Silence by Shusaku Endo

Love this new Picador Classic cover of Silence

Silence is a historical novel by Shusaku Endo, a Catholic Japanese, making his perspective unique in the country that primarily practice Shinto and Buddhism.

There’s historical note at the beginning of the book, giving the frame of the story: Christianity was first introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier and his colleagues in 1549. For the next 60 years, Christianity spread, finding favour in the Japanese court. By 1600 there were an estimated 300,000 Christian converts in Japan, though there started to be some oppositions. Between 1614-1640 it is estimated 5000-6000 Christians were killed by the authority who wanted to destroy Christian influence in Japan. The use of torture was introduced in an attempt to force Christians to apostatize – to renounce their faith. In 1632, the Catholic world was shocked by the news that Father Christovao Ferreira – the Portuguese leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan – had apostatized. By 1643, when Silence in set, Christianity only survived in underground communities and was ruthlessly suppressed.

So that’s a crash course of how Christianity entered Japan. It’s a crucial framing, and absolutely necessary to read, so don’t skip it! While Xavier and Ferreira are real historical people, Silence’s protagonist is Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a fictional character (though possibly based on composite of real life characters too). Rodrigues is a former student of Ferreira, who could not believe that his respectable teacher has apostatized. So apart from missionary duties, his personal interest is to find out what really happens to Ferreira.

The concept of apostatizing is a key point in this story. It is what makes you a true Christian. The Japanese authorities would often make light of it, saying that it’s not a big deal, that it’s just a formality, it doesn’t have to mean that you truly change on the inside, if you just step on this fumie and spit on it, it would make it easier for all of us, and we’d let you free right away.

But of course it is not that simple for the Christians. Either you keep to your principle or you don’t. There’s no two ways about it. It’s like there’s a line on the ground, and once you cross it there’s no turning back.

However, there’s one character who always apostatized when he was forced to, as he was weak – he admitted it himself. He would trample on the fumie, be freed, have deep regrets, wail for forgiveness, but apostatize when caught again and threatened with torture. Repeated over and over again. His struggles are interesting. It is pondered throughout the book, that it just happens that they live in the period of persecution. If they all lived in time of peace, people who apostatized may prosper as leaders of the church. How true is this? I imagine 99% of Christians today would apostatize in a blink of an eye with the first threat of torture.

Because religion is so central to the story, it’d be hard to talk about it without giving away your own beliefs to give it a bit of background about where you stand and how you may take the book. I was raised a Catholic, went to both Catholic and Protestant schools (at different times), but I’m now an agnostic. And because of that, I could sympathize with the struggles of Rodrigues, but all the way wondered why anyone needs to suffer and to die for an idea. So much pain, and for what? It was all so futile, so many lives wasted.

There are quite a few discussions between the characters in the book about this too. About Catholicism, Christianity, and why people felt the need to penetrate Japan with these ideas, a faraway country where people have a completely different belief system, i.e. the Japanese largely believe in polytheism – in spirits that live in all kinds of elements on earth, while Christianity is of course a monotheism – believes in a singular all powerful God.

Subtle differences between Catholicism and Protestant were another issue, which made an already volatile situation in Japan even more confusing, as the Catholics, who were the Portuguese and the Spanish, and the Protestant, who were the Dutch and the English, had their own problems with each other. One party would often dissuade the Japanese converts to listen to the other party. Poor the Japanese. As if there isn’t already a lot to take to learn about foreign Deus (God), and now there’s a different kind of foreign teaching that is true and not true. Sigh.

One aspect that I could see help the adoption of the faith by the Japanese is the class system of the society and how hierarchical it was. It must’ve been refreshing to learn a new teaching where everybody is supposedly equal and loved. True enough, majority of the converts were peasants.

I was acutely aware that the original period happened in 1600s, that the book was published in 1960s, and that I was reading this in 2015. Society is changing all the time, religions are evolving, and you probably read it differently now than if you read it at the time the book was out. And I believe it will be read very differently too half a century later. By then religion would probably be as condemned as racism or colonialism. But I digress.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – I loved reading it as a historical novel as it tells the story of the period and setting that I would never have learnt otherwise. But it may have a bigger impact on me if I read it a few years ago when I was on the brink of leaving religions forever. As of now I’ve been on the other side, the faith struggles could seem a bit.. silly. I love the ending, it is realistic, true to history, and doesn’t make this an evangelical novel – the direction I was worried it’d go into at certain points of the book.

Endo Shusaku

The Movie

Apt timing for me. As soon as I finished the book, I saw news about the upcoming movie adaptation by Martin Scorsese. I heard about the film being picked up a while ago, but wasn’t sure if they really went ahead with it or not – sometimes movie projects just peter out. But with these recent images, seems like we’ll be seeing it soon at the cinema.

Liam Neeson as Ferreira


silence film
Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues


(Adam Driver as Garppe)

Silence is my second entry for Japanese Literature Challenge 9 (I read Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima a couple of months ago) and it’s also a good selection for #diversedecember.

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