Shusaku Endo
Shusaku Endo; drawing by David Levine

As the merest beginner and very much a latecomer, I started recently to look into Japanese fiction. What I can report is fragmentary, a record of uncertainties, confusions, and probable mistakes such as many Western readers are likely to share upon encountering Japanese fiction.

My first response was a shock of pleasure. Even through the dim channel of translation one can quickly see that contemporary Japanese fiction contains a large body of distinguished work. Much of it is marked by psychological finesse, and still more by a formalism of manner occasionally broken by thrusts into the sensual and perverse. My second response was a sense of anxiety, since nothing seemed to fall into place or settle into clarity. The forms, subjects, and even voices of gifted writers like Tanizaki, Dazai, Mishima, and Endo seemed reasonably familiar, so much so that I would ask myself: is it possible that Tanizaki, before writing the “Firefly Hunt” chapter in The Makioka Sisters, had read Virginia Woolf? Did Dazai know Dostoevsky? Or Endo, Silone? But soon such questions came to seem pointless, as I found myself sinking into a chasm of strangeness or, to put it differently, suffered a break in the premises of understanding that bind reader to writer.

Part of the strangeness may be due to no more than differences in literary method. There is, to start with a small matter, a greater tolerance for repetition of incident and remark in Japanese fiction than in Western. Japanese novelists appear to be less concerned than those in the West with devices that make for tension and foreshortening; they favor a more even pace of narrative; they do not seem to try nearly so hard for radical variations of stress from one part of a novel to another. The verbal surfaces of the Japanese novels I have read struck me as more pacific, perhaps more laconic than our fiction has trained us to expect. And in Japanese fiction there are often stretches of material, apparently flat detail and routine transcription of event, that a Western reader is likely to find puzzling. Even as sophisticated a novelist as Tanizaki includes such “nonfunctional” segments, causing one to wonder what thematic or dramatic purpose they may have.

These difficulties are still fairly simple and can be negotiated with a little impatience (skip a page or two). A greater obstacle in reading Japanese fiction, even as one may be steadily engrossed by it, is that the norms of expectation regarding conduct and judgment are often subtly and therefore radically at variance with our own. Least available are those cues to systems of manners through which Western fiction helps us release quick intuitions.

In Japanese novels the characters are often finely portrayed, in part because the autobiographical narrative has been popular and in part because the entrance of a culture into modernity creates the grounds for psychological nuance. But the concept of individuality seems elusive, as if it only gradually entered Japanese fiction and continues to meet resistance from traditionalist codes. Even among consciously “modern” Japanese writers there is, it seems to me, rather less tolerance than among us for strong assertions of will or virtuosities of self; and still more alien is our notion that achieving an absolute selfhood is a primary human goal.

Equally hard to grasp are various rituals depicted or recalled by Japanese writers, especially in novels written by more traditionalist figures like Kawabata. Some of these rituals are public, so that one can try to bone up on them, but others form a half-hidden skein of suggestion which, in their refinements, come to seem almost impenetrable.

Reading Kawabata’s admirable novel Thousand Cranes, one can hardly fail to recognize that the tea ceremony plays an important part, but only an expert Western reader is likely to know that the novel, as Kawabata said in his Nobel Prize speech, “is an expression of doubt and warning against the vulgarity into which the tea ceremony has fallen.” A Japanese reader learning about the importance of the death watch in certain of Emily Dickinson’s poems might feel similar puzzlements.

But what troubles one most in reading Japanese fiction is a nagging sense that one is missing something; it may seem close at hand yet quite elusive; and no Japanese, you may be sure, will ever explain. Reading Kawabata or Tanizaki, I could detect faint signals—a smile? a mild irony? a clarifying allusion?—but could not shape them into coherence. It’s as if there is always some undervoice, the true voice, overheard but not grasped.

In a fine little book called In Praise of Shadows Tanizaki confirms some of these impressions: “In conversations we [Japanese] prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses…. Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows.” And a “mystery,” at least in part, it remains.


