Endo, Shusaku. 1980 [1969]. Silence. Translated by William Johnston. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co.

According to the translator, William Johnston, Shusaku Endo was called the Japanese Graham Greene because, as a Catholic novelist (like Graham), his books are problematic and controversial “Mr. Endo is the first Catholic to put it [problems of betrayal, martyrdom and apostasy] forward with such force and to draw the clear-cut conclusion that Christianity must adapt itself radically if it is to take root in the ‘swamp’ of Japan” (vii).

Francis Xavier and two Jesuit companions and a Japanese interpreter took Christianity to Japan in 1549. However, the Italian priest Alessandro Valignano was more successful and by 1579 there were around 150,000 Christians in Japan. It was during the Sengoku Period when Japan had no strong central government and the missionary endeavor continued with prestige from 1570 until 1614.

The Japanese ruler, Hideyoshi, became enraged at the missionaries and had 26 of them–Japanese and European—crucified near Nagasaki in 1597. The missionary work was under siege by the Shogun and by 1614 there was an edit for the expulsion of all missionaries. At the time there were 300,000 Christians in a population of about 20 million. Despite underground efforts to keep the missionary work alive, martyrdom increased—the most common form of execution was by burning, but later included more vigorous forms of torture in order to induce apostasy. Up until 1632, despite torture, no one had apostatized, but the cruel methods of the rulers soon prevailed and authorities killed some five to six thousand Christians in the period of 1614-40 alone. Nevertheless, thousands of crypto-Christians kept their faith secretly and when Japan was reopened in 1865, they came out of their hiding “asking for the statue of Santa Maria, speaking about Christmas and Lent, recalling the celibacy of the priests” (xiv). There are still thousands in Nagasaki and offshore islands who cling to the faith and whose prayers have “smatterings of the old Portuguese and Latin” and who retain other forms of their devotion to Santa Maria. Endo wrote Silence while living amongst them.

The book points out that “the tree of Hellenized Christianity cannot simply be pulled out of Europe and planted in the swamp of a Japan that has a completely different cultural tradition” (xvi).

Endo’s book has engendered criticism from those who claim he has not been fair to the Catholic heroic ancestors. Nevertheless, we can rejoice that “the very popularity of Mr. Endo’s novel would seem to proclaim a Japan not indifferent to Christianity but looking for that form of Christianity that will suit its national character” (xviii).

One of the chief characters in Endo’s book is Christovao Ferreira, a priest from the Society of Jesus in Portugal, who was sent as a missionary to Japan well before the Shogun policy of missionary expulsion in the year 1614. Thirty-three years after his highly acclaimed missionary work in Japan, rumor reached the Church in Rome that he has apostatized. The book follows up this rumor by introducing the priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, born in 1610, who has a vision and compulsion to take up missionary work himself in Japan. Chapters 1-4 are Rodrigues’ letters back to his superiors in Portugal and Rome.

Chapter one reviews Rodrigues and his fellow priest’s (Garrpe) difficulty in getting to Japan. They first had to convince their superior (Father Valignanao), find a Japanese man to help them (Kichijiro, who was to play an important role in the story), and then board a ship bound for Japan. In the process they first sailed around the horn of Africa, passed by India, and reached Macao, the Portuguese colony off the coast of China and the launching point for Japan. Once Japan was sighted their ship had to be careful not to be spotted by anyone.

Ashore at an area utterly unfamiliar to any of them, Kichijiro somehow finds some people who were remnants of the Japanese Christians that the earlier Catholic priests had instructed. But Rodrigues reports that “in spite of myself I cannot help laughing when I hear the mumbling Portuguese and Latin words in the mouths of these ignorant peasants: ‘Deus’, ‘Angelus’, Beato’ and so on” (p. 32). These are the secret or crypto-Christians that the priests have come to meet and minister to. At that point Rodrigues is elated because they have found new groups of Christians and the officials are unaware of the priests’ existence.

