion. If it is true, as many Christian martyrs have affirmed, that for the Christian, the body is as nothing when compared to the eternity of the soul, then is the crucifixion of the soul a martyrdom which makes other martyrdoms pale in comparison?

Those who look for tidy endings should not read Silence. Endo is not interested in deciding if Rodrigues did the right thing. Silence is a meditation on the Incarnation, not a manual of morals. Christ comes not to solve the world's problems, but to redeem it. For Endo, the only consolation for the continuing torment of human beings is the strange drama of a homeless God who suffers with us. It is precisely in this apparent silence, in this self-emptying, that salvation unfolds.

John T. Netland (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6225

SOURCE: Netland, John T. “Encountering Christ in Shusaku Endo's Mudswamp of Japan.” In Christian Encounters with the Other, Edited by John C. Hawley, pp. 166-81. New York, New York: New York University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Netland examines the ways Endō addresses the clash of Western ideology and Japanese culture in his historical novels.]

The history of Christianity in Japan offers an instructive example of how difficult multicultural rapprochement can be. In spite of a Christian presence for over 400 years, Christianity remains an overwhelmingly miniscule piece of Japan's religious mosaic, its adherents amounting to little more than one percent of the population. Explanations for this phenomenon demonstrate part of the cultural impasse which has made Christianity so problematic in Japan. A Christian reading of this history might frame the narrative as a simple tale of persecution and resistance by a cynical political order which saw the foreign religion as a threat to its power. On the other hand, a Japanese reading of this history might frame it as a story of an undesired western ideology that could never be successfully imposed on a culture so ill-suited to it.

Both readings concede that the history of Christianity in Japan has been a less than successful venture. It began auspiciously enough. St. Francis Xavier landed in Kagoshima in 1549, introducing Christianity to Japan where it flourished for the rest of the century. The Christian mission, however, never did entirely shed its western cultural and political trappings and therefore courted suspicion of its political allegiances. Finally, in 1614, the Shogun Ieyasu reversed previous policies of toleration by issuing his Edict of Expulsion, which set the stage for a brutal persecution of Christians and in the process cut off Japan from the west for over two centuries.1

Actually, neither Europe nor Japan was at that time very conducive to a depoliticized, cross-cultural dialogue. For most of the sixteenth century, Europe was dealing with the political repercussions of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, complex movements in which religious polemic became enmeshed in the commercial and political interests of most European nations. These interests followed the maritime powers on their voyages around the world. Both the European Catholic missionaries and merchants often dragged their old world disputes into their relations with the Japanese authorities, lending credence to suspicions that the religious mission of the Church might merely mask political reorientation, transforming Japanese society from its feudal parochialism into an ambitious modern nation organized around the centralized military authority of the shogun. One result of this political transformation was to make the stability of the state the preeminent social objective, sanctioned even by the Japanese religions, which emphasized obligations to the social order. Christianity, however, insisted that ultimate allegiances belong to God rather than to the secular state. The Japanese authorities thus began to feel that “Christianity was a disease which infected their subjects with disloyalty” (Elison 3). The Edict of Expulsion had accused Christians of seeking “to make Japan into ‘their own possession’ … [and] to ‘contravene governmental regulations, traduce Shinto, calumniate the True Law, destroy righteousness, corrupt goodness’—in short, to subvert the native Japanese, the Buddhist, and the Confucian foundations of the social order” (Elisonas 367).

It is within this historical setting that the distinguished Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo works out the multicultural implications of his Christian faith. Thoroughly Japanese, persistently Catholic, he has had to reconcile what he calls “a Japanese and a Western (Christian) self” (Endo, qtd. Higgins 415). Likening his baptism at the age of eleven to the forced imposition of a “‘ready-made suit,’ a Western suit, ill-matched to his Japanese body,” Endo seeks in his fiction to reshape “the Western suit into a Japanese kimono” (Higgins 416). This tension between Japanese culture and Christian faith is most pronounced in his historical fiction, with its imaginative retelling of crucial episodes from the history of Christianity in Japan. Silence is set in the fierce persecution initiated by Ieyasu, while The Samurai recounts an obscure, seventeenth-century Japanese trade mission to the New World. These historical novels, written eleven years apart, frame Endo's attempt to reconcile Christianity and Japanese culture.

To some extent the history of Christianity in Japan seems to confirm a central tenet of post-colonial theories, that virtually all European dealings with other cultures are masks for the political exercise of power. Postcolonial theories, by definition, take their frame of reference from the troubled history of western colonialism. They often lament the suppression of indigenous cultures and honor the silenced victims of imperialism. Beyond the colonial context, other strains of multiculturalism give voice to peoples whose histories have been muted within the dominant discourses of European and North American cultures. Central to these approaches is the desire to understand these cultures on their own terms, apart from the intellectual paradigms presumably imposed upon them by Euro-American cultures. This theoretical reorienting of cultural history owes much to Edward Said's Orientalism, which documents the European imperial imagination and its inscription of an Oriental “otherness” onto such cultures. Orientalism is for Said “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient …, a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (3). Travel narratives, linguistic and anthropological scholarship, missionary activities, the popularization of “Oriental” fashions and motifs—all are deeply implicated in power structures of an expansive European civilization whose every relationship with the “Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (Said 5).

While Said's paradigm has considerable relevance for nineteenth-century Europe, when the balance of power decidedly favored Europe, the historical context of the early Christian mission to Japan reveals a crucial difference. While the exercise of power is certainly present in that context, it is not the story of a hegemonic, colonial power imposing its will upon a powerless people. Japan has never been colonized by the west, nor was the cross implanted on Japanese soil by force. Rather, secular power has generally been the prerogative of the Japanese state. That difference is crucial for our understanding of Endo's historical fiction. While these novels honestly portray the often troubling relationship of religion and power, they resist the reductionism of attributing this complicity solely to western hegemony. Instead they portray a radically Christian alternative to the worst impulses of both eastern and western political ambition. In so doing, they hint at a divine order that both acknowledges and transcends cultural particularity.

Silence tells the story of Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a fictional 17th-century Jesuit missionary, who is drawn to Japan by a combination of spiritual fervor, romantic idealism, and curiosity about the alleged apostasy of his seminary instructor, Father Christovao Ferreira. In spite of his idealism, Rodrigues's apostasy seems inevitable virtually from his arrival in Japan. He has come to assume the mantle of the heroic martyr, to lay down his life for the Church. His early meditative reveries, in the tradition of Ignatian meditation, are heavily laden with western iconic ideals—Christ as benevolent conqueror, Christ as King, Christ as the Good Shepherd. Little by little, that idealism gives way under the relentlessly de-romanticized suffering he sees. He witnesses the horrifyingly banal deaths of Japanese Christians, whose martyrdoms scarcely disturb the oppressive silence of the natural order. His longing to hear the voice of God and to see the Gospel triumph in Japan gradually dissipates in the face of a relentless silence, a silence dramatically broken when Rodrigues himself apostatizes.

Beyond the universal theme of faith and doubt, the novel problematizes the historical confrontation of East and West during the seventeenth-century, a confrontation the Japanese authorities characterize as undesired aggression. The magistrate Inoue crudely likens the Christian missionaries to an importunate woman. “Father,” he says, “I want you to think over two things this old man has told you. One is that the persistent affection of an ugly woman is an intolerable burden for a man; the other, that a barren woman should not become a wife” (Silence 124). His interpreter accuses Rodrigues of wanting “to impose [his] selfish dream upon Japan” (Silence 134). In arguing that the Christian faith is a selfish religious ideal, undesired by and ill-suited to Japanese society, these authorities reduce the Christian mission to the discourses of power.

Conspicuously absent from that argument is any reference to the respective truth claims of Christianity and Japanese religions, an absence that calls attention to profoundly different cultural sensibilities about the nature and place of truth in religious expression. For the Christian missionary, the imperative to preach the Gospel is based on particular claims about the nature of God, the created order, and the human condition. Call it dogmatic or propositional, the Christian faith is based on absolutist claims about the person of Jesus Christ, claims which do not offer much middle ground between belief and disbelief. Such is the understanding of the faith that Father Rodrigues proclaims. During his interrogation, Rodrigues consistently defends his faith by appealing to universal truth. Interestingly, the interpreter willingly accepts the challenge. Having “learned Christian doctrine in the seminary,” the interpreter is eager to refute western misunderstandings of Buddhism and to turn the metaphysical problem of evil against the Christian world view. Yet Father Rodrigues holds his own, eventually making the interpreter angrily change the subject. It is a contest whose rules reflect the Christian worldview and which plays to the rhetorical strengths of the priest. The interpreter has accepted the standard of truth to settle questions of competing religious claims, and his angry dismissal of the argument at the end indicates that he knows he has not refuted Christianity on rational grounds.

On the other hand, Inoue demonstrates his Japanese religious sensibilities in quietly displacing universal truth claims with a more pragmatic and particularist notion of truth. “Father,” he quietly insists, “we are not disputing about the right and wrong of your doctrine. In Spain and Portugal and such countries it may be true. The reason we have outlawed Christianity in Japan is that, after deep and earnest consideration, we find its teaching of no value for the Japan of today” (Silence 108). Rodrigues responds again with a compelling defense of universality: “It is precisely because truth is common to all countries and all times that we call it truth. If a true doctrine were not true alike in Portugal and Japan we could not call it ‘true” (Silence 109). Inoue merely nods in polite acquiescence, never disputing the priest's defense of universality, and Rodrigues begins to believe that he is “winning the controversy.” But though his defense of universal truth is never refuted, he does not win anything, for the debate about truth is virtually irrelevant to Inoue's pragmatic particularism. In the abyss separating the religious sensibilities of the sixteenth-century Japanese from the European Christian, there is virtually no common ground, other than the exercise of power, on which to adjudicate competing religious claims. Christian appeals to reason, evidence, and truth claims mean little to the Japanese state intent on establishing its political stability. The religious debate is simply a pretext for the exercise of power, a power designed to eradicate the otherness of Christianity from penetrating a homogenous Japanese culture.

In pressuring Rodrigues to apostatize, Inoue refrains from direct refutation, opting instead to undermine Christianity by manipulating its very ideals. Far more insidious than the threat of unspeakable tortures is the nagging suspicion—suggested by the apostate Ferreira and brilliantly exploited by Inoue—that Japanese culture inevitably subverts Christianity from within. Ferreira presents himself to the imprisoned Rodrigues as “an old missionary defeated by missionary work,” convinced that the Christian “religion does not take root in this country” (Silence 146). It is he who introduces the swamp metaphor that implies an incompatibility of east and west: “This country is a swamp. … Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot. … And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp” (Silence 147). Inoue adds, “The Christianity you brought to Japan has changed its form and has become a strange thing. … Japan is that kind of country; it can't be helped” (Silence 188). Ferreira's apostasy is based on a grudging acquiescence to Inoue's cultural particularity, the belief that eastern and western cultures are fundamentally incompatible and that the Christian Gospel is too culture-bound to be adaptable to the swamp of Japan. Ferreira's defeatism is thus more disturbing to Rodrigues than is Inoue's persecution, for while the latter does little to deny the claims of Christianity (persecution, after all, confirms a prominent Scriptural theme), the former undermines the Christian claim to universality. It challenges the trans-cultural normativity of Christianity, suggesting instead that Japanese culture inevitably syncretizes and hence distorts Christianity.

This clash of Christian faith and Japanese culture is prominent throughout the novel. Rodrigues frequently wonders about the cultural barriers to Christianity and is troubled by the excessive veneration the Japanese have for the icons (Silence 45). Later, while marveling at the cunning of Inoue's plan to make the Christians spit on the crucifix and declare the Blessed Virgin a whore, he worries that the “peasants sometimes seem to honor Mary rather than Christ” (Silence 56). These are not idle concerns, for such excesses of a proper Catholic veneration suggest an eclectic blend of Shinto animism and Christianity, raising troubling questions about whether such eclecticism assures cultural relevance or undermines Christianity's integrity. Language barriers, too, create problems for the missionaries. Rodrigues recalls Xavier's linguistic problem of confusing Deus with Dainichi, “the sun which the people of this country had revered for many generations” (Silence 70). Ferreira concludes that this linguistic confusion in fact reveals a profound irreconcilability between Christianity and the Japanese mind:

From the beginning those same Japanese who confused ‘Deus’ and ‘Dainichi’ twisted and changed our God and began to create something different. Even when the confusion of vocabulary disappeared the twisting and changing secretly continued. Even in the glorious missionary period you mentioned the Japanese did not believe in the Christian God but in their own distortion.