No doubt, with greater knowledge and prolonged reading, some of these difficulties fade away. They are, after all, not very different from the obstacles to understanding that an American may encounter in reading Latin American fiction. But I suspect that there must always be a residue of intractable difficulties, signaling the really great distance between Japanese culture and our own. The only solution for the beginning reader, I have found, is to abandon any irritable quest for certainty and take pleasure in one’s experience of strangeness and uncertainty. Accept that one must fumble, guess, wonder.

The novels of Shusaku Endo seem at first to be free of many of these problems. Surely one of the most accomplished writers now living in Japan or anywhere else, Endo is a Catholic who after the war studied in France and there came under the spell of Mauriac and Bernanos. The exact nature of this influence is hard to know: I suspect it has less to do with literary matters than with an attachment to Catholicism gaining its intensity from a persuasion that in our time any serious religious commitment must also be a questioning one.

The Catholic imagination straining against the limits of the Catholic institutional presence—this is something we certainly know about from many Western writers. On first encountering Endo one may therefore experience a certain relief of familiarity, but mostly it’s an illusion.

In an early novel, Volcano (1959), Endo’s Catholic preoccupations tend, through sheer earnestness, to overwhelm the often vivid materials of the book. In another early novel, Wonderful Fool (1959), the theme is more successfully, perhaps because less explicitly, realized. Endo pits ambiguous Christian sentiments against an indifferent modern Japan, often with pleasing comic effects. He places in the chaos of postwar Tokyo a sweet-tempered Frenchman named Gaston, something of a holy fool “who, no matter how often he is deceived or betrayed, continues to keep his flame of love and trust from going out.” Charming and touching as Gaston is, he cannot really carry enough fictional weight to sustain that emulation of Christ which Endo evidently desires for him; nor can he serve to embody Endo’s obsession with the entanglements and ultimate irreconcilability between Christianity and Japanese tradition.

It is in two later books that Endo fulfills himself as a novelist—Silence, first published in Japan in 1966, and The Samurai, first published there in 1980 and now available in a fluent and persuasive English translation. Both novels are set in or near early seventeenth-century Japan, when the Christian missionaries gained successes only to suffer brutal persecution, and both are partly based on historical fact. Silence I regard as a masterpiece, a lucid and elegant drama about a Portuguese missionary tormented by Japanese inquisitors. The missionary agrees finally to apostatize, not merely or even mainly because he cannot bear his ordeal but because he hears a voice of Christ telling him that to relieve the torments of his Japanese flock it is right that he place his foot on the fumie—a wooden box bearing the image of Christ which the inquisitors use to enact their victims’ apostacy. “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.”

Less well formed than Silence, The Samurai is a more ambitious and complex work, richer in contemplative matter though also more uneven in its effects. The Samurai contains episodes set in Japan, Mexico, and Spain; there is a striking variety of Japanese and European figures; but parts of the novel suffer from a “documentary” inertness and the narrative as a whole lacks the single-track rapidity of Silence.

The story of The Samurai is simple enough. In 1613 there sets sail from Japan a ship laden with emissaries and merchants, their declared aim to open trade relations with Nueva España (Mexico). As interpreter and guide (also, misleader), a Franciscan missionary, Father Velasco, accompanies them. He has, naturally, purposes of his own: to gain for the Franciscans, in opposition to the more fanatical Jesuits, a monopoloy of the Japanese mission and for himself the title of Bishop of Japan. But there is a trick all along: the emissaries are of low rank, a group of samurai chosen by the Japanese rulers as decoys in a scheme to appropriate Western technology (plus ça change…). The central figure among the samurai, and in the book, is a stolid, honest retainer named Hasekura, whose whole life has been devoted to work and obedience.

This journey, which takes them round the world, lasts four years: they have experiences at once comic and painful in Mexico and Spain. Hoping that a formal conversion to Christianity will help them fulfill their political mission, the emissaries are baptized—though with only the slightest interest in Christian mystery or faith. Finally back in Japan, they encounter a new regime that is bitterly hostile to opening any relations with the West and determined to uproot Christianity by force.


Through the journey it charts and the lengthy stops along the way, The Samurai offers numerous set-pieces: the impoverished and long-suffering Japanese peasants, with whom Hasekura shares an obscure marshland; the Japanese nobility caring for nothing but the consolidation of its power and regarding Christian converts quite as if they were alien “cosmopolitans”; the minor Japanese officials surrounding Hasekura, all neatly distinguished within their hierarchical order; the Catholic bureaucracy of Spain, sodden with worldliness yet still open to memories of faith.

