Shusaku Endo, ‘Silence’ and the challenges of Christian life in Japan
“Hatred can always change to love. When one can say to God, ‘I hate you,’ it is like saying, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ With these words authentic prayer begins.”
These words might seem counterintuitive to many believers, even blasphemous. How can a rejection of God lead to love of God? Anyone who has read Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence (or seen Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film adaptation) might recognize the sentiment expressed in the quote, however—and with good reason: They are Endo’s own words, spoken to William Johnston, S.J., in a 1994 conversation published in America.
America's editors in 1990: Shusaku Endo's "Roman Catholic heritage has charged his artistic sensibilities with a vision and power rarely seen in contemporary writers of whatever nationality.”
Endo, described on occasion as “the Japanese Graham Greene,” is also routinely called the greatest Japanese Catholic novelist, an appellation of which he did not approve, because of his many novels with deeply Catholic themes—all set in a culture which he himself described as deeply alien to Christianity in most respects. When America honored Endo with the Campion Award in 1990, given out periodically since 1955 to “a noted Christian person of letters,” the editors were careful to avoid the normal labels attached to Endo outside his home country, noting instead that “his Roman Catholic heritage has charged his artistic sensibilities with a vision and power rarely seen in contemporary writers of whatever nationality.”
Shusaku Endo was born in Tokyo in 1923 and spent his early years in Manchuria. His parents divorced when he was 10, and he went to live with an aunt in Kobe who had converted to Catholicism (his mother would also later convert). Endo himself was baptized a Catholic in 1934 after a brief period of catechesis, a process a biographer later quoted him as saying was akin to “being outfitted in an ill-fitting suit of Western clothes.” During literature studies at Keio University in Japan, he became interested in the works of French novelists like François Mauriac and George Bernanos, and in 1950 he moved to France to study French Catholic writers.
After a bout with tuberculosis forced him to return to Japan, he embarked on a remarkably prolific career: His first novel, published in English as White Man, won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for promising new writers in 1955; in the next five years, he released Yellow Man, The Sea and Poison (winner of Japan’s Shincho Literary Award and Mainichi Cultural Award), Wonderful Fool, Stained Glass Elegies and Volcano. They would be followed almost yearly by other novels, including Silence, Samurai and Scandal and collections of short stories, biographies, essays and plays.
Many of his protagonists are Christian believers who grapple intensely with the challenges of faith, particularly a faith that feels transplanted into a culture that has its own deep spiritual roots and practices, “where Japan is portrayed as a swampland in which everything foreign, including Christianity, is swallowed up or transformed,” in the words of Francis Mathy, S.J., in America in 1992.
Many of Endo's protagonists grapple with the challenges of Christian faith in Japan, "portrayed as a swampland in which everything foreign, including Christianity, is swallowed up or transformed."
English speakers were largely introduced to Endo’s work upon the 1969 publication of Silence, a translation of his novel 1966 Chinmoku, by Johnston, an Irish Jesuit who had ministered in Japan since 1951 and later became an internationally known speaker on the relationship between Christianity and Zen Buddhism, contemplation and mysticism. Johnston later recalled that many of his Jesuit colleagues in Tokyo and abroad were less than pleased that of all of Endo’s works, he chose to translate Silence—the story of a Jesuit missionary in Japan who apostasizes. Johnston and Endo met while Johnston was translating the novel, and remained lifelong friends until Endo’s death in 1996.
In a 1969 review in America of Silence, William J. Everett noted that it would “surely give the reader a deeper insight into Oriental attitudes toward historical Christianity and will help him understand more fully the difficulties involved in its putting down roots in the ‘swamp of Japan.’ Incidentally, it will force everyone to reconsider his own ideas of traitors and heroes, or strong and weak Catholics.”
Kevin Spinale, S.J., ventured a thought in 2016 as to why Silence gained such popularity as a novel—and why it retains allure decades later. “It deals with doubt, human suffering and enculturation. Certainly, such issues were on the mind of many Catholics in the years following the Second Vatican Council,” Spinale wrote. “How could the church adapt to the reality of the modern world? How could so many priests and religious leave en masse? How would the church survive? How can the church respond to gruesome wars and human suffering in southeast Asia?”
The novel has been adapted three separate times for film, the most famous of which was Scorsese’s 2016 adaptation, for which America’s James Martin, S.J., consulted as a theological advisor—and instructed actor Andrew Garfield in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in his preparations to play the lead character of Father Rodrigues.
Scorsese gave America his own thoughts on faith, filmmaking, and why “Silence” was so important to him as a personal project in this video interview with James Martin from 2016. One surprising revelation: As a young man, Scorsese dreamed of becoming a Maryknoll priest.
One cannot read Endo's other works without suspecting that he offers in Silence a counterintuitive take on the nature of Christianity that fit with his own experience of life—as a stranger in his own land, afflicted at a young age with illness, often misunderstood. In Silence, the Jesuit missionaries arrive self-assured that the triumph of Christianity—a very Western European Christianity—over Japan is all but inevitable; but they die broken, scorned, barren. As he related in his 1973 A Life of Jesus, Endo identified more with the Christ who had been broken and scorned than he ever did with all the soaring cathedrals and theological or philosophical accomplishments of European Christianity. Like Father Rodrigues in Silence, Endo found God less in Christianity's strength than in its moments of most profound weakness.
Endo's great novel Silence "will force everyone to reconsider his own ideas of traitors and heroes, or strong and weak Catholics.”
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
- The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison
- ‘The Irish Lincoln’: When Éamon de Valera visited America
- Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
- Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America
James T. Keane