Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978
In Shsaku End’s Silence, when the rumor of Christovao Ferreira’s public renunciation of his faith reaches his former students, they refuse to believe it and determine to travel to Japan as missionaries to discover the truth for themselves.
The first part of the novel consists of letters written by Sebastian Rodrigues, one of the missionaries. Rodrigues tells of the immense difficulty he and his companion, Father Garrpe, face in attempting to travel to a Japan that is hostile to Christianity and has closed its doors to nearly all Westerners. They manage to find a guide named Kichijiro, whom Rodrigues instantly mistrusts.
Kichijiro’s story, which is gradually revealed in the course of the journey, is one of continual wavering in the face of persecution. Like Judas (or like Peter), Kichijiro is presented as having betrayed Christ and apostatized. However, he does agree to put the Jesuit missionaries in touch with underground Christians; after doing so, he becomes enormously proud of his role in bringing the priests to Japan.
The Japanese Christians have been without priests for six years, but they have managed to create a system for maintaining, as best they can, the structure of the Church and its sacraments. Rodrigues’s pride begins to grow as he speculates about his own importance to the continuation of Christianity in Japan.
At this point, government officials arrive in the village where the Christians live and demand that they send three representatives to Nagasaki for questioning. The usual means for determining whether villagers are secret Christians is to ask them to step on a fumie, an image of Christ, usually made of bronze and designed to be stepped on. By desecrating the image of Christ in this way, the people prove that they are not Christians or are rejecting their Christian faith. The representatives (one of whom is Kichijiro) ask the priests whether they should step on the fumie. Surprisingly, Rodrigues immediately tells them that they should trample on it. They do so, but the officials demand that they also spit on an image of the Virgin Mary. Kichijiro is the only one able to do so—he has, once again, apostatized.
The other two Christians are brought back to the sea near the village and are martyred there. Rodrigues likens the horrible silence of the sea to the horrible silence of God during their martyrdom.
At this point, Garrpe and Rodrigues part ways—if one of them is captured, the other will be able to continue the priestly work Japan needs. The novel follows Rodrigues in his solitary journey though a silent and empty Japanese countryside. In this long section, the last of Rodrigues’s letters, Rodrigues continually compares his situation to that of Christ in his final days: He wipes his face and discovers that what he thought was sweat is blood. He then likens his reflection to the face of the crucified Christ and compares his thirst to that of Christ on the cross. He recalls Christ’s words to Judas at the Last Supper: “What thou dost, do quickly.” Finally, he encounters Kichijiro, who, despite calling out, “Father, forgive me,” has betrayed Rodrigues. The reader is left with the image of three hundred silver coins being thrown in the face of Kichijiro.
The shift to an omniscient narrator at this point mirrors a shift in the novel’s concerns. Rodrigues is to be questioned by Inoue, a magistrate who was responsible for getting Ferreira to apostatize. Inoue argues that Japan is like a swamp and that Christianity is like a tree that is not suited to swampy conditions. In other words, he says that Western Christianity cannot thrive in eastern Japan.
Meanwhile, Kichijiro asks to be imprisoned with Rodrigues because he, too, claims to be a Christian. In the prison, Kichijiro confesses his sins—of weakness and of apostasy—and the priest says the words of absolution to him. Not long after, under threat of torture, Kichijiro once again tramples on the fumie and is set free.
Rodrigues is then called to witness an attempt to get his fellow priest, who has been captured, to apostatize. Three Christians who have already apostatized will be thrown into the sea unless Garrpe apostatizes. Garrpe drowns while shouting something that cannot be heard to the three former Christians, who also drown.
During this, Rodrigues silently encourages Garrpe to apostatize, comes to the realization that he would apostatize if he were in the same position, and angrily accuses God of being, once again, silent when he should intervene in human affairs.
Rodrigues is taken to Nagasaki, where he meets his former teacher, Ferreira, who acknowledges his own apostasy and encourages Rodrigues to apostatize. He, too, declares Japan to be a swamp in which Christianity is incapable of growing. While Rodrigues is imprisoned and awaiting the torture he expects to undergo, Kichijiro once again appears, shouts his pleas for absolution toward Rodrigues’s cell, and is led away. Rodrigues silently and mechanically speaks the words of absolution but, recalling his betrayal, cannot personally forgive Kichijiro.
