Shusaku Endo’s Borrowed Faith


January 13, 2011


The tension between art and faith in the work of a novelist who happens to be a Catholic is nothing new. But there is something deeply compelling about the working out of this tension in the stories of a Japanese novelist who was also a Catholic. Shusaku Endo, the much-decorated Japanese writer who died in 1996, was intensely absorbed with the task of living as a Japanese and as a believing Christian.

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Endo’s novels framed both his arguments against the Eurocentrism of mainstream Catholicism and his struggle to transplant the roots of his faith into an uncongenial Japanese landscape. Comparing the dynamism of Western Christianity with the passivity of Japanese spirituality, the author perceived a deep flaw in his native culture. There was little “sensitivity to anything that is absolute, to anything that transcends the human level, to the existence of anything beyond the realm of Nature.”

The problem of Christian evangelization in the East is an unusual subject for a novelist. It is a measure of Endo’s brilliant literary talents that he succeeded in making such a remote topic fascinating to a broad audience. But his success is partly due to the powerful sense of moral seriousness that propelled his work. Sin and evil were portrayed as concrete realities. The witness of a man’s conscience could not be ignored. The author employed the central concerns of the Catholic Church — faith, personal responsibility, charity, human freedom, evangelization, and redemption — as vital issues in literary works populated by missionaries, apostates, converts, tramps, and tyrants.

In the crushing aftermath of World War II, Endo’s readers were enthralled by a moral vision that sharply departed from the debunked conformism of the ’30s and ’40s. The dreams of a Japanese empire had consumed the entire nation. “The unquestionable supremacy of the Japanese Army, both spiritually and technically, has astonished even the Japanese ever since the outbreak of war,” wrote Shiga Naoya, a respected novelist of that era.

Few writers openly criticized the lack of individual accountability that fed a “system of irresponsibilities,” climaxing in war crimes that included the rape of Nanking and the sacking of Manila. After the surrender, the nation collapsed into grief, yet fundamental moral problems remained unexamined. Endo was the first serious novelist to confront these issues, but, characteristically, the author did not limit himself to a brutal judgment of the past. His stories also projected the power of Christian hope rooted in the life of Christ, who suffered and died to save us from our sins.


Christ Figures

Over a literary career spanning four decades, Endo returned again and again to the image of a Christ figure who had experienced and understood each person’s suffering. Converting to Catholicism as an adolescent, Endo discovered that his adopted faith was like a borrowed suit of clothes, not a part of his innermost self. The turning point came during his years as a graduate student in Lyons. There he consumed existentialist literature, slowly embracing the Cross as a solution to his spiritual crisis.

endo1Weakened by ill health throughout his life, the novelist found his thoughts haunted by the shrunken body on the Cross. For the author, this figure seemed less threatening than the remote, powerful, and rational Christ of Western Catholicism. “[T]he Japanese cannot conceive of our God, who dwells on a separate plane from man,” insists a seventeenth-century missionary in one of Endo’s novels. Given this thesis, it is hardly surprising that Endo’s vision contained some disturbing elements. He appeared to find the risen Christ of the Gospels too inaccessible, not only for ordinary Japanese but perhaps for himself as well. Further, he seemed to doubt the capacity of the Japanese to accept moral absolutes — despite the fact that one of his novels, The Sea and Poison, remains a stunning testament to the natural law.

In Japan, where Christian ideas typically are ignored or sentimentalized, Endo’s lifelong preoccupation with Catholicism verged on the bizarre. Still, the Japanese literary establishment conferred every major prize on this convert who exposed the anemic moral and religious life of a nation that would become the globe’s economic powerhouse. Perhaps his immediate audience remained unperturbed because Endo also targeted the West. Here the author focused on the contradiction between the humility of the biblical Jesus and the cultural arrogance of European Christianity, which burst into sixteenth-century Japan, launching a brief, tumultuous, and, ultimately, tragic century of mass conversions and subsequent persecutions.

Endo re-created this dynamic period as a prism through which the Japanese could perceive the nature of their hermetic society. But he was fascinated also with the cultural chasm that separated the East and the West, a problem that seemed to undermine every effort to find a sense of unity and common values. Part of the philosophical tension that drives his novels forward — and makes them uniquely accessible to non-Japanese — derives from his skill at depicting two distinct spheres: the spiritually lukewarm land of his birth and a Western culture that still bears the faint imprint of Christianity. The novelist then frequently arranged a collision between the two, followed by a dénouement that offered the central characters an equal measure of self-knowledge and tragedy.


