Silence and the Swamp

This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.

(N.B. This article discusses the novel “Silence” rather than the 2016 film, which I have not seen yet. According to what I have read about the film, there are some differences between the two. In addition, this article contains extensive plot spoilers.)

I approached Endō Shūsaku’s 沈黙 (chinmoku, Silence, 1966) in a rather unusual way, in that I had read a great deal about the book, including “spoilers”, before reading the book itself. The plot should, in any case, be no secret, since it is based closely on historical events. It has rather a simple structure: two priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe, having heard that their esteemed mentor Ferreira has apostatised under torture in Japan, resolve to enter the country in secret and in contravention of the shogunal prohibition, in order to find out whether the accounts that they had heard were true, as well as to minister to the Christians there. On arrival, they find a Christian community but remain in hiding, as it becomes clear that their presence will put the villagers in danger. Some of the Christian villagers are arrested and put to death after they refuse to give up their faith. The priests separate and Rodrigues is betrayed to the authorities by Kichijiro, a fisherman who has apostatised as a result of the persecutions but cannot seem to abandon Christianity entirely, sometimes acting against the priests for his own ends – he betrays Rodrigues for a symbolism-laden 300 pieces of silver – and sometimes asking for forgiveness. After witnessing the death of Garrpe, Rodrigues is brought to Ferreira, who has indeed apostatised and been given a Japanese name and family (both formerly belonging to an executed criminal). Ferreira encourages Rodrigues to apostatise; Rodrigues is resolute in refusing but in the pivotal scene, he realises the suffering to which the villagers, whom he was supposed to serve, are subjected for his sake. He resolves to apostatise and an afterword relates events from his subsequent life in conditions similar to those of Ferreira.

The character of Ferreira is based on the real Jesuit missionary priest Cristóvão Ferreira, who renounced Christianity under torture and adopted the name Sawano Chūan, as in Silence. He is reported to have recanted his apostasy and died under torture, although there is some uncertainty as to whether these reports are true. (This article in Monumenta Nipponica discusses his case.) The magistrate Inoue, portrayed as a master of psychological manipulation in Silence, is based on the real Inoue Masashige who was active in attempting to eradicate Christianity. (He was also, reportedly, the lover of the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, but this does not play any role in the novel.)  An detailed, scholarly account of Inoue’s life can be found here. Rodrigues is based on the Sicilian missionary Giuseppe Chiara. It appears that relatively little is known about Chiara other than that he entered Japan, was subsequently arrested, and then lived in Japan for almost 40 years before dying in Edo.


Knowing the bare bones of the story, we can concentrate on how it is told. In one of the reviews of Silence that I read in preparation for writing this, there was a comment along the lines of “there are no funny bits”. Having read extensively about Silence before reading the text itself, humour was the last thing I was expecting to encounter. There are so topics so unremittingly grim that the idea of even associating them with humour seems obscene, and stories of persecution surely fall into this category. There is laughter at one point, but it is the humourless laughter of the soon-to-be-unhinged, and for those who already know how the story unfolds, it is accompanied by dramatic irony: the sound that Rodrigues believes to be the snoring of a guard is, in fact, the agonised moaning of villagers being hung upside-down over a pit of filth for the sole purpose of bringing Rodrigues to the point of renouncing his faith. Not only does the narrative, understandably, lack any light-hearted moments, but it is also, at least in the English translation of William Johnston, devoid of any literary flourishes, poetical descriptions of nature or anything that would distract attention from the tale as it proceeds to its grim conclusion. Even the descriptions of torture and execution are somewhat muted, and the readers spared full horrific details. The main focus of the book is clearly the evolution of Rodrigues’ faith and mindset and, as with many of Endō Shūsaku’s works, the issue of why Christianity has not been widely adopted in Japan. In the same way that the characters Hasekura and Velasco in The Samurai appear to represent Japanese and European cultural traits, Rodrigues, Inoue and Ferreira may be meant as archetypes of European Christianity, Japan and a “Japanised” Christianity that has changed so much from its original form so as not to be recognisable as Christianity at all. This seems to be the message that Ferreira is trying to convey in his “swamp” speech: the missionaries, prepared for martyrdom, planted the “sapling” of Christianity in Japan, but failed to notice that its roots were decaying in the swamp. By calling Japan a swamp, Ferreira does not refer to deliberate persecution, but to his assertion that what the Japanese converts have believe is not Christianity but something else entirely, a version of Christianity that they have twisted to fit to concepts with which they are familiar. He cites the example that the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier, when he had first arrived in Japan and was attempting to convey the Christian message through an interpreter, used the name Dainichi (the name of a Buddha who is particularly revered in Shingon Buddhism) to refer the Christian God, leading his audience to assume that he was preaching a new kind of Buddhism. When the missionaries realised their mistake, they introduced the name Deusu (from the Latin Deus) instead, but Ferreira claims that for the Japanese believers, Dainichi and Deusu were interchangeable and essentially represented “a beautiful, exalted man” because they “have never had the concept of God; and never will”

