Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Hidden Message of “Silence”
UENO Kagefumi / Civilizational Essayist

September 14, 2017
“Silence” – maestro Martin Scorsese’s screen adaptation of Endo Shusaku’s novel - came to Japanese cinemas this spring. The film was reported and reviewed by all major media. Most of them applauded the master director for taking up Endo’s work, and examined its contemporary significance. Yet oddly enough, they seemed to have missed the most important perspective; namely, that the original novel by Endo could be construed as a “book of defiance” against Rome. Here, I would like to present my view from this standpoint.

Scorsese’s work offered the vividness and impact that can only be conveyed through visual imagery, which was significant in itself. However, rather than expressing a philosophical or civilizational message that transcends the original work, the film seemed limited to tracing Endo’s ideas. In that sense, what we make of this film depends on what we make of Endo’s novel.

Needless to say, the original novel describes the religious agony of apostates - including the protagonist, Rodrigues - against the backdrop of an uncommunicative god that keeps his silence. By creating an extreme situation, the author explores the true meaning of faith. Rodrigues is torn apart between apostasy and martyrdom, and in the ultimate scene, Jesus - or someone appearing to be Jesus - tells him to go ahead and step on the fumi-e board (used by inquisitors as a test of faith – translator’s note). Thus with a plot that could be interpreted as Jesus accepting Rodrigues’ apostasy, Endo ends his story.

This bold plot, in which Christ gives pardon to an apostate, deals with the ultimate taboo and the gravest of offenses in the eyes of the conservative mainstream of the Roman Catholic Church. Had this been medieval Europe , Endo might well have been burned at the stake. Apostasy is treated harshly not only by Christians, but by Muslims and by all religions alike. For the conservative mainstream in Rome, it was self-evident that Endo’s message should never be tolerated.

What had Endo been pursuing, even to the point of defying Rome? Throughout his life as a writer, Endo’s central theme was to take the Western brand of Christianity, which feels somewhat out of joint to a Japanese, and “tailor” it to suit Japanese sensibilities.

Mindful of the paternalistic nature of the Church that comes down hard on apostates, Endo laid bare his thoughts in “The Cross and the Gun.” In this novel, he asks: Is it right to ruthlessly brand someone as an “apostate,” when he has gone through as much suffering as a martyr? If Christ were a deeply compassionate “maternalistic” figure, who “forgave and embraced all,” would he not pardon even the apostate?

This image of a “maternalistic” Christ, which resonated with Scorsese, has also been mentioned by some leading figures of the Japanese Catholic Church. For example, twenty years ago in Rome, Archbishop Ikenaga spoke of how people in East Asia felt at odds with the “paternalistic” tendency of Westerners, of drawing sharp distinctions between black and white, and declared that it would be difficult for Christianity to make further inroads in the region unless it adopts a more “mother-like” all-embracing approach to express itself.

But the case made by Endo and Ikenaga, that “the Roman Catholic Church in Asia should become more Asian,” has apparently caused discomfort in Rome. As far as I am aware, their assertion continues to be ignored by the conservative mainstream in Rome. However, in comments made by Pope Francis, who took office four years ago, one can sense a “maternalistic tone” that is clearly distinct from the Church’s austere stance of the past.

One must conclude that Endo had sought to present a “Japanese” vision of Christ, while fully aware that that was at odds with a Roman view. And,thus, whether the author intended it or not, it is possible to see “Silence” as a “book of defiance” against the “Western brand of Catholicism.”

Therefore, the true value of this latest film will be decided by whether Endo’s message reaches the Catholic mainstream and makes an impact. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t seem to have done well in the West, in terms of box office performance. Apart from the multicultural, secular class of intellectuals, Endo’s assertion has not been given a positive reception or recognition in the West. When will they ever start to receive his message seriously? Deep is the “spiritual divide” between East and West.

Kagefumi UENO is former Ambassador to the Holy See.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

上野 景文 / 文明論考家

2017年 9月 14日






棄教者も、殉教者同様苦しみ抜いたのに、無情に「背教者」の烙印を押して良いものか? 「すべてを許し、包み込む」という慈悲深く、「母性性」溢れるキリストであれば、彼等を許してくれる筈だ、と。





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