Insights from historical fiction are often intended to make readers pause for careful consideration, especially so with Shasaka Endo’s Silence, the account of a Christians amidst the persecutions of 16th century Japan. Central to this narrative is Endo’s portrayal of the conflict between Eastern and Western civilizations, especially as that conflict impacted Christianity. The narrative traces the journey of Portuguese Jesuit Sebastian Rodrigues to Macao and then Japan, his interactions with Japanese Christians, his confrontation with the apostate Christovao Ferreira, and his eventual capitulation to the tactics of the magistrate Inoue, developing a number of theological concerns along the way. In this essay, we examine several of these, including Rodrigues’ relationship with Kichijiro, Endo’s use of the term “silence,” the co-opting of the Biblical narrative, and the conflict between East and West as demonstrated through the “swamp of Japan.” Through engagement with these considerations, I argue that central to Endo’s perspective is the centrality of a Christian love that seeks to transcend the cultural boundaries of East and West.
Of special importance to the overall narrative is Padre Rodrigues’ relationship with Kichijiro, a native of Japan. In the earliest days of their mission, despite knowing of Christ’s love for all people, Rodrigues nevertheless voices his distrust concerning Kichijiro. After learning he was a Christian, the priests remained somewhat unsure of this “miserable” character, an uncertainty that remained until he apostatized. After fleeing the first village, Rodrigues again came across Kichijiro, who betrayed him to the authorities despite his earlier struggles with his apostasy. Despite his betrayal, Kichijiro continued to seek after the father on a number of occasions, asking Rodrigues why God has made him weak whilst asking him to be strong. Amidst his attempts to reconcile with the father, however, he was even persuaded to step on the fumie (image) of Christ again. Despite these repeated offenses, after his own apostasy Rodrigues offered Kichijiro forgiveness for his sins, perhaps the clearest indicator of Rodrigues’ own developed understanding of the relationship between Christ’s love and his own thinking on forgiveness for apostasy.
Endo’s use of the term “silence” also stands apart within the narrative. Its first use is in connection with Rodrigues’ consideration of the face of Christ, which he notes the Bible “passes over in silence.” He next notes the emotional silence of the Japanese Christians, who cannot show their Christian joy in the midst of their persecution. Amidst the earliest persecutions of the Japanese that he witnessed, Rodrigues questioned with Kichijiro the lamentable silence of God. He then notes the silence of the sea that killed Mokichi and Ichizo that, though remaining certain of the martyrs’ heavenly reward, caused Rodrigues to again note the apparent silence of God amid the suffering of the Japanese. While in captivity, Rodrigues regularly inquired concerning the silence of God, especially when faced with the death and destruction of those seeking to follow God. Amidst the silence of Ferreira’s admission of apostasy, Rodrigues found a strange glimmer of God in the silence of the world. Rodrigues eventually came to recognize the importance of the theology of the cross, the suffering of Christ with humanity, though his implications of this realization for reconciling the silence of God with human suffering remains unclear, and the connection ultimately seems to not have been made. Finally, the alternating of the silence of God and speaking Christ played an important role in the moments before Rodrigues’ apostasy, as did his growing realization that while prayer could not alleviate suffering, his actions could.
Our consideration of the martyrology and theology of persecution within Silence would not be complete without briefly noting the tendency of Rodrigues and the Japanese Christians to co-opt Biblical narratives and terminology for their current concerns. The first clear reference came shortly after Rodrigues arrived on Japan, when Japanese Christians labeled non-Christians as the “gentiles”, as those not belonging to the people of God. Further use of the Biblical story was noted in the simple hierarchy and organization of the local churches, mirroring those in Acts, the post-Biblical but still applicable references to catacombs, and eventually the references to the earliest Christian martyrs. One senses not only historical, but also physiological ramifications for understanding the Church in the manner of the Christians who have gone before the Japanese church. For Rodrigues, the mission to Japan remained firmly within the overarching narrative of Christianity. Even in the moment of his denial of Christ, Endo writes that a cock crowed, a clear reference to Peter’s denial of Christ.
A final topic of consideration concerns the “swamp of Japan.” Throughout Silence, there rages the conflict between the East and West. The East argues 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. If such a thing is done, the fresh young sapling will wither and die” (xvi). Conversely, the West argues that Christianity has the ability for infinite adaptation, and that Catholicism best presents the whole symphony of faith. The practical aspects of Japanese faith caused Rodrigues to pause on more than one occasion as he noted the potential for and awareness of too much reverence for the beads of the rosary or veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Especially in his encounters with the magistrates Rodrigues found the compatibility of West and East questioned. Arguing for clearly different manners of thinking, the place of suffering, universality and contextual nature of truth claims, and the apparent Japanese misunderstanding of Christian teachings provided numerous intersections of the cultural divide. Ferreira himself argued that the Japanese had changed Christian teachings, even those of Xavier, into something foreign to Christianity, saying that the Japanese “do not believe in the Christian God…. The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God; and they never will.”
Despite the cultural conflict between East and West, it seems that the central argument of Endo’s work is that sacrificial love trumps all else. For the love of Christ Rodrigues and Garppe had come to Japan. For love the later perished in the sea. After enduring his trials, it was for love that Rodrigues followed the example of Ferreira and apostatized. In the end, the command to love Christ and love others superseded any command to not trample of the fumie of Christ. Throughout the book, Rodrigues’ understanding of love is transformed, even as he himself was transformed by Japan. Key to this development seems to be his interactions with Kichijiro, as he gradually came to realize that Christ loves everyone, even the weakest and dirtiest of men such as Kichijiro. It was with this realization that the apostatized father heard Kichijiro’s confession and absolved him of his sins. With this act Endo draws a distinction between Rodrigues, who sought to continually love, and Ferreira, who seems to have capitulated entirely. For Rodrigues, and Endo then, the centrality of Christian remains love, especially a love that seeks to transcend the cultural boundaries of East and West.