Extract from Shusake Endo’s Silence, with an introduction by Martin Scorsese.

Introduction by Martin Scorsese, whose film adaptation of the book is currently in production.

How do you tell the story of Christian faith? The difficulty, the crisis, of believing? How do you describe the struggle? There have been many great twentieth century novelists drawn to the subject – Graham Greene, of course, and François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos and, from his own very particular perspective, Shusaku Endo. When I use the word ‘particular’, I am not referring to the fact that Endo was Japanese. In fact, it seems to me that Silence, his greatest novel and one that has become increasingly precious to me as the years have gone by, is precisely about the particular and the general. And it is finally about the first overwhelming the second.

[private]Endo himself had great difficulty reconciling his Catholic faith with Japanese culture. So it was not historical research but his own experience that drew him to the stories of the Portuguese missionaries of the seventeenth century who were forced to apostatise. He understood the conflict of faith, the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience. The voice that always urges the faithful – the questioning faithful – to adapt their beliefs to the world they inhabit, their culture. Christianity is based on faith, but if you study its history you see that it’s had to adapt itself over and over again, always with great difficulty, in order that faith might flourish. That’s a paradox, and it can be an extremely painful one: on the face of it, believing and questioning are antithetical. Yet I believe that they go hand in hand. One nourishes the other. Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it co-exists with faith – true faith, abiding faith – it can end in the most joyful sense of communion. It’s this painful, paradoxical passage – from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion – that Endo understands so well, and renders so clearly, carefully and beautifully in Silence.

Sebastian Rodrigues represents what you might call the ‘best and the brightest’ of the Catholic faith. ‘There were once “Men of the Church”,’ the old Priest of Torcy tells the young, sickly Priest of Ambricourt in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, and Rodrigues would most certainly have been one of those men, stalwart, unbending in his will and his resolve, unshakeable in his faith – if he had stayed in Portugal, that is. Instead, he is tested in a very special and especially painful way. He is placed in the middle of another, hostile culture, during a late stage in a protracted effort to rid itself of Christianity. Rodrigues believes, with all his heart, that he will be the hero of a Western story that we all know very well: the Christian allegory. He will be the Christ figure, with his own Gethsemane – a patch of woods – and his own Judas, a miserable wretch named Kichijiro. In fact, this is the fate that befalls his fellow missionary, Father Garrpe. And then, slowly, masterfully, Endo reverses the tide. Why am I being kept alive? Rodrigues wonders. Where is my martyrdom? My glorious martyrdom?

His Japanese captors have a keener understanding of Christianity than he realises, and he is given a different role altogether, although no less meaningful. Silence is the story of a man who learns – so painfully – that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows, that He leaves much more to the ways of men than we realise, and that He is always present … even in His silence. For me, it is the story of one who begins on the path of Christ, and who ends replaying the role of Christianity’s greatest villain, Judas. He almost literally follows in his footsteps. In so doing, he comes to understand the role of Judas. This is one of the most painful dilemmas in all of Christianity. What was Judas’ role? What was expected of him by Christ? What is expected of him by us today? With the discovery of the Gospel of Judas these questions have become even more pressing. Endo looks at the problem of Judas more directly than any other artist I know. He understood that, in order for Christianity to live, to adapt itself to other cultures and historical moments, it needs not just the figure of Christ but the figure of Judas as well. I picked up this novel for the first time almost twenty years ago. I’ve reread it countless times since, and I am preparing to adapt it as a film. It has given me a kind of sustenance that I have found in only a very few works of art. I leave you with Silence by the great Shusaku Endo.

Extract from Silence by Shusake Endo


News reached the Church in Rome. Christovao Ferreira, sent to Japan by the Society of Jesus in Portugal, after undergoing the torture of ‘the pit’ at Nagasaki had apostatised. An experienced missionary held in the highest respect, he had spent thirty-three years in Japan, had occupied the high position of provincial and had been a source of inspiration to priests and faithful alike. He was a theologian, too, of considerable ability, and in the time of persecution he had secretly made his way into the Kamigata region to pursue his apostolic work. From here the letters he sent to Rome overflowed with a spirit of indomitable courage. It was unthinkable that such a man would betray the faith, however terrible the circumstances in which he was placed. In the Society of Jesus as well as the Church at large, people asked themselves if the whole thing were not just a fictitious report invented by the Dutch or the Japanese.

