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Francis MathyApril 25, 2023
Shūsaku Endō in an undated photograph (Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the August 8, 1992, issue of America, titled “Shusaku Endo: Japanese Catholic Novelist.” This version preserves the language and typography of the original.

Shusaku Endo, the 1989 winner of the Campion Award, conferred each year on a distinguished Christian person of letters by the editors of the Catholic Book Club, a subsidiary of America Press, is duly recognized both in Japan and abroad as a “Catholic novelist.” The award citation carefully avoided this phrase and stated merely that “his Roman Catholic heritage has charged his artistic sensibilities with a vision and power rarely seen in contemporary writers of whatever nationality.” Born in Tokyo in 1923, Endo subsequently lived with his Catholic aunt in Kobe after his parents divorced when he was 10. Under his aunt’s influence, young Shusaku was enrolled in a children’s catechism class. With little preparation, he was eventually baptized. In later years, he compared this event to being outfitted in an ill-fitting suit of Western clothes, and characterized his literary career as a lifelong attempt to convert these clothes into Japanese dress in which he could feel at ease.

Endo's “Catholic heritage has charged his artistic sensibilities with a vision and power rarely seen in contemporary writers of whatever nationality.”

Endo was not a particularly good student and had difficulty getting into college, but on his third try he was admitted into Keio University, where he decided to study French literature. While at Keio he became interested in the modern French novel, especially the novels of François Mauriac and George Bernanos. In his junior year of college, he wrote and managed to get published in reputable journals two critical essays, which, he says, “introduced the themes that would later occupy me in my novels.” In the following two years, another 10 articles were accepted for publication. In 1950, at the age of 27, he was given the opportunity to study in Lyons, France. For a little more than two years he made an intensive study of French Catholic writers, especially Mauriac, but his study was interrupted when he came down with tuberculosis and had to return to Japan.

Back on native soil, he soon recovered sufficiently to write his first novel, White Man, for which he received the Akutagawa Prize, awarded to promising new writers. Yellow Man followed, and then The Sea and Poison, which won him both the Shincho Literary Award and the Mainichi Cultural Award. Endo’s career as a writer was now established, and succeeding works brought him not only critical acclaim but also an enthusiastic readership. From the beginning. Endo followed the longstanding custom of Japanese writers—of dashing off, in the intervals between more serious works, light “entertainments,” which are usually serialized in newspapers or magazines. In the case of Endo, the plots and themes of these “newspaper novels” counterpoint those of his more serious works, and despite the speed and casualness with which they were written, many readers, and even some critics, consider these—and Wonderful Fool is a good example—his best work.

Endo has always been a prolific writer. In the 38 years of his literary career, he has written on the average one full-length novel a year. He has also published several plays, about a dozen volumes of short stories, a number of critical biographies and innumerable essays on a wide variety of subjects. In addition to the novels mentioned above, his principal novels are Volcano (1959), The Woman I Abandoned (1964), And You, Too (Part Three in the English translation: Foreign Studies, 1965), Silence (1966), On the Shore of the Dead Sea (1973), When I Whistle (1974), Samurai (1980), Life of a Woman (1982), Scandal (1986) and First Lady (1988). His three major plays are The Golden Country (1966), The House of Roses (1969) and The Japanese of the Menam River (1973). His principal nonfiction works include A Life of Jesus (1973) and The Birth of the Christ (1978); the collections of critical essays entitled Religion and Literature (1963) and Stones Speak (1970), and three biographies—of the Christian daimio Yukinaga Konishi (1977), the Japanese Jesuit martyr Peter Kibe (1979), and the commander of the Japanese colony in 17th-century Siam, Nagamasa Yamada (198l).

Endo states that the Catholic writer must go beyond the physical and psychological depiction of his characters to reveal the hidden traces of God in their souls.

