When eating their boiled green soybeans (eda mame), the Japanese pop beans from pod into hand or mouth with a marvelous deftness. In a crowded Tokyo bar, I asked my wife how to perform this operation. The bartender, speaking English with a French accent, said, “I’ll show you,” grabbed the pod from my hand, waved it toward his mouth, and scattered beans across the floor. I knew I had discovered The Fool, the model for Gaston Bonaparte in Shusaku Endo’s 1959 novel, Wonderful Fool. When Georges Neyrand, a French priest, opened this bar last summer, the papers treated him as something of a national monument, the strange character Endo had met in France, observed in Japan, and fashioned into one of the great comic figures in modern Japanese literature.

In the post-Mishima era, perhaps only Kobo Abe’s and Kenzaburo Oe’s novels are more respected than those of Shusaku Endo. The other two writers are radical in their politics and their literary technique; but Endo writes old-fashioned novels strongly influenced by François Mauriac, and identifies himself with the theologically conservative Catholic church in Japan. Since Catholics make up only half of one percent of the Japanese population, he begins as an exception, and presents himself as something more than an anomaly, almost as an absurdity. In his play The Golden Country, he argues that Japan can never accept Christianity, since the country lacks a sense of God, a sense of sin, and a sense of death.

Why, if Christianity and Japanese culture are so hopelessly at odds, has Endo devoted a very active career to exploring the hopelessness of it all? The best place to seek an answer may be the recent American edition of The Sea and Poison, the 1958 novel that gave Endo his first experience of fame and controversy. Since an English version appeared earlier in Tokyo, I took a copy with me to an interview with Endo last summer. Though he claims the Japanese have no sense of sin, this novel describes the growth of that sense in a doctor who was guilty of war crimes. Christianity plays no part in The Sea and Poison, but its protagonist recognizes his guilt.

“It is true,” Endo told me, “that the sense of sin is not natural to the Japanese. But the possibility for it exists wherever sin exists.” The sin of the novel is taken from history. Japanese doctors subjected American POWs to vivisection in experiments meant to establish the limits of lung surgery and the tolerance to certain injections. It was as monstrous as some things done in Europe’s death camps; yet, like those acts, it was not necessarily performed by monsters. Endo creates the hospital world of sterilized ambition and corporate blame-shifting that domesticated, gradually, the unthinkable as the merely unpleasant, that masked war crimes as a grim war duty. And recognition of the crime psychologically cripples the one doctor who holds back. Guilt does not redeem among the Japanese; it is so alien that it paralyzes.

The story is told as a kind of detective tale. Most such stories begin with a crime and look for the criminal. But this story has a criminal at the outset, but no crime. We meet Dr. Suguro through the curiosity of a bored patient, who notices the seclusion of this skilled doctor, abandoned by his wife and shunning all other company. Given the chance to check on Suguro’s background (through the certificate on his wall), the self-appointed detective begins to uncover Suguro’s crime—and so Japan’s, and so the detective’s. By understanding the doctor too well, the patient threatens his own bored security.

It is a novel with powerful scenes, but it has a disjointedness that comes from the Japanese practice of publishing novels serially. The literary scene in and around Tokyo is almost Victorian. Men of letters are celebrities, well paid and producing reams of prose, essays, poems, plays, and novels. Installments on the new story are eagerly awaited—not quite as Scott’s were; but almost, at times, as Dickens’s were. In this format, the character of the first inquirer after Dr. Suguro gets lost so far back in the story that Endo awkwardly drops him. The man whose perceptions were clearly meant to frame the tale simply disappears; the frame has one whole side missing.

The novel by which Endo is best known, both in his own country (where it was made into a movie) and abroad, avoids plotting difficulties by a great simplicity and intensity of linear narrative. Silence is based on another historical scandal, the defection from Christianity, in the seventeenth century, of a Jesuit superior. The missionary, Father Christovao Ferreira, married, became a Buddhist scholar, and helped to examine those suspected of Christianity. In Endo’s novel a young Japanese admirer and ex-student of Ferreira seeks him out and joins him in his apostasy. Again, a detective comes to understand his prey too well and repeats his crime.


Since the translation of Silence into English (in 1969), Endo has been repeatedly, tiresomely, compared to Graham Greene, who warmly praised the book. And some of the criticism directed at Endo by Japanese Catholics resembles early Catholic attacks on Greene, who was accused of glorifying sinners and mocking the pious. But Greene’s fascination with sin and guilt looks very tame when put beside Endo’s. The whiskey priest of The Power and the Glory does not defect or lose his faith; he maintains a priestly ministry despite his own unworthiness, which partially qualifies him for serving other weak people. Endo explores a more interesting paradox; his priest does defect, not from weakness but from love, to spare Christian converts the persecution mounted against them.

