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Book explores persecution of early Japanese Christians

bookIn 1549, Jesuit priest Francis Xavier, two companions, and a Japanese translator entered Japan, seeking to bring the Gospel into those islands. Within 30 years, some 150,000 Japanese had become Catholics. The Church continued to grow until the early part of the seventeenth century, when Japanese Shoguns began a series of persecutions, torturing and executing many Christians, and forcing tens of thousands to apostatize.

Shusaku Endo’s novel of this persecution, Silence, was first published in 1967. Still little known by many English-speaking readers, Silence nonetheless gathered accolades from such literary lights as John Updike, Graham Greene, and Susan Hill. (Some critics have called Endo a Japanese Graham Greene). Silence has also attracted the attention of Hollywood, with the film scheduled for release in 2016. The director is Martin Scorsese, and Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield play the two Jesuit priests.

Based on remaining records and the oral history of the Japanese Christian community — these people secretly maintained their faith for two centuries before the opening of Japan to the world in the mid-nineteenth century — Silence is a stark tale of conflicting beliefs, cultural clashes, devotion to God and to family and friends, and violent suppression. 

In the midst of these persecutions, one of the priests, Father Ferreira, disappears. Word arrives in Rome that he has apostatized, that he has given up his faith, trampled on the “fumie,” an image of the Christ and the Virgin Mary, and turned his back on his mission. Several young priests, his former students, want to slip into Japan to find him and to help any Japanese Christians they encounter. Of these, only Fathers Francis Garrpe and Sebastian Rodrigues, two Portuguese, are successful. 

After many trials by sea, these two reach Japan, where they are put into contact with a Christian village with the help of Kihcijiro, a Japanese who turns out to be a coward and an apostate himself. For a while, the two priests help the villagers, hearing confessions, baptizing their children, and giving them hope. Soon, however, the samurai ride into the village, intimidate and then torture and arrest a number of the villagers, and the priests find themselves on the run. 

The remainder of Silence — all of the above occurs in the first third of the novel — follows the two priests and describes how each of them meets the demands of the samurai and the shoguns. Here Sebastian Rodrigues features prominently. Finally apprehended, and knowing the fate that awaits him if he doesn’t deny his faith, he must make a decision. If he holds fast to his Christian beliefs, he dies. If he repudiates his beliefs, he lives.

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To offer more here would ruin the experience of readers attempting this fine novel. Suffice it to say that the ending of Silence, while not ambiguous, deserves reading and rereading. The thoughts and actions of Father Rodrigues defy a simple interpretation.

In addition to the powerful conclusion, readers will find much to treasure in this story. First, there is the idea of faith. How much can a god in whom we believe and trust demand of us? To what lengths must we go to show our love for that god? Such questions don’t derive from antiquity, but remain even today vital inquiries for the majority of our globe’s population. Such questions touch on everything from gay rights in the United States to the practice of sharia law in Europe.

Endo’s slant on Japan and its culture is also enlightening. In an interview, Endo once referred to himself as a “mud swamp Japanese,” using that term to refer to the way Japan “sucks up ideologies, transforming them into itself.” For an example of Endo’s idea of a mud swamp, we need only to return to the late nineteenth century, when the Japanese adapted to Western technology so efficiently that they defeated the Russians in war in 1905. By 1942, they had built a Pacific Empire. Following their defeat in 1945, the Japanese morphed into a democracy and a citadel of technology. 

Endo’s Silence, like Graham Greene’s The Power And The Glory, also looks at the metal of the individual. Some of us are made of tin or iron, some of steel. Kicihijiro, for example, is like Greene’s mestizo, a peasant watching out for himself, wanting to do the right thing but failing again and again, a coward wanting to be a hero. On the other hand, Father Garrpe shows himself to be a man of steel. He dies trying to save three Japanese Christians slated for execution.

Finally, Silence asks us to examine our own core beliefs. What do we hold most dear in our hearts? What, if anything, are we willing to die for? What happens when those things we hold most dear are in conflict with one another? How much are we willing to sacrifice to uphold those beliefs? And what do we do with ourselves when we fail to meet the hurdles of belief and honor that we have erected?

Shusaku Endo doesn’t answer these questions for us. Instead, he wisely offers them for contemplation. And he writes so well and with such power that these questions will continue to haunt readers long after they have put the book aside.

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