(Silence 148)2

The view that Christianity has been co-opted by the swamp of Japan is reinforced by Inoue's strategy to make Rodrigues apostatize. Were Rodrigues given the choice of apostasy or his own life, he likely would choose martyrdom over apostasy. But Inoue does not give him that choice. Rather, the priest is asked to apostatize to save the lives of the Japanese Christians hanging in the pit. A brilliant strategy, this choice appeals directly to Rodrigues's Christian love and sense of mission. Throughout his time in Japan, he frequently questions whether he has accomplished anything beyond merely troubling the Japanese Christians: “He had come to this country to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives one by one for him” (Silence 133). The night before the apostasy takes place, he is grieved by “his inability to love these people as Christ had loved them” (Silence 158). His nagging fear that he is not useful to others is exploited by Ferreira, who proclaims defensively that he, at least, is still useful to others even as an apostate. To Rodrigues, then, the command to apostatize comes not primarily as an invitation to escape suffering, but paradoxically as an appeal to his deepest Christian values. What is more Christ-like than to lay down one's life for others? Certainly the apostasy means a death to his public life of service to God, a life more precious to him than anything he can imagine. This strategy of appealing to Rodrigues's Christian virtues is rendered explicit when Ferreira tells him, “Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them. … You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed” (Silence 169-70).

This manipulation of Christian virtues on behalf of a nationalistic strategy to eradicate the faith seems to confirm Inoue's contention that Japan inevitably changes Christianity. Yet Endo is not content to give Inoue or Ferreira the last word. It is not, finally, Ferreira who leads Rodrigues to trample on the fumie. It is the emaciated Christ in the bronze image who breaks the silence and cries out to Rodrigues's heart: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross” (Silence 171). The apparent defeat of Christianity by the mudswamp of Japan ironically validates the very Kingdom it seeks to destroy. It is the moral authority of the suffering Christ that confirms Rodrigues's act, as if to say that the topsy-turvy Kingdom of God, in which the first are last and the last first, can take even Inoue's cynical manipulation of Christian ideals and use it to keep the spark of faith flickering.

Jean Higgins sees Silence as a transitional novel for Endo, indicating “the end of confrontation and the beginning of reconciliation” between Christianity and Japanese culture (417). This transition is signalled by the transformation of the “Rodrigues of the West” into the “Rodrigues of the East.” The former constantly recurs to images of “the risen Christ, serene in conquest; a Christ of glory, whose example calls for heroism in his followers …” while the latter is drawn to the “weak and powerless Christ who shows himself understanding of the weak, who has compassion with the betrayer” (Higgins 421). By framing this transformation as the displacement of a Western for an Eastern paradigm of spirituality, Higgins may be overstating its cultural dimension, for Christ's identification with the dispossessed surely belongs to western spirituality as well. Nevertheless, it is true that Rodrigues consistently imagines Christ in terms of western iconography—until the emaciated image of the bronze Christ stares up at him in its eastern starkness. This transformation of Rodrigues's religious imagination, from the idealized portraits of Christ as shepherd and king to Christ as fellow sufferer, suggests less of a displacement of west with east than a diminishment of all cultural particularity. Van C. Gessel notes that “the faith of Rodrigues and his companions has to be stripped of its cultural trappings before they can comprehend the true nature of Christ” (447). The effect is to present an image of Christ stripped of the triumphalism of western Christianity, thus bringing the central—and universal—themes of the Gospel into sharper focus. It is a conversion that negates rather than affirms the cultural particularity of either east or west, leaving the cross-cultural tension, in Gessel's words, in “a tentative truce,” a “struggle in which there can be no victors” (447). Although it is not uniquely eastern, the concluding affirmation of faith presents Christianity in terms that Endo believes to be culturally comprehensible to the Japanese: “The religious mentality of the Japanese is … responsive to one who ‘suffers with us’ and who ‘allows for our weakness,’ but their mentality has little tolerance for any kind of transcendent being who judges humans harshly, then punishes them” (Endo, Life of Jesus 1). This image of a fellow sufferer resonates with the Japanese psyche, perhaps because it is free of any offensive cultural overtones of western triumphalism.

The narrative ends with the paradoxical affirmation of faith in the two most unlikely characters: an apostate priest hearing the confession of the betrayer, Kichijiro. Rodrigues reflects that even if this improper administration of the sacrament “was betraying [his fellow priests], he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. ‘Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him’” (Silence 191). But these expressions of faith involve cultural losses. Kichijiro, the ignoble coward, remains a social pariah without a place in his community. Rodrigues, too, affirms a private faith that comes in the wake of his giving up the only cultural expression of Christianity he has ever known. Gone forever is his place in the institutional Church, his vocation as priest, and even his national identity, now that he has been given a Japanese name and family. Left unanswered is the troubling question of whether the ecclesiastical institutions Rodrigues has forsaken can ever be adapted to Japanese culture or whether they are too intrinsically embedded in western culture to be a viable mediator of Christian faith in Japan.

If Silence offers only a tentative reconciliation of Christ and culture, The Samurai testifies in a more confident voice to the power of the suffering, rejected Christ not only to transcend cultural differences but to even to affirm elements of both cultures. The context of this novel differs significantly from that in Silence. For one thing, the cross-cultural setting is reversed, with a Japanese delegation of trade envoys journeying to the Christianized West. Gessel calls the novel “a remarkably faithful account of a voyage to Mexico and Europe undertaken in 1613 by envoys of the powerful Sendai daimyo Date Masamune” (445). In the novel the Japanese delegation consists of thirty-eight merchants in addition to the four low-ranking samurai who function as the official ambassadors—Hasekura, Nishi, Tanaka, and Matsuki. Guiding the Japanese is a Franciscan missionary, Father Velasco, whose spiritual zeal is exceeded only by his dubious ambition “to be appointed Bishop of Japan so that he may win the hearts of the Japanese people” (Gessel 445).

In spite of their samurai status, the four envoys share the burden of genteel poverty, their destitute family fortunes compelling them to accept the mission. Tanaka tells Hasekura: “I didn't take on this mission because I was ordered to by the Council of Elders. I took it because I wanted to get back our old fief at Nihonmatsu” (The Samurai 148). Hasekura, too, has been made vague promises by the Council of Elders about disputed family lands should the mission succeed. The merchants, on the other hand, simply have one objective in mind—to open up lucrative trade opportunities with the west. They thoroughly live down to Inaze Nitobe's contemptuous depiction of an amoral merchant class, particularly in their eagerness to convert to Christianity in order to sell their wares.3

The delegation is sent first to Nueva España, where it seeks to negotiate with the secular rulers in Mexico City. It is there that Velasco's machinations begin in earnest. Convinced that parading a group of converts from a field notoriously resistant to conversion would bolster his standing in the Church, and persuading the merchants that their economic goals could be thereby advanced, Velasco produces a group conversion in the chapel of the Franciscan monastery. Blithely untroubled by professing Christ in order to serve Mammon, the merchants return to Japan, enriched by the fruits of their conversion. At this point, the envoys split up. Matsuki presciently suspects that this mission masks ulterior purposes, and he chooses pragmatically to seek his political fortunes back in Japan, while the other envoys continue the mission. Rebuffed by the Viceroy in Mexico City, they are persuaded by Velasco to proceed to Spain where he promises an audience with the King. This promise, too, proves hollow. Driven to desperation, they finally succumb to Velasco's persistent entreaties and convert to Christianity, hoping that this action will grant them a sympathetic audience before their last resort, the Council of Bishops in Madrid. Nevertheless, the mission fails, and the group returns to an altered political situation in Japan. The Shogun has expelled the Christians and is ruthlessly crushing political dissent.

The conversions create the central dramatic and ethical tensions in the novel. Except for the young idealist Nishi, none of the group shows genuine interest in Christianity. Tanaka and Hasekura are caught in a complicated cultural dilemma. They have been told that their mission is of utmost importance and are given enormous latitude to accomplish it:

“In the land of foreigners,” Lord Shiraishi added abruptly, “the ways of life will probably be different from those here in Japan. You must not cling to Japanese customs if they stand in the way of your mission. If that which is white in Japan is black in the foreign lands, consider it black. Even if you remain unconvinced in your heart, you must wear a look of acquiescence on your face.”

(The Samurai 49)

This invitation from his lord surely would seem to justify an expedient conversion. Yet, as Nitobe points out, Bushido expected more from the samurai than from the merchants. “Lying or equivocation were deemed equally cowardly. The bushi held that his high social position demanded a loftier standard of veracity than that of the tradesman” (Nitobe 62). In addition, one of the cardinal samurai virtues, giri, “meant duty, pure and simple,” the duty owed “to parents, to superiors, to inferiors, to society at large” (25). Whether that duty in this case meant—as Tanaka believed—the absolute obligation to recover his family lands whatever the cost, or whether that obligation demanded fidelity to the culture and religious institutions of his community remains ambiguous. As Nitobe points out, the obligation of the samurai is not just to the immediate community, but also “a higher sense of responsibility to his ancestors and to Heaven” (38). Hasekura recognizes this responsibility: “To become a Christian was to betray the marshland. … So long as the Hasekura house continued, the samurai's deceased father and grandfather would be a part of the marshland. Those dead souls would not permit him to become a Christian” (The Samurai 160). For Hasekura, converting to Christianity could hardly be a mere matter of form. As it turns out, Tanaka's and Hasekura's conversions eventually cost them their lives, Tanaka through the samurai recourse to seppuku (ritual suicide) and Hasekura through Christian martyrdom. What was entered into as a mere formality becomes, in the eyes of the Shogun's court, a genuine conversion, for which Hasekura must die. But it is not just this political betrayal that creates a “Christian” out of Hasekura, for very much in spite of his will he comes to believe in the Christ whom he has previously despised. Though the betrayal triggers his identification with Christ, Hasekura's journey to Christian faith proceeds not outside of, but very much within, his cultural landscape.

Like Silence, this novel explores cultural differences. The Japanese samurai, who have lived in parochial isolation, react both with suspicion and sympathy to the immensity of western civilization. The young samurai, Nishi, responds to his companion's question as to whether he will convert by commenting on how much this trip has expanded his vistas:

“I don't know. I'll have to give it a lot of thought as we travel to Madrid. But on this journey I've realized how huge the world is. I've learned that the nations of Europe surpass Japan in wealth and grandeur. That's why I'd like to learn their languages. I don't think we can simply close our eyes to the beliefs of all of the people in this vast world.”

(The Samurai 148)

Whereas in Silence much of the cross-cultural debate is used by the authorities to argue that Christianity is ill-suited to Japanese society, The Samurai turns that cross-cultural dynamic around by associating Japanese homogeneity with parochialism. Nishi represents that enthusiastic idealism which sees cultural difference not as something to fear, but as a beckoning horizon to explore.

At the same time, the novel is hardly an apology for the west, nor even for Christian missions. Setting the novel in the New World allows Endo to critique the Church's sorry complicity in imperial conquest. A renegade priest in Mexico tells the envoys,

“Atrocious things happened here in Nueva España before the padres came. The foreigners snatched away the lands of these Indians and drove them from their homes. Many were brutally murdered; the survivors were sold into slavery. … The padres who came to this country later on have forgotten the many sufferings of the Indian people. … They pretend that nothing ever happened. They feign ignorance, and in seemingly sincere tones preach God's mercy and God's love. That's what disgusted me.”


Having seen what he has of this exploitation and distrusting Velasco's opportunism, Matsuki undoubtedly speaks for the group when he pleads with Velasco to leave Japan alone. “The happiness you padres preach is poison to Japan. That has been very clear to me since we arrived in Nueva España. This country would have lived in peace if the Spanish ships had not come. Your version of happiness has disrupted this country” (The Samurai 112-13). This echo of Inoue's anti-Christian polemic in Silence gains in credibility given that it is corroborated by the history of Nueva España.

But the novel is not primarily about the Church's moral culpability. The indictment of Christianity's complicity in imperialism is not used by Endo to dismiss categorically the Church or the West, for both eastern and western political ambitions are sharply undermined in The Samurai. Velasco remains unsympathetic for most of the novel, his shameless opportunism tainting his rare moments of self-reflective honesty. Likewise, the Tokugawa regime is equally indicted for its cynical exploitation of the samurai Hasekura, whose only sin has been an unwavering fidelity to his mission. It turns out that Matsuki is right: the mission is a ruse, the envoys unsuspecting decoys in the Shogun's geopolitical ambitions. He explains to his erstwhile mates:

“Edo [present-day Tokyo] and our domain never had trade with Nueva España as their main object. … Edo used our domain to find out how to build and sail the great ships. … That's why they didn't choose qualified people as envoys. Instead they appointed low-ranking lance-corporals who could die or rot anywhere along the way and no one would care.”