John Updike, pushing the comparison with Greene in his review of Silence in The New Yorker, said a weakness of the novel was the clear resemblance of Kichijiro, the man who informs on the Christian converts, to the mestizo informer in The Power and the Glory. Greene’s priest conquers his last bit of pride when he confesses a shared weakness with the man who betrayed him—a conventional enough Christian theme. But Endo’s priest finds that he needs Kichijiro as an alter ego, that the two have been indissolubly linked in a cross-cultural mismatch, a marriage of the minds that can bring nothing but misunderstanding, yet that neither can surrender without giving up his own identity. Endo later suggests that this was the relationship between Christ and Judas. The union of Japan and Christianity is doomed, but so are all meetings of man with God; and they go forward nonetheless. (Endo says that his Catholic mother had him baptized, at age thirteen, in Western clothes that did not fit, and he has been trying, unsuccessfully, to fashion them into a kimono ever since.)

A more interesting comparison of Endo with Greene would consider the former’s Wonderful Fool (Mr. Fool in Japanese) and The Quiet American. There is no question here of direct influence. Instead, one finds parallel themes looked at from two cultures. The Western “innocent” tries to grasp Oriental “doubleness,” which is not always duplicity, but is that too. The innocence is in both cases destructive, but Endo’s French fool comes to be destroyed and Greene’s American comes to do the destroying. (The irony of a French “savior” is just glanced at in the fact that Endo has the foolish Gaston Bonaparte arrive—in 1959—aboard the ship Vietnam.)

As I have said, Bonaparte is modeled on the clumsy but likable Father Neyrand, whom Endo met in France after World War II. Too sickly to serve in the armed forces (though he was rushed through basic training in the desperate last hours, just in time to experience the brutality of Japanese officers to enlisted men), Endo did graduate work in France during the postwar years when Catholics were giving an “existentialist” reading to the early novels of Mauriac and Bernanos. Neyrand was interested in Japan, plied Endo with questions, later went there to teach in a Catholic school. Incapable of being embarrassed in a country where embarrassment is death to one’s self-image, Neyrand affronted sensibilities right and left. (Even last summer, Endo tried to argue the priest out of opening a bar where he could talk about God to young people. The assistant bartenders I talked with through an interpreter were old students of Neyrand; when I asked why they had come to work there, they said they hoped to prove Endo wrong about Neyrand’s making a fool of himself again. But, typically, Endo put up some money for the bar when he found he could not dissuade the impulsive priest.)

In the novel, Bonaparte blunders about in a picaresque series of urban misunderstandings, some of them rather predictable (the brothel he thinks a hotel). Endo must have seen some Monsieur Hulot films in Paris. But then the blunderer is drawn into a gang slaying (the murderer is called Endo). As the murderer pursues his quarry, the fool pursues the murderer, the one trying to move with stealth, the other banging into garbage cans, as it were, pleading with the slayer not to kill—for his own sake. This weird pursuit of the pursuer is enough to drive anyone to murder, but Bonaparte-Neyrand actually saves the well-deserving victim, by getting in the way and dying for his intrusiveness. East has met West again, and the West has lost. But the two superficial young people on whom Bonaparte was foisted have, strangely, become embarrassed about their embarrassment over him. East has met West, and these two are no longer fully Eastern. Guilt is stirring.


Endo nurses the tiny embers of guilt he finds in Japan, blowing on them through his laughter in novel after novel. In his 1974 book, When I Whistle, he suggests a reason for guilt about Japan’s present as well as its wartime past. The protagonist, Ozu, remembers his own prewar youth as he watches his son’s bustling rise in the medical world. A central character in the earlier scenes is Ozu’s repulsive friend “Flatfish,” who is madly in love with an unattainable beauty. (Endo told me, deadpan, “Flatfish is me as a boy.”) Traces of Huck Finn idleness touched the young Ozu’s comic and aimless days; yet he cannot think why his mind returns so compulsively to a misfit and sadsack like Flatfish—until his son’s fierce and narrow aim tells him why.

If the war was Japan’s Miltonic sin in the garden, technocratic modern Japan is what happened after Eden. But Endo is not like Mishima, pining for a vanished militarism. Even radicals in Japan regret the lost innocence of unwesternized days (quite spectacularly in Oe’s story, “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away,” where the narrator’s father is the embarrassing Flatfish fondly remembered). The prominent leftist critic Shuichi Kato told me, “When the war ended, I thought the Americans’ arrival was ninety percent liberation and only ten percent occupation. Now, when I look around at the Americanization of my country, I think it is more like sixty-forty. You occupy us more than you did in the time of literal occupation.” One form guilt takes is the remembrance of past innocence.

Japanese ways of evading reality amuse and haunt Endo, and he gave over one novel to that theme. In Volcano, the action all takes place in the shadow and on the flanks of an extinct volcano which has shown signs of reawakening, To live with impending disaster—by earthquake, typhoon, tidal wave—the Japanese have acquired the trick of preparing for disaster without letting themselves actually think about it. Endo traces this psychic mechanism in a place where bureaucratic careers are made or broken by predicting an eruption or declaring it impossible. Fortunes can be acquired by building on the volcanic slopes. A Christian priest makes providence the guarantor of his Church’s safety, while an apostate priest hopes (because he cannot pray) that the volcano will erupt, break through the surface pretense of those around him. As is often the case with Endo, the evil man sees more than the others, yet twists himself in the process.

