Sebastian Rodrigues (seh-bahs-tee-AHN rrohd-REE-gehs), a young Portuguese seminarian. Rodrigues, with two other priests, acquires permission to journey to Japan to track down his former mentor to learn why he has renounced his faith. Because the novel is essentially the spiritual odyssey of Rodrigues told through his correspondence, his character is discerned through his sensitive and candid portrayal of the events around him, which are filtered through the eyes of one seeking to understand and exonerate his beloved teacher from his ostensible apostasy. Rodrigues begins as a naïve young priest with textbook theories about cross-cultural evangelism and with his own vague aspirations toward martyrdom neatly submerged. As he matures in his understanding of the complexities of the Japanese setting, he confronts Ferreira in his supposed sin and, eventually, undergoes his own apostasy by trampling the fumie, or image of Christ. In this act, he comes to reinterpret his actions and those of his fellow apostates as renunciations of only an institutionalized form of Christianity that had no roots in Japan or the original gospel and deserves no allegiance. In his apostasy, Rodrigues has learned to love the unlovely, to forgive and embrace his fallen mentor and the formerly outcast Kichijiro, whom he once rejected as a betrayer.
Christovao Ferreira (krees-toh-VOW feh-RRA-rah), a Jesuit missionary priest to Japan. Ferreira, held in the highest respect by his peers, is an intellectual and theologian who attains the high position of provincial. Having spent thirty years building the church in Japan, Ferreira has written glowingly back from Japan to his Portuguese colleagues, telling of the indomitable courage of his converts and the steadfastness of his fellow priests undergoing intense persecution. Inexplicably, a report comes back that he has apostatized, sending his colleagues into a quandary. Ferreira remains a shadowy, noncompelling figure in the story; until his confrontation with Rodrigues, he is known only through his reputation and the rumors about him. He emerges as a pragmatist who has renounced his faith not so much to save the Japanese from martyrdom as to salve his own theological conscience for bringing a faith unsuitable to the Japanese psyche. Ultimately, Ferreira is more anthropologist than missionary, ironically sharing this rather momentous conclusion with the one man presumably most at odds with his vision of Christian faith and love: Inoue, the chief persecutor of Japanese converts.
Kichijiro (kee-chee-hee-roh), Rodrigues’ Japanese guide during his search for Ferreira. Kichijiro is a lapsed Christian convert whose drunkenness and shifty, mercenary spirit mark him initially as the “chief of sinners” in Rodrigues’ eyes. Despite his slovenly character and apparently loose moral standards, Kichijiro emerges as a maternal, forgiving creature, moved in compassion for the suffering of his fellow Japanese converts to betray the foreign priests who have come to his native shores. At the novel’s end, Kichijiro has returned to find absolution at the hands of Rodrigues, re-embracing the faith he had intermittently denounced previously.
Yuki, a Christian convert in Japan. Yuki demonstrates her courage and bravery by willingly interposing herself between her non-Christian lover and his captors when they demand that he step on the fumie to demonstrate his contempt for the faith of Christianity. As a result of his refusal to step on her or the fumie, both are condemned and executed.
Inoue, the fierce Japanese magistrate who pursues and compels the Japanese Christians, under torture, to apostatize. Cool, calm, and relentlessly detached from the human suffering about him, Inoue unwittingly raises the key issues of the confrontation between East and West in his piercing intellectualized questions about the appropriateness of Christianity for the Orient.
(The entire section is 1,070 words.)