Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Vol.2, no. 3, June-August, 1997
Endo himself appears to have no answers to these questions and doesn't pretend to know of any. A recurring theme that seems to emerge in the novel is that the hope instilled by the Gospel, if it is true, is greater than any trials, but it is so hard to believe in the face of such suffering, confusion, and injustice. There is so much that does not make sense. Yet at the same time perhaps it is this helplessness that leads one to cry out for a savior who represents love in its deepest, most incomprehensible form. The absence of "visible" divine intervention prompts Sebastian to wonder what happens if God does not exist. Sebastian thinks: "If he (God) does not exist, how absurd the whole thing becomes" (117).
In the novel the Tokugawa government is hostile towards Christianity, which is seen as a foreign woman trying to steal the hearts of the Japanese away from their devoted wife, Buddhism (199). The officials stress that both Christianity and Buddhism extol self-denial and selfless love (235) and, therefore, fail to see the relevance of importing an alien faith, together with strange customs that would only serve to divide the people amongst themselves. Hence the missionaries are suspected as precursors of colonialism, imposing western beliefs on the Japanese (2 , 199).
At one point in the book, Sebastian is witness to the deaths of two believers sentenced to water torture. Each of the two victims is tied to a wooden post, placed on a tidal flat, and left to die slowly from exhaustion as the indifferent universe looks on, showing no sign of compassion (104). "The rain falls unceasingly on the sea, " Endo writes. "And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily -- in silence" (104). Sebastian asks, "If God does not exist, how can man endure the monotony of the sea and its cruel lack of emotion" (117).
While in prison, Sebastian looks through a barred window as one of the Christian peasants is killed for his refusal to deny his faith before cross-examining officials (193-94 ). A trail of blood is left on the ground when the body is dragged away. A prisoner screams in response to the execution, but again God seems silent. The cicada keeps on chirping and the hot sun continues to beat down on the ground as if nothing had happened.
Near the end of the novel, Sebastian is imprisoned all alone by himself in a completely dark cell, and he listens to the groans of peasants suspended over "the pit." Although they have renounced their faith, the cross-examiner, Inoue, refuses to release them unless Sebastian apostatizes. Confused, Sebastian pleads with God to break His silence and prove that He is just. Previously while witnessing the deaths of Christians, Sebastian was ". . . able to thrust the terrible doubt far from the threshold of his mind" (266). But now it is different. Ferriera, an apostate priest who was once faced with the same dilemma as Sebastian, refuses to let Sebastian push aside the doubt in his heart. He is forced to face it but has no answer. "Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on? " he asks (267).
Sebastian thinks his mission in life is to bring the Gospel to the Japanese and to help serve as a shepherd to the "abandoned" Japanese flock (59) after the execution of his predecessors who dared to stay in Japan in defiance of the law. While in Japan, he constantly questions whether his presence is indeed a source of hope to the people he wants to serve as he is the cause of so much of their grief. At one point of the novel, the unlawful presence of Sebastian and Garrpe (another missionary) in one of the fishing villages draws the attention of an informant who reports the suspicious activities to the officials. As a result, four hostages are taken. Two of them are later killed, one is released, and the other is never mentioned again.
At this time the two priests are hidden in a small shack and frequently visited by the villagers for confession, baptism, and other spiritual rituals. In doing so, the priests jeopardize the lives of their flock by turning them into enemies of their own government, a ruling authority which is supposed to provide justice for the people, yet abuses its power and denies the common people their fair share in the country's wealth (86). The priests later part company and leave for other villages before they are finally captured.
One day Japanese officials lead Sebastian to the seashore to be reunited with Garrpe who is accompanied by three peasants bound in grass mats. Garrpe is commanded by the officials to trample on the Fumie (a wooden plaque bearing an image of Jesus' face). If Garrpe refuses, the peasants will be thrown from a boat into the water and the grass mats around their bodies will become saturated with water, pulling them to the ocean floor where they will eventually die. In a burst of emotion, Sebastian tells Garrpe to apostatize (216). Instead Garrpe plunges into the water after the peasants and drowns with them. Sebastian finds it ironic that the people, for whom he and Garrpe are willing to sacrifice their lives, have to die because the missionaries refuse to renounce their faith.
At times Sebastian is intrigued by some aspects of the Japanese culture that he is supposed to change. While alone in his prison cell at night during the Urabon Festival, he is most fascinated by a song that the children are singing. "Oh lantern bye, bye, bye./ If you throw a stone at it, your hand withers away" (272). After his apostatism, he hears the song sung again by children as he watches a woman arranging peaches, beans, and jujubes on a shelf for the spirits of the dead who are supposed to return to their homes on the fifteenth day. Sebastian cannot understand the words of the song, yet notices that somehow, though sung by playful children, it holds a sad and plaintive tone. The people are so sincere. Sebastian sings the song to himself (272), sharing the sorrow that is commemorated by the rites of passage and expressed by the children in their heartfelt response to life's mutability and mysteries. The Japanese festival reminds him of the Feast of All Souls in Lisbon when the windows of houses are lit with candles.
Despite his doubting moments, Sebastian continues his mission because his faith is precious to him. What sustains him is the knowledge that Christ, whom he so wants to emulate -- the God-man who exemplifies selfless love in the most adverse circumstances, knows and feels all of his pain and remains by his side (221, 225, 255). When Sebastian does finally trample on the Fumie, the crow of the rooster reminds the reader of a similar incident involving the disciple Peter in the New Testament of the Bible. Later, Kichijiro, an apostate peasant, comes to Sebastian for help to seek God's forgiveness. Deeply persuaded by the thought that he is the only remaining mediator between the people and God, he decides that the mission must live on through him. In the story God never seems to visibly intervene, yet Sebastian comes to the conclusion that God has not been silent, and even if He had been, Sebastian's life would have spoken on His behalf (298).
Endo, Shusaku. Silence. Translated by William Johnston. London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1976.
Illustration by Megan Donnelly