While he listens to the groans of other Christians undergoing torture and the arguments of Ferreira, Rodrigues prays that God will break his silence. When he is led to the fumie, it speaks to him, declaring that he should step on the image. As he does so, a cock crows in the distance.
The rest of the novel shows Rodrigues attempting to come to grips with his stepping on the fumie—an act that he does not consider apostasy, even though he knows his superiors do. End shows how Rodrigues works with the Japanese officials (though not necessarily willingly) to identify Christian artifacts that are being smuggled into the country. The diary of a Dutch shipping clerk and the appendix, the notes of an officer in charge of Rodrigues’s residence, are quite ambiguous.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687
By the time End wrote Silence, he had become interested in studying the history of Christian missions in Japan, particularly during the period between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, when missionaries tried fervently to establish Christianity, only to be repelled by Japanese rulers. As End studied accounts of persecution and martyrdom, he noticed that little was said about those who were tortured and eventually succumbed to apostasy by the act of efumi, stepping on an image of the crucifix. End empathized most with these so-called weaklings who would live out their days suffering from guilt and loneliness. He was further fascinated by the Kakure (hidden) Christians, who ostensibly apostatized, but then persisted sacrificially in trying to keep their faith alive. Questions about how he would have reacted in the same circumstance led him to conclude that he, too, would have been among the weak.
This theological debate with himself gave birth to Silence. End concluded that all mention in the archives of the Christian missionary Christovao Ferreira ended when he apostatized; hence, it is not unreasonable for the protagonist of the novel, the Portuguese missionary Rodrigues, to do the same. However, many critics and Japanese pastors viewed End’s decision as heresy and questioned his claim to be a Christian. They questioned how a novel focusing on the silence of God when the faithful were facing torture and death could be justified. End was not surprised, seeing the criticism as evidence that the church was as yet unwilling to address his perceived tension between literature and religion, as well as evidence that readers viewed the apostasy scenes of the novel as its decisive point. However, in the final chapters of the book and the diary extracts that follow, it becomes clear that Rodrigues’s apparent renunciation is just that, and in fact, his inward faith is deeper and more real than it had ever been.
Viewed as End intended, Silence is an attempt to get to the heart of Rodrigues’s inner self and his self-discovery. There has been a genuine change: The Rodrigues who came to Japan in 1640 was totally self-assured in his mission; gradually, uncertainty creeps in, and although he puts on an optimistic facade for the sake of those who are suffering, his doubt increases. When he observes the agonizing deaths of two of the converts, he succumbs to a perception of God as silent and indifferent to their suffering. He even asks himself whether he is losing his faith, and after months of psychological confusion, he can no longer reason logically.
When Ferrerira suggests that Christ himself would have apostatized to save others, Rodrigues can only say, “No, no,” but it is at this darkest moment, when he is about to step on the fumie (image of the crucifix), that his inner light begins to glow. He now sees the face of Christ as that of a man who wants to share humankind’s pain. Rodrigues’s outward renunciation frees him physically, and he is helped by the very people who had pressured him into apostasy. Rodrigues is able now to conclude that, even though his fellow priests would condemn him, he has not betrayed God; rather, he has loved Him differently.
The final section of the novel moves forward twenty years and features diary excerpts of the final years of Rodrigues, now living as Okada San’emon. He has decided to hire Kichijiro, the man who betrayed him by alerting the rulers to his whereabouts, as his servant. A union between the two develops as each embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Rodrigues (Okada) now looks upon Christ as one who stands not in judgment but as a companion who shares in his pain.
Thus, Silence marks a major turning point in End’s work. End confessed that the distance he had sensed between Christianity and himself had been buried, and he now viewed Christianity as a maternalistic religion, in which Christ shared in a child’s pain, rather than as a judgmental, paternalistic religion. Rodrigues provides the model for End’s acknowledging the possibility of a reconciliation of seemingly disparate views.