Any discussion of this novel should involve its most recurring motif, silence. Silence comes up in many ways in the story. First, there are some basic natural silences. There is the “eerie” silence of the empty village (p. 64) and the silence that hangs when Ferreira is first brought into Rodrigues’ cell (p. 141). There is the silence of a village when the interrogating guards investigate: “Not a sound could be heard…Why was there no sign of life? Even the barking of the dogs had suddenly come to an end, and Tomogi was like an ancient, abandoned ruin. Yet I could sense the awful silence that enveloped the whole place” (p. 50). It is interesting to note that Japanese aesthetics tend to be lean and sparse, where more is said by saying less, and the silence motif seems to be attuned to that aesthetic. You can also see how the plot is lean and direct and absent of any embellishments. Think of Haiku or other Japanese poetic forms. They are lean and evocative. Silence, the absence of sound, fits right into that aesthetic.
Second, there is the inherent silence of peasants under interrogation:
The peasants stood erect, silent. Men, women, children—all were silent. And so the seconds passed. It was as if enemies were staring at one another. Looking back on it now, I realize that it must have been precisely at this time when everything became silent that we looked down on the village from the mountain. (p. 51).
Here silence is the unuttered profession one’s identity. If apostatizing requires spoken expression, silence is the shrewd alternative.
Third, there is the silence of not revealing your fellow Christian to the authorities. 'No, father, we didn't say a word about you,' said Mokichi, hands on knees, 'and if they come again, we'll still say nothing. No matter what happens we'll stand by you.' (p. 50). Betrayal requires some form of articulation. Not volunteering or withholding information is a form of silence.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, there is Rodrigues’ exclamation on the silence of God in the face of the peasant’s suffering. When Kichijiro questions why God has put this suffering on his people, Rodrigues contemplates:
I suppose I should simply cast from my mind these meaningless words of the coward; yet why does his plaintive voice pierce my breast with all the pain of a sharp needle? Why has Our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? No, Kichijiro was trying to express something different, something even more sickening. The silence of God. Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent. This was the problem that lay behind the plaintive question of Kichijiro. (p. 55)
But that’s not exactly what Kichijiro brings up. He questions why God is allowing this and what “evil” they may have done. But he does not question God’s existence. Rodrigues surmises it, and it’s in his mind. Rodrigues brings up God’s silence repeatedly. We see it again when Mokichi and Ichizo are crucified by the shore.
What do I want to say? I myself do not quite understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God....the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent. (p. 61)
What is interesting is that around this silence is a wealth of sound. There is the sung hymn, “We’re on our way, we’re on our way,/We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise…” There is the sound of the rain, the sound of the waves (“it broke upon the ears,” and the sound of the Mokichi moaning, a “dark moaning” (p. 59).
The moaning sometimes ceased. Mokichi had not even the strength to encourage himself with a hymn like that of yesterday. Yet after an hour of silence the voice was again brought to the ears of the people by the wind. Hearing this sound, like that of an animal, the peasants trembled and wept. In the afternoon the tide gradually comes in again; the black, cold color of the sea deepens; the stakes seem to sink into the water. The white foaming waves, swirling past the stakes, break on the sand, a white bird, skimming over the surface of the sea, flies far, far away. And with this all is over. (p. 59)
While Rodrigues insists on the silence, we see otherwise. Another example is when Rodrigues is on the run. He hears “the hoarse cawing of pursuing crows,” sees his face in a pool of water, which he imagines to be a face of Christ crucified, and hears the cicadas “singing hoarsely” in the woods (p. 67-8). Rodrigues again questions God’s silence.
But now there arose up within my heart quite suddenly the sound of the roaring sea as it would ring in my ears when Garrpe and I lay alone in hiding on the mountain. The sound of those waves that echoed in the dark like a muffled drum; the sound of those waves all night long, as they broke meaninglessly, receded, and then broke again on the shore. This was the sea that relentlessly washed the dead bodies of Mokichi and Ichizo, the sea that swallowed them up, the sea that, after their death, stretched out endlessly with unchanging expressions. And like the sea God was silent. His silence continued. (p. 68)
What silence? There are sounds all over. And here we arrive at one of the central ironies in the novel. Rodrigues is of the Jesuit orders. The Jesuits are known for their discernments. The spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola—the founder of the Society of Jesus—are meant to be a means of discernment of God in our lives. That a Jesuit cannot discern God is meant to be an irony. Right in front of him in the water is the face of Christ and he doesn’t discern it. And, by extension, the sounds of animals and nature can be seen as God’s voice.