Not that the Church at Rome was ignorant of the straitened circumstances in which the Japanese mission was situated. Letters from the missionaries had left no room for doubt. From 1587 the regent Hideyoshi, reversing the policy of his predecessor, had initiated a frightful persecution of Christianity. It first began when twenty-six priests and faithful were punished at Nishizaka in Nagasaki; and following on this Christians all over the country were evicted from their households, tortured and cruelly put to death. The Shogun Tokugawa pursued the same policy, ordering the expulsion of all the missionaries from Japan in the year 1614. Reports from the missionaries tell of how on the 6th and 7th October of this same year, seventy priests, both Japanese and foreign, were herded together at Kibachi in Kyushu and forced to board five junks bound for Macao and Manila. Then they sailed into exile. It was rainy that day, and the sea was grey and stormy as the ships drenched by the rain made their way out of the harbour, passed beside the promontory and disappeared beyond the horizon.

Flaunting this severe decree of exile, however, thirty-seven priests refused to abandon their flock and secretly remained hiding in Japan. And Ferreira was one of these underground priests. He continued to inform his superiors by letter of the capture of the missionaries and the Christians, and of the punishment to which they were subjected. Today there is still extant a letter he wrote from Nagasaki on March 22nd 1632 to the Visitor Andrew Palmeiro giving an exhaustive description of the conditions of that time:

In my former letter I informed Your Reverence of the situation of Christianity in this country. And now, I will go on to tell you of what has happened since then. Everything has ended up in new persecution, new repression, new suffering. Let me begin my account with the story of five religious who from the year 1629 were apprehended for their faith. Their names are Bartholomew Gutierrez, Francisco de Jesus, Vicente de San Antonio of the Order of Saint Augustine, Antonio Ishida of our own Society, and a Franciscan, Gabriel de Santa Magdalena.

The magistrate of Nagasaki, Takenaka Uneme, tried to make them apostatise and to ridicule our holy faith and its adherents, for he hoped in this way to destroy the courage of the faithful. But he quickly realised that words alone would never shake the resolution of these priests; so he was forced to adopt a different course of action; namely, immersion in the hell of boiling water at Unzen.

He gave orders that the five priests be brought to Unzen and tortured until such time as they should renounce their faith. But on no account were they to be put to death. In addition to the five priests, Beatrice da Costa, wife of Antonio da Silva, and her daughter Maria were to be tortured, since they, too, in spite of all attempts at persuasion, had refused to give up their faith.

On December 3rd the party left Nagasaki for Unzen. The two women were carried in litters, while the five men were mounted on horses. And so they bade farewell. Arriving at the port some distance away, their arms and hands were bound, their feet were shackled, and they were put on board a ship and tightly tied to its side.

That evening they reached the harbor of Obama at the foot of Unzen; and the next day they climbed the mountain where the seven, one by one, were thrust into a tiny hut. Day and night they remained there in confinement, their feet shackled and their arms bound, while around them guards kept watch. The road to the mountain, too, was lined with guards; and without formal permission from the officials no one was permitted to pass that way.

The next day the torture began in the following way. One by one the seven were taken apart from the surrounding people, brought to the edge of the seething lake and shown the boiling water casting its spray high into the air—and then they were urged to abandon the teaching of Christ or else they would experience in their very bodies the terrible pain of the boiling water which lay before them. The cold weather made the steam arising from the bubbling lake look terrible indeed, and the very sight of it would make a strong man faint, were it not for the grace of God. But every one of them, strengthened by God’s grace, showed remarkable courage and even asked to be tortured, firmly declaring that they would never abandon their holy faith. Hearing this dauntless reply, the officials tore off the prisoners’ clothes, bound them hand and foot to posts, and scooping up the boiling water in ladles, poured it over their naked bodies. These ladles were perforated and full of holes so that this process took a considerable time and the suffering was prolonged. The heroes of Christ bore this terrible torment without flinching. Only the young Maria, overcome with the excess of her suffering, fell to the ground in agony. ‘She has apostatised! She has apostatised!’ they cried; and carrying her to the hut they promptly sent her back to Nagasaki. Maria denied that she had wished to apostatise. Indeed, she even pleaded to be tortured with her mother and the rest. But they paid no attention to her prayers. The other six remained on the mountain for thirty-three days. During that time the priests Antonio and Francisco, as well as Beatrice, were each tortured six times in the boiling water. Father Vincente was tortured four times; Fathers Palmeiro and Gabriel twice. Yet in all this not one of them so much as breathed a groan or a sigh.

Fathers Antonio and Francisco as well as Beatrice da Costa, in particular, undaunted by tortures, threats and pleadings of all kind, displayed a courage worthy of a man. In addition to the torture of the boiling water, she was subjected to the further ignominy of being obliged to stand for hours upon a small rock, exposed to the jeering and insults of the crowd. But even when the frenzy of her persecutors reached its zenith, she did not flinch.

The others, being weak in health, could not be punished too severely since the wish of the magistrate was not to put them to death but to make them apostatise. Indeed, for this reason he went so far as to bring a doctor to the mountain to tend their wounds.