Moral Atrocities

Endo wrote numerous novels, short stories, articles, newspaper columns, and a single play. However, his unique identity as a Japanese Catholic novelist reached fulfillment in three works of fiction that treat moral and religious themes. In The Sea and Poison, against a backdrop of revisionist accounts of wartime atrocities, he targeted the moral blindness of a medical unit performing vivisections on POWs. At the height of his powers, the author produced two historical masterworks, Silence, in 1967, and The Samurai, in 1980. Both novels sought to contrast the rational and arrogant Western world with the Japanese “mud swamp” that submerged the power of truth.

Winning the Akutagawa Prize, The Sea and Poison, published in 1958, was Endo’s first work to earn national recognition. More than a decade had passed since the humiliating surrender and war crimes trials in Tokyo, yet, incredibly, this was the first Japanese literary work to examine the issue of personal responsibility in wartime Japan. Based on a historical incident, the novel focuses on a handful of hospital personnel who are asked to participate in the vivisection of a POW. The story is told primarily from the viewpoint of a young physician who ultimately refuses to cooperate. This young man has received no moral or religious training, but he cannot ignore what is written on his heart. He knows the vivisection is murder, and, finally, he cannot do it.

What transfixes the reader, however, is not the young physician’s struggle to make the right decision, but Endo’s stunning depiction of two other characters who choose to participate in the murder. In “Those to Be Judged,” roughly a third of the novel, the author carefully re-creates the internal moral dialectic that shapes the decisions of the guilty parties. One man is an intern who has spent his life masking his utter selfishness by playacting as a saint. Another character is a middle-aged nurse too unhappy to notice the crime she has agreed to commit. These characterizations, one suspects, are Endo’s attempt to answer the questions on the lips of every Japanese at the end of the war: How did their deeply ordered society permit the atrocities that shamed them before the world?

A central truth of Catholic theology is that our moral choices determine our character. Endo conveys this principle with immense power. As the intern’s story continues to unfold, the reader learns of his dismay, and momentary shame, when an astute classmate uncovers his true nature. But the intern succeeds in preventing his real self from being exposed. Later, he seduces his married cousin and performs a dangerous abortion on a girlfriend whom he subsequently abandons — while still maintaining the pretense of being a sensitive fellow. By the time he is asked to participate in the vivisection, his conscience is dead. There remains only a vague sense of disquiet: “I thought at that moment that one day I would be punished…. But even this thought, which persists now, is not one which brings any great pain in its wake.”


Inseparable Mystery

In Silence, possibly Endo’s most critically acclaimed work, the landscape shifts to a different kind of embattled territory: the conflicted soul of a Portuguese missionary cast adrift during the seventeenth-century Christian persecutions in Nagasaki. Like many Endo novels, Silence reads a bit like a detective novel, no doubt because Endo believed Christianity to be inseparable from mystery.

In Silence, the mystery involves a controversial historical figure, Christovao Ferreira, a Jesuit provincial who worked for three decades in Japan before reportedly apostatizing under torture. Refusing to believe the scandalous reports, a group of young Jesuits sets sail from Lisbon to discover the truth, and to provide support to the persecuted Christians who must struggle on despite a dwindling number of priests. Among this group of fervent Jesuits is Sebastion Rodrigues — a character also based on a historical figure — who arrives in Japan ready to defend and support the nascent Christian communities.

Rodrigues finds Catholic Japan, once the hope of the Christian world, in ruins. Previously, the local rulers had tolerated and even embraced Christianity. Then they determined that the missions were a beachhead for a European invasion, or, at the very least, that the foreign fathers sought the subversion of the status quo. The persecutions began with the crucifixion of twenty-six martyrs in 1597. It was not the most gruesome sort of torture inflicted on the Christians. Still, the persecutions did not inhibit further conversions which numbered at least three hundred thousand by 1614, when the first Tokugawa, Ieyasu, ordered the expulsion of Catholic priests from Japan.

Most Catholics sought to conceal their beliefs, but the authorities then devised a religious test that forced believers to choose between committing a sacrilege, by treading on the image of the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus, or die a martyr’s death. Many refused to step on the image, but others, after enduring days of extreme torture, apostatized.

