遠藤周作 (Shusaku Endo, 1923–96) was a Japanese Catholic novelist. His occupation with Roman Catholic belief penetrates throughout this entire book. Endo published Silence in Japanese in 1966.
Seventeenth century Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate (徳川幕府)—also known as the Edo shogunate (江戸幕府)—which was ended by the Meiji Restoration (明治維新) in 1868. While the Edo period (1603–1868) enjoyed peace and prosperity in general, there was one violent unrest called the Shimabara Rebellion (島原の乱) from December 1637 to April 1638 by Catholic peasants as a reaction to irrational tax hikes and prohibition of Christianity. The rebellion was ruthlessly suppressed, after which even more severe persecutions of Christianity ensued. Endo situates Silence in this historical context. Endo begins his story like this:
“News reached the Church in Rome. Christovao Ferreira, sent to Japan by the Society of Jesus in Portugal, after undergoing the torture of ‘the pit’ at Nagasaki had apostatized.”
To find out what really happened, two Portuguese Fathers, Francisco Garrpe and Sebastian Rodrigues, leave Portugal for Japan in 1638.
The first four chapters are given in the form of a letter by Father Rodrigues. His letters record their encounter with Kichijiro who was immediately despised by the Fathers for his cowardice. Upon their arrival in Japan, Rodrigues describes the toughness of the life of Tomogi villagers. They find comfort in Christianity, but they have been living far too long in secrecy for the fear of being found. Rodrigues gradually begins to ask this besetting question: Why does God allow these cruel sufferings to these innocent people? Rodrigues then witnesses the mercilessly different destinies of Mokichi and Ichizo who are martyred fastened to a wooden column set at the sea’s edge and of the apostate Kichijiro who is immediately set free after renouncing his Christian faith. Rodrigues’s question remains: Why is God so silent?
In the second half of the book (chs. 5–8), Endo moves the narrative forward by third-person point of view. It is in the prison that Rodrigues finally encounters the man Inoue, the magistrate of Chikugo who deliberately and yet powerfully orchestrates the anti-Christian attacks. Endo surprises the reader by showing that Inoue is a far cry from an invincible and strong Samurai or warrior; Inoue is a small and weak old man with a kind smile. But Inoue is a firm believer that Christianity is of no value to Japan. His and other Japanese officials’ logic is quite simple: the act of trampling on the fumie is only a formality; just put your foot on it and be set free immediately. Surprisingly, Kichijiro tramples on the fumie again. When Rodrigues finally gets to see Father Ferreira, it does not take long for him to despise his old teacher because Ferreira seems to be content with his life as an apostate. Disillusioned with Ferreira and still complacent about the strength of his own faith, Rodrigues refuses again to trample on the sacred image. But the Japanese interpreter makes a revealing prediction that Rodrigues will surely renounce his faith tonight. Just like what the interpreter says—or like Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times that night—Rodrigues ends up putting his foot on the fumie because he heard the painful moaning of Christians hanging in the pit. Endo ends the climax of his novel like the following:
“The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”
As the title itself reveals, Endo, through Father Rodrigues, wrestles with the issue of God’s alleged silence amidst believers’ sufferings. The title “silence” is, as it were, paradoxical because Endo eventually has Rodrigues confess that God is not silent. The author presents his own theology—although I do not agree on God’s passibility—in the brief exchange between Rodrigues and God: “Lord, I resented your silence.” “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.” Endo does a superb job showing God where he is not seen. At the end of the story, the reader realizes that God was, in fact, present among the suffering villagers, when Mokichi’s and Ichizo’s lives were being swept away by the seawater, when the believers were moaning in the cruel pit, and even when Kichijiro painfully trampled on the sacred image multiple times.
Another issue that the reader confronts in Endo’s fiction is the country Japan. Inoue, while seeing the defeated Rodrigues later, describes Japan as a “swamp.” As negative as the expression “swamp” sounds, however, I suspect that Inoue’s statement betrays his complacency that there is nothing that can affect Japan, even the Christian God. Christianity is subject to fail in the swamp of Japan. Inoue gently yet firmly adds, “Japan is that kind of country; it can’t be helped.” Father Ferreira seems to be at one with Inoue because he, too, says that the Christian God is completely changed and twisted in the minds of the Japanese.
As of today (2022), Japan remains to be one of the least reached countries in the world. Still, less than 1 percent of the population are Christians. Is Inoue’s word still holding true in Japan? Does Japan continue to be a deadly swamp where all foreign gods—including the Christian God—hopelessly sink? Is Japan still “that kind of country”? Can it really not be helped? I cautiously think that, if asked these questions, Endo would answer that, while Inoue is shrewdly smart, he is wrong about the Christian God. Inoue’s genius moves didn’t silence God at all. The following two-hundred-year national isolation of Japan couldn’t completely kill Christianity in the country. The fact that Japan has so few Christians today does not necessarily mean that God is powerless there.