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Silence – Shusako Endo,

October 1, 2016

silThe title refers to the seeming absence of God while people are being tortured for their faith in him.

Many reviewers call this a very ‘bleak’ book, which put me off reading it for a vwery long time – I didn’t find it to be so.

Others regard it as anti-catholic – I disagree in that it shows heroism and its difficulties and self-knowledge required.

JAPAN and Roman Catholicism are not an obvious marriage. But there was a time when it looked as if things might be different. In 1549, Jesuit missionaries, led by one of the order’s founders, Francis Xavier, landed in Japan with the intention of converting its people to Christianity.

The missionaries managed to convert more than 300,000 Japanese to their belief, including some of the most power­ful people in the country. Despite the numbers, the Japan­ese — notwithstanding their fabled agreeability — were not an easy conquest. Just 90 years after Xavier’s arrival, Japan closed its doors to the “contagion” from the outside world, and its leaders did their violent best to eradicate this foreign religion.

Because it threatened the power of the shogun, torture and execution were used against believers as authorities grew increasingly deter­mined to make them recant. Over 4000 people are known to have died for their faith and thousands of others suffered misery and ruination.

The public recantation often involved a darkly imaginative symbolic drama. Christians were forced to trample on fumie, religious images, often of Jesus or Mary, in order to demonstrate that they were no longer believers. Refusal usually meant death.

In Japan, showing respect is an important and ritual­ised part of the culture,. Stepping on a Christian image is  the ultimate show of disrespect.” But this was not simply a one-off act of apostasy. Because the fumie ritual was so effective, it was made into an annual event, which was a way of showing the authorities on high that the community was `clean’.

THIS ritual trampling of icons is at the heart of this cult 1966 novel, which has now been made into a Hollywood feature film by Martin Scorsese.

Endo, who has a Roman Catholic background (he said: “If I have trust in Catholicism, it is because I find in it much more possibility than in any other religion for presenting the full symphony of humanity. The other religions have almost no fullness; they have but solo parts. Only Catholicism can present the full symphony. And unless there is in that symphony a part that corresponds to Japan . . . it cannot be a true religion.”), explores the competing calls of martyrdom and compassion, as a young Spanish priest is told by his captors to trample the face of Christ in order to save the lives of others.

It emerges that, after the ban­ishment of the missionaries, and despite the martyrdoms, torture, and ritual recantations, Christianity survived for more than 200 years until the country “reopened” in 1854.

For seven gen­erations they had passed the religion down to their children despite having no Bible, no priests, and no sacraments except for baptism.

While the nuances of Christian theology seemed strange and alien to many Japanese, “the idea of equality, and a better life in the world to come”, was attractive, he says, particularly to the poor. “The Japanese lower classes lived in terrible conditions and abject subservience. The notion that all were equal in Christian terms gave them hope and a sense of dignity.

While Xavier and some of his lieutenants showed a degree of sensitivity to Japanese culture and beliefs, and made attempts to embed Christian teaching in their converts’ lives, there was “an emphasis on breadth over depth. There was a desire to convert as many as pos­sible before it was too late. And the decision to promote the ordination of Japanese priests was left too late.

IT IS a question of much debate why Japanese elites originally welcomed the Christian mission­aries. Conversion was very convenient for some feudal lords, as it gave them military advantages. But they feared that the price of Christianity came at a cost. “The Portuguese were in Macao; the Spanish were in the Philippines, as well as Mexico and South America. It was a real possibility that Japan was next. The rulers came to see Christianity as a tool of colonisa­tion; so they stamped it out. ruth­lessly.

When the missionaries were sent packing, and the persecution started, most of the elite gave up their faith; and the believers, mostly from the lower classes, “were left to their own devices, and had to make things up as they went along.

THE Christianity of these lay-led Kakure (“Hidden”) Chris­tians focused heavily on bap­tism. “Catholic priests taught that baptism led to salvation. The Hid­den Christians were left with no Bible, priests, or manuals to guide them; so they retained a belief in the essential nature of baptism. On top of that, it was relatively simple to carry out, and the notion of ‘purify­ing water’ was already part of Japan­ese culture.

