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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Silence by Shūsaku Endō, Part 1

The movie version of the Shūsaku Endō novel, Silence, is finally coming to the movie theaters this December.  It is directed by Martin Scorsese, who has been thinking about making this novel into a movie for two decades.  From Business Insider

Paramount announced Monday that it will release the Oscar-winning director's passion project "Silence" on December 23.

The story — which the auteur of such classics as "Goodfellas" and "Taxi Driver" has been trying to get off the ground for two decades — follows Jesuit priests in 17th-century Japan as they face violence and persecution.

It stars Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, and Adam Driver.

This is big news.  The fact that it’s being released around Christmas means that Scorsese and the producers of the film expect it to be nominated for Oscars.  That means it’s going to be a great movie.  Silence is one of the great novels of Japanese literature, of Catholic literature, indeed, of all literature.  I read Silence five years ago and was knocked off my feet.  Graham Green, the great English Catholic novelist, called Silence, the greatest Catholic novel ever written.  I wanted to supply a link to that quote, but I can’t seem to find it.  I know he said it though. 

Because I want to have the book fresh in my mind before I see the movie, I am altering my reading plans to read Silence in the upcoming weeks.  As it turns out, both my reading clubs on Goodreads has Silence on its group reads before the movie.  The All About Books group, a secular club with a huge number of members, has Silence as the group read in November.  The Catholic Thought group—obviously a Catholic book club, which I’ve mentioned on occasion—will be starting its read in a week.  As it turns out, I’ve been asked and agreed to be the moderator for this read at Catholic Thought.  I’ll be posting quite a bit of it here on my blog. 

If you’ve ever wanted to read this great novel, read along with me, and feel free to comment.  You’ll certainly want to read the novel before seeing the movie.  It’s not a long read, just 200 pages.

Here’s the discussion schedule I’ve set up for the Catholic Thought read.  I’ve tried to set it up so that we read in about 40 page bites weekly. 

22 – 28 October: Translator’s Preface, Prologue, and Chapters 1 and 2.
29 Oct – 4 Nov: Chapters 3 and 4.
5 – 11 Nov: Chapters 5 and 6.
12 – 18 Nov: Chapters 7 and 8.
19 – 24 Nov: Chapters 9, 10, and the Appendix.

You should complete the reading before the discussion week, if you’re going to participate at Goodreads.  Catholic Thought is always looking for more members. 

Let me provide some background here in my first post on the novel.  Shūsaku Endō is a Japanese Catholic writer of fiction and literary criticism.  Yes there are Catholics in Japan.  His mother converted to Catholicism when Endō was a boy and it stuck with him.  He went on to study in France and was very fond of the French Catholic writers.  The CS Lewis Review has a fine article on Endō’s works and career.  I have not read any of his other novels but I have read a short story and plan to read another along with Silence

While Endō’s family converted to Catholicism, there is actually an indigenous Catholic population that survived the persecutions and attempts to extirpate it from its shores.  The city of Nagasaki was built up from a small fishing village by 16th century Portuguese traders, and through that exchange and evangelization a large number of Japanese converted to Roman Catholicism.  In time the Japanese rulers did not feel comfortable with allowing Christianity to flow—probably because the Portuguese and Spanish had a history of conquest, and the missionaries were Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian religious figures.  Slowly the Japanese rulers discouraged and then persecuted Christians, and finally in 1638 Japan closed its doors entirely to the outside world.  It’s doors would remain closed for nearly 250 years.  Catholics cut off from Europe and mother church would live and secretly practice their faith, so that when the outside world reentered Japan, it found a community of Christians who still performed the Sacraments nearly as they had hundreds of years before.  These “Hidden Christians” were called Kakure Kirishitan.  Nagasaki is still the center of Catholicism in Japan. 

Silence is an historical novel of that missionary and persecution period, and when I first read it I knew nothing of the history.  I remember it taking me a little bit to get oriented.  The Translator's Preface provides some history but it took a little bit for it to sink in—maybe a few chapters—which made me have to go back and restart.  I had to do a good bit of searching of the history in order to fill in all the gaps.  Here’s an orientation. 

First digest these historical facts:

1543 Portugese fishing ships arrive in Japan.

1549 Francis Xavier arrives in Japan and starts proselytizing.  In short order it is estimated that     
         100,000 were converted.

1565/1568 Emperor Ōgimachi bans Catholicism in Japan but dies shortly after.

1579 The height of missionary activity in Japan.  Perhaps converts have reached 150,000.  Jesuit
         Alessandro Valignano is the Christian leader of the Evangelists, even establishing   
         seminaries in the country. 

1587 Toyotomi Hideyoshi unifies Japan and bans Christianity and banishes Christian 

1597 (September 5th) 26 Christians martyred by crucifixion on the orders of Hideyoshi to
          intimidate the Christians and prevent future conversions.

1598 Hideyoshi dies and the country’s unity breaks down.

1600 It is estimated there are 300,000 Christians in Japan.

1600  Tokugawa Ieyasu reunifies Japan and though dislikes Christianity tolerates it because of
           his need for trade with Portugal and Spain.  His dynasty rules Jaoan from 1600 to 1868.

1614 Tokugawa shogunate bans Catholicism and begins persecutions, and by mid century                       
             demands the expulsion of all European missionaries and the execution of all converts. 

1632 (September 10th) 55 Christians were martyred in Nagasaki known as the Great Genna

1633 Cristóvão Ferreira, the head Jesuit in Japan, is captured and forced to apostatize. 

1637 The Shimabara Rebellion occurred, mostly a peasant led revolt in southern Japan over   
          poverty and taxation.  Christians were suspected as instigators.  Subsequently some 37,000 
          rebels and sympathizers were beheaded.  Japan would close its doors to the outside world  
          for more than two hundred years.  Christianity would survive underground completely cut 
          off from Europe and the papacy. 

1643 Giuseppe Chiara, Italian Jesuit, lands on the Japanese island of Oshima in an effort to 
         Sacramentally minister to the indigenous Catholic population. 

The central character of Silence, Sebastião Rodrigues, is based on the historical person of Giuseppe Chiara.  It is with this background and this moment in time that the novel’s plot begins. 

Second, there are a couple of other matters to know about the period that are relevant to the story.    

Fumie:  A icon or image of Jesus Christ or the Blessed Mother on which suspected Christians in Japan were forced to trample on to prove they were either not Christian or renounced (apostatize) their Christianity.  

Anazuri: The torture of the pit, where the prisoner is hung upside down submerged to about his knees in a foul pit and cut on his head so that he slowly bleeds to death drop by drop or until he recants.  It typically took a few days for a person to die from this torture. 

Finally there are a few other websites that can supplement your understanding of the history and persons of the era.  The History of the Catholic Church in Japan, the martyrs of Japan here and here.   You can Google all historical figures I’ve listed and there should be a Wikipedia entry on all of them.  I don’t think I need to provide links for those.


  1. I'll try and find this book. Thanx Manny.

    God bless.

  2. I first read this book in 2013. I have since then emigrated to Philippines and I'm not quite sure if I still have my copy. I've also a desire to re-read the novel. I hope I can locate my copy.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Robert. If you do read it, stop by and read my commentary. And let me know what you think.