Silence Critical Evaluation
by Shūsaku Endō

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Silence, a short but powerfully realistic fictionalized history, reflects Japanese interest in the contacts between East and West and in the alien nature of Western religion. Just as James Clavell’s Shgun (1975) interprets the Japanese mind for Westerners, so Shsaku End’s Silence, set some forty years later, interprets the Western Christian mind for the Japanese. Through his Portuguese protagonist, Rodrigues, End captures the Western image of life and culture in order to help Japanese better understand Western attitudes.

In part, End’s goal is to make Japanese rethink unexamined cultural perspectives and attitudes through a dramatized clash of worldviews. As Japan’s most admired and widely read Christian writer, End is in a unique position to do so. His exploration of God’s silence (the origin of the title) as proof of God’s existence, with its paradoxical Zen implications, is meant to puzzle and intrigue Japanese, but his portrait of Japanese cruelties, the historically accurate, hideous tortures used to force captives to recant their faith, is intended to shock and disturb. End’s description in his novel Umi to dokuyaku (1957; The Sea and Poison, 1972) of Japanese doctors vivisecting a captured American pilot during World War II criticized the Japanese for a lack of moral conscience; in Silence the criticism continues, as End contrasts the image of a compassionate Christ with the bland indifference and sadism of Japanese inquisitors. A Catholic educated in France, and the first Japanese to study abroad after World War II, End provides insights into another worldview and another mind-set. End is similar, in this respect, to Lafcadio Hearn, who introduced the culture and literature of Japan to the West.

The period in which Silence is set is highly significant for Japanese: It is the period following the Shimabara Rebellion. The Tokugawa Edicts expelling European Christians from Japan resulted in five thousand to six thousand Christians (both Japanese and Western) being martyred in Japan between 1614 and 1640. Shimabara, a longtime Christian stronghold dominated by Christian ronin (lordless samurai), was the center of a spontaneous, Japanese-inspired rebellion against oppression and persecution. This rebellion was a major historical event in which thirty-five thousand Japanese Christians were killed. In Silence, Rodrigues and Garrpe arrive in Japan shortly after this rebellion has been quelled, and this timing makes clear to Japanese why the inquisitor Inoue fears the effects of Western religious proselytizing on Japan.

Silence, the record of both a physical and a spiritual journey, consists of a series of letters and reports written by Westerners, both Portuguese and Dutch, about the Jesuit mission to Japan, the religious persecutions, and the Japanese enlisting of former priests in the Japanese antireligious campaign. These documents so closely echo the language and content of seventeenth century church documents that readers might well be convinced that they are reading genuine church records, and, to some degree, they are. Saint Francis Xavier, Alessandro Valignano, Father Christovao Ferreira, and Inouye Masashige are names from the pages of history, with the library of the Portuguese Institute for the Historical Study of Foreign Lands being End’s proclaimed source for documentation. Ferreira was, in fact, the historical acting vice provincial of the Jesuits in Japan, but after six hours of being tightly bound and hung head downward from a gallows into a pit filled with excreta, his forehead and the flesh behind his ears slashed in order to vent the blood, Ferreira apostatized. Some time later, he actively helped persecute Christians when he was an assistant to Inouye Masashige, an apostate Japanese and the head of the Christian Inquisition Office. Masashige was commissioned to discover and to eliminate hidden Christians. Ferreira also helped Fabian Fukan, author of the virulent anti-Christian book Ha-Deusu (God destroyed),...

(The entire section is 1,030 words.)