(The Samurai 236)

Although it is the samurai's lot to follow his lord's will even to death, the Shogunate's cynical exploitation of the envoys shows greater kinship with Machiavelli than with Bushido. Nitobe explains that the obligations between lord and retainer are not entirely one-sided. The ruler must not only earn the respect of his subjects, he is also “a father to his subjects, whom Heaven entrusted to his care” (Nitobe 38). He is obliged to demonstrate benevolence, without which the feudal relationship “could easily degenerate into militarism … [and] despotism of the worst kind” (37).

Where then does Christ fit into this cynical world of political ambition? For the two main characters, Hasekura and Velasco, it is through the demise of their worldly ambitions—the betrayal of Hasekura's loyalty and the crumbling of Velasco's schemes—that they come to a genuine encounter with Christ. Martyrdom demonstrates in Velasco that final conversion of self-interest to the selfless pursuit of Christ's kingdom. Hasekura's betrayal makes him reconsider his antipathy toward the “wretched, emasculated figure” he has previously despised (The Samurai 84). The thought of worshipping this man once filled him with shame. He could “detect nothing sublime or holy in a man as wretched and powerless as this” (The Samurai 160). Only when he has been condemned to death as an expedient scapegoat for the political regime does he begin to empathize with the despised and rejected Christ. Even before he is willing to declare himself a believer, he tells his servant, Yozo, of his newfound appreciation for Christ:

“I suppose that somewhere in the hearts of men, there's a yearning for someone who will be with you throughout your life, someone who will never betray you, never leave you—even it that someone is just a sick, mangy dog. That man became just such a miserable dog for the sake of mankind.”

(The Samurai 245)

Before being led off to his final interrogation before the Council of Elders, Hasekura has another moment with Yozo, who haltingly reminds his master that there is one who “will be beside you. … He will attend you” (262). With an emphatic nod of his head, Hasekura concurs as he sets off to meet that One. Gessel concludes that these affirmations of faith demonstrate a further development in Endo's reconciliation of cultural differences. Neither east nor west triumphs, but both are validated:

Velasco, once he has cast off his unseemly pride, is allowed to worship and serve his image of a glorified Christ with a rational and aggressive faith. Captured when he returns to Japan following Hasekura's death, Velasco is burned at the stake; his martyr's death becomes an unsullied reflection of his dynamic, Western beliefs. Hasekura, by contrast, accepts the companionship of Jesus almost passively. His faith is primarily nonrational and thoroughly internalized. … Endo in Samurai grants both men a place in the eternal mansions of heaven.

(Gessel 447-48)

If the cultural conflict between Christianity and Japanese culture has been diminished in this novel, as Gessel suggests, one reason for this reconciliation may well be that culture figures positively as well as negatively in Hasekura's conversion. Throughout the novel, Endo draws the reader's attention to comparisons between the samurai relationship between lord and retainer and the relationship of the Christian disciple to Christ. Velasco marvels at the “bonds in this relationship that go beyond mere personal interest,” the “almost familial sense of love.” This cultural relationship inspires the veteran missionary that he “must serve God the way these Japanese retainers serve their lords” (The Samurai 134). It is also this samurai relationship which, when breached by Hasekura's superiors, draws Hasekura to an identification with One whose loyalty is beyond question. A deep longing for the kind of companionship and reciprocated loyalty that Bushido affirms characterizes Hasekura's newly-found appreciation for Jesus.4 Hasekura never makes a dogmatic profession of faith, his faith in Christ remaining largely nonrational. What he does articulate about Christ often retains Buddhist overtones. For instance, we are told that the samurai has discovered “the desperate karma of man,” above which “hung that ugly, emaciated figure with his arms and legs nailed to a cross, and his head dangling limply down” (The Samurai 245-46). Just before he meets the Council of Elders, he considers his situation in language with a decidedly Buddhist flavor: “Everything had been decided from the outset; he was simply running along predetermined tracks. Falling into a dark, empty void” (262). Hasekura's non-dogmatic faith hardly resolves the doctrinal conflicts between Christianity and Japanese culture, but Endo has always been more interested in dramatizing the human experience of faith than in doctrinal precision. In this novel he dramatizes the conversion of a simple Japanese warrior who comes to Christ in the only way that makes sense to him.

In both novels, Endo explores the complicated relations of Christ and culture. Endo acknowledges that Christianity cannot entirely escape its cultural inscription, and in Silence he wonders whether Christianity can take root in the mudswamp of Japan without being radically neutered of institutional and cultural norms. In that respect, Silence never entirely answers Inoue's multiculturalist critique of the western Church. The Samurai, on the other hand, makes some cultural accommodations while also reminding the reader of Christ's transcendent critique of all human cultures—east and west inclusively. Somewhere within that ambivalent middle ground between cultural particularity and trans-cultural universality, Endo presents to us the most unlikely representatives of faith—the betrayer, the apostate, the pragmatically insincere convert, the manipulative power broker—who all discover in the Man of Sorrows their hearts' deepest desire.


  1. For readers unfamiliar with Japanese history, William Johnston's “Translator's Preface” to Silence offers a succinct synopsis of the Christian presence in Japan. For a more detailed account of early modern Japan, the reader is referred to volume four of the Cambridge History of Japan.

  2. Jurgas Elisonas explains that Xavier was ill served by his interpreter, Yajiro, a man whose Christian zeal exceeded his theological grasp. It was Yajiro who told Xavier that “the Japanese religious preached that ‘there is only one God, creator of all things’” and that this God was known by the name of “de ny chy” (Dainichi). In fact, Dainichi refers to the central Buddha of the Shingon sect of Buddhism and is understood to be “the ultimate reality that is identical with the total functioning of the cosmos and also identical with the enlightened mind” (Elisonas 307-08), a conception of the divine considerably different from the Christian belief in the personal Creator of the universe.

  3. In his classic exposition of Bushido, Nitobe calls a “loose business morality … the worst blot on our national reputation,” and devotes considerable attention to the ethical and social chasm separating the merchants from the samurai in feudal Japan (64).

  4. One should not infer, however, that the entire samurai ethic can easily be appropriated within Christianity. There are still considerable differences between the Christian valuation of the individual self and the non-individualistic conception of the self implicit in Bushido. Such tensions between Christianity and Bushido, and the possibilities of reconciling them, are lucidly explored by Inaze Nitobe, himself a Japanese Christian.

Works Cited

Endo, Shusaku. A Life of Jesus. Trans. Richard A. Schuchert, S.J. New York: Paulist, 1973.

———. Silence. Trans. William Johnston. New York: Taplinger, 1969.

———. The Samurai. trans. Van C. Gessel. 1980; New York: Kodansha and Harper and Row, 1982.

Gessel, Van C. “Voices in the Wilderness: Japanese Christian Authors.” Monumenta Nipponica 37.4 (1982): 437-57.

Elison, George. Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1973.

Elisonas, Jurgis. “Christianity and the Daimyo.” In The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. 4: Early Modern Japan. Ed. John Whitney Hall. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 301-72.

Higgins, Jean. “The Inner Agon of Endo Shusaku.” Cross Currents. 34 (1984-85): 414-26.

Nitobe, Inaze. Bushido: The Soul of Japan. New York: Putnam, 1905.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Mark B. Williams (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14132

SOURCE: Williams, Mark B. “Towards Reconciliation.” In Endō Shūsaku: A Literature of Reconciliation, pp. 25-57. London: Routledge, 1999.

[In the following essay, Williams explores Endō's use of character and technique in what Williams maintains is “a consistent search for reconciliation of the self.”]

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

(Hamlet, Act 2, sc. ii)

We have tacitly assumed, for some centuries past, that there is no relation between literature and theology. This is not to deny that literature—I mean, again, primarily works of the imagination—has been, is, and probably always will be judged by some moral standards.

(T. S. Eliot)

If it has been believed hitherto that the human shadow was the source of all evil, it can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is, his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.

(C. G. Jung)

The discussion in the second half of the Introduction described, in broad brush strokes, the distinctive features of the literature of the Daisan no shinjin, the group with which Endō found affiliation on his return from his period of study in France. Critics have, as noted, played down the significance of this ‘nominal’ affiliation,1 choosing rather to identify Endō as engaged in a somewhat lonely literary pursuit in search of a form of Christianity better suited to the Japanese spiritual climate than that he had inherited with his baptism into the Catholic tradition, undertaken largely at his mother's instigation, at the age of 11. The reasons for this critical response are not difficult to discern. Not only is there an overwhelming tendency, pervading the author's entire oeuvre, to address in his literature the questions raised by his faith; equally, there is at first glance very little to link Endō's diligently researched and carefully crafted portrayals of characters who bear little overt resemblance to the author who created them with the seemingly indefatigable emphasis on young male protagonists who appear to double with their authors, at least in physical and autobiographical detail, that characterises the works of other members of the group.

The distinction is marked, the jealously guarded distance between Endō as author and the protagonists who occupy the pages of his narratives seemingly at complete odds with the portrayals of protagonists, all too readily interpreted as self-portraits, in the works with which fellow members of the coterie established their reputations. The portrayal of the directionless Shintarō struggling to come to terms with the reality of his dying mother in Yasuoka Shōtarō's Kaihen no kōkei (A View by the Sea, 1959; trans. 1984); that of Shunsuke desperately seeking to halt the fragmentation of his family in Kojima Nobuo's Hōyō kazoku (Embracing Family, 1966); that of Toshio helpless to stem his wife's psychological disorder occasioned by his own marital infidelity in Shimao Toshio's Shi no toge (The Sting of Death, 1960-77): the seemingly overt attention to autobiographical detail in such works, repeated in each case in a string of short stories ostensibly focusing on the same events in the author's personal lives, seems a far cry from even the earliest Endō narratives. Here, in contrast we shall see a variety of protagonists, ranging from a French student-turned-Nazi collaborator, through a doctor implicated, however vicariously, in the wartime experiments in vivisection on Allied POWs, to a Western missionary desperately seeking to circumvent the ban on all Christian proselytisation imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate between 1600 and 1867. In short, in contrast to the proliferation of protagonists in the texts of the other members of the Daisan no shinjin who appear to echo the factual reality of the lives of the artists who created them (whether delivered as first- or third-person narratives), Endō's corpus seems devoid of attention to such autobiographical detail. Not only is his oeuvre notable for a marked dearth of first-person narratives,2 but the various protagonists are clearly distinguished from their models, even where these are identifiable.

To cite but one example, as Endō himself remarked with reference to the various wives who populate his works:

[In the creation of a particular character], I obviously take certain traits from various people: for example, my portraits of my wife are actually an amalgam of various traits stemming from my observation of various wives.3

In view of the superficial distinctions between Endō's narratives and those of his peers in the Daisan no shinjin, the tendency to downplay the significance of his affiliation with the coterie is understandable. And it is certainly true that, for all the close personal friendships he forged with several of its members,4 Endō remained at best a fringe contributor to the formal activities of the group. But here we are merely scratching the surface: a consideration of the qualities attributed to the group in the Introduction to this book suggests a greater degree of affinity between Endō and his peers—one born of a mutual determination to probe deeper into the psychological worlds of their protagonists—than is readily acknowledged. It is to these points of common interest—and, in particular, to Endō's very real contribution to examination of the literary possibilities of these shared concerns—that this discussion will now turn.

In the Introduction, much was made of the tendency, shared by the various members of the Daisan no shinjin, to focus on the inner horizons of their creations through more consistent observation of the artistic distance separating author and protagonists than is evident in many of the pre-war shishōsetsu. The commitment was shared by Endō, whose determination to fathom the psychology of his characters is, with the arguable exception of Shimao Toshio's portraits of his protagonists struggling to come to terms with the concept of the previously unconscionable ‘future’ following his aborted kamikaze mission, unrivalled within the group. For Endō, the challenge for all his narrators was to highlight the ‘deep inside of man’,5 a challenge that can be directly attributed to the author's vision of the composite human being as summarised in a 1988 interview:

Man is a splendid and beautiful being and, at the same time, man is a terrible being as we recognised in Auschwitz—God knows well this monstrous dual quality of man.6

The portrayal is of the individual as representing an amalgam of conflicting forces, the implicit challenge to Endō, as author, being the need to seek a literary reconciliation of the conscious and unconscious elements within human nature. As we shall see, the attempt can be seen as the defining moment of Endō's oeuvre. The effect of this attempt, however—the portrayal of protagonists engaged in the gradual process of coming to terms with a deeper level of their being than that to which they had previously assented—is reminiscent of a similar tendency that pervades the literature of the Daisan no shinjin.