In addition, Endo has a weekly newspaper column, writes articles for many magazines and journals and makes frequent appearances on television. For a year he was host interviewing prominent religious thinkers and leaders on NHK’s weekly “Religion Hour.” Many of his stories have been made into movies and television dramas. Endo. a member of myriad literary committees and a past president of the Japanese P.E.N. Club, has himself received many awards, including the Order of St. Sylvester, conferred upon him in 1971 by Pope Paul VI. In the United States, he has been awarded honorary doctorates by Santa Clara University, Georgetown and John Carroll. The two essays Endo wrote as a university student did, as he says, introduce the themes that would occupy him in his novels. In his essay “God and Gods,” Endo states that there is so great a gulf between the Western monotheistic world and the Eastern pantheistic world that neither the Eastern nor the Western writer can borrow successfully from the other. He cites as examples Rilke and Tatsuo Hori, his admirer and imitator in Japan.

Though both affirmed the same pantheistic universe, there is an unbridgeable gulf between them. Rilke for all his avowed pantheism is heir to a worldview according to which mankind is forever fixed in its grade of being. A person can become neither angel nor bird; he or she must fight with the angels and subdue nature. Men and women must always engage in positive actions. Hori, however, inherits a world view in which individual human beings are part of a whole in which there are no distinctions as to grades of being, and therefore no need to fight. For Hori, the passage into the eternal occurs naturally without any struggle. A Christian, on the other hand, whose return to God is not passive, rejects pantheism. Thus, a Christian has always to fight, against himself, against sin, against the devil—even, like Jacob, against God. When Japanese read literature rooted in such a worldview, something in their pantheistic blood rebels and they feel great antagonism.

In a second essay, “The Problems of a Catholic Writer,” Endo states that the Catholic writer must go beyond the physical and psychological depiction of his characters to reveal the hidden traces of God in their souls. Such a writer must journey to that hidden center of each person in which the saving love of God is at work, even in those who have fallen into terrible sin. But such a writer must also witness to the light that is beyond the sin and evil, which purifies and sanctifies the sinner. In Mauriac’s novels, for example, the dark shadow of sin that falls over his characters is encircled by a faint light that can also be seen in Rembrandt’s paintings. The Catholic writer can only hope that this light will enter his work; he or she cannot make it do so. Characters in a novel are free and cannot be coerced. Mauriac was finally unable to portray Thérèse Desqueyroux as saved. In such a case, all the Catholic novelist can do is depict the terrifying misery of a person without God.

Early in his career, Endo realized the great responsibility the Catholic writer must assume, while at the same time he experienced within himself the passive attitude toward salvation that characterizes Eastern pantheism. He saw that almost all the Christian writers of Japan who preceded him had, in the end, succumbed to pantheism and abandoned their Christian faith. One of the reasons for this, he thought, was that they had not been sufficiently aware of the immensity of the chasm that separated the two sensibilities, and so the first chore he set himself as a novelist was to “take our Eastern world without a Supreme Being and contrast it as vigorously as possible with the Western world, which affirms such a Being.” By “vigorously,” he meant that he must put aside any philosophy or theology that fosters the delusion that the Eastern and Western worlds are the same. Endo held that the Japanese must not think of the Christian West as being in their cultural stream, nor at the same time are they to hold it off at a respectful distance.

Early in his career, Endo realized the great responsibility the Catholic writer must assume.

In his novels, Endo sets out to dramatize this dilemma; to present as vigorously as possible the Japanese world without distinctions and boundaries, a world that is, as he states in another essay, insensitive to God, sin and even to death. The next step is to contrast this world with the world of the Christian West. When one reads Endo’s works in their chronological order, it is clear that there is a twofold progression in them.

First, there is a progression in the dialectic between East and West, as depicted in the early novels, where Japan is portrayed as a swampland in which everything foreign, including Christianity, is swallowed up or transformed. The Japanese who try to survive out of their native soil seem doomed to perish. Yet, in succeeding novels, Christianity gradually comes not only to survive but even to triumph. Second, Endo’s fictions, despite the rich invention and occasional exoticism that characterize them, belong to the stream of the confessional literature—the watakushi-shosetsu (the “I” novel)—that has long dominated Japanese literature. The hero, or at least one of the principal characters, is never far removed from Endo himself. The very situations and experiences that Endo records in his non-fiction appear with a minimum of disguise in his stories. And the faith of this character can be seen growing from work to work.

