Fujimura, Hakoto. 2016. Silence and Beauty. Foreword by Philip Yancey. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.

Philip Yancey, long an admirer of Shusaku Endo and his book, Silence, provides an overview of Endo and his influence on Fujimura’s book. Yancey agrees with others who find “three main themes: hiddenness, ambiguity, and beauty”(p. 11) in the work of both authors. Yancey reviews the early introduction of Christianity into Japan by Portuguese priests and the martyrdom that followed. As he notes, “Shusaku Endo described Japan as a swampland for Christianity, and missionaries who have served there tend to agree” (16). And, further, “Our only hope is the forgiving gaze of the betrayed Savior, the still point in Endo’s novel” (18).

Hakoto Fujimura (HF) directs the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts at Fuller Seminary and has founded the International Arts Movement. His books include Refractions: A journey of faith, art and culture and Culture care.

HF, a Japanese-American, first outlines his own pilgrimage and declares that he “was fortunate to be part of a lineage program based in the mentoring model of Japan’s artistry and crafts tradition” and, as such, was an insider to sources that are somewhat unique (19). His studies have focused on the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when Christianity was first introduced to the Japanese. He studied at Tokyo University of the Arts and began to journey “deep into Endo’s writings” (22).

Chapter 1, “A Journey into Silence”, recounts HF’s first view of the fumi-e, the images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary that the early Christians were required to step upon to signal their apostasy and, if they did not, were martyred. This foot-trampled image is located in a museum in Tokyo and is part of the history of Nagasaki, once the home of many early Christians, subsequently blasted to oblivion by American bombers at the close of the War with Japan.

Reading Silence was “an excruciating experience” (31) for HF, with its description of violence and torment. Nevertheless, HF was intrigued by the perseverance of Endo’s own pilgrimage, which “symbolizes Japan’s psychological journey after the World War” (35), which “invokes an encounter with a symbol of stigma, of one’s orphaned heart” (35). HF catalogues Endo’s novel as one of pain, in which there is a language of trauma as he outlines the life of the Portuguese missionary, Father Rodrigues. Endo saw Japan as a “Christ-hidden culture” and “children of failed faith” (40) and HF agrees with him.

The Portuguese Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, had entered Japan in 1549 and in the first two centuries the Catholic faith met with great success. However, as early as 1614 an edict was signed to “eradicate the Christian faith from Japan” (44). The darkness that followed put a mark on the psyche of the country and defines “its aesthetic even to this day” (44).

HF stood on the spot called “Martyrs Hill” in Nagasaki where 26 people, most of them having suffered torture, had been paraded to find their own crosses. And as HF challenges us, “’Show me my cross’ may be a statement that every Christian needs to say to the world” (46). For Endo’s response may be the antidote “to the modernist reductionism that entirely rejects doubt—as if we, in our limited minds and knowledge, can know everything God and the universe offers to us” (49).

Chapter two, “A Culture of Beauty”, examines the cultural context of Silence. His main observations can be summarized as follows:

  • Japanese may list their religious affiliation as Buddist or Shintoist, but this has little to do with their everyday lives (54)
  • Most Japanese remain agnostic towards religion despite how they list their affiliations (54)
  • Japan has been a depository of many cultures, due to interaction along the Silk Road (55)
  • In Japan the arts became the individual expression that could be valued
  • The Japanese do not readily accept outside influences
  • Japanese beauty came out of the isolation eras (58)
  • Endo recognized that the most important reality in Japan was hiddenness, of empathy and beauty (61)
  • The Japanese sense of beauty is always connected with death, especially suicide (63)

Chapter three, “Ambiguity and Faith”, begins with a quote from the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who saw two prominent Japanese symbols: the chrysanthemum and the sword. HF also sees “a mysterious dance between the two extremes: the strong sense of group harmony and of individual desires” (71). Silence is valued and seen as respect, in fact “in the most devoted marriage the couple rarely speak to each other” (71).

HF recounts the story of the Kakure, or “hidden” Christians, who went into hiding during the persecution that began in 1597. The Kakure Christians survived for two hundred fifty years (until Japan was again open to outsiders) by means of amalgamating Buddist chants and rituals with the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary. These Christians did not want to give up the tradition of their ancestors because abandoning them would be sin (75). Culture was the glue that held the people together in their “faith”. HF says that “Endo transcends Japanese ambiguity and the Japanese propensity to stoically surrender to fatalism” (87).

Chapter four, “Ground Zero”, begins with HF’s own recall of 9/11 and his struggle with the portrayal of it, in that the American experience parallels what took place at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and later Fukushima), and with his own dark thoughts for a decade. Thinking “of the silence of God”, HF explains that “People experiencing trauma often do not dare to ask [where God was], because we know no answer will come back, only silence” (94). HF summarizes and elaborates on his struggles in “my post-9/11 book,: Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture…” (97)

Chapter five enlarges on the “Fumi-e Culture”, where stepping on it “is to betray oneself out of desperation due to public or cultural pressure” (103). This culture arose out of the “muddy swamp of Japan” (104). Group solidarity and harmony have been the main contributing factors to the fumi-e, which “rejects not only Christianity but individual thinking as well” (105). HF sees it as “an orphaned culture full of hidden truths, ambiguity and, at the same time, lyricism” (106).