At last, however, Uneme realised that he would never win. On the contrary his followers, seeing the courage of the priests, told him that all the springs in Unzen would run dry before men of such power could be persuaded to change their minds. So he decided to bring them back to Nagasaki. On January 5th he confined Beatrice to a house of ill fame, while the priests he lodged in the local prison. And there they still are.

This whole struggle has had the effect of spreading our doctrine among the multitude and of strengthening the faith of our Christians. All has turned out contrary to the intentions of the tyrant.

Such was Ferreira’s letter. The Church at Rome could not believe that this man, however terrible the torture, could be induced to renounce his faith and grovel before the infidel.

In 1635 four priests gathered around Father Rubino in Rome. Their plan was to make their way into a Japan in the throes of persecution in order to carry on an underground missionary apostolate and to atone for the apostasy of Ferreira which had so wounded the honour of the Church.

At first their wild scheme did not win the consent of their Superiors. Through sympathising with the ardour and apostolic zeal which prompted such a plan, the Church authorities felt reluctant to send any more priests to such a country and to a mission fraught with such peril. On the other hand, this was a country in which from the time of Francis Xavier the good seed had been most abundantly sown: to leave it without leaders and abandon the Christians to their fate was something unthinkable. Furthermore, in the Europe of the time the fact that Ferreira had been forced to abandon his faith in this remote country at the periphery of the world was not simply the failure of one individual but a humiliating defeat for the faith itself and for the whole of Europe. Such was the way of thinking that prevailed; and so, after all sorts of troubles and difficulties, Father Rubino and his four companions were finally permitted to set sail. In addition to this group, however, there were three other priests planning to enter Japan secretly in the same way – but these were Portuguese and their reason was different. They had been Ferreira’s students and had studied under him at the ancient monastery of Campolide. For these three men, Francisco Garrpe, Juan de Santa Marta and Sebastian Rodrigues, it was impossible to believe that their much admired teacher Ferreira, faced with the possibility of a glorious martyrdom, had grovelled like a dog before the infidel. And in these sentiments they spoke for the clergy of Portugal.

They would go to Japan; they would investigate the matter with their own eyes. But here, as in Italy, their Superiors were slow to give consent. At length, however, overcome by the ardent importunity of the young men, they agreed to this dangerous mission to Japan. This was in the year 1637.

Consequently, the three young priests set about preparing their long and arduous journey. It was customary at that time for the Portuguese missionaries who went to the Orient to join the fleet which went from Lisbon to India; and the departure of this Indian fleet was one of the most exciting events of the year in Lisbon. Before the eyes of the three men there arose in vivid colors the spectacle of an Orient which was literally the end of the earth and of a Japan which was its uttermost limit. As one opened the map one saw the shape of Africa, then India, and then the innumerable islands and countries of Asia were all spread out. And then, at the north-east extremity, looking just like a caterpillar, was the tiny shape of Japan. To get to this country, one must first go to Goa in India, then over miles and miles of sea; for a period of weeks and months one must go on and on. From the time of Saint Francis Xavier, Goa had been the gateway to all missionary labour in the East; it had two seminaries where students from all parts of Asia studied and where the European missionaries learned about conditions in the country for which they were bound. Here missionaries sometimes had to wait for six months or even a year for a ship that would take them to the country for which they were destined.

The three priests strove with all their might to learn what they could about conditions in Japan. Fortunately there were many reports sent from Japan by Portuguese missionaries from the time of Luis Frois and these told of how the new Shogun Iemitsu had adopted a policy of repression even more cruel than that of his father or grandfather. Especially in Nagasaki, from the year 1629 the magistrate Takenaka Uneme had inflicted upon the Christians the most inhumane and atrocious sufferings, immersing them in pools of boiling water and urging them to renounce their faith and change their religion. It was said that in one single day the number of victims sometimes reached no less than sixty or seventy. Since it was Ferreira himself who had sent this news there could be no mistake about its reliability. In any case the new missionaries realised that they must have from the beginning the realisation and conviction that the end of their arduous journey might bring them up against a fate more terrible than any of the sufferings they had endured on the way. Sebastian Rodrigues, born in 1610 in the well-known mining town of Tasco, entered religious life at the age of seventeen. Juan de Santa Marta and Francisco Garrpe, both friends of Rodrigues, also studied with him at the seminary of Campolide. From their early days at the minor seminary they had spent their days sitting at their desks in study, and they all had vivid memories of their old teacher Ferreira from whom they had learned theology. And this same Ferreira was now somewhere in Japan. Had that face with is clear blue eyes and soft radiant light – had it been changed by the hands of the Japanese torturers? This was the question they asked themselves. They could not believe that this face could now be distorted because of insults heaped on it; nor could they believe that Ferreira had turned his back on God and cast away that gentle charity that characterised his every action. Rodrigues and his companions wanted by all means to get to Japan and learn the truth about the fate of Ferreira. On March 25, 1638, the Indian fleet sailed from the river Tagus to a salvo of guns from the fortress of Belem. On board the Santa Isabella were the three missionaries who, after receiving a blessing from the Bishop, Joao Dasco, had boarded the commander’s ship. As they reached the mouth of the brown river and plunged into the blue noonday sea, they leaned against the side of the ship watching the promontory and the mountain gleaming like gold. There were the red walls of the farm houses. The Church. From the church-tower the tolling of the bell which bade farewell to the departing ships was carried out into the sea. Now for their journey around Africa to India. Three days after departure they hit up against a terrible storm on the west coast of Africa.