Hasekura and Father Valesco dominate the book: their contrasting steadiness and stealthiness, Japanese rootedness and European impatience, come together, more or less, in a culminating martyrdom. At this point Endo presses too hard, the theologian in him overcoming the novelist. Hasekura, in his humiliation on returning to a Japan that has become anti-Christian, finds some glimmers of sympathy for Jesus, a faith or at least an acceptance of martyrdom which conventional Christian preaching could not give him. But the novel hardly provides enough preparatory cues to enable us to give this ending full credence.

The strand of Catholic sensibility that Endo has made his own dominates both Silence and The Samurai, though mainly through negations—doubt and muted despair. Perhaps sensing that his austere version of the faith is more appropriate for the training of martyrs than the worship of common mortals, Endo gives way to an inner Christian grieving over the helplessness of a Christianity that demands more of men than they can give. The historical clash between the Christian mission and Japan thus becomes for Endo an instance, though the crucial one, of a universal predicament.

Europeans are often central figures in these novels, and Endo is remarkably gifted at a sort of Western impersonation, and edging into alien consciousness. He writes with considerable humor about the mixture of submissiveness and worldliness animating the missionaries, so that unexpectedly one comes rather to like these stranded Fathers.

Yet if one supposes that Endo is writing here “as a European,” that is a misconception quickly to be put to rest. It helps a Western reader to situate himself through the references to Mauriac; it may even help to notice that Endo’s conception of Jesus as the deformed and weak victim has something in common with Silone’s. But one soon recognizes that, while marked by the West, Endo is not of it. He is a very strange figure, profoundly alienated, and moving in ways I can’t entirely explain.

What puzzles and obsesses him is the apparently unshakable Japanese “essence,” a national character that has been formed by centuries of historical and geographical isolation. He keeps calling Japan “the mudswamp,” a place, that is, where everything sinks and loses its identifying shape. He speaks about the “threefold insensitivity” of Japan, “the insensitivity to God, the insensitivity to sin, the insensitivity to death.” He believes Christianity must fail in Japan because it cannot bring itself to see the Japanese as they really are, in their radical otherness. It must fail because its institutions, theologies, and practices keep even its Japanese converts apart from the one thing that might (and in The Samurai finally does) break past the stolidity of the Japanese character—and that would be an act of piercing empathy with Jesus. Most Japanese, according to Endo, tend to be contemptuous of so passive and weak a figure as Jesus: what sort of a God can this “emaciated man” be? Yet precisely this contempt may, through the traumas of history, turn at least a few of them to an imitation of Christ.

Like all serious novelists, Endo prompts one not only to live with his fictions but to engage with his thought. One wonders, then: Is it really true that the Japanese character is so hopelessly locked into the triple insensitivity that Endo attributes to it? One is repeatedly struck by the fact that in both Silence and The Samurai Buddhism rarely, if ever, makes a strong appearance, speaking in its own right and from the depth of its own traditions. For Endo, apparently, Buddhism possesses little moral or metaphysical authority: it offers, in these novels, no crucial reply to the claims of Christianity. But it seems hard to believe that this is really so. Might not a writer like Kawabata, in the gentlest of replies to Endo, have identified authentic values within the Buddhist traditions—values that might be set against Endo’s rigid polarities of “the emaciated man” and “the mudswamp”?

And another point: if institutional Christianity must fail and all that remains is the example of the forlorn Jesus, where does that leave all those who lack the vocation of sainthood or the talent for martyrdom? Can Jesus survive without Christianity, without the very institutions, rituals, and doctrines that must often twist his word? To such questions Endo offers no answers, at least in these two of his novels, and from a strictly literary point of view it hardly matters. But the power of a firstrate work of fiction lies partly in its capacity to make us think beyond fictions, and there Endo leaves one uneasy.

Distinguished as The Samurai is, it seems too much the product of a mind lost to itself. I have before me the image of a remarkable figure, standing neckdeep in his native mudswamp, but head still aflame with stories of the crucified god. It is hard to believe that more than a few can live by so lacerating a vision.

This Issue

November 4, 1982