We are talking here of Endō as an author at the forefront of the move towards assertion of a ‘new literary self, a process already identified as integral to an understanding of the narratives of the Daisan no shinjin. Of even greater relevance to our current discussion is the extent to which, in pursuit of this goal, Endō conforms to the model, depicted in the Introduction, of the Daisan no shinjin authors exercising greater care in the positioning of their narrators, in an attempt thereby to give voice to the full extent of the conflict within the self. For Yasuoka, for Shimao and the other members of the Daisan no shinjin, as we have noted, the ensuing ‘splintered perspective’ contributed to the overall depiction of characters engaged in constant confrontation with an ‘other’—whether as an independent being or as an alternative facet of the self with whom the protagonist seeks reconciliation. Nowhere, however, is the technique used as extensively, or with such effect, as in the Endō narrative as, in work after work, the ‘voice of the narrator's doppelgänger—his spirit double’ results in a subversion of initial character depictions and a reassessment of narrated events. The ‘critical commentary’ provided in this way is integral to Endō's design and, as such, we shall be returning to this aspect of the author's art later in this chapter. At this stage, however, let us remain with the Daisan no shinjin—with a consideration of other narrative elements, identified in the Introduction as representative of the group, which serve to locate the Endō shōsetsu more readily within this remit than is often acknowledged.

One aspect, cited in the Introduction as distinguishing the literature of the Daisan no shinjin from their precursors in the pre-war shishōsetsu, was the emergence, in the former, of a truly ‘socialised self’. In contrast to the earlier protagonists who remained, on the whole, isolated from social interaction, there is a concern for the social implications of their scenarios in the works of the Daisan no shinjin that leads to portrayal of protagonists who accept their status as insignificant entities in a much broader social spectrum. The generalisation certainly appears to hold true for the Endō narrative. Whether it be the protagonists of several of the earlier works, troubled by a social conscience in the wake of their instinctive responses to confrontation with the forces of evil,7 the foreign missionary, Rodrigues in Silence, whose actions are dictated, in large measure, by concern for the outcome of his actions on the Japanese whose destinies rest largely in his hands, or the self-effacing Ōtsu in Endō's final novel, Fukai kawa (Deep River, 1993; trans. 1994), the Endō protagonist is acutely aware of his membership of a larger society. As such, he is rarely tempted to determine the course of his actions without reference to the implications of this on those with whom his destiny is linked.

Closely tied to this determination to look beyond the immediate worlds of his protagonists is the tendency, again identified earlier as a distinguishing feature of the Daisan no shinjin text, to allow the sensibilities of more than one ‘focus figure’ to dominate his dramas. The Endō protagonist is an elusive figure, the novel in which a single protagonist is identified at the outset as the fulcrum around which the subsequent drama will revolve and whose perspective subsequently dominates the entire text the exception rather than the rule. Instead, the Endō narrative tends to cater for a variety of ‘focus figures’, each of whom is provided with the opportunity, however rare, to assume centre stage and whose perspective consequently dominates, if only briefly. The technique used to give expression to these varying voices may vary—from the exchange of letters in Shiroi hito (White Man, 1955), through the alternating diary extracts of Yoshioka and Mitsu in Watashi ga suteta onna (The Girl I Left Behind, 1964; trans. 1994) and the carefully considered juxtaposition of the perspectives of Velasco and Hasekura in Samurai (The Samurai, 1980; trans. 1982), to the overt division of Deep River into chapters devoted to the worlds, not merely of Ōtsu and Mitsuko, the purported protagonists, but of a series of other fellow tourists on the trip to the Ganges.8 The effect in each case, however, is similar: by virtue of the introduction of the perspectives on narrated events of a series of ‘protagonists’—by implicitly questioning the validity of any single perspective—the author attributes a more universal significance to his narratives than he would have achieved with a single-focus narrative style.

There remains, however, one further characteristic that provides a powerful link between Endō and his contemporaries in the coterie. The distinction between ‘factual reality’ and remaining ‘true’ to the dramas as they evolve even whilst emphasising the distance between author and protagonist was cited in the Introduction as central to the discussions of the evolution to the shōsetsu effected by the Daisan no shinjin in general in the immediate post-war period. The issue was to prove crucial to Endō in his attempts to portray, by means of imaginative reconstruction, the ‘truth’ surrounding his own, intensely personal, spiritual journey. In all but a few cases, the protagonists of his narratives may bear little overt resemblance, in terms of physical and autobiographical detail, to Endō himself. For all this, however, there is a degree of empathy, an identification with the pains and struggles that his protagonists experience as an inevitable part of their journeys toward greater self-awareness no less intense than that of the other authors in the group. The details of the events depicted—the agonising choices with which so many of his protagonists are confronted—may bear little resemblance even to the archival records that represent the wellspring of so much of Endō's literary production, let alone to anything that the author may have personally experienced. For all their ‘fabrication’, however, there is an underlying ‘truth’ to the events, one that is close to the author's heart. Indeed, as Endō admitted in an interview with the critic, Kazusa Hideo, even in the case of those protagonists who ultimately succumb to the force of evil, there is an empathy between author and protagonist born of a sense of shared spiritual turmoil:

If I had been confronted with the decisions faced by [the Nazi collaborator in White Man, by Suguro in Umi to dokuyaku (The Sea and Poison, 1957; trans. 1972) or by Rodrigues in Silence], who am I to say that I would not have responded as they did?9

The Endō protagonist is, in this sense, remarkably ‘true’ to the reality of the author's personal experience. More specifically, however, the empathy achieved with his protagonists is a powerful testimony to the consistency with which Endō has indeed sought to pursue the doubts occasioned by his own spiritual journey in his fictional narratives. Before examining the texts themselves, therefore, let us briefly consider the salient elements of the journey upon which the author embarked on that December day in 1933 when, at the behest of his mother and aunt, he agreed to go through with the ritual of baptism into the Catholic tradition.


As Endō himself was the first to admit, the full significance of the baptismal vows was lost on the young boy. The following depiction of events of that day may benefit from more than thirty years of hindsight. It nevertheless serves to encapsulate a sense of the frivolity with which Endō and his friends viewed the entire ceremony, a frivolity disturbed only by frustration at the enforced abandonment of the game of soccer they had been enjoying before being summoned inside to take part in the service:

I was baptised along with several other children from the neighbourhood on Easter Sunday. Or more precisely, since this was not an act taken of my own free will, perhaps I should say that I was forced into baptism. At the urging of my aunt and my mother, I went along with the other children and, despite my predilection for disturbing the class, eventually succeeded in memorising the catechism. As such, the event was generally viewed as the baptism of a mischievous young boy. When the French priest came to that part of the baptism service in which he asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’, I felt no compunction in following the lead set by the other boys and replied, ‘I do’.

It was as though we were engaged in conversation in a foreign language in which my reply to the question, ‘Do you want to eat this sweet?’ was ‘I do’. I had no idea of the enormity of the decision I had just taken. And I did not stop to think of the consequences on my entire life of these two simple words.10

The more Endō sought to dismiss the incident as a childish charade, however, the more he was obliged to attribute a greater significance to this event than he had initially recognised—and consequently to acknowledge a greater complexity to his being than suggested by this description of events of that day. Increasingly concerned that this one act, however insignificant it may have seemed at the time, would continue to haunt him, Endō determined to come to a clearer understanding, both of the cultural underpinnings of his newly acquired faith and of the implications for his understanding of human nature. The result was the decision to pursue a degree in French literature at Keiō University, with specific focus on the works of Mauriac, Bernanos and other French authors of Catholic persuasion. During the almost three years Endō spent in the early 1950s as one of the first Japanese students to study in France after the cessation of World War II hostilities, increasing frustration at his perceived inability to bridge the cultural divide he had come to discern between East and West was reinforced. Thereafter, the author's ultimate repatriation on medical grounds only served to enhance the perception of the need for recognition of the integral nature of all aspects of his being in the formulation of his vision of the composite self. In an interview offered some years after his return to Japan, Endō was to encapsulate the issue in the following terms:

The confrontation of my Catholic self with the self that lies underneath has, like an idiot's refrain, echoed and re-echoed in my work. I felt I had to find some way to reconcile the two.11

For Endō, however, the process of reconciliation represented a very personal challenge—and led to a recognition of the need to redefine his faith in a manner that would account for the various tensions he had come to discern within his being. The result is a vision of Catholicism that clearly reflects the image of the individual as a composite of often conflicting forces:

It seems to me that Catholicism is not a solo, but a symphony. It fits, of course, man's sinless side, but unless a religion can find a place for man's sinful side in the ensemble, it is a false religion. If I have trust in Catholicism, it is because I find in it much more possibility than in any other religion for presenting the full symphony of humanity. The other religions have almost no fullness; they have but solo parts. Only Catholicism can present the full symphony. And unless there is in that symphony a part that corresponds to Japan's mudswamp, it cannot be a true religion. What exactly this part is—that is what I want to find out.12

The desire to reconcile his adopted faith with his own cultural heritage is clearly evidenced in this comment, the author's consequent determination to define the faith in terms with which he and his fellow Japanese could more readily identify leading him to conclude that:

God must be found on the streets of Shinjuku or Shibuya, too—districts which seem so far removed from Him. … It will be one of my tasks to find God in such typical Japanese scenes. … If I succeed in doing that, my ‘Western suit’ will no longer be Western, but will have become my own suit.13

The image of Christianity as an ‘ill-fitting suit’ imported from the West was one with which Endō had long struggled, although by the time he produced his article with that title in 1967, the tone was less one of desperation born of the seeming impossibility of having Christianity take root in Japan, more an attempt to establish the pattern required if this ill-fitting garment were to be tailored into something more appropriate to his requirements. In this, Endō was by no means alone: the concept of ‘indigenisation’ of Christianity—the very terminology clearly locating the process in its historical context—is one to have been addressed in theological and literary circles in Japan ever since the return of the Christian missions in the early Meiji era following the rigidly enforced ban on all overt proselytisation during the Tokugawa era. In this regard, one can point to the literary contributions of the authors, already discussed in the Introduction—authors such as Tōkoku, Doppo, Tōson and Sōseki—as providing the literary foundations upon which future generations of authors, including Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Masamune Hakuchō, Arishima Takeo and Dazai Osamu, would subsequently build and which would lead to the generation of post-war writers, epitomised by Endō, who remained determined to address in their fiction the issues raised by their faith.14

Endō's self-acknowledged search for a Japanese version of Christianity is thus firmly rooted in the twentieth-century Japanese philosophical tradition. For Endō and his fellow artists seeking to address the issue from a literary perspective, however, the perception of the vast gulf between the ‘monotheistic’ West and the ‘pantheistic’ East15 has been further exacerbated by the perceived necessity of coming to terms in their literature with a further opposition inherent in their situation—that between their identity as adherents of the ‘religion of the West’ on the one hand and their careers as literary artists on the other. Defining the consequent tension in terms of a ‘trichotomy’,16 Endō portrays this perception of a threefold opposition in the following terms:

As a Christian, a Japanese and an author, I am constantly concerned with the relationship and conflict created by these three tensions. Unfortunately, I have yet to reconcile and create a certain unity between these three conditions in my mind and, for the most part, they continue to appear as contradictory.17

At first glance, the desire to identify and isolate various aspects of the human composite would appear to fly in the face of contemporary psychological theory. Why, one may well ask, was Endō so concerned with the need to posit a tension of conflicting forces in a manner that suggests mutual incompatibility rather than representing these as a symbiosis of interrelated forces? Instead of the vision of a ‘trichotomy’ of mutually exclusive facets to human identity, have not others in similar circumstances been led to adopt a more holistic perspective depicting these, not as contradictory but as complementary elements of the composite being? For Endō, however, the depiction of such tension was essential—not as the basis of a fundamentally negative vision of human nature as an amalgam of ultimately irreconcilable forces, but as precursor of the attempt, integral to his literature, to highlight the essentially paradoxical interdependence he increasingly came to discern as at work within the individual. The paradoxical attempt to forge a link between characteristics initially established as opposing forces of some binary tension represents a recurring theme in the novels to be analysed in this study of Endō's literature—and it is on this aspect of the author's art that much of the ensuing discussion will focus.

For all its seemingly exclusive categorisation, therefore, Endō's depiction of the individual as torn between a series of conflicting identities provides an invaluable key to locating the link between a series of works that would appear, at first glance, to have little in common. Before considering the connection between the early works, in which the author's struggle with the question of identity appears to occupy centre stage, and his more recent novels, in which such issues have been superseded by a more studied examination of the role of the human unconscious, however, let us briefly consider the significance on Endō's fictional products of his examination of the implications of his identity as a novelist of Christian persuasion.

