Shusaku Endo 1923–1996
Japanese novelist, playwright, short story writer, essayist, and biographer.
For further information on Endo's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 14, 19, and 54.
Endo is regarded as one of Japan's premier contemporary novelists and as one of the world's great Catholic writers. Born in Tokyo, Endo 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 11, Endo was baptized, an event he later described as the most critical of his life. At the time, however, Endo felt pressured to become a Catholic and compared the feeling to putting on an ill-fitting suit. Endo was uncomfortable with his Catholicism for many years, but instead of abandoning his faith, he clung to it, exploring his doubts and his faith in his writing. Endo 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 Lyon in 1950 to pursue his interest in twentieth-century Catholic fiction. Endo's first novel, Shiroihito (1955; White Man), won the Akutagawa Prize, an award for promising young Japanese writers. Endo was a prolific writer, although not all of his works have been translated into English. He 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 73.
Much of Endo's work is autobiographical in nature, drawing on his experience as a member of the Catholic minority in a largely Buddhist country. Often compared to such writers as Graham Greene and Francois Mauriac, Endo wrote passionately moral fiction in a realistic style that he frequently embellished with lyricism and humor; much of his writing explored the tension between Western Christianity and Japanese temperament, Eastern and Western morality, and belief and skepticism. Endo 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 Foreign Studies (1989), the Japanese cannot survive in the Christian West. The Japanese Christians 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 earlier works, and the reader is left with very little hope that faith can survive. However, as Endo's faith took root, the characters in his fiction began to embrace their faith. More Christlike characters appear who love even in the face of rejection and betrayal, as seen in Obaka-san (1959; Wonderful Fool). Endo began to express a Christ with compassion for the sinful and weak, a maternal Christianity with the focus on forgiveness. His portrayal of this more maternal aspect of Christianity made it more understandable to an Eastern audience and more compatible with Japanese culture. Endo said that he used short stories to work out an idea or theme which he later intended to develop into a novel, and the seeds of many of his novels can be found in his short fiction.
Endo 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 which make his work powerful and substantive. Endo has been praised as courageous in addressing questions of faith and sin in his work, in which his delicate, understated style and his infusion of humor prevent his moralizing from becoming off-putting to the reader.