Silence by Shusaku Endo is about faith and doubt. Endo, a Japanese Catholic, sets his slim novel against the Japanese persecution of Christians that started in 1614. The missionary work begun by Francis Xavier in 1549 had initially flowered, with the number of Japanese converts climbing to 300,000. However, the shoguns began to perceive Christianity as a threat, a harbinger of Western imperialism. They outlawed Christianity, expelled the missionaries, and executed Christians. Nonetheless, communities of crypto-Christians continued to survive underground. To expose practicing Christians, Japanese authorities demanded that suspected worshipers trample upon fumie, metal images of Jesus and Mary. Those that refused were tortured and executed. Christians were hung upside down over pits. Incisions were cut in their foreheads to intensify the agony.
The protagonist of Silence is a Portuguese missionary, Sebastian Rodrigues. He’s arrived in Japan despite the virtual certainty of execution to investigate the rumored apostasy of his mentor Father Ferreira. Ferreira is based on the historical figure of Christovao Ferreira, the leader of the Japanese mission and the first missionary to apostatize, doing so after six hours over the pit. Rodrigues discovers hidden Christian communities. At night, he performs masses, hears confessions, and baptizes children. Japanese officials catch wind of Rodrigues’ presence. After the authorities stake two peasants on the beach to drown in the incoming tide, Rodrigues flees. He is betrayed and imprisoned, where his faith is put to cruel test: step on a fumie to save the lives of Japanese peasants who have been hung over the pit.
Rodrigues arrives in Japan consumed with pride. If Ferreira has apostatized, Rodrigues himself will make good the sin with his own martyrdom. He regards the Japanese Christians with a mixture of pity and disdain. He pities their poverty. They subsist on handfuls of radishes and potatoes and occasional rice and struggle under back-breaking taxes. They are scantily dressed no matter the season. The meager hope that they retain is sustained by dreams of the paradise that the missionaries have portrayed for them. Yet Rodrigues disdains their filth and stench. They have “peasant faces.” They are “ignorant beasts.” Rodrigues likens his own plight to Jesus’ path to crucifixion. He has his own Judas, he undergoes his own interrogations, he is provided salty fish just as Jesus was given vinegar to drink. Yet unlike his god, he cannot love the despised and the ugly. “What grieved him most was his inability to love these people as Christ had loved them.”
On his journey, Rodrigues begins to question. The silence of the sea as the Japanese martyrs suffer, the silence of the peasant village–the inhabitants can “no longer even weep or cry in their pain”– mirrors the silence of God, “the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.” Rodrigues cannot comprehend that the god he worships does nothing to relieve suffering. He begins to question God’s existence. He becomes resentful. At the same time, he suffers from the painful knowledge that the renewed persecution results from his presence and that Japanese peasants are suffering on his account. He reflects how easy faith is for priests seated in armchairs in Portugal. He realizes that sin is not stealing or lying so much as the indifferent brutality of one man to another.
Ultimately, the Japanese magistrates confront Rodrigues with Ferreira. Ferreira urges Rodrigues to apostatize, declaring that his own decision was impelled by his recognition that Christianity cannot prosper in “the Japanese swamp.” As Rodrigues listens in his prison to the moans of Christians hanging above the pit, he is again confronted by his erstwhile mentor who tells him that by refusing to apostatize Rodrigues makes himself more important than these peasants. Ferreira assures Rodrigues that Christ himself would have apostatized to save them.
Rodrigues steps on the fumie because he is convinced that he has heard a voice commanding, “Trample! It was to be trampled on that I was born into this world. It was to share man’s pain that I carried my cross.” Endo leaves ambiguous whether Rodrigues has heard the word of God or has acted out of weakness.
Ferreira and Rodrigues live the remainder of their lives under house arrest, forced to accept Japanese wives. They become bloodhounds for the Japanese customs inspectors, who sift through boxes of imports for forbidden religious articles. They are compelled to write books denouncing Christianity. The persecution of Christians did not end until Japan was opened to the West by American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853.
Endo asks enduring questions about the consistency of faith and doubt, about whether life matters more than martyrdom, about whether faith can withstand hardship, and about whether the Westernized faith brought by the missionaries can survive without redefinition in an Asian setting– whether religion attunes itself to the surrounding culture. Even as Endo displays Rodrigues’ pride and sense of superiority, he depicts the inherent hubris of proselytism. Endo’s questions are universal. As I read the novel, I also pondered about the universality and persistence of prejudice and persecution. In 1496, Portugal expelled its Jews. The following year, Portugal forbade emigration and compelled conversion. Communities of crypto-Jews survived these decrees. Some of these Portuguese crypto-Jews settled in an area of Brazil ruled by the Dutch, who allowed them to worship freely. They established the first synagogue in the New World in 1636. In 1654, just shortly after the events described in Silence occur, the Portuguese pushed out the Dutch, and the Jewish residents were ordered to leave a second time.