Shūsaku Endō Endō, Shūsaku (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

Kazumi Yamagata (interview date November 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth Beverly (essay date 22 September 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth Wills (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. Thomas Rimer (essay date April 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Van C. Gessel (essay date April 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Gallagher (essay date April 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Coles (essay date 8 November 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Francis Mathy (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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William T. Cavanaugh (essay date 13 March 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John T. Netland (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mark B. Williams (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.


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