When I was in college, a friend invited me to her apartment for tea. I had always admired her faith, and we naturally began to talk about that topic. At one point, she mentioned that she was at a point in her faith in which she was unafraid to be martyred for her beliefs; but she wasn’t so far that she would allow a loved one to die in her place.
At the time, I didn’t really understand what she meant. And how likely would an incident like that occur anyway, in which someone else would die in her place?
This precise situation, however, is a vital part of Shusaku Endo‘s 1966 novel, Silence. Although not related to anime, I felt it appropriate to review this book on my blog, as it is an enduring classic of Japanese literature and is about Christianity. The story revolves around Sebastião Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest who is sent to Japan to encourage the hidden Christians there and to find more information about his mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira, who has apostatized. Rodrigues and Ferreira are based on real historical figures, and the book revolves around their decisions regarding apostasy.
In real life, Ferreira’s apostasy was a major event in the decline of the Christian faith in Japan. By the early 1600s, the Japanese government had outlawed Christianity, torturing and killing those of the faith. The story occurs in 1638, shortly after the Shimabara Rebellion, led by Christian rebels, which resulted in the tighter enforcement of anti-Christian laws and further seclusion of the country.
The novel begins with Rodrigues and his companion, Francisco Garrpe, accepting their mission and preparing to sail to Japan. In preparations, they encounter Kichijiro, who becomes a Judas-like figure for Rodrigues. Though their early days are met with some success, even in hiding from the authorities, events soon become disturbing, as the government takes the lives of its own people to burn out the hidden missionaries.
Throughout the trials of hiding, running, and ultimately, imprisonment, Rodrigues battles with his faith. From the early going, we see that Rodrigues isn’t a perfect Christian (who is?). His struggles mirror our own, as he is quick to judge and quick to doubt. As the story barrels on toward difficult circumstances, Rodrigues questions God more and more – not so much His existence as much His lack of answer to the prayers of the faithful. Thus, the novel of the story takes center stage and throughout, even with the presence of the leader of the witchhunt, there is one enemy above all: God.
Rodrigues wonders why God is silent in all the troubles. His cries become our own as the innocent are killed in horrific manners.
This was the sea that relentlessly washed the dead bodies of Mokichi and Ichizo, the sea that swallowed them up, the sea that, after their death, stretched out endlessly with unchanging expressions. And like the sea, God was silent. His silence continued.
Endo doesn’t give us many details about the tortures – he uses a description of scars here and there; almost-pristine imagery of the environment surrounding execution; description of senses; and psychological battles to demonstrate the immense cruelty that accompanies martyrdom.
However, translator William Johnston has already educated us on the vile means in which the government tortured Christians, and so we understand the weight of it all. This adds to the unexpected intensity of the novel. There were multiple scenes which, when I read them, caused my heart to beat loudly in my ears and a nervousness to surround me. I’ve never read a historical novel in which I felt this way so often. Johnny Tremain, this is not. Endo develops this mood particularly through describing the oft-pastoral settings of the novel, which work as a stark contrast to the death of individuals, which he always treats as a real experience, rather than as another number.
I don’t know much of the discussion surrounding the novel, but I imagine it’s conclusion has led to much debate. Some Christians may not like the message conveyed through it, while others will. Endo, a Christian himself, wrote the story partially as a response to religious discrimination he endured, but it was not well received by the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) it described. No matter how one feels about the breaking of silence in the book, I believe its importance lies in the question of God’s silence in difficult situations. Christians know the bookish answer to this problematic idea, but Silence presents faces and people and will challenge the faithful to reexamine their beliefs.
Non-Christians will gets just as much out of the book. Besides admiration for Endo’s beautiful writing, most of us can relate to feelings of compassion and inadequacy which fill Rodrigues’ mind. I also think the story will convey to all what many persecuted individuals feel even today in countries where their faith is outlawed.
Endo’s masterpiece doesn’t need my kudos in addition to the cascade of awards and acclaim it has received. It’s a much-honored book, and for good reason. For any lover of literature, history, or Japan, Christian and non-Christian alike, Silence is a significant and wonderful piece. But be prepared – when you read Silence, your thoughts and emotions will be anything but.