In this “swamp” dialogue, Rodrigues and Ferreira could also be representing two different views of history and culture. Rodrigues argues that it is specific events and people that have brought about the situation in which the two men find themselves: “It’s not that [our religion] does not take root… It’s that the roots are torn up.”; “If Xavier had had a good interpreter such a strange and trifling error would never have arisen.” while Ferreira argues that it is because “the Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human”. Is Ferreira trying to excuse his failure by attributing it to impersonal forces of culture, or is he simply summarising what he has learnt over his years in Japan? If a less driven, more live-and-live man, or a man with less of a keen insight into human psychology, had been in the place of Inoue, then the persecutions may have become a formality (as indeed they did become, once the priests had been toppled from their positions of authority). However, Ferreira seems to suggest that nonetheless, the people’s beliefs would mutate from orthodox Christianity to something more compatible with their existing belief frameworks. Did this indeed happen? Yes and no. After the last priests were expelled or executed, the converts who remained Christian despite the persecutions went into hiding. Without priests, they were left with only the sacrament of baptism and the Latin prayers and rituals they had been taught. Some families passed down these traditions, which became mixed with syncretic elements, for several decades. Whether the tendency towards sycretism has anything to do with uniquely Japanese belief systems, or whether it is a natural result of the lack of input from the orthodox form of the religion, is unclear. (I am not aware of any equivalent situation in another culture.) When Japan re-opened itself to the outside world in the Meiji era, a Catholic church was built for the new French community in Nagasaki. The parish priest was astonished when a number of farmers presented themselves to him, saying that they believed as he did. Some of the hidden Christians rejoined the Catholic Church, while others continued with their traditions, believing that theirs was the true religion. (This story is told in In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians, by John Dougill, Tuttle, 2012 which I will discuss in more detail in a later blog post.)


Monument to persecuted Christians at Unzen, near Nagasaki

侍 (The Samurai) – Part 1

Endō Shūsaku (遠藤周作, 1923-1996) is not a household name in English-speaking countries, but may be about to become one, as the film adaptation of his novel Silence is released on 1st January 2017. (I haven’t yet seen it so this doesn’t constitute an endorsement. However, I can only say that if it isn’t harrowing, then it isn’t true to the novel.)

The recurring theme of Endō’s work is Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, in Japan. Endō was born in 1923 in Tokyo but spent his early life in Manchuria, returning to Japan with his mother in 1933 to live with an aunt in Kobe after his parents divorced. Endō’s mother converted to Catholicism and Endō himself was baptised into the Catholic Church in 1934. Many of his writings take the theme of the conflicts he perceived between the Christian faith and Japanese culture. Among these works are two historical novels, 沈黙 (Silence, 1966) and 侍 (The Samurai, 1980), both of which are set in the seventeenth century.