The austere terrain of Silence is like a Japanese Golgotha, stubborn and brutal, yet empty and soundless, producing not even an echo of Christian love or hope to break the desolation. At the novel’s close, the bleak silence envelops the soul of Rodrigues. His apostacy becomes inevitable.

Why did Endo concern himself with apostates, spurning the martyrs of that era? Among Nagasaki Christians who revere the martyrs, Silence remains extremely controversial. One Nagasaki Protestant minister has noted that the “silence” Endo describes was not reflected in the experience of the Japanese martyrs who died praising God. Further, this minister has argued, Endo’s personal history gives lie to his thesis that the Japanese cannot conceive of the dynamic God of Abraham and Isaac.

Undoubtedly, Endo would have responded that his arguments arose from his own conflicted faith. But he is surely not alone. After all, the number of Japanese Christians in the modern era has remained less than 1 percent of the overall population. Further, the author also singled out the apostates with the purpose of asking some pointed questions: Christians are repelled by their spinelessness, but don’t these outlaws demonstrate the depths of man’s weakness and his attendant need for Christ and his Church? Judas was condemned not for betraying Christ, but for despairing of his forgiveness.


Surpassing Culture

Many of these ideas surface again in The Samurai, a second historical novel that depicts the same period on a broader canvas. Here Endo navigates the journey of two fascinating souls, a zealous Franciscan missionary who passionately desires the salvation of Japan, and an obedient samurai who slowly moves toward Christ as he travels from his marshland home to the New World and beyond to Europe. While based on historical accounts of that era, The Samurai departed from the controversial arguments Endo outlined in Silence. Van C. Gessel, the novel’s English translator, has observed that The Samurai offers a less dogmatic approach toward faith and culture. In this story, the Franciscan missionary need not cast off his “rational and aggressive faith” to remain true to Christ.

In The Samurai, Endo leaves Japan to stake out a more ambitious project: the common search for truth and hope in the East and the West. The author portrays the samurai and the missionary as creatures of their individual cultures. The samurai has been taught to obey and to serve, not to think or desire a deeper meaning for his life. The missionary has learned to be confident that his faith and culture surpass all others, and that the ends occasionally justify the means in the pursuit of souls for the Church.

But that is at the beginning of the voyage. At the close of the novel, after witnessing the shattered Indian communities of the New World and the cynicism of the Church’s princes in Rome, the priest has acknowledged and repented his sins of pride and ambition. Meanwhile, the samurai’s global odyssey has helped him shed the spiritual and intellectual numbness that made him the blind servant of his worldly lord. Slowly, he is drawn to the Cross, to the image of the crucified Christ who suffers with the samurai as he returns to Japan, confronts the failure of his mission, and faces permanent house arrest.

In Endo’s later contemporary novels, the passionate search for a fully integrated Christian faith gave way to subjects with broader appeal. Scandal, a modern detective novel concerned with the dark side of human nature, used the Japanese obsession with “face” and fear of exposure to consider the universal human struggle with evil. At the twilight of Endo’s life, Deep River depicted a motley group of Japanese tourists bound for India and seeking a resolution to the deepest questions of human existence.

In some ways, Deep River hints at the author’s state of mind in the final decade of his life. The novel’s central character emerges as an unbalanced version of Endo’s familiar Christ figure: a physical wreck of a man, a Catholic who has failed in the seminary, but an individual who loves deeply, sacrificing his own life to save the life of another. Compared with the men in Endo’s earlier works, Deep River’s wretched, faded Christ figure seems flat and unconvincing. But perhaps he mirrored the author’s apparent difficulties with Catholicism. Possibly. Endo’s crusade — part literary, part theological, part personal — slowly drove a wedge between his life and his faith.

Endo’s last novel may be especially frustrating because the author’s faithful audience craves some kind of resolution to his lifelong struggle with his “borrowed” religion. But Endo never permitted himself to manufacture a decisive conclusion that departed from his own experience. Endo’s job as a novelist was to write from his soul, not to perform the role of Christian polemicist. He shared his deepest spiritual longings with his readers, approaching the human condition with honesty and moral seriousness. He did this virtually alone, writing in the midst of a culture that shared few of his passions. Whether the reader is persuaded by Endo’s arguments or not, his greatest works are literary treasures, enriching mankind’s search for truth, penetrating the boundaries that divide the East from the West.


This article originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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