This may be Endo’s technically most satisfying novel. He solves his difficulties with plot by turning them into advantages. Nothing happens in the book. The eruption impends without ever occurring; its whole meaning is as a threat. During his long, rather hooded, and self-mocking talk with me, Endo stopped and looked up for a long time only once, when I made the suggestion that the volcano is carried around inside each character. “Of course,” he said at length, “the volcano is within.” Private to each, the thing locked up inside is both the volcano and something different. Though Endo was addressing Japanese concerns of many different kinds, and there is nothing so obvious as allegory in the tale, an American is bound to think of the Bomb in whose shadow we live by carrying it inside us.

For the most complex investigation of Endo’s principal themes, one has to look in an unlikely place, his short Life of Jesus. Japanese writers, better paid than Americans, learn early to take part of their advance money as travel expenses, for the tax break. So Endo toured modern Israel, recalled the gospel scenes, and tried to explain Christianity’s founder to his countrymen in a series of magazine articles. This seems, at first glance, little more than a commercial and didactic exercise, a primer on Christianity for the nonbeliever. But Father Neyrand proved he is not entirely a fool when I asked him for evidence of Mauriac’s influence on Endo. “He redid Mauriac’s Vie de Jésus”. Mauriac’s book was itself a response to Renan’s famous book of the same title. Renan described a Jesus of sweet reason, a nature lover, a pastoral figure, one in whose calming presence the lions not only lie down with lambs but turn into frisky little sheep themselves. Mauriac disturbed some Catholics by failing to stress the supernatural against Renan’s rationalism. His first, most obvious change was in lighting. All Renan’s scenes, even the last supper, seem to take place on a bright spring day in the country. Mauriac’s Jesus moves by night, in the darkened hearts of men. He does not bring reason to persuade, but love to forgive—and he will go far into noisome depths to find those in need of forgiveness.

Endo brings the story back into the daylight, but only because the sunny innocence Renan yearned for is the real enemy of Jesus. Judas is clear and rational in this account, the only man who sees where Jesus is going. The two fence with each other over the heads of the other disciples, Judas trying to save Jesus from himself, from that abasement he seems determined to suffer. Terms could be worked out by reasonable men. In this struggle, Jesus and Judas are present to each other in a way that no other figures in the story can be. When Jesus will not cease to be the fool, Judas puts him to an ultimate test. But then:

Jesus was being insulted and condemned by the people now. But Judas himself would be condemned by the whole human race forever. What Jesus suffered today was for Judas to suffer forever. He could not escape the strange analogy. Judas certainly, at this time, came to know the meaning of Jesus’ life.

Judas kills himself to break the bond—as Jesus had spoken to break it earlier:”What you have to do, do quickly.”

Endo has often said that the Christian missionaries were wrong to present Jesus to Japan as an avenging father in the Jewish and Western tradition. He begins his introduction of the gospels to his own countrymen by stressing the weak, the feminine aspect of Jesus, the forgiving, “foolish” side. He was, after all, a middle-aged dropout, who gave up his trade and took to wandering. Endo presents the temptation offered to Jesus in the desert as a “vocation” to religion in the conventional sense, a call to sensible ministry and the priestly calculation of benefits for one’s flock. But as soon as the magnetic figure of Judas comes into his story, Endo becomes intransigent again about the possibility of a Japanese Christianity. Christ is not only challenging but embarrassing because he has absolutely no “face” What offends Judas is his total lack of honor or a sense of his own worth, his dignity. He will let anyone spit on him. How can the Japanese ever honor such a dishonorable figure?

In the seventeenth century, the rite of apostasy prescribed for Christians turned on the meaning of “face.” One had to tred on a fumie, an image of the Virgin or of Jesus. Anything thus dishonored was truly renounced, no longer embraceable. The tortured priest of Silence has cried out for God to break his silence throughout the days of persecution, but the silence is broken only when the face of Jesus on the fumie seems to tell him: “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.” The theological riddles oscillate from this point forward, long after the book is closed. The priest becomes Christ by surrendering Christ, which is what Christ did. He does not try to save Christ, like Peter (that was Judas’s goal.) He does not try to explain Christ, or make him win—which would make him less than Christ. He just joins him, in dishonor.

Why be a Japanese Christian if Christianity is unacceptable to Japan? Because it is unacceptable to every culture. It challenges them all by the scandal and folly of Jesus himself. Endo is only superficially saying that the Japanese cannot understand Jesus. He really means that even Christians don’t dare understand Jesus. Those who claim to understand him most are very like Judas. Who, nonetheless, is another form of Christ. It is a game of Catch-22 played from mercy, not from cruelty; but one that brings suffering, nonetheless.

Much of Western thought in this century has been devoted to ways of working oneself free from guilt. Endo’s sardonic comment on this is easily imagined: “You mean you want to become Japanese?” He takes the approach that one can be freed only by guilt, by standing condemned. Radical religion affords him a way to get outside his culture and himself, which is also a freeing experience. His Jesus is an affront to any and every cultural context—which suggests there is something more than one’s immediate context. But to believe that is foolish, as one can see by dropping into a very odd bar in Tokyo.

This Issue

February 19, 1981