As suggested by the title of the essay with which he marked his emergence on the literary scene, ‘Katorikku sakka no mondai’ (‘The Problems Confronting the Catholic Author,’ 1947), Endō's study of the writings of a series of French Catholic authors during his university days led to the perception in their works of a potential conflict between the ‘desire, as author, to scrutinise human beings’ and ‘the Christian yearning for purity’.18 There followed a series of essays, some produced while still at university, in which he outlined his vision of these novelists as confronting the conflicting demands of their faith and their chosen careers as authors. The issue is encapsulated by Endō in the following extract:

Normally, an author hopes that his work will induce a sense of artistic excitement in the soul of his reader. But he will not be plagued by a nagging fear that the evil human world he has created may sully the reader's soul. It is probably no exaggeration to claim that the average author is upheld by a belief, however unconscious, that anything can be condoned in the name of art.

The Catholic author, however, finds himself confronted by the following Biblical verse, from Mark 9:42: ‘Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.’ The doubt that never left Mauriac's mind was precisely the fear that the gloomy world he had created might draw his reader closer to the world of sin, by granting him a glimpse of Evil.

In which case, mindful of the harsh rejoinder of Christ, ‘If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; if thy eye offend thee, pluck it out’, does the author have a responsibility to remove the very essence of his work out of concern for his audience?19

As Endō was the first to recognise, however, the authors here under scrutiny were concerned more with literary creativity than with theology. The distinction for Endō—as for his French mentors—was vital and from the outset, he was at pains to acknowledge both the overriding need for the creation of ‘living human beings’ and the obligation, as author, ‘to understand not only the characters' psyche and personality, but also their true flavour, their pains and struggles, everything about them’.20 The distinction lay at the heart of his vision of his art and, as evidenced by the following assessment of the role of the ‘Christian author’, Endō was determined to distinguish between those for whom literature remained a vehicle for proselytisation and those, with whom he himself could more readily identify, for whom artistic integrity remained of paramount importance:

Catholic literature involves not a literary portrayal of God and angels, but must limit itself to scrutiny of human beings. Besides, the Catholic writer is neither saint nor poet. The goal of the poet and saint is to focus all his attention on God and to sing his praises. But the Catholic writer must remember not only that he is a writer, but also his duty to scrutinise the individual. …

If, for the sake of creating a truly ‘Catholic literature’, or for the purpose of preserving and propagating the Catholic doctrine, the personalities of the characters in a novel are subjected to artifice and distortion, then the work ceases to be literature in the true sense of the word.21

Endō's desire to forge his artistic world through consideration of the dramatic tension that ensues when religion and literature are placed in opposition is readily apparent in such comments. Equally in evidence, moreover, is the author's conviction that it is only in examining the violent internal struggles within the individual that the author can highlight the integral relationship that exists between the two. Acknowledging the inherent danger that the ‘Christian author’ will be prevented, through a sentimental attitude towards religious motifs, from a deeper probing of human nature, Endō is here giving expression to his belief that, provided that the author persists with the examination of the fundamental essence of his characters rather than seeking to lead them in a particular direction, then the potential for a literature born of this duality remains.

For Endō at this stage, the issue was mainly of interest as part of his wider examination of the novels of the French authors who represented the primary focus of his studies. Increasingly, however, he found himself obliged to acknowledge the lengthy tradition upon which such literature was premised:

The psychoanalytical self-examination of Freud and Bergson, the novelistic technique and psychology of contradiction that permeates the works of Dostoevsky, the question of self-integrity in Gide and the techniques of Proust are problems that the Catholic authors after Bourget and Bordeaux could not deny, issues with which they had to grapple and which had to be overcome. Even if this conflicted with the goal of proselytisation, these authors adopted such techniques in that they contributed to the science of human observation. At that time, these new Catholic writers sensed an urgent need to remove themselves from the lofty heights of ‘apologetic literature’ and to examine ‘godless man’ as human beings. …

Catholic writers under the influence of the likes of Freud, Bergson, Proust and Joyce ‘look at the innermost recesses of human existence’ and, ‘in shining the spotlight on the soul of one who, though possibly appearing no different at the superficial level from fellow-members of twentieth century society, in fact represents a unique individual’, they must scrutinise the secrets, the sins and the evils within the soul of their characters. On such occasions, the more they are able to get beneath the surface of their characters, the more intimacy they will come to feel with them. They must come to feel a sense of empathy with their sins and evils. But [these authors] are also Catholics; and, as believers in the Christian gospel, is there not a danger that they will be polluted through examination of these sins, through the intimacy and empathy they develop with these? Doesn't this pose a threat to their fulfilment as unique human beings?22

Here and elsewhere, the determination to avoid a betrayal of his duties as an author of creative fiction through resort to an ‘apologetic literature’ is evident. But there is a distinction between avoiding a direct focus on proselytisation in one's writing and seeking to incorporate themes born of one's faith on the other. Motifs raised by the author's faith are never far beneath the surface of this literature, for, as Endō himself argued:

I don't seek Christian material as the basis for my novels: it is just that my environment and themes are Christian; the environment in which I was raised had a distinctly Christian flavour to it, and so, inevitably, I became embroiled with Christian material and themes. I am certainly not writing in order to proselytise or to spread the gospel. … If I were, my works would definitely suffer as literature.23

Once more, Endō was by no means alone in this assessment: the comment is reminiscent of the claim to struggle with the same perceived tension between theology and literature made by another author, Graham Greene: ‘I am not a Christian author. It is just that Catholic padres happen to populate the pages of my works.’24 To Endō, Greene and others, the danger was that the literary text would be relegated to secondary importance by the author's determination to convey a particular ‘message’. Equally, however, such authors were aware of the concomitant need to avoid seeking within their work the possibility of salvation, either for their creations or for themselves. As Endō commented later in a subsequent discussion:

I believe that when writing, all authors nurse an unconscious sense that they will thereby be liberated, even saved. But if, on completing the work, they realise that that is not the case, isn't that the sign of a great work?25

The determination to avoid succumbing to a sentimental attitude towards religious motifs—and to persist with the examination of the fundamental essence of his characters rather than seeking to force them into a ready mould—represents a constant in the literature of Endō. It also leads to a body of works that conforms very closely to the conclusion ventured by the critic, Boyce Gibson, in his discussion of the religious aspect of the literature of another author involved in a similar quest, Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Unlike the Christian thinker, [the Christian artist] cannot, as he explores situations, focus on what lies beyond them. He does not, for example, write novels about God; he writes them about people in their perplexities about God. He may, indeed he cannot but, reveal his personal convictions, but it will be dissolved in the structure of the novel; it is the people, with their unfulfillments, their stresses, their defiances and also their complacencies and compromises, and their exposure to the light which they may accept or decline, who absorb his attention. It is not his business to explore the universe, but rather, if he has the power, to convey it; what he explores is character.26

With this assessment, Gibson is clearly not attributing to Dostoevsky any monopoly on the exploration of ‘character’. In his suggestion of a link between the spiritual struggles in which so many of Dostoevsky's creations are embroiled and his attention to ‘people with their unfulfillments, their stresses, their defiances and also their complacencies and compromises’, however, Gibson highlights an element of Dostoevsky's art that has exercised a profound influence on the literary ethos, not merely of Endō but of other members of the above-mentioned generation of post-war writers with ties to the Christian church.27 For Dostoevsky, Endō and others, therefore, the spiritual dimension of their exploration of human nature through their fictional constructs is not to be dismissed lightly and Endō, in particular, was at pains to stress from the outset the link he had come to discern between the desire to fathom the complexity within the individual and the tendency he had identified in the writings, not only of Dostoevsky, but of the various French novelists he had considered at length, to focus on the realm of the unconscious. For Endō, the more such authors sought to explore human nature in their novels, the more they were confronted with this inner realm, leading him to conclude:

The Catholic author views this world as a shadow of the supernatural world, and, even whilst observing human psychology, he will detect, behind the ‘second dimension’ psychology of Freud, Bergson and Proust, the ‘third dimension’ of which Jacques Rivière happened to make mention. As a result, the Catholic writer can conceive as reality the introduction of the supernatural world into the world of human interaction, even if the non-Catholic reader is apt to misinterpret this as a distortion of reality.28

The concept of the ‘third dimension’ was one to which Endō would make repeated reference in his subsequent writing, the conviction that focuses on the psyche of his creations resulted in confrontation with some ‘third dimension’ within his characters leading to increasing consideration of the nature of the realm of the unconscious. The connection he had come to see between his faith and this territory, already evidenced in the above citation, was never far beneath the surface, the more he sought to portray a greater profundity to his characters, the greater the emphasis on characters driven by forces beyond their conscious understanding or control. As Endō noted in a more recent study:

Nowadays, it may be possible to discuss ideology without resort to the question of the unconscious; but it is not possible to consider literature and religion in that way. … Religion is more than the product of the intellect; it is a product of the subconscious transcending all intellectualisation and consciousness.29

The belief lies at the heart of Endō's attempt to penetrate the ‘deep inside of man’. It also suggests a link between a series of novels and short stories, written over a period of four decades, that might appear, at first glance, to have little in common. The reader of the earliest stories, Shiroi Hito (White Man) and Kiiroi hito (Yellow Man), both 1955—and even of early novels such as The Sea and Poison,Obakasan (Wonderful Fool, 1959; trans. 1974) and The Girl I Left Behind—may indeed struggle to identify the connection between these and Endō's most recent novels, Sukyandaru (Scandal, 1986; trans. 1988) and Deep River, whether from the standpoint of subject material or its treatment. When viewed as a concerted attempt to probe ever deeper behind the persona, the continuum does, however, emerge and the novels consequently assume their position as the rungs of a carefully crafted ladder. At this point, therefore, let us turn our attention to an examination of the protracted focus on the inner worlds of the various protagonists of Endō's narratives.


Having recognised the integral relationship between his faith and the unconscious, Endō was equally aware of the need, as author, to refrain from seeking to unravel the complexities of this realm in his literature. The question consequently presented itself of the means available to the author by which to probe the unconscious—and to render this in his fiction. The issue is that pursued by Dorrit Cohn (1978) in her penetrating study, Transparent Minds, and it is interesting to note the extent to which the Endō narrative conforms to the model established by Cohn. As such, let us begin our discussion of the techniques employed to this end by Endō with a brief consideration of the various narrative modes cited by Cohn as available to the author in the presentation of the psychological dramas experienced by his/her protagonists.

For Cohn, the three techniques that dominate attempts at rendering consciousness in the third-person prose narrative form are subsumed under the headings of psycho-narration, quoted monologue and narrated monologue. All three represent means whereby the author adds to the complexity of the psychological portraits on offer, but in each case, the distinctive approach results in a differing perspective on the worlds created. Cohn herself summed up these differences as follows:

Psycho-narration summarizes diffuse feelings, needs, urges; narrated monologue shapes these inchoate reactions into virtual questions, exclamations, conjectures; quoted monologue distills moments of pointed self-address that may relate only distantly to the original emotion.30

Turning first to psycho-narration, the narrator's discourse about the protagonist's consciousness, Cohn suggests that it is in its verbal independence from self-articulation that the technique proves most effective:

Not only can it order and explain a character's conscious thoughts better than the character himself, it can also effectively articulate a psychic life that remains unverbalized, penumbral, or obscure. Accordingly, psycho-narration often renders, in a narrator's knowing words, what a character ‘knows’ without knowing how to put it into words.31

Psycho-narration comes into its own, therefore, as a means of articulating the sub- or unconscious nature of the psychic states the author narrates. Moreover, as the most direct path to the sub-verbal depth of the mind, the technique is invaluable in shifting the narrative from interpersonal to intrapersonal relationships. The trait is all-pervasive in the Endō narrative—and, as we shall see, the consequent shift from ‘the manifest social surface of behavior to the hidden depth of the individual psyche’32 lies at the heart of the author's portrayal of protagonists engaged upon their own journeys of self-discovery.

The effect induced by insertion of quoted monologue—of intense scrutiny of a character's mental discourse—will vary depending on the extent to which such inner discourse is separated from its third-person context. Traditionally restricted to the form of the audibly soliloquising voice (with the attendant sense of rationalisation or self-deceit that this entails), Cohn argues that, ‘in the novels of Dostoevsky and other late Realist writers, direct citation of a character's thoughts is no longer restricted to isolated moments explicitly set aside for extended contemplation or inner debate … but accompanies his successive encounters and experiences’.33 Again, the Endō shōsetsu conforms to Cohn's model—with the quoted monologue carefully integrated into the surrounding narrative text. More specifically, the Endō narrative is replete with the literary device, cited by Cohn as a common means of incorporation of such monologue into an extended narrative depiction—that of characters assailed by the presence of an increasingly incontrovertible ‘inner voice’. In the chapters that follow, we shall encounter numerous examples of protagonists obliged to reconsider particular courses of action in deference to a voice they perceive as emanating from their unconscious being. As Cohn acknowledges, ‘the audition of [such a] voice … is one of the conventions of third person fiction, and partakes in the larger convention of the transparency of fictional minds’. Cohn's rejoinder at this point is, however, of considerable importance: ‘But that inner voice itself is a generally accepted psychological reality, and by no means a literary invention.’34 The point was not lost on Endō, whose protagonists respond to this ‘inner voice’ with an intensity born of an awareness of the futility of attempting to repudiate it. The initial instinct to seek to overrule this voice is clearly present as Gaston, Rodrigues, Suguro and other protagonists contemplate their responses to this challenge. All, however, ultimately accept the need for a more considered approach—with the result that they end up paying greater heed to this than they would initially have countenanced.

