Shusaku Endo 1923–-1996
Japanese novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and biographer.
Endo was one of Japan's foremost contemporary fiction writers. His short stories and novels were popularly and critically acclaimed in both Japan and other countries. As a Catholic novelist, Endo was frequently referred to as “the Japanese Graham Greene.” Among his central thematic concerns is the conflict of identity among Japanese Catholics, the clash of cultures between East and West, the persecution of Catholics throughout history, and the internal struggle of Christian faith. Endo was awarded nearly every major literary prize in Japan, and was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for literature.
Endo was born March 27, 1923, in Tokyo, but spent his early childhood in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. When Endo was ten years old, his parents divorced and he moved back to Japan with his mother. An aunt influenced Endo and his mother to convert to Catholicism, and he was baptized at the age of eleven. Endo was uncomfortable with his new religion, which he later described as the feeling of wearing an ill-fitted suit. During World War II, Endo was exempt from combat due to illness. He received a B.A. in French literature from Tokyo's Keio University in 1949, and from 1950 to 1953 Endo studied Catholic fiction at the University of Lyons in France. His first novel Shiroihito (White Man) was published in 1955, earning Endo the Akutagawa Prize for promising young writers. In the same year, he married Junko Okada, with whom he had a son. In 1959, Endo contracted tuberculosis and the next year, while in France to study the works of the Marquis de Sade, he was hospitalized for two and a half years and underwent three operations, which left him with one lung. After this period of infirmity, Endo's fiction became more sympathetic toward characters suffering from both spiritual and physical weaknesses. Critics note that he began to conceptualize a more merciful, compassionate image of Christ in his fiction. Over the course of his life, Endo published seventeen short story collections, most of them not translated into English, as well as forty-five novels and many works of nonfiction. Endo died on September 29, 1996.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Throughout his fiction, Endo was concerned with the inner battles of faith as well as the outer fights against persecution suffered by Japanese Christians in both the East and the West. Ryugaku (1965; Foreign Studies) contains three stories, each about Japanese Christians living in Europe. These stories focus on the inability of the characters to reconcile their Japanese identity with Western culture, and their own interior trials over belief in a religion which is firmly rooted in European tradition. The characters experience both alienation and a crisis over identity concerning the disaccord between their Christian faith, their Japanese identity, and their experiences in European society. “And You, Too,” the longest story of the three, concerns a Japanese professor of French literature living in 1960s France and studying the works of the Marquis de Sade. While Endo's earlier fictions present a more dour view of the moral endeavors of the individual, often seen without chance of redemption, his later works offer mercy and salvation for those who grapple with their beliefs. Stained Glass Elegies includes eleven short stories collected and translated from Aika (1965) and Juichi no iro garasu (1979). Critic and translator Van C. Gessel observed, “The short stories in the [Stained Glass Elegies] collection are in a sense vignettes, dessin-like sketches of the weak who must bear the burden of guilt and the throbbing of their consciences.” Throughout this volume, Endo conceptualizes Christ-like symbols of salvation, particularly in the form of maternal Christ-figures. In “My Belongings,” the character Suguro (who appears in several of Endo's stories) sees “that Man” (Christ) in the tear-stained face of his wife, whom he has never loved, but will never leave. “Mothers” concerns a community of Japanese Catholics who are the descendants of those who outwardly renounced their Christianity in the face of persecution, but continued to worship in secret, hiding statues of the Virgin Mary behind the family Buddha. When the narrator finally sees the image of the Virgin Mary, which this community worships, he is struck by the fact that it is a “clumsily drawn” picture of a local farm-woman in a kimono, nursing her child. Thus, here the Holy Mother has taken precedence in the faith of this isolated community over God the Father. The story “Unzen” is about a character, Suguru, who reads about and visits a Japanese town where in the seventeenth century Christians were tortured and put to death for their beliefs. Suguru learns that a man had chosen to publicly renounce his faith in order to save himself and his family. As Suguru identifies with this apostate figure, Endo focuses on the pain of the man who has renounced his religion. In “Fuji no Tsuda,” the main character learns of a monk who saved the life of a Jewish man in a concentration camp by choosing to take his place. The Final Martyrs (1993) contains translations of stories originally published between 1959 and 1985, many of them autobiographical, such as “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” and “A Sixty-Year-Old Man,” which are sequels to an earlier story included in Stained Glass Elegies, “A Forty-Year-Old Man.” In a review in Studies in Short Fiction, critic Francis J. Bosha noted: “Throughout The Final Martyrs there emerges a clearly autobiographical pattern of the melancholy middle-aged man, haunted by guilt and saddened by his childhood spent in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, who, because of his mother, converted to Catholicism; yet he does not always feel comfortable with this religion, which in turn causes another round of guilt.”
English critics applaud Endo's short stories for their explication of such subjects as the cultural conflict between East and West, the moral groping of the individual concerning the nature of belief, and the paradoxical identity of Japanese Christians. Endo has stated that he uses short stories as a testing ground for ideas which may later be expanded to novel length, and critics frequently note that the seeds of his later novels can be detected in a number of Endo's short stories. Francis Mathy commented of the stories in The Final Martyrs: “Much as the painter will do a number of preliminary sketches before setting his hand to a larger canvas, so Endo uses his short stories to sketch characters and themes that appear later in his novels.” Mathy also added, “There may be greater artistry in these sketches than in the novels themselves.” Paul Binding said of The Final Martyrs: “each of the stories in this wonderful volume has something of the novel's richness and discursiveness.” Some commentators have observed that Endo tends to subordinate character and plot to motif in his novels, but his short stories manage to convey a thematic message without overburdening the story. As Gessel observed: “There is a familiar, even popular tinge to virtually all Endo's stories; by rooting his narratives in common soil, he is able to attract the attention of readers who might have little interest in his metaphysical concerns. Plot functions rather like the New Testament parables, relying upon the elements of the earth in order to convey insights into the essences of heaven.” Critics have observed that while Endo's earlier stories offer little chance of salvation, later stories increasingly focus on Christ as a figure of maternal suffering—whether glimpsed in the face of a bereft, wife, a stray dog, or the painting of a woman nursing her child. Most scholars agree, however, that Endo eschews a tone of simplistic sermonizing, as his characters maintain an uneasy relationship to their faith, thus avoiding tidy, superficial resolutions to their ethical undertakings. Gessel remarks that Endo's popularity is in part due to the skill with which he conveys a virtuous message in stories which remain accessible and entertaining to the common reader: “Endo is able to placate not only the weary but also the wary, the simple as well as the skeptical. … If in fact the art of storytelling hinges upon the ability to draw the reader into a narrative with the bait of familiarity and then lead the way to a higher plane of understanding in the realm of the new and unfamiliar, Endo qualifies as a master storyteller.” Critics have also commented on other prominent motifs in Endo's writing, namely his fractious vision of personal identity and human culture, and his chief subject in fiction, “the human condition.” Jeffrey Renard Allen, in a review in Christian Century, said of Foreign Studies that the stories' subject matter is “the mystery of identity.” Allen concluded that: “If Endo's characters are alienated from the West, they are equally alienated from themselves. … Given the dark recesses of the soul, we are all foreigners.” As critic Marleigh Grayer Ryan remarked, Endo's representation of “profound cultural disjunction” ultimately “leads us to the most serious questions about the human condition.”