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DaySpring church places an emphasis on “silence,” and sometimes when I see the word, I think of the book by Shusaku Endo by the same name. (Silence, 1980 [1969], Taplinger Publishing)

According to the translator, William Johnston, Shusaku Endo was called the Japanese Graham Greene because, as a Catholic novelist (like Graham), his books are problematic and controversial “Mr. Endo is the first Catholic to put it [problems of betrayal, martyrdom and apostasy] forward with such force and to draw the clear-cut conclusion that Christianity must adapt itself radically if it is to take root in the ‘swamp’ of Japan.”

Francis Xavier and two Jesuit companions and a Japanese interpreter took Christianity to Japan in 1549. However, the Italian priest Alessandro Valignano was more successful, and by 1579, Christians numbered around 150,000 in Japan. It was the Sengoku Period when Japan had no strong central government and the missionary work continued with prestige from 1570-1614.

However, the Japanese ruler, Hideyoshi, became enraged at the missionaries and had 26 of them--Japanese and European—crucified near Nagasaki in 1597. The missionary work was under siege by the Shogun and by 1614 there was an edict for the expulsion of all missionaries. At the time there were 300,000 Christians in a population of about 20 million. Up until 1632, despite torture, no one had apostatized, but the cruel methods of the rulers soon prevailed, and authorities killed some five to six thousand Christians in the period of 1614-40 alone. Nevertheless, thousands of crypto-Christians kept their faith secretly and when Japan was reopened in 1865, they came out of their hiding “asking for the statue of Santa Maria, speaking about Christmas and Lent, recalling the celibacy of the priests.” There are still thousands in Nagasaki and offshore islands who cling to the faith and whose prayers have “smatterings of the old Portuguese and Latin” and who retain other forms of their devotion to Santa Maria. Endo wrote Silence while living amongst them.

The book points out that “the tree of Hellenized Christianity cannot simply be pulled out of Europe and planted in the swamp of a Japan that has a completely different cultural tradition.”

One of the characters in Endo’s book is Christovao Ferreira, a priest from the Society of Jesus in Portugal, who was sent as a missionary to Japan well before the Shogun policy of missionary expulsion in the year 1614. Thirty-three years after his highly acclaimed missionary work in Japan, rumor reached the Church in Rome that he had apostatized. The book follows up this rumor by introducing the priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, born in 1610, who has a vision and compulsion to take up missionary work himself in Japan.

Rodrigues and his fellow priest (Garrpe) had difficulty in getting to Japan. They first had to convince their superior (Father Valignanao) and find a Japanese man to help them (Kichijiro), then board a ship bound for Japan. Ashore at an area utterly unfamiliar to any of them, Kichijiro somehow finds some people who were remnants of the Japanese Christians that the earlier Catholic priests had instructed. But Rodrigues reports that “in spite of myself I cannot help laughing when I hear the mumbling Portuguese and Latin words in the mouths of these ignorant peasants: ‘Deus’, ‘Angelus’, Beato’ and so on.” These are the secret or crypto-Christians that the priests have come to meet and minister to.

Things change quickly. The “guards” hear about them, and the officials ransack the village near the hiding place of the priests. The officials order the people to apostatize by trampling and spitting on the fumie, images of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary, or be tortured and killed. The peasants honor the Virgin above everything so many of them are burned, hung in a pit and dunked in feces, or slowly tortured by drowning, rather than apostatizing.

Rodrigues and Garrpe flee in different directions with Rodrigues eventually betrayed by Kichijiro and captured. Rodrigues undergoes deprivation in food and watches bitter scenes of Christians who are forced to apostatize. But the most painful scene is when he meets Christovao Ferreira who has indeed apostatized. The officials had insisted that Christians only had to trample on the fumie as a formality, and then they would immediately be released.

Rodrigues meets Christovao Ferreira who tries to persuade him to apostatize and proclaims that “before your eyes stands the figure of an old missionary defeated by missionary work.” Ferreira sees Japan as a swamp and Christianity as a sapling planted in the swamp. He claims that even “Saint Francis Xavier” failed to see that the Japanese freely changed Deus into Dainichi (The Great Sun) and he, therefore, misunderstood the people

Rodrigues, with the plodding and insistence of Ferreira, does apostatize. “The fumie is now at his feet. A simple copper medal is fixed onto a grey plank of dirty wood on which the grains run like waves. Before him is the ugly face of Christ, crowned with thorns and the thin, outstretched arms…. The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man…. The priest places his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.” The fumie had been trampled on so much that the wood surface around the plaque was blackened by the footprints and the face was concave and worn down.

Rodrigues and Ferreira become Japanese in dress and manner, working for the magistrate, free from torture but captured by their own actions and solitude. He says, “Lord, I resented your silence,” then a reply “I was not silent, I suffered beside you, I told you to step on the plaque.”

Endo’s book is an excellent read for any cross-cultural worker, but a must for missionaries going to Japan or Asia. The sacrifices of the Portuguese priests and the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians are inspirational. They also demonstrate the necessity of learning Japanese and the culture of the people.

Karl Franklin


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