Even a cursory reading of a representative sample of Endō's works will reveal the propensity of Cohn's third technique for rendering consciousness in fiction: that of narrated monologue. Enabling the author to reproduce verbatim a character's own mental language—in the guise of the narrator's discourse—the technique is cited by Cohn as holding a midpoint between the other two:

rendering the content of a figural mind more obliquely than the former, more directly than the latter. Imitating the language a character uses when he talks to himself, it casts that language into the grammar a narrator uses in talking about him, thus superimposing two voices that are kept distinct in the other two forms.35

The Endō narrator takes maximum advantage of this technique for rendering a character's thoughts in his own idiom while maintaining a basic third-person referent and it is to this that the augmented sense of author-narrator-protagonist empathy noted above can perhaps best be attributed.

Cohn's thesis serves as a valuable key to an understanding of the issue of narrative presentation of the layers of consciousness of his protagonists that was of critical concern to Endō. Let us turn now, however, to consideration of various influences of a more immediate nature that were to determine the nature of the author's response to this challenge.

Such a discussion must surely start with reference to an author to whom Endō himself invariably acknowledged a literary debt: François Mauriac. Endō's attraction to what he saw as Mauriac's ability to achieve psychologically credible protagonists precisely by refraining from the temptation to identify the various layers of consciousness within his characters is evident in the series of short essays he produced at the outset of his career. The issue is subsequently addressed at length in Watashi no aishita shōsetsu (A Novel I Have Loved, 1985), a work whose title represents an open acknowledgement of the author's enduring fascination with Mauriac's classic work, Thérèse Desqueyroux, and in which Endō develops his belief that it is only by leaving the workings of the psyche as an ‘unfathomable chaos’ that the author can succeed in penetrating the realm of the unconscious. Far from imposing an arbitrary order and logic onto the psyche of his creations, he argues, it is his duty as author to sculpture his characters ‘without passing judgement on their intellectual or moral values’.36

The portrayal suggests an author at the mercy of the unconscious. But what of the nature of the contents he discerned within this unfathomable chaos? The issue is critical—for it is the move from a fundamentally negative view of the unconscious (as ‘a swamp that houses our desires and urges which, though present in our subconscious, must remain suppressed and unexpressed’37) towards a concomitant recognition of the realm as ‘the place in which God's love is exercised on mankind’38 that the image of the individual as an amalgam of seemingly conflicting forces is rooted. To Endō, this recognition of the dual nature of the unconscious was derived, in part at least, from a similar progression he had come to discern in the literature of Mauriac and led to portrayal of a realm in which ‘our desire for Good conflicts with our penchant for Evil, in which our appreciation of Beauty conflicts with our attachment to the Ugly’.39

Having acknowledged this fundamental tension within the unconscious, Endō was now in a position to view the human exterior as ‘the entrance to the inner being’.40 The vision is one, not of incompatibility, but of a fundamental interdependency and derives, in large measure, from the author's increasing interest in the image of the individual as depicted by Carl Jung. Endō himself was the first to acknowledge the influence on his work of the Jungian vision of the individual;41 indeed, much of the above-mentioned work, Watashi no aishita shōsetsu, represents a critical study of Thérèse Desqueyroux from a Jungian perspective. Particularly in the light of the protracted assessment of this vision in Endō's later works, however, the influence would appear paramount. And the process is not limited to Endō's ‘mature’ work: in retrospect, a similar approach can be seen even in the earlier novels, works that predate the author's self-acknowledged period of intensive study of the writings of Jung following composition of the award-winning The Samurai. Viewed thus, even the earlier Endō protagonists can be seen as engaged in a process of increasing self-awareness as they seek to reconcile various elements within their being which are initially portrayed as standing in opposition but which are eventually acknowledged as of equal importance in the definition of the ‘whole’ individual.

In the analysis of the novels that follows, it is this process at work on the texts that will be emphasised. As one by one Endō's characters come to recognise within themselves an amalgam of conscious and unconscious forces, so the conclusion that both are an equal element of the ‘integrated’ individual is reinforced. At the same time, as they come increasingly to be depicted as complex personalities, so the image of characters seeking a balance of previously opposing forces is developed. In this sense, the characters are embarked on a journey—a journey towards ‘wholeness’—that conforms closely with the ‘process of individuation’ as defined by Jung:

I use the term ‘individuation’ to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘individual’, that is, a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole’. It is generally assumed that consciousness is the whole of the psychological individual. But knowledge of the phenomena that can only be explained on the hypothesis of unconscious psychic processes makes it doubtful whether the ego and its contents are in fact identical with the ‘whole’. … There is plenty of evidence to show that consciousness is very far from covering the psyche in its totality.42

Having recognised the duality within the individual, Jung subsequently stressed the need to avoid taking a stand in which the individual becomes wholly identified with one or the other pole. For, as he argued later in this same essay:

Conscious and unconscious do not make a whole when one of them is suppressed and injured by the other. If they must contend, let it at least be a fair fight with equal rights on both sides. Both are aspects of life. Consciousness should defend its reason and protect itself, and the chaotic life of the unconscious should be given the chance of having its way, too—as much of it as we can stand. This means open conflict and open collaboration at once. That, evidently, is the way human life should be. It is the old game of hammer and anvil: between them the patient iron is forged into an indestructible whole, an ‘individual’. This, roughly, is what I mean by the individuation process.43

As a result of being possessed of both flesh and spirit, reason and emotion, what is needed is a balance in which a reconciliation between previously opposing forces can be effected. The goal of this journey, this process of individuation, is thus to locate a new centre within the individual—one which is neither conscious nor unconscious, but which partakes of both. This is the ‘Self’, a concept that Jung chose to define in the following terms:

If the unconscious can be recognised as a co-determining factor along with consciousness, and if we can live in such a way that conscious and unconscious demands are taken into account as far as possible, then the center of gravity of the total personality shifts its position. It is then no longer in the ego, which is merely the center of consciousness, but in the hypothetical point between the conscious and unconscious. This new center might be called the Self.44

The definitions provide a useful key to an understanding of Endō's attitude towards his creations—as suggested by the plethora of characters within his work who become increasingly aware of an inner voice urging them to reconsider their conscious instincts. Such characters typically experience psychological uncertainty before ultimately succumbing to this inner, more powerful force. When reassessed in the light of such Jungian definitions, however, this can be viewed as an integral part of the process of integration upon which each is embarked. Without this, their ‘Self’ would remain subsumed by their ego and the unconscious side of their being would continue to represent a negative force, a Satanic voice, set up in absolute opposition to the voice of their conscious being. That this is not the case is testimony to Endō's determination to achieve total reconciliation—and to his acceptance of Jung's more positive view of the unconscious:

The unconscious is not a demoniacal monster, but a natural entity which, as far as moral sense, aesthetic taste, and intellectual judgment go, is completely neutral. It only becomes dangerous when our conscious attitude to it is hopelessly wrong. To the degree that we repress it, its danger increases. But the moment the patient begins to assimilate contents that were previously unconscious, its danger diminishes.45

As Endō's characters come, increasingly, to listen to the voice of their unconscious, therefore, so they come to conform to Jung's claim that it is ‘only the man who can consciously assent to the power of the inner voice [who] becomes a personality’.46 At the same time, moreover, the more they come to plumb the depths of their inner being, the more they are confronted by a realisation of the amalgam of positive and negative forces at work there. The discovery is often painful, as evidenced by the number of protagonists who struggle to come to terms with the growing conviction that thoughts that come to them at moments when their self-confidence has plumbed new depths are as integral an element of their entire being as those, more positive, qualities with which they had hitherto chosen to confront society.

At this point, the challenge confronting Endō as a novelist engaged in a protracted examination of the realm of the unconscious is clear. In probing the inner being of his creations, Endō was committed to a concerted attempt at reconciliation of the seemingly opposing qualities that he discerned there. In so doing, however, Endō found himself increasingly conscious of the above-mentioned need to ‘feel a sense of empathy with the sins and evils’ he discovered there—hence his depiction of the ‘third dimension’ as ‘the territory of demons’ and his conclusion that ‘one cannot describe man's inner being completely unless he closes in on this demonic part.’47 Once more, in his self-assessment as an author whose ultimately optimistic evaluation of human nature was dependent, paradoxically, on a series of depictions of characters confronted by the murkier side of their being, the influence of Jung is readily discernible. More specifically, it is a relatively simple task to identify several sections of the critical study, Watashi no aishita shōsetsu, as drawing on Jung's assertion that:

Evil needs to be pondered just as much as good, for good and evil are ultimately nothing but ideal extensions and abstractions of doing, and both belong to the chiaroscuro of life. In the last resort there is no good that cannot produce evil and no evil that cannot produce good.48

To Jung, the conclusion to be drawn from this claim was of the need to acknowledge the archetype of the Shadow as standing in opposition to the persona. Defining this as ‘the “negative” side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious’,49 Jung was at pains to stress this as representing a vital aspect of the integrated individual. For as he acknowledges elsewhere:

Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness.50

As noted earlier, however, it was Jung's vision of the realm of the unconscious as incorporating, not merely the ‘negative’ side of personality suppressed from the conscious being, but also a more positive force to which Endō has found himself drawn. In particular, as a Christian, Endō has been attracted to the Jungian image of the unconscious as the source of religious experience—as ‘the medium from which religious experience seems to flow’.51 The conception of ‘God as at work, not only in our beautiful parts but over our sullied parts, our sins’52 clearly owes much to this basic premise. Equally, moreover, it is in the ensuing vision of the individual as torn between two conflicting forces that the tendency to focus on the ‘demonic’ in a paradoxical quest for a more positive quality within the human composite can be seen as rooted. The result is a technique, evidenced throughout Endō's literature, that can be described as one of paradoxical inversion—a process whereby the author seeks to highlight that element in his protagonists which holds out against societal norms in a deliberate attempt to illuminate the antithetical potential for rebirth in beings who appear irreparably fallen. The consequent fusion of oppositions conforms closely to the description of this process offered by the Jungian psychologist, Erich Neumann:

At the polar points, consciousness loses its faculty of differentiation and in this constellation can no longer distinguish between positive and negative. In this way, it becomes possible for a phenomenon to shift into its opposite.53

Clearly, the technique is by no means limited to the literature of Endō. Indeed, the process can be seen as derived in large measure from the author's determination, discussed above, to seek within his work a poetics of literature rather than a consistent theology. In his use of the device of paradoxical inversion as a primary means of highlighting the internal tensions within his creations, however, Endō has succeeded in elevating dialectic investigation to a level of sophistication rarely evidenced by his literary forebears in Japan.

The fascination with the darker side of human nature is evident in Endō's earliest fiction and, as shown by the discussion in Chapter 2 of Endō's two early novellas, White Man and Yellow Man, this frequently assumes the guise of examination of the potential evidenced by the Endō protagonist to inflict pain and suffering on his fellow man.54 The depiction of the protagonist of White Man collaborating with the Gestapo interrogation and torture of his friends in the French Resistance, of Suguro and his fellow interns seemingly intoxicated by the gruesome experiments into vivisection on American POWs as depicted in The Sea and Poison, of Tanaka's inexplicable identification with the more outrageous aspects of the lifestyle of the Marquis de Sade as portrayed in Ryūgaku (Foreign Studies, 1965; trans. 1989): all appear designed to suggest a morbid fascination with the nature of Evil per se.

