Christianity's Crisis in Medieval Japan Says a Lot About Cultural Dialogue Today

Shusaku Endo’s classic novel of faith, doubt, and intercultural communication, Silence, readies itself for a timely big-screen debut by Director Martin Scorsese.

The history of Christianity in Japan is a tangled one.

In the southern Kyushu city of Kagoshima, with the iconic smoking peak of the Sakurajima volcano in the distance, stands a lonely plaque marking the spot where famed Jesuit priest St. Francis Xavier came ashore in 1549 to lead some of the first formal missionary work in Japan. He quickly fell in love with the country and its people, extolling them as “the best who have as yet been discovered”, and insisted that Japan had the greatest potential as a centre for Christianity in all Asia.

What followed is what has been referred to as ‘the Christian century’. Christianity spread like wildfire across Japan, and churches and seminaries were established throughout the country. Japan was a country divided at this time, torn by internecine warfare between various fiefdoms and their samurai armies. This worked in the missionaries’ favour, as they established not only churches but also helped merchants broker trade deals and supply arms to the warring samurai.

In the port city of Nagasaki, more than 200 miles from Kagoshima, lies another notable monument, but of a very different sort, heralding the end of this golden century for Christians in Japan. It’s the Monument to the Twenty-Six Martyrs, an eerie tribute to a mixed group of Japanese and European Christians who were crucified and executed in 1597, in an early effort to set an example to other Christians who refused to recant their faith. The youngest among them was a boy of 12.

By 1600 Japan had unified under what came to be known as the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the more that the shoguns learned about Christianity and the West, the more unsettled they became. They learned about the incessant warfare and political struggles between Protestants, Catholics, and other iterations of Christianity in Europe, and as representatives of these rival faiths arrived in Japan the shoguns worried about the impact of such struggles on a country they had just barely managed to stitch together. More ominously, the more they studied the global political situation, the more they realized that Christian missionaries were almost inevitably followed wherever they went by European armies of colonization.

The shoguns began restricting the activity of Christian priests, eventually banning Christianity altogether. The response -- proliferation of underground missionary work throughout the country, and the occasional eruption of armed Christian rebellions against local authorities -- confirmed their fears, and in the 1630s the shoguns decided to cut off contact with the Western world entirely. With the exception of a small and tightly-controlled Dutch trading mission (maintained in part so the shoguns could keep an eye on the West; this was famously depicted in David Mitchell’s 2010 novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) Europeans were banned from the shores of Japan on pain of death. That was the situation until 1853, when contact and trade between Japan and the West was officially re-established.

During the intervening 200 years Christianity didn’t disappear entirely. Christian families and entire communities in Japan maintained their faith in secret, passing it down over the generations. Christian symbols (crosses, images of Mary) were often disguised as Buddhist ritual items. Christian rituals and sacraments were secretly held, and Latin prayers passed on, sometimes becoming garbled over the generations. These ‘hidden Christians’, as they have come to be known, were occasionally found out and caught by the authorities; Christianity remained officially illegal in Japan until 1873.

Sometimes they would be punished leniently, but more frequently tortured or executed with repressive brutality. In all cases, they would have to ‘apostatize’, or renounce their Christian faith publicly. Authorities held on to special Christian icons specifically for this purpose: captured Christians would have to stomp or spit on crosses and images of Jesus or Mary, uttering insults toward them and other recantations of their faith.

In the 1850s, when European Christians once more set foot on Japan for the first time in centuries, both they and Japanese authorities alike were shocked with the emergence of tens of thousands of hidden Christians, who had passed on their faith secretly over the centuries. Some of these practitioners rejoined the Catholic Church, while others remained separate and distinct; their practice of Christianity having deviated and transformed itself significantly as it was transmitted secretly from generation to generation across the centuries.

Such is the backdrop against which Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence was written. Originally published in 1966 -- it was awarded the prestigious Tanizaki Prize that year -- it follows the journey of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Father Rodrigues who, together with his fellow missionary Father Garrpe, undertakes a secret mission to Japan in the early 1600s. Their goals are twofold: to find and support the Christian underground which they assume must still exist and, on a personal level, to learn the fate of their former teacher, Father Ferreira. Ferreira, who had been preaching in Japan and supporting the underground Christians, had disappeared and news spread that he had been captured and apostatized. Not willing to believe their mentor would do such a thing, Rodrigues and Garrpe determine to seek the truth.

The award-winning author himself was a rarity: a Japanese who had been baptized Catholic as a young child in the '30s. He didn’t give his faith much serious thought until he traveled to Europe as a student following World War II. There, he realized the extent to which nearly 2,000 years of Christianity had infused every aspect of European history and culture. It underscored for him how distinct Christianity was in Europe compared to Japan, whose culture had been shaped by millennia of the indigenous, polytheistic and animistic Shinto faith, as well as centuries of the Buddhism which had been imported from China. Christianity had barely impacted Japanese culture and society at all, by comparison.

His European experiences led him to wonder whether Christianity was compatible with Japan (and Asia more broadly) at all. Christian faith -- even if taken as reflecting a universal spiritual truth, which he as a Christian believed -- had been shaped by 2,000 years of dialogue with European culture. So when it arrived in Asia, how much of that supposed universal truth had been retained? How much reflected not the purported spiritual truth of Christianity, but the cultural values and ideas of Europeans? What did it mean when Japanese adopted Christianity? Did the interpretation of Christianity by Japanese converts reflect the same faith as that understood by western Christians? Or was it a different form of Christianity, indelibly affected by the heritage and context of Japanese culture?

Such questions obsessed Endo, and feature in much of his literature. He traveled to Palestine, and even wrote a biographical Life of Jesus in which he sought to “dewesternize” Christianity by extracting and exploring the elements of Jesus’ life and teaching he felt would resonate strongly in Asia. As he explained in that book, “The religious mentality of the Japanese is -- just as it was at the time when the people accepted Buddhism -- responsive to one who ‘suffers with us’ and who ‘allows for our weakness’, but their mentality has little tolerance for any kind of transcendent being who judges humans harshly, then punishes them. In brief, the Japanese tend to seek in their gods and buddhas a warm-hearted mother rather than a stern father. With this fact always in mind I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterize Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus.”

Metaphors, Missionaries, and Martyrs

As one of Japan’s preeminent 20th century novelists and men of letters, Endo deployed a variety of metaphors to describe the challenge of Christianity in Japan, and two of them appear prominently in Silence. One is that of Japan as a swamp. As one of the Christian missionaries who has apostatized and rejected Christianity states: “This country is a swamp… This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

Later, in a powerful scene, a Japanese inquisitor reassures an apostatized Christian priest: “Father, you were not defeated by me… You were defeated by this swamp of Japan.”

Of this famous ‘mudswamp’ metaphor Endo later stated “This is a reflection of my own doubts formed during my stay in France as to whether Western culture... can ever truly take root when planted in Japan.”

The other metaphor is that of Japan as a spider’s web. States an apostate priest:

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... 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.

The value of Christian missionary work comes under scrutiny in the book, as well. During the period in which the novel is set, Christianity has been outlawed for some years, but still scattered teams of Christian missionaries, like that of the central character Father Rodrigues, come ashore in the hopes of secretly helping the underground Christians keep their faith alive. Whenever such missionaries are captured, the Japanese inquisitors quiz them on how they can reconcile their missionary work with the outcomes it produces. Don’t the missionaries realize that by converting Japanese to Christianity, they are dooming those converts to hideous torture and death when they are inevitably caught? If the purpose of being a priest is to help people and to do good in the community, how is this accomplished by encouraging people to adopt a faith that will only bring suffering down on their families and communities?

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