On April 2nd they reached the island of Porto Santo; some time later Madeira; on the 6th they arrived at the Canary Islands where they encountered ceaseless rain pouring down from a sky which contained no breath of wind. In the utterly windless calm, the heat was unbearable. And then, in addition to everything, disease broke out. On the Santa Isabella alone more than one hundred victims lay moaning on the deck and in the bunks below. Rodrigues and his companions together with the crew hastened around tending the sick and helping to bleed them. July 25th, the feast of Saint James, the ship at last rounded the Cape of Good Hope. On this day a violent wind again arose so that the mast of the ship was broken and crashed down on the deck with a rending sound. Even the sick and Rodrigues and his companions were summoned up to rescue the foresail from the same peril. But scarcely had they succeeded in their attempt when the ship ran on a rock. If the other ships had not been there to help, the Santa Isabella would probably have sunk there and then. After the storm the wind again calmed down. The sail lay lifeless; only its pitch black shadow lay upon the faces and bodies of the sick who lay like dead men on the deck. And so the days passed one by one with the glaring heat of the sun beating down upon a sea which had not so much as a swell of the waves. All these mishaps prolonged the journey so that food and water became scarce; but at last on October 9th they reached their destination: Goa.

After arrival they were able to get more detailed news about Japan than had been possible at home. They were told that since January in the year in which they had set sail, thirty-five thousand Christians had caused an insurrection at Shimabara; and in the ensuing bloody conflict with the forces of the Bakafu the rebels had been butchered to the last man – men and women, young and old, all alike had been slain. As a result of the war, the whole district was so desolate that scarcely a human shadow could be seen, while the remnants of the Christians were being hunted down one by one. The news, however, which gave the greatest shock to Rodrigues and his companions was that as a result of this war Japan had cut all trade relations and intercourse with their country. Portuguese ships were forbidden to enter the harbours of Japan. It was with the realisation that they could not be brought to Japan in a Portuguese ship that the priests reached Macao. They felt desperate. The town of Macao, in addition to being the base of Portuguese operations in the Far East, was a base for trade between China and Japan. Consequently, if they waited here there was the possibility that some stroke of good fortune might help them on their way. Immediately on their arrival they received clear-cut advice from the Visitor Valignano who was in Macao at that time. Missionary work in Japan, he said, was now out of question nor had he any intention of sending missionaries to a country fraught with such dangers. From the time of the outbreak of persecution in Japan, it should be said, the whole administration of the Japanese Province of the Society of Jesus has been entrusted to this Superior, Valignano, who ten years before had founded at Macao a College for the formation of missionaries bound for China and Japan. In regard to Ferreira, whom the three missionaries intended to seek out after arrival in Japan, Valignano gave the following report: from the year 1633 all news from the underground mission had come to an abrupt and drastic end. Dutch sailors returned to Macao from Nagasaki related that Ferreira had been taken and tortured in the pit.

After that the whole matter was obscure and investigation of the true facts was impossible. This was because the Dutch had left on the very day that Ferreira had been suspended in the pit. The only thing that could be said with certainty was that Ferreira had been cross-examined by the newly-appointed magistrate Inoue, the Lord of Chikugo. In any case, the Macao mission could in no way agree to priests travelling to a Japan in such conditions. This was the frank opinion of Valignano. Today we can read some of the letters of Sebastian Rodrigues in the library of the Portuguese “Institute for the Historical Study of Foreign Lands”. The first of these begins at the time when he and his companions heard from Valignano about the situation in Japan.[/private]

Translation ©William Johnston, 1969.
Silence is published in the UK and British Commonwealth by Peter Owen as a Modern Classic. 

Shusaku Endo is widely regarded as one of the greatest Japanese authors of the late twentieth century. Born in 1923, he won many major literary awards and was nominated for the Nobel several times. Other than Silence, his novels, which have been translated into thirty languages, include The Sea and Poison, Wonderful Fool, and Deep River. He died in 1996.

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