As suggested by the above discussion, however, to interpret the novels thus is to overlook the paradoxical intent behind these portrayals. And, as evidenced by the conviction offered by Father Durand in Endō's early novel, Kazan (Volcano, 1960; trans. 1978), in his admission that ‘if a man doesn't feel guilty of any sin, he doesn't have to depend on God’,55 there are occasions when Endō's fictional constructs appear to encroach, over explicitly, into the discussion of the nature of this reversal. Reviewed in the light of this technique, however, such depictions do call for reassessment: the tendency to focus on the ugly, the frightening and the grotesque can now be recognised as stemming rather from a conviction of the impossibility of portraying the potential for salvation without an understanding of its antithesis, the ‘demonic’ element within mankind. Once more, Endō cites Mauriac as his model, with explicit reference to the latter's belief that:

The writer has a duty to expose human nature, sullied as it is by sin. But, in the depths beyond this sin exists something in which the Christian places implicit trust. This is another ray of light that purifies and sanctifies the sin before the author's own sceptical gaze. The author should bear witness to this light.56

Endō proceeds to equate this ‘ray of light’ with a ‘twilight glow reminiscent of a Rembrandt painting—the light of God's grace’,57 an image highly effective in accounting for the paradoxically positive effect induced, on occasion, by Endō's depiction of even the darkest of acts. In thus removing the focus from the portrayal of baser human instincts to a concentration on plumbing, ever deeper, the inner being of the protagonists capable of such inhuman behaviour, Endō has introduced a variety of images, to be discussed in the ensuing chapters, designed to suggest this ‘ray of light’. In so doing, and the more he has honed this technique, the more he has come to identify this as the means available to himself as author to introduce issues of a spiritual nature into his literature. This, in turn, has led to his uncompromising assertion in his more recent work that:

Evil and faith are similar. … Take lust, for example. In structural terms, there is no difference between the psychology of lust and the psychology of faith. They are locked in a relationship of interdependence, as two sides of a coin. And it is in the search for some link between the two that religion and literature come together.

In other words, in keeping with the principle that ‘all roads lead to Rome’, I have come to view all evil as a perverted image of the search for Christ.58

The comment epitomises the mysterious power that Endō had come to locate at the heart of the unconscious, a power that elsewhere in the same study Endō portrays as the ‘X-like quality urging the individual towards discipline and balance’.59 The notion of the ‘X-like quality within man’ represents another constant refrain in Endō's corpus; he even used this as the title of one of his essay collections.60 Reminiscent of Jung's depiction of the psyche as a ‘regulatory system’ that renders the reconciliation of seemingly opposing forces not merely feasible, but an entirely natural phenomenon, the concept reflects the author's attempt to redefine the ‘demonic part’ resident in the unconscious in terms designed to highlight the spiritual drama he was seeking to create. As Endō proceeded to point out, however, the concept is equally the product of a vision of literature as a means of restoring inner equilibrium to the unconscious—of both author and reader—that is again derived from his study of various Jungian archetypes:

The stories and images created by our unconscious are the ultimate proof that our hearts are consistently seeking out this ‘X’. Needless to say, this ‘X’ is not death and destruction—but life, that which elevates our lives—the Being which I personally refer to as Jesus.61

The conclusion provides an invaluable insight into the author's view of narrativity. The more he has probed the workings of the unconscious, the more he has come to see this ‘X-like quality’ as an indispensable stimulus for the ‘narrative-creating archetype’62 within the artist—and to view this as an unconscious force without which the author is unable to give conscious representation to his, or her, inner being. Acknowledging his debt to the study of narratology by the Japanese psycholinguist, Izutsu Toshihiko—and citing, in particular, the latter's claim that ‘the images of the unconscious are embellished and subsequently develop into a tale’63—Endō subsequently gave expression to this vision in terms designed to highlight the role exercised by the archetype in the creation of all literature:

Having come into contact with the author's unconscious, a ‘fact’ is embellished and developed into a tale—into an image and a ‘truth’ transcending the original ‘fact’.64

The literary technique to emerge from this process is frequently described by Endō as that of ‘transposition’. A clear reflection of the author's vision of the art of the novelist as involving, not a recreation of reality but rather the removal—the ‘transposition’—of material born of real life to a different dimension, together with the gradual and imperceptible replacement of one figure with another. More specifically in the Endō narrative, the process involves a gradual minimalising of the disparity between beings traditionally assigned to differing dimensions and an ever-increasing acknowledgement of the need for his creations to look ever deeper within their inner being for resolution of the conflicts with which they find themselves confronted. As the author recognised in Watashi no aishita shōsetsu:

Behind the technique of transposition lies the conviction that salvation is to be found, not in some distant place separated from us by a vast expanse of open sky, but within our own being—in the dirtiest and most mundane part of our being.65

The implications for the Endō narrative are readily apparent. The more the author has sought to provide concrete form to the process whereby his creations arrive at a greater sense of self-awareness, the more he has probed the unconscious thoughts and motivations that continue to guide their actions. At the same time, consistent focus on this inner realm has resulted in an ever-increasing tendency to blur the distinction between the conscious and unconscious realms, initially portrayed as in polar opposition. The ensuing process represents a fusion, a resolution of dichotomies accompanied by a growing awareness of some unconscious aspect of the being as it is gradually brought into rapprochement with a conscious element that lies at the heart of the process of individuation. It is only in addressing such oppositions that the individual is in a position to continue this journey; and it is only in effecting a resolution of qualities that appear to be irreconcilable that he/she is able to move towards a more ‘integrated’ being.

But at this point we must return to the literature—to an examination of the various dichotomies, all of which can be seen as symbols of this fundamental human duality that Endō seeks to fuse during the course of his novels. In large measure, these can be identified with specific novels and, as such, discussion of Endō's challenge on a particular opposition is best introduced in the appropriate chapter. Before turning to the texts themselves, however, a brief consideration of the more significant examples of such fusion during the course of Endō's works is in order.

Of these, perhaps the most discussed with regard to Endō's literature is that between East and West. Stemming from Endō's adoption of what he perceived of at the time as a ‘Western’ religion and his decision to pursue his studies in French literature, the two poles are initially established in a series of early essays epitomised by ‘Kamigami to kami to’ (‘The gods and God,’ 1947) as separated, at least at the superficial level, by an unbridgeable divide. At this stage, confronted by perception of an unfathomable gulf between the ‘pantheistic’ (kamigami) East and the ‘monotheistic’ (kami) West and tempted to attribute the illness that led to premature abandonment of his studies in France and his subsequent protracted hospitalisation in Japan to his unsuccessful attempt to confront the ‘great flow’ of European tradition, the author would appear to be engaged in a deliberate attempt to establish a clear-cut opposition. The definitions ventured in ‘The gods and God’ and other early essays, therefore, brook no compromise: the challenge as here presented is that of bridging the perceived divide between the ‘pantheistic’ world of the East in which ‘everything (e.g. Nature, the gods, etc.) represents an amalgam and extension of the individual and in which the individual remains but a part of the whole’ and the ‘monotheistic’ world of the West in which ‘there exists an absolute distinction and division between God, angels and the individual that represent a fundamental condition of existence’.66

The same trend is equally evident in Endō's early fiction: the titles of the two early novellas, White Man and Yellow Man would appear to represent a similarly cut-and-dried distinction. Once more, however, the fact that the author is not simply engaged in a lament at the impossibility of effective cross-cultural communication is to be inferred from the earlier discussion of the process of paradoxical inversion—and closer examination of the works themselves suggests just such a technique operating at the textual level. As such, the more characters are confronted by this seemingly unfathomable divide, the more they come to view the East and West, less as irreconcilable opposites, more as elements of a dynamic tension in which the one is ultimately only definable in terms of the other. Inevitably, the process is gradual. The growing optimism concerning the possibility of reconciliation evident within the texts is, however, distinctive, leading to the author's recent admission:

As a result of continuous consideration of the concept of the unconscious in my literature, I am now convinced that meaningful communication between East and West is possible.

I have gradually come to realise that, despite the mutual distance and the cultural and linguistic differences that clearly exist in the conscious sphere, the two hold much in common at the unconscious level.67

Another opposition subjected to a similar process of fusion within Endō's oeuvre is that between strength and weakness, poles which, for Endō, have derived in large measure from consideration of the distinction between those ‘strong’ Christians who were willing to martyr themselves for their faith during the era of Christian persecution in early seventeenth-century Japan and those ‘weaklings’ who, unwilling or unable to sacrifice themselves in this way, ended up according with the Shogunate's wishes and performing the act of efumi by placing their foot on a crucifix (fumie) in an outward act of apostasy. The issue is one with which Endō has consistently struggled and has resulted in an identification with the generations of Kakure (Hidden) Christians forced, not only to perpetuate their faith in secret, but to live with the stigma of being branded as ‘weaklings’ as a result of their having succumbed to the overwhelming pressure to apostatise.68 The more Endō was to consider the lives of these Kakure, obliged to live with the sense of ignominy and shame at having defiled the image of Christ whom they continued to venerate, the more he came to question the traditional dismissal of the Kakure as ‘weak’ apostates rather than as possessed, paradoxically, of the strength to live the rest of their lives in full knowledge of this act of betrayal and to seek rather to portray the existence of an innate relationship between the two forces. The result is a series of characters, initially epitomised by Gaston in Wonderful Fool and Mitsu in The Girl I Left Behind, who are portrayed as weak and powerless—but human; and it is in stressing their humanness that Endō seeks to locate within his ‘weak’ characters an inner vigour and consequent capacity for acts of strength. Significantly, in so doing, such characters are not suddenly endowed with qualities which they did not formerly possess. Rather, in casting increasing doubts upon the initial categorisation of such characters, Endō seeks to hint at the potential within such characters to influence, not only their own destinies but also the lives of those with whom they come into contact. Only gradually is the paradox unravelled. But, as the very qualities that were initially seen as signs of weakness come to be seen as the potential source of ultimate salvation, so the fusion of the traditional opposition between ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ is reinforced.

In the Endō text, the opposition between strength and weakness assumes a variety of guises that will be discussed in the analysis of the novels themselves. In particular, however, as suggested by the author's study of the fate of the Kakure Christians, the concept is frequently embodied in the suggestion of a fundamental link between two other qualities traditionally placed in opposition: that between faith and doubt. Inspired, in part at least, by the author's own spiritual journey, this has led to a series of novels in which the most profound faith appears only to be expressible through the language of doubt and scepticism—in a manner reminiscent of Dostoevsky's depiction of the dark, sceptical soul of Ivan Karamazov as countered by portrayal of the pure soul of Alyosha. The resulting suggestion of chaos, in which the one is required to support the other, enables the author seeking to capture the hearts of his characters at the moment of greatest internal drama—as their inner beings are wracked by fundamental doubts concerning the underpinnings of their lives—to highlight the potential for fusion between forces initially perceived as in opposition.

Endō's reader is confronted with several further examples of this technique, each designed to bring into question any absolute categorisation of human nature. The gradual merging of a total absence of sin-consciousness with an awareness of the pangs of conscience occasioned by Evil (as evidenced, for example, in The Sea and Poison), the ability of characters reduced to the depths of despair to discern the paradoxical potential for hope in the form of the ray of light shining through the darkness (as evidenced, for example, in Silence): all now come to be seen as contributing to the process of fusion as outlined above, the cumulative effect being that the reader is encouraged to reserve judgement on initial, seemingly unassailable impressions.

As noted earlier, the vision of human nature to emerge from this process of reconciliation is fundamentally optimistic, if complex. The more Endō penetrates the inner worlds of his protagonists—the more he seeks to isolate the ‘X-like’ quality present within even the most mundane of his characters—the more he is in a position to hint at the potential they all possess to influence their own destiny through greater self-awareness. To be sure, there are occasions when the Endō protagonist appears intent on self-destruction, times when these creations appear unable to make sense of, let alone to control, their own inner tensions and uncertainties. The consequent vision of the inner world as a battleground, especially for forces of a psychic nature, is, however, deeply rooted in Jungian psychology, the ensuing depictions of characters embroiled in psychological uncertainty reminiscent of Jung's portrayal of humans as irrational beings, driven by subtle, unknown and unknowable psychic motives.

Once more, the task for Endō as novelist was to present this vision of the divided self in literary terms and, as suggested by the number of Endō's characters, especially in his later novels, who find themselves confronted by ‘mō hitori no jibun’ (another self), Endō too found himself increasingly drawn to portrayal of this tension through examination of the concept of the doppelgänger.69 Frequently expressed in terms of characters engaged in a desperate search for hontō no watashi (the real me) or hontō no anata (the real you), Endō's interest in this division—and his attempts to portray this alter ego as representing the positive side of the Shadow archetype as defined by Jung—is introduced in overt terms in the title of the 1968 short story, ‘Kagebōshi’ (‘Shadows’; trans. 1993). Here, the more the young protagonist probes the ‘real’ person behind the public mask assumed by his former pastor, the more aware he becomes of a certain facet of the priest's personality with which he has yet to come to terms.