Endo’s fictions belong to the stream of the confessional literature—the watakushi-shosetsu (the “I” novel)—that has long dominated Japanese literature.

Initially, the Japanese swampland prevents any growth or faith in Endo’s fictional characters. In Yellow Man, for example, the French missionary Durand abandons his priesthood to marry a Japanese, while his fellow priest, Father Brou, fails in his ministry. Chiba, a student who resembles Endo himself, tells Brou that a yellow man has absolutely no consciousness of sin. “All we experience is fatigue, a deep fatigue— weariness as murky as the color of my skin, dank, heavily submerged.” Durand, in turn, asks Brou if he really believes his God “can sink roots into this wet soil, into this yellow race.” In Volcano, a companion piece to Yellow Man, the foreign priest not only defects, but turns tempter and tries to get others to give up their faith. In the end, he commits suicide. The only optimistic note in these two novels comes from Father Brou’s statement that the Japanese gods will be conquered: “Christianity will swallow up this pagan pantheism in another miracle of Cana.”

Just as the Christian Westerner does not fare well in the Japanese swampland, the Japanese finds it equally difficult to survive in the Christian West. The hero of And You, Too arrives in France wanting nothing more from life than peace and security—and promotion when he returns to his college. His term of study in France, which should have been the quickest route toward advancement, turns out to be just the opposite. Contact with Western culture makes him completely dissatisfied with his ideal of “ordinary happiness,” and almost makes him despair of achieving anything greater. He is shattered by his experience and returns to Japan broken in body and spirit, convinced that it is as impossible to assimilate Western culture as it is to receive blood from someone who has a different blood type.

Silence, at first glance, might seem to be as pessimistic about the ability of the Japanese to assimilate either Western culture or Christianity as in the previous novels. Father Ferreira, the former Jesuit provincial superior, now turned apostate, tries to convince the younger missionary Roderigo to do as he did—that is, to step on the fumi-e [a small plaque picturing the face of Christ] and reject his faith. His arguments are clear-cut: The Japanese are unable to become Christians, and they have transformed the Christian God into a god of their own making. “The Japanese have no notion of God and never will have….The seedlings which we brought to this country eventually began to rot in this mudswamp called Japan.” But, for the first time, there appears an element of hope. When the young missionary is about to step on the fumi-e, God’s silence is finally broken. Roderigo hears him say, “Go ahead and step on it,” and he realizes that even in his sin God will not abandon him.

Gradually, Christlike characters begin to appear in Endo’s fiction. They continue to love even when their love is rejected or abused. These are wonderful fools, like Gaston in the novel of that title; Mitchan, in The Woman I Abandoned; the Baron, escaped from an insane asylum but more sane than the swamp dwellers, in One, Two, Three, and Brother Houssin in the play The House of Roses. Through the power of love, these characters are able, in varying degrees, to lift others out of the swamp and help them realize their better selves. In Wonderful Fool, Gaston not only rescues the professional killer Endo from drowning in an actual swamp, but even pulls him out of his inner swamp by turning his heart away from revenge. Self-sacrificing, trusting, gentle love offered without measure saves the denizens of the swamp and makes them also capable of love—and of action.

A corresponding growth in faith can be found in the 1973 novel On the Shore of the Dead Sea. A middle-aged Japanese novelist, similar to Endo in almost all respects, journeys to Israel in search of the answer to the question, “What do you think of Christ?” What he learns there concerning the final moments of Rat, a completely self-centered, cowardly, physically and spiritually unattractive Pole who is executed by the Nazis, convinces him that he himself is loved by Jesus and will never be abandoned by Him.

