‘A tree which flourishes in one kind of soil may wither if the soil is changed. As for the tree of Christianity, in a foreign country its leaves may grow thick and the buds may be rich, while in Japan the leaves wither and no bud appears. Father, have you never thought of the difference in the soil, the difference in the water?’ 
Shusaku Endo’s Silence
I lived for a year in Kagoshima, near the port where Francis Xavier first landed in Japan and inaugurated the period known as the Christian century in Japan (1549-1650). In an obscure area near Kinko Bay there is a long low stone wall and a golden statue of Xavier, which must be sought out to be found. This presumably marks the spot from which Xavier would begin to evangelize his way northward for one year, as the first of a series of missionaries. Japan was one of the most rapidly evangelized countries in all of Asia, with the Christian population numbering some 300,000 by the end of the century. Three hundred kilometers to the north, in Nagasaki, are the statues of the 26 martyrs, which marks the end of the Christian century and the beginning of one of the harshest and most “successful” persecutions in Christian history.
Shasaku Endo’s novel, Silence (quoted in the epigraph) builds upon several historical facts in addition to the above: the Japanese persecution is the most pervasive, brutal, and enduring on record; a Jesuit priest Cristovao Ferreira apostatized under torture; another Jesuit named Chiara (upon whom the character Rodrigues is based), hoping to make amends for Ferreira, entered Japan as part of a group of ten and all ten were captured and apostatized; Inoue was a Japanese magistrate set upon eradicating Christianity; the pit torture, hanging victims upside down in pits of excrement and opening a slight wound in the forehead, hanging sometimes for days and even weeks, was an effective and excruciating means of torture. The translator of Endo’s novel includes this description of the torture:
The victim was tightly bound around the body as high as the breast (one hand being left free to give the signal of recantation) and then hung downwards from a gallows into a pit which usually contained excreta and other filth, the top of the pit being level with his knees. In order to give the blood some vent, the forehead was lightly slashed with a knife. Some of the stronger martyrs lived for more than a week in this position, but the majority did not survive more than a day or two.
Burning proved to be too quick and seemed to only encourage more martyrs. Richard Cocks describes seeing “fifty-five persons of all ages and both sexes burnt alive on the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto (October 1619) and among them little children of five or six years old in their mothers’ arms, crying out, ‘Jesus receive their souls!,” Killing and burning became something of a spectacle as tens of thousands would gather to watch, and many would subsequently convert. Thus the authorities devised various forms of excruciating torture. It was after six hours hanging in the pit that Ferreira apostatized, and this was significant as he was the first missionary to do so. Despite crucifixions, burnings, water-torture, and hanging in the pit, no missionary had apostatized until 1632. Being the acknowledged leader of the mission and the fact that he began collaborating with his persecutors, Ferreira’s apostasy proved a shock to the Christians.
Endo adds a twist to the story, in that he has Rodrigues apostatize, not due to his own tortures, but in order to save others. Inoue, in the story indicates that if he is willing to trample on an image of Christ (fumie) he can save his flock from torture – and in the story, Ferreira assists Inoue and had also apostatized under these conditions. After a long period of resistance, Rodrigues tramples on the fumie when Christ calls out to him: “‘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. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’ The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”
The problem concerns literal interpretation from Japanese to English, which also entails several levels of cultural awareness. In the English the trampling is an imperative, but as Matthew Potts notes, “There is a sense of a quiet willingness to suffer indignity in the Japanese that softens the English’s annihilating command for erasure.” The voice in Endo’s novel is on the order of a Japanese mother assuring her child that there is no end to indulgence (amae). Christ’s identity, like that of a good Japanese mother (Takeo Doi’s point), in Potts description, can “accommodate effacement.”
The inquisitor, in suggesting that the act is only an outward formality and in no way impinges upon continued private belief, taps into a long history in Japan of an inward (ura, honne) and outward (omote, tatemae) self. Wearing a mask, in Doi’s estimate, is a requirement of Japanese society. The inquisitor and his translator require, not inward, but only outward conformity: “Give up this stubbornness! We’re not telling you to trample in all sincerity. Won’t you just go through with the formality of trampling? Just the formality! Then everything will be alright.’” Martin Scorsese’s inquisitor goes to some lengths to explain that it is a simple lifting and movement of the foot.
Outward conformity and inward secrecy are not simply the lot of Japanese Christians, but are the burden of every Japanese according to Yukio Mishima (Confessions of a Mask), Natsume Sōseki (I Am a Cat), and in Doi’s analytic approach. The problem is then, whether this is simply an intensification of Japanese cultural requirements which, under this definition, require secrecy, mask wearing, and what western Christians might dub hypocrisy.
On the other hand, is not the trampling an extreme example of the kenotic outpouring of the love of Christ (which is the argument of Ferreira in trying to convince Rodrigues)? Every Christian, like his Master is called to lose himself, but in this instance this losing is absolute: one must be willing to give their soul for love of the other. Ferreira argues, ‘Christ would certainly have apostatized to help men.’ ‘No, no!’ said the priest, covering his face with his hands and wrenching his voice through his fingers. ‘No, no!’ ‘For love Christ would have apostatized. Even if it meant giving up everything he had.’ One must ultimately be willing to relinquish everything in order to follow Christ, according to the priest.