Things change quickly. The “guards” hear about them and the officials ransack the village near the hiding place of the priests. The officials order the people to apostatize by trampling and spitting on the fumie, images of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary, or be tortured and killed. The peasants honor the Virgin above everything so many of them are burned, hung in a pit and dunked in feces, or slowly tortured by drowning., rather than apostatizing.

Rodrigues and Garrpe flee in different directions with Rodrigues eventually betrayed by Kichijiro and captured. From Chapter 5 onward Rodrigues records what happens, but not as letters to be sent back home. Rodrigues undergoes deprivation in food and watches bitter scenes of Christians who are forced to apostatize. But the most painful scene is when he meets Christovao Ferreira who has indeed apostatized. The officials had insisted that Christians only had to trample on the fumie as a formality, and then they would immediately be released. Endo does not comment on the veracity of this claim.

Rodrigues, although captured, is treated kindly and has communication with officials through interpreters who speak Portuguese. In fact, “Now that he had once tasted the tepid waters of peace and security, would he have the resolution again to wander through those mountains and conceal himself in a hut?” (p. 126).

Garrpe comes into the scene again with a number of Christians and with them he is tortured and killed. Rodrigues, on the other hand, meets Christovao Ferreira who tries to persuade him to apostatize and proclaims that “before your eyes stands the figure of an old missionary defeated by missionary work” (p. 146). Ferreira sees Japan as a swamp and Christianity as a sapling planted in the swamp. He claims that even “Saint Francis Xavier” failed to see that the Japanese freely changed Deus into Dainichi (The Great Sun) and therefore misunderstood the people (p. 148). “The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God; and they never will” (p. 149).

Rodrigues reflects that Ferreira has not said anything about the Japanese martyrs, trying “to avoid any thought of people who were stronger than himself, people who had heroically endured torture and the pit” (p. 152).

In the final scenes Kichijiro appeals to the priest for forgiveness (granted reluctantly) and Rodrigues is dragged through the streets of Nagasaki before being taken to their place of execution. Rodrigues is silent but so is the Lord as Endo makes clear by having Ferreira exclaim “Stop! Stop! Lord, it is now that you should break silence. You must not remain silent. Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love” (p. 168).

Rodrigues, with the plodding and insistence of Ferreira, does apostatize. “The fumie is now at his feet. A simple copper medal is fixed on to a grey plank of dirty wood on which the grains run like waves. Before him is the ugly face of Christ, crowned with thorns and the thin, outstretched arms…. The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man…. The priest places his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew” (pp. 170-171).

In Chapter 9 Rodrigues reflects on his failures, rationalizing that if he apostatized “these miserable peasants would be saved” (p. 175). The fumie had been trampled on so much that the wood surface around the plaque was blackened by the footprints and the face was concave and worn down.

Rodrigues and Ferreira become Japanese in dress and manner, working for the magistrate, free from torture but captured by their own actions and solitude. He concludes “Lord, I resented your silence” and the reply is “I was not silent, I suffered beside you” and “I told you to step on the plaque” (p.190). Rodrigues laments: “Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him” (p.191).

Endo’s book is an excellent read for any cross-cultural worker, but definitely useful for missionaries. The sacrifices of the Portuguese priests and the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians are inspirational. The stories also demonstrate clearly the necessity of learning Japanese and the culture of the people.

It is a sad story because it reiterates throughout that God is silent when Rodrigues needs Him most. Only at the very end does he say “I fell. But, Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith” (p.175).

Chapter 10 includes extracts from the diary of Jonassen, a clerk at the Dutch firm, Dejima, Nagasaki.” The entries are made in 1644 and 1645 and verify the obsession of the Japanese to rid Japan of any Christian influence.

A further diary of an officer “at the Christian residence” outlines some of the relatives of the two priests (under their assigned Japanese names). Rodrigues (aka San’emon) “was buried in Muryöin Temple at Kishikawa” and the burial expenses were paid by money he had left (201).
November 2011; Revised September 2015