And here I want to digress. Silence is a Japanese novel written by a Japanese author. It is unfortunate for me that I do not know Japanese culture well. I think one should to fully appreciate this novel. It’s not just the history, which no doubt is very important in an historical novel, but also the aesthetics, the literary allusions, the cultural memes, especially inherently the symbols. There is a high degree of allusiveness in Japanese literature and art, probably due to its very leanness. Less is said, but what is said is amplified by cultural and literary allusions and symbols. In addition, the ancient Shinto and imported Buddhist religions naturally supply imagery and allusions. Both Shinto and Buddhism have an element of animism in it, meaning that animals and nature are infused with spirits. From Shinto, Kami https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kami are spirits in nature and they can be deities, dead people, or apparently natural forces. Insects for instance are typically symbols for the spirits. In the novel we recurring patterns of ocean and mountains and trees and frequently we see cicadas, flies, butterflies, and even a cockroach. Endo is placing these right in front of Rodrigues. These form the supernatural right in front of Rodrigues, God’s voice calling. There is a single moment where Rodrigues almost discerns it, when he is in prison.
At night, as he sat in the dark listening to the sound of the turtle-dove in the trees, he felt the face of Christ looking intently at him. The clear blue eyes were gentle with compassion; the features were tranquil; it was a face filled with trust. 'Lord, you will not cast us away any longer,' he whispered, his eyes fixed upon that face. And then the answer seemed to come to his ears: 'I will not abandon you.' Bowing his head he strained his ears for the sound of that voice again; but the only thing he could hear was the singing of the turtle-dove. The darkness was thick and black. Yet the priest felt that for one instant his heart had been purified. (p. 106)
A dove is the symbol for the Holy Spirit! That is about as clear an indication that nature and its sounds are voices from God. And we know that God has been speaking to Rodrigues all along because he tells us in hindsight at the end of the novel:
Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him [Rodrigues] to this love. 'Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. (p. 191)
It’s at the climax of the novel we see God speaking with His loudest voice. Rodrigues in a new cell hears what he thinks is snoring, and after a while it grates on his nerves. “That’s not snoring,” Ferreira tells him. “That is the moaning of the Christians hanging in the pit” (p. 160). The moaning links back to the “dark moaning” of Mokichi being crucified. Notice there the other peasants try to relive his suffering as best they can. At the climax Rodrigues is placed in a semi-existential circumstance, and here is where I think Existentialism comes in the novel. He is willing to die for his “glorious martyrdom,” an act of egotism, but that is not the option placed before him. What his soul most resists is apostatizing. What is placed before him is the suffering voice of the tortured peasants, and he has to apostatize to relieve them. Years before Ferreira was faced with the same situation.
'I, too, heard those voices. I heard the groaning of men hanging in the pit.' And even as Ferreira finished speaking, the voices like snoring, now high, now low, were carried to their ears. But now the priest was aware of the truth. It was not snoring. It was the gasping and groaning of helpless men hanging in the pit. (p. 167)
The voices of the suffering is the voice of God. That is what Rodrigues realizes later when he concludes “God had not been silent.” It was for him to answer the call. It is one thing to lose one’s faith, but where does Rodrigues get the notion that God will come out of the sky and alter the situation? In an almost parallel historical situation Christians had to face persecution and hide secretly in the catacombs for almost 250 years under ancient Roman rule. God doesn’t work that way, and it’s naïve to think He would. Of all the martyrs in the world (and we have almost daily today in the Christian world) God has never stepped out of the sky directly. I am reminded of the great prayer of St. Teresa of Ávila:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
That is the lesson that Rodrigues had to learn. He has to listen to God’s call and work His work. The peasants inherently knew this at Mokichi’s crucifixion. Rodrigues finally learned it at the pit.
In one of the novel’s many ironies, we see that the Japanese peasants intuitively know Christianity better than Rodrigues the priest. When Mokichi and Ichizo are dying on the cross and they let out their moans, the Christian peasants come out to relieve their suffering. When Kochijiro questions God, coward though he may be, it never leads to a loss of faith. Even until the end he is a believer, though he apostatizes many times. Rodrigues is the only one who loses faith. When Rodrigues is captured and placed with several other Christian prisoners, the woman, though they are all haggard and starving, offers the priest a cucumber to eat, and she doesn’t pull it from a pocket; she pulls it from her bosom (p. 81), that is to say she takes it from her heart. This is an allusion to John 15:5, where Christ says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Cucumbers are fruits of a vine, and here the woman is the branch stemming from Christ the vine and the cucumber is the fruit of Christian charity. What a touching scene. The woman is doing the work of Christ, the very thing Rodrigues has to learn to do. Since the cucumber is pulled out of her bosom, Rodrigues must feel her body warmth—Christian love—as he eats it.