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Shouldering the Burden of Belief
Reviewing Shusaku Endo’s Historical Novels ‘Silence’ and ‘The Samurai’
When a pair of Jesuit missionaries reach the shores of Japan in 1643, they know full well they might die for their effort to minister to the hidden Christians of the country.
Shusaku Endo’s historical novel, Silence, presents a fictional account of the brutal trials endured by Japanese believers and foreign missionaries in the seventeenth century. With this and Endo’s followup, The Samurai—set in the years just before the crackdown—the novelist offer a profound reflection on the burden of belief:
What happens when you’re not permitted to believe, but you can’t abandon what you know?
Missionary activity in Japan had prospered for more than half a century following Francis Xavier’s arrival in 1549. By 1614 there were some 300,000 Japanese Christians. But by then the government’s mood had soured. The new religion was officially banned, its practice outlawed, and all practitioners exiled, forced to apostatize, or killed.
Silence begins with word that a stalwart Jesuit missionary laboring in Japan, Christovao Ferreira, has succumbed to persecution and apostatized. Two of Ferreira’s former seminary students, Frs. Sebastian Rodrigues and Francis Garrpe, disbelieve the reports about their teacher and set out for Japan to both discover the truth for themselves and minister to the hidden Christians there. Rodrigues supplies the narration in the form of letters back to his superiors.
But how to gain access and navigate the dangerous terrain when they arrive? While awaiting transport in Macao, Rodrigues and Garrpe meet Kichijiro, a drunken mess of a man who wishes to return home to Japan. Can he help? Neither find much reason to trust Kichijiro, but he’s their only option, and the three board a Chinese junk headed for Japan.
The party lands near a village of hidden Christians, mostly peasants who feign adherence to Buddhism while practicing Christianity on the sly. Rodrigues and Garrpe immediately step in to serve the community. How long has it been since they’ve made confession or taken the Eucharist? The locals had devised an authority structure and administer secret baptisms, but the other sacraments are out of reach. Consequently, they’re overjoyed when the priests arrive. Kichijiro plays the hero for bringing the missionaries.
But risks abound. The missionaries must not be seen by anyone outside the village lest they draw the deadly ire of the authorities. Those suspected of Christian sympathies are forced to apostatize by stepping on an icon of Christ or the Virgin.
Seeing one of these icons in a Nagasaki museum centuries later—carved in bronze, affixed to a small wooden plank, darkened by age and the feet of apostates—is what inspired Endo to craft his story. Born in Tokyo in 1923, Endo was a rarity: a Japanese Catholic. He struggled with his faith for many years, utilizing his fiction to help process his ambivalence.
Eventually the Japanese authorities catch wind of Christian goings-on and visit the village, forcing its members to deny their faith by trampling on the icon—the fumie, as it’s called. Who ratted them out? While the priests stay hidden, the people face their persecutors. They tread upon the fumie but halfheartedly. Ah, say the authorities, noticing their hesitation, these are not true Buddhists; they are Christians, whatever else they may profess. And so several villagers are executed by torture.
Rodrigues and Garrpe soon split up and leave to avoid detection, but Rodrigues realizes he shares his trail with someone walking just ahead of him. It turns out to be Kichijiro. Rodrigues suspects him of betraying the Christians to the authorities. As it happens, Kichijiro has a history of it, despite protestations to the contrary. He next surrenders Rodrigues to the authorities. He’s Judas. Or is he?
Rodrigues’s narration stops, and a third-person narrator begins—along with the torture and mind games. Rodrigues assumes he’ll die soon by martyrdom, but the Japanese rulers are wise to the Christian incentive package: Martyrdom is too simple, too easily glorious. They take special care of eliminating the bodies of the believers they kill so no relics can be venerated. And in the case of Rodrigues, they have no plans to kill. Instead, they kill the Christians he ministers to in prison. They’ve all apostatized and are free to go as soon as the priest apostatizes as well. By holding out, he dooms them all to grisly and cruel deaths.
Where is God in all this? Silent—as the title suggests and as Rodrigues struggles to reconcile. In the end, he succumbs just as Ferriera succumbed. But the story isn’t over, and what the reader realizes is that God does speak, just not as we hope or assume. And even a black sheep like Kichijiro can find his way home. There is something irresistible about grace. It’s a burden all of its own, like the cross itself.
“Man is a strange being,” says Rodrigues, early in the story. “He always has a feeling somewhere in his heart that whatever the danger he will pull through.” He will. But his deliverance will likely take unimaginable shapes and move in unpredictable ways.