Endo has been influenced by Graham Greene, as seen most clearly in Silence.

The Jesus Endo depicts in alternate chapters of this novel and in his A Life of Jesus, which was published in the same year, is a person to whom a yellow man can relate. This Jesus lacks the power that the Japanese find so intimidating and difficult to accept. (Endo rejects all of Jesus’ miracles.) Rather, Endo’s Jesus is a man with tired sunken eyes that emit a sad radiance. “He was the man who could accomplish nothing, the man who possessed no power in this visible world….He was never known to desert other people if they had trouble….And with regard to those who deserted him, those who betrayed him, not a word of resentment came to his lips. No matter what happened, he was the man of sorrows, and he prayed for nothing but their salvation.”

Endo next attempted to come to terms with the power of the Resurrected Christ in The Birth of the Christ, and was able finally to depict Japanese characters who were triumphant in their faith. The most interesting of these is the 17th-century Japanese Jesuit Peter Kibe, who, unable to enter a seminary either in Japan or Macao, traveled by an overland route to Rome—the first Japanese ever to do so—where he entered a seminary, was ordained a priest, became a Jesuit and, though he knew he would eventually be captured and killed after a long odyssey involving him in many adventures, returned to Japan to minister to the persecuted Christians. Eventually he was apprehended and subjected to the same horrible torture that Ferreira underwent, but, unlike the latter, he persevered to a martyr’s death. Endo was so fascinated by Kibe that he wrote a biography of him, The Rifle and the Cross (a very strange kind of biography that tells us as much about Endo as it does about Kibe), made him one of the two central characters in his play The Japanese of the Menam River and featured him, once again, in his biography of Nagamasa Yamada, entitled The Road to a Kingdom.

The next novel, Samurai, is, in a sense, a step backward. The samurai of the title is sent as an emissary to Mexico to try to establish trade relations with the Mexicans. Though he lacks faith, he receives baptism as a political expedient to help achieve his end. But when he returns to Japan, he finds that the climate has changed. The authorities apprehend him and condemn him to death for being a Christian. Though still without faith, he is haunted by the face of the sad man he saw hanging on the cross in all the lands through which he traveled. His servant Yozo, who has become a Christian, speaks words to his master that once again depict Endo’s Jesus: “I suppose that somewhere in the hearts of men, there’s a yearning for someone who will be with you throughout your life, someone who will never betray you, never leave you—even if that someone is just a sick, mangy dog. That man became just such a miserable dog for the sake of mankind.” The samurai goes to his death with the words of Yozo ringing in his ears: “From now on he will be beside you. From now on he will attend you.” He becomes a martyr in spite of himself. In this novel, a Western Franciscan missionary, a counterpart of Ferreira, is allowed to die a heroic martyr. This proud and powerful friar repents of his sins and goes bravely to his death at the stake. The yellow man and the white man each finds God in his own way.

A fitting climax to the various depictions of martyrdom that has preoccupied the later Endo takes place in The Life of a Woman. The weak who give up their faith under torture continue to experience God’s love even after their defection. As expected, the strong who avail themselves of God’s grace remain faithful to the end, in spite of the great suffering they are made to endure. Endo even goes so far as to show that those who persevere in loving Christ have the power to convert their enemies.

Endo has been influenced by Graham Greene, as seen most clearly in Silence. Unlike Greene, however, Endo does not see Christ as an outsider, intervening with “special actions.” Endo’s Christ is always present to Endo’s characters, accompanying them wherever they go, even to and from the places of sin.

Through his writings, Endo has been a great apostolic force in Japan. Not only has he helped a large number of his fellow writers and intellectuals to find their way into the church, but his books and his public persona have undoubtedly changed the image of Catholicism in Japan and made it easier for the average Japanese to approach it. Quite different from Greene, Mauriac, Bernanos and Walker Percy, he reflects the climate of Catholicism in Japan, so different from what Westerners expect. But that is matter for another article.

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