The Hidden Christians shrouded their Christianity in an elaborate disguise. On the surface, they appeared to be devotees of Budd­hism or Shinto. Prayers were adapted to sound like Buddhist chants, while retaining untranslated words in Latin, Portuguese, and Spanish. Such deflections were something that the Japanese were particularly good at, Dougill says. “It’s an integral part of the culture. Promoting harmony while keeping hidden one’s real thoughts is a social virtue. It’s a well-known concept in Japanese culture, known as tatemae, “public face”, and honne, “real feel­ings”.

It was not uncommon for Hidden Christians to place in their homes statues of what appeared to be the Buddhist deity Kannon, the goddess of mercy, which, to their owners, were depictions of the Virgin Mary. These “Maria Kannons” were often central to the worship of Hidden Christians, who responded particu­larly to Mary, finding female figures of worship more amenable than male ones.

Shusaku Endo claimed that Japanese have a particular fondness for their mothers, It fits in with the psychological theory of amae, which claims that Japanese remain emotionally dependent on their mothers and fail to fully de­velop as adults. By contrast, fathers are distant figures. The closeness to mothers is reflected in the deity of compassion, Kannon, which in Japan has strong female character­istics, whereas it originated in India as a male deity. Japan has strong female character­istics, whereas it originated in India as a male deity.

IT IS difficult to know precisely how Hidden Christians wor­shipped. It seems that, in places, some form of mass might have taken place, with sashimi, or rice, and sake replacing bread and wine. These groups were isolated from each other; so, over the years, prac­tices developed in different ways. Since worship was highly secretive, and nothing was ever written down, it’s impossible to know the details of what went on.”

Some groups seem to have main­tained a thread of ancestor worship, something deep in the Japanese religious make-up. Honouring the spirits of one’s dead parents and grandparents underlies both the Shinto and Buddhist traditions. This was a major issue in terms of Chris­tianity; for missionaries like Francis Xavier taught that ancestors who were not Christians could not have entered heaven. That was too pain­ful a thought for many Japanese.

What is known is that Hidden Christians were distressed by having publicly and regularly to deny their faith, and to participate in fumie. Denying one’s faith went against the whole teaching of the priests, who promoted martyrdom. Hidden Christians felt so guilty about this that they developed various means of atone­ment, including burning their sandals and swallowing the ashes.

Endo became fascinated with this period of his country’s history, and was “very conscious of the conflict between being Japanese and being Christian”. He talked of the culture as a kind of “mudswamp” – the ability of the Japanese to accept con­tradictory truths at the same time, which meant that the terrain was difficult for monotheism to take root.

What appears to have happened was that the Hidden Christians did not so much take on the faith of the Jesuits as develop an East-West fusion which, over the years, grew into a distinct religious identity. This became evident in 1854, when, under pressure from the United States, Japan reopened its doors to foreign trade and visitors, also lifting its ban on Christianity.

A second wave of Christian missionaries arrived, telling the Japanese congregations — mostly clustered far from officialdom on distant islands and in isolated vil­lages — that they were in error, and that they should rejoin the Mother Church. Many did, but at least half refused. They became known as Hanare (“Separate”) Christians. This had much to do with the dishonour given to their ancestors. “Recognising Catholicism would mean that the teaching handed down by their parents and grandparents, etc., was wrong; so this was a classic example in which Japaneseness clashed with Christianity.” Hanare Christians believed that their religion was at least as authentic as that of the Roman Catholic Church.

ENDO felt a decided empathy with the Kakure and Hanare Christians. Despite his Roman Catholic background, Endo was not exactly orthodox. Above all, he identified with Hidden Christians rather than with the martyrs, in that he recognised that he himself was `weak’ and would have chosen to deny his faith and then practise in secret. By championing the Hidden Christians, he upset those who honour the martyrs.

Scorsese — who caused contro­versy with his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ — has decided to revisit this little-known slice of Japanese history. Dougill thinks that what has prompted Scorsese’s revival of the novel Silence after more half a century is the tenacious hold of these brave believers on national and local identity, in the face of a colonising imperative.