Nowhere could that sentiment be clearer than in the story of the samurai Rokuemon Hasekura in Endo’s eponymous novel, The Samurai, which transpires a few decades before the events of Silence. Hasekura, a lance corporal, is enlisted with several other low-ranking samurai on a trade mission to Mexico. If successful in garnering trading privileges, the lance corporals stand to recover ancestral lands previously taken from them by their superiors.
The samurai are joined by their personal attendants, a gaggle of merchants with wares to trade, and a Franciscan priest, Fr. Pedro Velasco, who serves as their translator. Velasco has ambitions of his own. Sporadic persecutions have begun and Velasco blames the Jesuits for mismanaging the Christian missionary effort. He sees the journey as central to being appointed bishop of Japan, a role he imagines will allow him to put the evangelizing work back on the right footing.
The narration alternates between the third-person view of the samurai and Velasco’s first-person account, taking the reader directly into his scheming and self-justifying thought processes. Consumed by the supposed nobility of his goal, he will stretch and hide the truth to get what he wants.
Velasco even convinces several of the merchants to undergo baptism. For them it’s a formality to improve their odds of gaining favorable trading status, but Velasco believes if they confess faith—even for unfaithful reasons—there’s something nonetheless objective and externally powerful in the sacrament. Besides, it will demonstrate that God is blessing his efforts. But despite the baptisms, the envoys fail to win approval in Mexico and must strike out for Spain and ultimately Rome for an audience with the pope—Velasco’s secret aim all along.
When even that strategy looks to falter, the desperate envoys, including Hasekura, agree to baptism. The merchants are one thing, but if the ambassadors themselves convert, imagine the possibilities! But, again, the reasons are purely instrumental. Traveling through Mexico, Spain, and Rome, Hasekura sees crucifixes bearing the form of the frail Christ, arms outstretched. What would induce an entire civilization to look lovingly, longingly, submissively on this man—an icon of humiliation and suffering? This was a lord only for the weak. Unlike his master, however, the samurai’s attendant Yozo does see something in the suffering shape, though he keeps his new allegiance quiet.
Despite the baptisms, the envoys are ultimately rebuffed and Velasco’s plans come to nought. The Jesuits have poisoned the well for him, pointing out that widespread persecution had begun shortly after he set sail from Japan. It was foolhardy to send missionaries there now, and many of the nation’s supposed converts were—they rationalize—not genuine to begin with. Having failed, they return to Japan empty handed.
Unfortunately for the returning samurai, the national crackdown depicted in Silence is now underway. It turns out there has been disagreement among the rulers about the trade mission from the start; the dominant faction has decided to limit outside influence to Japan, especially from Christians. The fact that members of the envoy have become Christians, even for purely strategic reasons, is suddenly scandalous.
Far from being lauded as a hero upon his return, as Hasekura had hoped, he’s treated as a suspicious figure whose loyalty is now regarded as beyond questionable. His ancestral lands? Gone forever. Asked to tread upon the fumie—the icon of this weak, unworthy lord, betrayed by the powerful, abandoned by all—Hasekura consents. But not as easily has he might have before, and not convincingly enough for the authorities. Given his betrayal and abandonment by the state, Hasekura’s face might as well be etched in bronze and placed on the ground for the feet of humanity. It dawns on the luckless samurai: If Christ descended into our suffering, he might be the only lord actually worth following.
While a historical novel, based on true events, The Samurai was also an autobiographical novel, based on the undeniable turnings of Endo’s own heart. His parents divorced when he was a boy and, going to live with his Catholic aunt, he found himself pressured to submit to baptism. It was years before he would fully accept the truth of the act, but it became his burden through life, shouldered in public through stories which could never escape the implications of belief and the radical solidarity of the co-suffering Christ.
For his part the humbled Velasco sneaks back into Japan to resume his missionary work under extreme risk. He’s soon discovered and eventually experiences the fate of those who refuse to deny their Christ.
And Hasekura? When he heeds the final, fatal summons of the authorities, the faithful Yozo meets him on the way. “From now on,” he says, “He will attend you.” The burden is never carried alone.
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Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (January)
Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (February)
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (March)
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (April)
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (May)
Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (June)
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy (July)
Zora Neale Hurston’s The Eyes Were Watching God (August)
Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (September)
Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (October)
As soon as I finished Silence I had to continue with The Samurai, even though it wasn’t part of the original goal. So far, I’ve snuck in a few additional classic novel reviews: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and a roundup of several others by Wyndham and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In December, I’ll be reading and reviewing Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.