The trauma and isolation that HF and others note “may explain why, to this day, Japan remains one of the most difficult terrains for missionaries” (108). Encapsulated in the fumi-e is the contrast between “objective reality and the mystery of Japanese ontological existence…vacillating constantly between what is considered to be inside and outside” (109).

HF also expounds on how the Japanese value highly visual culture, between an object and an idea. This is evidenced, for example, in their handwriting and paintings and points to the “power of visual imagery” (114). No wonder the fumi-e was so effective as an object of torture—the Japanese “trust images to convey truth, and the power of the fumi-e is bound up in that belief” (117). HF believes that the Japanese are trapped “in the wounds of such a fumi-e culture” and are unable to recover hope (123).

HF further notes that “Japanese culture has developed two faces toward the world: amote (front) and ura (back or hidden)”  (126). The face one presents depends on whether one is seen as inside a group or outside it. It follows that there is a two faced way of dealing with outsiders as oppressors.

(Chapter five also includes a number of photo plates: a fumi-e of Christ on the cross, a tea bowl, abstract paintings and portraits by famous Japanese artists—all exemplifying the tremendous influences of art to the Japanese culture.)

Chapter six, “Hidden Faith Revealed”, examines the work of a number of Japanese authors and HF notes how that in some, for example the “broken lantern of Rikyu” the faith of the fumi-e culture is birthed.

Chapter seven, “The Redemption of Father Rodrigues”, returns us to the essence of Endo’s book on Silence: the central character, Rodrigues, who for HF becomes a motif of suffering faith. Rodrigues knows “that by stepping on the fumi-e he will set aside his identity as a Portuguese and, at least superficially, subsume his identity into Japanese culture” (147). HF reviews Silence and some of its main characters and their impact on Endo and other Japanese artists. Most recently Martin Scorese has made a movie about Silence, which “drives a reader (or viewer of the film) to wrestle deeply with faith, art and culture” (163).

Chapter 8, “The Aroma” is subtitled “Toward an antidote to trauma” and is an attempt to help “Americans understand the impact of past trauma still powerfully present in Japanese culture today” (168).

Wealth and materialism have had a profound effect on the Japanese, leading to a general lack of spirituality in the culture. HF sees this as an “epidemic of adjustment disorder among youths who are literally shutting out the sun in what is now well known as hikikomori syndrome” (171).

In this way the Japanese are entrapped in their culture in the same way that Rodrigues was symbolically entrapped in the fumi-e culture, similarly to today’s youth in the hikikomori.

Chapter 8 is rich in its depiction of the Japanese authors and artists and how they have either been influenced by Endo or contributed to HF’s observations about Endo. As HF declares so poignantly, “Endo, like Mendelssohn, dug up a buried voice, and by doing so not only revived that voice but also preserved a faithful presence in the context of history” (190-191).

Many Japanese have turned to the Catholic faith and Endo has been one main catalyst. HF lists many noticeable Japanese, Catholics and Protestants, who have been prominent in the movement.

Chapter nine, “Mission Beyond the Waves”, refers to the painting by Katasushika Hokusai in about 1830. “It is one of the incomparable images from a pilgrimage he made throughtout Japan, depicting from various angles and locations thirty-six views of Mount Fiji…through the art of woodcuts…” (202). It reminded HF of the scene in Silence where a priest attempts to go through the waves of persecution to reach martyrs. A philosopher, Richard Fleming, summed up the woodcut by saying “Silence is a statement of the finality of our being” (202).

Philosophical undertones like these are prevalent throughout HF’s book, but abridged more in chapter nine in symbolism, where “brokenness”, such as in the Last Supper, and generally in Communion, where the brokenness of the body of Christ (the church) leads HF to ask, “How may I die generously?” (203). This is because “Passages about the Lord’s Supper make more sense in an Asian culture, where to join a group sharing a meal is considered to be a sacred inclusion into a family” (210). This is compassion, which was beautiful to Endo, who gave expression to the voiceless and marginalized. And to HF ”in no other culture is a single word so relevant as silence is to Japan” (212).

Two appendices follow: one about Endo and Kawabata, the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize (their works are compared), and the second about Kenzaburo Oe and his essay “Human Lamb”, a story about bullies and their victim who would not press charges. Both Oe and Endo express “one reality of a traumatized, orphaned culture” (223).

Appendix one summarizes Endo’s book and is prepared by Sherri and Peter Edman. HF concludes with notes on each chapter and a two page glossary of the Japanese words he has used throughout the book.

This is not an easy book to read, filled as it is with references to Japanese artists and writers and accompanied by titles of books, movies and interspersed with Japanese words.

However, it is worth the effort because HF outlines Japanese thinking and culture in an intricate and, to use Endo’s word, “compassionate” manner. Having read Silence a couple of times, I was familiar with the story, but did not comprehend the Japanese worldview that surrounded it. I can now see, for example, why Catholicism was so readily accepted in Japan (at least early) and why such a large segment of the culture sympathizes and, perhaps in a hidden mode, consents to Christianity. For Catholics, in particular, the veneration of ancestors, the rituals and endless prayers, the chants and mystery, reveal or allude to a kind of hiddenness that Endo’s Silence portrays.