The concept of the doppelgänger, or bunshin (lit. divided self), is one which we shall be considering in some detail in the discussion of the novel Scandal in which portrayal of the shadowy figure who continues to haunt the protagonist, Suguro, conforms closely to the model established for the double by Carl Keppler in his in-depth analysis of what he describes as the ‘literature of the second self’. In Chapter 6, therefore, we shall consider the extent to which Suguro and the ‘impostor’ he encounters accord with Keppler's prescription of ‘an inescapable two that are at the same time an indisputable one’.70 Let us limit the discussion at this stage, however, to a few words about the manner in which, in the portrayal of characters who become ever more aware of a deeper level of their being that they are ultimately unable to keep suppressed, the Endō narrative mirrors accurately the process at work in all fiction of the second self as delineated by Keppler.

Rodrigues in Silence, Hasekura and Velasco in The Samurai and, more explicitly, Suguro and Madame Naruse in Scandal, Ōtsu and Mitsuko in Deep River … Endō's fiction provides a steady stream of characters who experience varying degrees of success in coming to terms with perception of their own divided selves as a result of engagement with mō hitori no jibun. Confrontation with this ‘other self’ results in an invasion of the previously unquestioned self-sufficiency and peace of mind of protagonists, and it is in this sense, in bringing about a moral development in these characters, that they conform to Keppler's depiction of the second self of the ‘conscious ego’.71

Portraying the process set in motion as a result of such confrontation as a ‘reconciliation of absolute irreconcilables’,72 Keppler describes the consequent awakening effected within protagonists in such circumstances in the following terms,

The ‘I’ one ordinarily supposes oneself to be in the everyday world is not the only tenant in the house of self … this house is far larger than one has imagined, full of shadowy recesses and corridors, but full of wonder as well.73

The passage represents an apposite encapsulation of the process at work in Endō's narratives. Gradually convinced during the course of the novels of the need to acknowledge this other self as an integral part of their whole being, Endō's protagonists come increasingly to accept that their earlier faulty or incomplete perception of themselves and others was the result of failure to come to terms with this ‘other self’. The pain inherent to the process is never glossed over. The overall effect, however, is that of an adventure of reconciliation, an adventure symbolised by the experience of encountering the second self that accords with Keppler's encapsulation of all such narratives:

If we compare the first self before his experience of the second with the same first self after the experience … we will see that in most cases … it has yielded a great deal. … In the vast majority of cases the harm done to the first self by the second is harm as catastrophic as harm can be. … [But] it is a harm that stirs awake, that lances through the comfortable shell of self-complacency or self-protection, that strips away all masks of self-deception, that compels self-awareness and in the agony of the process brings self-enlargement.74

The passage could have been written with the literature of Endō in mind, and, as we shall see in the discussion of individual texts that follow, each can be seen as supporting Keppler's claim that ‘every second self story … is to one degree or another a story of shaping … [a story of] the growth of the first self’.75

In examining the personalities to emerge from Endō's fiction, therefore, the reader cannot but be struck by the ‘growth’ occasioned within the various protagonists—and the consequent depiction of human nature conforms closely to the vision, outlined at the beginning of this chapter, of man as a ‘splendid and beautiful being and, at the same time, … a terrible being’. In the considerations that follow of the journeys towards greater self-understanding upon which each of these is engaged, therefore, so the view of these as embarked upon their own ‘process of individuation’ will be developed. The discoveries that each makes along the way will inevitably differ and the extent to which the author succeeds in maintaining the focus on this process of growth will, of necessity, be determined, in part at least, by the narrative considerations discussed earlier. As a concerted attempt to penetrate the public facade and to expose the alternative facets of the divided self that lurk behind this veneer, however, Endō's work represents an invaluable addition to the corpus of literary texts in Japan devoted to consideration of this aspect of human nature.

It is in this sense that I have chosen to refer to Endō's literary corpus as a ‘literature of reconciliation’, and the texts analysed below have all been selected as exemplars of this trend. Discussed in chronological order in an attempt to highlight this continuum, it is as elements of the consistent search for reconciliation of the self, initially presented as torn between conscious and unconscious forces, that the various novels will be considered. All but the first novellas are available in English translation but, for those unfamiliar with Endō's work, synopses of all the works discussed in this study are included as Appendix B. But at this point, let us allow the texts to speak for themselves.


  1. This point is manifest mainly in the paucity of critical discussion of Endō's role within this literary grouping. For an exception, see Yasuoka Shōtarō, Kojima Nobuo and Ōkubo Fusao, ‘Tsuitō zadankai: Endō Shūsaku to daisan no shinjin’ (Commemorative discussion: Endō Shūsaku and the Daisan no shinjin), Bungakkai, 50 (12) (December 1996), pp. 210 ff.

  2. Those that do exist tend to assume the guise of a letter to a clearly identified reader or a diary entry in which the focus is more on the character's mental discourse than on factual detail.

  3. ‘Watashi no bungaku to seisho’ (My literature and the Bible), Kirisutokyō bunka kenkyūjo kenkyū nenpō, 12 (1980), pp. 15-16.

  4. One has only to look at the names of those selected to offer valedictory tributes to Endō in the commemorative editions of the various literary journals produced on the occasion of Endō's death to determine the lifelong significance of the ties Endō forged with fellow members of the Daisan no shinjin.

  5. This is the title of an interview given by Endō that appeared in Chesterton Review, 14:3 (1988), p. 499.

  6. Ibid.

  7. I am thinking here in particular, of the protagonist of Shiroi hito (White Man), Suguro in Umi to dokuyaku (The Sea and Poison) and Tanaka in Ryūgaku (Foreign Studies).

  8. As further evidence of the absence of a single focus figure in Deep River, note the gradual shift, discussed in Chapter 7, from emphasis on Mitsuko to equal prominence given to Ōtsu.

  9. Cited by Kazusa in a lecture delivered at the Centre for the Study of Christian Arts, Tokyo, 26 May, 1997.

  10. Endō, ‘Awanai yōfuku’ (Ill-fitting Clothes), in Endō Shūsaku bungaku zenshū ESBZ), vol. 10, Tokyo, Shinchōsha, 1975, p. 374.

  11. Mathy, Francis, ‘Shūsaku Endō: Japanese Catholic Novelist’, Thought, Winter 1967, p. 592.

  12. Interview with Tanaka Chikao. Cited in ibid., p. 609.

  13. ‘Watashi no bungaku’ (My Literature), ESBZ, vol. 10, p. 370.

  14. Here, in addition to Endō, I am thinking of such authors as Shimao Toshio, Shiina Rinzō, Miura Shumon, Miura Ayako, Sono Ayako, Takahashi Takako, Yasuoka Shōtarō and Ariyoshi Sawako.

  15. In several of his early essays, Endō dwells on this clear-cut division between East and West as a prelude to his concerted attempt (to be discussed later) to challenge the notion of the unfathomable divide between the two. See, for example, ‘Kamigami to kami to’ (The gods and God), ESBZ, vol. 10, pp. 14 ff.

  16. Endō has frequently used the term sanbunhō (trichotomy) to describe this perceived division. See, for example, Endō and Yashiro Seiichi, ‘Sukyandaru no kōzō: ningen no tajūsei ni tsuite’ (The structure of the novel Scandal: Concerning the multifaceted nature of humankind), Shinchō (83 (4), (1986), p. 197.

  17. ‘Nihonteki kanjō no soko ni aru mono: metafijikku hihyō to dentōbi’ (That which lies at the heart of the Japanese sensibility: Metaphysical criticism and the traditional aesthetic), ESBZ, vol. 10, p. 146.

  18. ‘Furansowa Mōriakku’ (François Mauriac), ESBZ, vol. 10, p. 94.

  19. ‘Katorikku sakka no mondai’ (The problems confronting the Catholic author), ESBZ, vol. 10, p. 28.

  20. ‘Shūkyō to bungaku’ (Religion and literature), ESBZ, vol. 10, p. 119.

  21. ‘Katorikku sakka no mondai’, op. cit., pp. 20-1.

  22. Ibid., pp. 21, 23.

  23. ‘Watashi ni totte no kami’ (God as I see Him), Seiki, 354 (1979), p. 62.

  24. Cited in Ningen no naka no X (The ‘X’ within Man), Tokyo, Chūō kōronsha, 1978, p. 137.

  25. Interview with Kaga Otohiko, ‘Taidan: Samurai ni tsuite’ (Discussion: About The Samurai), Bungakkai, 34:8 (1980), p. 206.

  26. Gibson, Boyce, The Religion of Dostoevsky, London, SCM Press, 1973, p. 54.

  27. In this regard, one could mention, in particular, Shiina Rinzō and Shimao Toshio who were quick to acknowledge their literary debt to Dostoevsky.

  28. ‘Katorikku sakka no mondai’, op. cit., p. 27.

  29. Watashi no aishita shōsetsu (A Novel I have Loved), Tokyo, Shinchōsha, 1985, pp. 21, 30.

  30. Cohn, Dorrit, Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 135-6.

  31. Ibid., p. 46.

  32. Ibid., p. 56.

  33. Ibid., p. 61.

  34. Ibid., p. 77, emphasis in original.

  35. Ibid., p. 105.

  36. Watashi no aishita shōsetsu, op. cit., p. 13.

  37. Ibid., p. 20.

  38. Ibid., p. 33.

  39. Ibid., p. 13.

  40. Ibid., p. 33.

  41. See, for example, ‘Literature and religion, especially the role of the unconscious: The Voice of the Writer, J. K.Buda (trans.), Collected Papers of the 47th International PEN Congress, Tokyo, 1986, pp. 29-37.

  42. Jung, C. G., ‘Conscious, unconscious and individuation’, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953-77; (hereafter CWJ), vol. 9.i, pp. 275-6.

  43. Ibid., p. 288.

  44. ‘The detachment of consciousness from the object’, CWJ, vol. 13, p. 45.

  45. ‘The practical use of dream-analysis’, CWJ, vol. 16, p. 152.

  46. ‘The development of personality’, CWJ, vol. 17, p. 180.

  47. ‘The anguish of an alien’, Japan Christian Quarterly, 40:4 (Fall 1974), p. 184.

  48. ’Introduction to the religious and psychological problems of alchemy’, CWJ, vol. 12, p. 31. Endō makes a similar claim in Watashi no aishita shōsetsu, op. cit., p. 176.

  49. ’The psychology of the unconscious’, CWJ, vol. 7, p. 65, n. 5.

  50. ’Psychology and religion’, CWJ, vol. 11, p. 76.

  51. ’The undiscovered self’, CWJ, vol. 10, p. 293.

  52. Watashi no aishita shōsetsu, op. cit., p. 72.

  53. Neumann, Erich, The Great Mother, R. Manheim (trans.), New York, Pantheon Books, 1955, pp. 75-6.

  54. Use of the masculine pronoun here is deliberate since the Endō protagonist is predominantly male.

  55. Volcano, R. Schuchert (trans.), New York, Taplinger, 1978, p. 127.

  56. Cited in ‘Katorikku sakka no mondai’, op. cit., p. 25.

  57. Ibid.

  58. Watashi no aishita shōsetsu, op. cit., pp. 176-7.

  59. Ibid, p. 167.

  60. Ningen no naka no X, op. cit.

  61. Watashi no aishita shōsetsu, op. cit., p. 175.

  62. Ibid., p. 146.

  63. Ibid., p. 152.

  64. Ibid., p. 154.

  65. Ibid., p. 70.

  66. ‘Kamigami to kami to’ (The gods and God), ESBZ, vol. 10, pp. 18-19.

  67. ‘Author's Introduction’, in Endō, Foreign Studies, M. Williams (trans.), London, Peter Owen, 1989, p. 11.

  68. For a relatively recent discussion of Endō's views on this issue, see Kirishitan Jidai: Junkyō to kikyō no rekishi (The Christian Era: A History of Martyrdom and Apostasy), Tokyo, Shōgakkan, 1992.

  69. Again, this aspect of Endō's art is clearly indebted to Western precedent: in a discussion with myself in July 1993, Endō acknowledged his indebtedness in this regard to the precedent established, in particular, by Graham Greene in the person(s) of Francis Andrews in The Man Within and by Dostoevsky in the portrayal of Golyadkin in The Double.

  70. Keppler, C. F., The Literature of the Second Self, Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1972, p. 1. Keppler uses the term ‘second self’ instead of ‘doppelgänger’ (which ‘suggests duplication, either physical or psychological, or both’) or ‘inner self’ (which is ‘too limited, suggesting a twofoldness which is purely internal’). In view of its wider currency, I have chosen to persist with the term doppelgänger—but would concur with Keppler's caveat against the suggestion of simple duplication.

  71. Ibid., p. 204.

  72. Ibid., p. 10.

  73. Ibid., p. 206.

  74. Ibid., pp. 194-5.

  75. Ibid., p. 195.

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Endo, Shusaku (Short Story Criticism)


Endo, Shusaku (Vol. 14)