Like Endo, Scorsese was brought up a Roman Catholic, but suffered doubt in later life. And I think both of them were troubled by the claim of universalism. Endo wrote of Christianity feeling like an ‘ill-fitting suit’, and in Scorsese’s case his thinking was influenced by American intervention in countries like Vietnam and Iraq, with its lack of cultural sensitivity. He could see a parallel in the imposition of a European religion on the Far East. In this sense, far from being dated, Endo’s story has grown in relevance in the past 50 years.”

While a few remaining pockets of Hanare Christians cling on in remote corners of Japan, the communities are dwindling, and successive generations are declining to continue their more recent ances­tors’ religious beliefs and practices.

When they faced the most terrible torture and death, the Hidden Christians clung on to their faith with amazing tenacity. Now, in a secular age, when there is no obstruction at all to their practice, they are fast disappearing.


  • Why does God remain silent when people who love Him are tortured and killed?• Can a person who renounces his God under torture (or threat of torture) be held morally responsible for this decision?• How should we view a person who recants his or her faith? Is apostasy an unforgivable sin?• Is it ethical to refuse to recant one’s faith if other people are being threatened with injury or death?

    • To what extent did European superiority/arrogance play in Christianity’s failure to take root in Japan?

    • Is apostasy proof of cowardice (as in the character of Fujitsu)? How should we feel about someone who professes Christ repeatedly, but then denies Christ repeatedly upon threat of physical violence?

sil-3The translator needs to be alerted to the spelling in ‘naked to the waste.’


`Even that saint,’ Ferreira nodded,Taiied to notice this. But his very word “Deus” the Japanese freely changed into “Dainichi” (The Great Sun). To the Japanese who adored the sun the pronunciation of “Deus” and “Dai­nichi” was almost the same. Have you not read the letter in which Xavier speaks of that mistake?’
But in the churches we built throughout this country the Japanese were not praying to the Christian God. They twisted God to their own way of thinking in a way we can never imagine. If you call that God. . . ‘ Ferreira lowered his eyes and moved his lips as though something had occurred to him. ‘No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.’

“You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

“Father, you were not defeated by me,”

“You were defeated by this swamp of Japan.”

“No, no … my struggle was with Christianity in my own heart”


sil-2“I ran, slipping down the slope. Whenever I slowed down, the ugly thought would come bubbling up into consciousness bringing an awful dread. If I consented to this thought, then my whole past to this very day was washed away in silence.”


“you claim Christ died for them, but it is they who die for you”


“I fell……..“But, Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith………that my Lord is different from the God that is preached in the churches.”


“Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”
“Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”
“No matter what the circumstances, no man can completely escape from vanity.”
“Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here. ”
“I do not believe that God has given us this trial to not purpose. I know that the day will come when we will clearly understand why this persecution with all it’s sufferings has been bestowed upon us — for everything that Our Lord does is for our good. And yet, even as I write these words I feel the oppressive weight in my heart of those last stammering words of Kichijiro in the morning of his departure: “Why has Deus Sama imposed this suffering on us?” and then the resentment in those eyes that he turned upon me. “Father”, he had said “what evil have we done?”

I suppose I should simply cast from my mind these meaningless words of the coward; yet why does his plaintive voice pierce my breast with tall the pain of a sharp needle? Why has Our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? No, Kichijiro was trying to express something different, something even more sickening. The silence of God. Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent.”
sil-4 “Man is a strange being. He always has a feeling somewhere in his heart that whatever the danger he will pull through. It’s just like when on a rainy day you imagine the faint rays of the sun shining on a distant hill.”
“But pity was not action. It was not love. Pity, like passion, was no more than a kind of instinct.”
“When you suffer, I suffer with you. To the end I am close to you.”
“We priests are in some ways a sad group of men. Born into the world to render service to mankind, there is no one more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task.”
“It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”
“but our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of Him.”
“There are neither the strong nor the weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?”
“Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent…?”
“In order to pile weakness upon weakness he was trying to drag others along the path that he himself had walked.”
“The reason why darkness terrifying for us, he reflected, is that there remains in us the instinctive fear the primitive man had when there was as yet no light.”
“Prayer does nothing to alleviate suffering.”

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From → Church History

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