As Patricia Snow remarks, the novel creates an unresolvable dilemma, “If it is always and everywhere difficult for human beings to hold in their minds seemingly contradictory tenets of Christianity, Silence makes the task feel impossible. Mercy is pitted against truth, love of neighbor against allegiance to God.”
In Snow’s opinion this is not really the problem of 17th century Japanese Christians but reflects modern peculiarities: “What this means is that the deeply disturbing, polarizing drama at the heart of Silence is an anachronism. It is a projection of the modern mind, a hallucination of an anxious, confused, and codependent imagination.” She notes, what Endo himself seems well aware of, that death of God theology is in the air in the time Endo is composing Silence. Ferreira (Endo) “is speaking not the language of seventeenth-century Jesuits, but the language of Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton, twentieth-century Death of God theologians who believed that not only Christ but Christianity must die, that it is not finally Christian to be Christian, and that in the name of Christian charity, Christians must reject Christian truths.” Snow may be correct about the anachronism; in fact Endo would probably agree, as he describes his own struggle with nihilism.
Endo’s personal struggle may have been with a similar sort of “Christian” nihilism but he see his faith as a rescue from this darkness: “For a long time I was attracted to a meaningless nihilism and when I finally came to realize the fearfulness of such a void I was struck once again with the grandeur of the Catholic Faith.” Though Endo finds comfort in his Catholicism, it is not too far removed from the modern non-religious form of the faith. “This problem of the reconciliation of my Catholicism with my Japanese blood … has taught me one thing: that is, that the Japanese must absorb Christianity without the support of a Christian tradition or history or legacy or sensibility.” This no tradition, no history, no legacy, sensibility is not simply Japanese but modern. In fact, the Japanese inherit this precise sense, not because they are Japanese, but because they are modern.
The Japan Endo projects into the Tokugawa period, with its mud-swamp qualities, its inherent mask wearing, and its native soil poisoning the Christian tree, is very much a modern sensibility. There is not a “Japanese” ethnic identity, Japanese uniqueness, or even a sense of Japaneseness, prior to the Meiji restoration. The ideology crafted in the Meiji Restoration unifies the disparate religions, dialects, and clan identities, under State Shinto. “Japanese identity” is not a “naturally” occurring or universal phenomena but is an ideology which required its own missionaries, forced adherence, and forms of punishment. The goal of this formation of a national or ethnic identity was to ward off the Christian west and to make of Japan a colonizing power like Great Britain and the United States. In other words, modern ideology is the stuff making up Endo’s mud swamp, and not the peculiarities of being Japanese.
This seems problematic for Matthew Pott’s argument: “I would like to suggest that what the critical analyses of this novel have neglected to recognize is that Rodrigues has not really been asked here to renounce his moral integrity or his religious faith. What he has been asked to reject in this climactic scene is his ethnicity. What he is being forced to abandon is his whiteness.” This certainly does not fit the 17th century nor does it really work even as an anachronism, as non-Japanese can never become Japanese under the modern ideology, no matter what they relinquish, no matter what name they take, no matter the color of their skin. The ideology is militant in its advocacy of Japanese uniqueness: the Japanese language is unique, the Japanese brain is unique, the Japanese body is unique, the Japanese islands are unique, and Japanese nature is unique. This modern ideology of uniqueness was non-existent in the Tokugawa period, but is precisely the ideology that would make of Japan an anti-Christian mud swamp. It was this sense that was missing in the rapid turn of 300,000 Japanese to Christianity and in the underground church’s survival of 200 years of persecution.
Certainly, Christians in Japan understand the struggle Endo describes in his novel, of feeling homeless and divided between being Japanese and Christian. As Endo describes it, “Japan is a swamp because it sucks up all sorts of ideologies, transforming them into itself and distorting them in the process. It is the spider’s web that destroys the butterfly, leaving only the ugly skeleton.” After more than twenty years in Japan, I understand the eroding effects Japanese culture, Japanese nationalism, and Japanese identity may have on the Christian faith, but I felt Endo-like homelessness most intensely upon my return to the United States. I no longer recognized the peculiar faith produced by the soil and water of this country: the political nationalism, the insipid preaching, the shallow music, the consumer mentality, and outright hostility toward the depth of the gospel.
As William Cavanaugh points out, “Endo is misunderstood if this struggle is limited to a Japanese context.” God in Christ had nowhere to lay his head, and was ultimately reviled and crucified. Resolving this original homelessness may be the continual temptation of Constantinian Christianity, colonial Christianity, national Christianity, American Christianity, or simply institutional Christianity. The issue of effacement of Christ is always at stake in Christianity’s encounter with culture and the attempt to fill in his features (give him a home) through cultural rootedness.
 Shusaku Endo, Silence: A Novel (p. 138). Lulu.com. Kindle Edition.
 Silence, 9.
 Silence, 9.
 Silence, 208.
 Matthew Potts, “Christ, Identity, and Empire in Silence” The Journal of Religion
Volume 101, Number 2 April 2021, 193.
 Silence, 189.
 Silence, 206.
 Patricia Snow, “Empathy Is Not Charity,” First Things, October 2017
 Snow, Empathy is Not Charity.
 Silence, Translator’s Introduction, 14.
 Potts, 200.
 Silence, from the Introduction, 13.
 William T. Cavanaugh, “The God of Silence: Shusaku Endo’s reading of the Passion,” Commonweal, March 13, 1998, 10.