Christian missions to Japan in the sixteenth century had resulted in large numbers of converts, including some feudal lords. However, the shogunate came to distrust the ‘new’ religion; anti-Christian edicts began to be issued and outbreaks of persecution to take place. The severity of anti-Christian feeling varied from time to time and place to place, and one of the more tolerant parts of Japan was the Sendai domain under the rule of Date Masamune (伊達 政宗, 1567–1636) who, at least initially, allowed Christians to practise and propagate their faith in his domain, even when this was forbidden in Edo.


Snow was falling.
Twilight. The sky, from which weak sunlight had trickled through a cleft in the clouds onto the pebble-strewn riverbed, became dark. Suddenly it was quiet. Two, three snowflakes came fluttering down.
(own translation)

The beginning of The Samurai paints a picture of a bleak, meagre existence. The eponymous samurai and his servants are cutting trees for winter firewood. This is not a man who lives in a castle or one of the understatedly elegant samurai residences (武家屋敷, buke-yashiki) that can still be visited in certain parts of Japan, for example in Kakunodate. Instead, this samurai is superior in little more than name and heritage to the peasants with whom he seeks to eke a living out of his desolate marshlands. Better times lay in the past; his father was dispossessed of more productive lands – the lands at Kurokawa, which play an important role in the story – ostensibly to develop the marshland region, but, the family suspect, more probably as a punishment for the involvement of certain family members in sheltering rebels. The samurai lives with his wife Riku, two sons and an uncle who constantly reminisces and longs for the better days in the past. The samurai himself is stoical, dutiful and silent, accepting the fate he has been given and expressing no longings for anything different.

We are then introduced to a very different character – Velasco, a Franciscan priest in prison in Edo. The Jesuits, who were the first Christian religious order to evangelise Japan, have been taking a more cautious approach and refusing to send new missionaries since persecution of Christians has increased. The courageous, but driven and ambitious Velasco finds this approach entirely too timid and wishes to intensify missionary efforts, welcoming the idea of becoming a martyr for the faith. To this end he wishes to have himself appointed Bishop of Japan. At this point in the novel, Velasco, who is portrayed in the first person, exhibits very little self-awareness.

The link between the two characters is then revealed: it has been decided that an embassy will be sent from the domain of the samurai’s lord to Nueva España (today’s Mexico). Velasco will take part as a translator, while the samurai is to be one of the four representatives of the domain.  Velasco, of course, has his own plans for how he will use the trip to fulfil his ambitions, while the samurai is somewhat bemused to be chosen, but obedient.

Endō’s novel is based on historical events. Although he is rarely called by name in the narrative, “the samurai” is 支倉常長 Hasekura Tsunenaga. It appears that relatively little is known about Hasekura’s early life. Indeed, the journey made by Hasekura and his companions was forgotten for many years after Japan closed itself off against contact with the outer world. The Velasco character is based on a priest named Luis Sotelo. A note in the English translation of The Samurai by Van C. Gessel (New Directions) discusses how close the novel corresponds to known historical fact.


Why is the principal Japanese character in the novel referred to as “the samurai” rather than “Hasekura” or a pseudonym as in the case of Sotelo/Velasco? The word 侍 “samurai”, although it evokes ideas of swordsmanship, bravery, ornate armour and weaponry, nobility and the like in a Western readership, has for its root a word believed to mean “to wait/attend upon”. A more usual Japanese word for what non-Japanese readers would think of as a “samurai” is 武士 (bushi, meaning “military warrior”). The samurai of the novel is, however, called 侍 (samurai), emphasising the serving aspect of the role. (Van C. Gessel retains this naming convention throughout the English translation, and explains the reason for it in terms of this serving role in the Translator’s Note.) In addition, the use of “the samurai” rather than a name reinforces the sense that this samurai sees himself primarily in terms of his duty to his family and lord rather than as an individual; this is certainly not someone aiming to impose himself upon the world or “find himself”. Interestingly, the samurai’s servant, Yozō, is referred to by name. The use of “the samurai” also points out the contrast with the ambitious Velasco, who does indeed aim to impose himself upon the world, albeit while seeing himself as a servant of Christ and the church. Whether Endō wished to make these two characters symbolic of what he saw as typical Japanese and European ways of being is less clear.