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By Philip Yancey

Japan's Faithful Judas, Part 1

At one point in history, Japan seemed the most fruitful mission field in all of Asia. Francis Xavier, one of the seven original Jesuits, landed there in 1549 and spent two years establishing a church. Within a generation, the number of Christians had swelled to 300,000. Xavier called Japan "the delight of my heart … the country in the Orient most suited to Christianity."

As that century came to an end, however, the shoguns' revulsion over the divisions among Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch Christians led to a change in policy. The shoguns expelled the Jesuits, required that all Christians renounce their faith and register as Buddhists, and began to harass any who disobeyed. The first executions soon followed, and the age of Japanese Christian martyrs began.

Japanese who agreed to step on the fumie--an icon of the Madonna and Child--were pronounced apostate and set free. Those who refused were hunted down and killed in the most successful extermination attempt in church history. Some were force-marched into the sea; others were bound and tossed off rafts; still others were hung upside down over a pit full of dead bodies and excrement.

Christians in the West are raised on inspiring stories of martyrs advancing the cause: "The blood of Christians is the seed of the church," said Tertullian. Not so in Japan, where the blood of the martyrs was nearly the annihilation of the church.

Nearly, but not entirely. In the late nineteenth century, when Japan finally permitted a Catholic church to be built in Nagasaki to serve Western visitors, priests were astonished to see Japanese Christians streaming down from the hills; they were Kakure, or crypto-Christians, who had been meeting in secret for 240 years. Worship without the benefit of a Bible or book of liturgy had taken a toll, however: their faith had survived as a curious amalgam of Catholicism, Buddhism, animism, and Shintoism.

The Kakure had no remnant of belief in the Trinity, and over the years the Latin words of the Mass had devolved into a kind of pidgin language: Ave Maria gratia plena dominus tecum benedicta had become Ame Maria karassa binno domisu terikobintsu, and no one had the slightest idea what these sounds meant. Believers revered the "closet god," bundles of cloth wrapped around Christian medallions and statues that were concealed in a closet disguised as a Buddhist shrine.

Around 30,000 of these Kakure Christians still worship today, and 80 house churches carry on the tradition of the "closet god." Roman Catholics have tried to embrace them and bring them back into the mainstream of faith, but the Kakure resist. "We have no interest in joining his church," said one of their leaders after a visit from Pope John Paul II; "We, and nobody else, are true Christians."

A museum in the city of Nagasaki houses remnants from the age of Japanese Christian martyrs. (In one of history's terrible ironies, the second atomic bomb exploded above the Nagasaki cathedral, decimating the largest community of Christians in Japan and destroying the largest church. Clouds obscured the intended target, Kokura, forcing the bombing crew to turn toward Nagasaki.)

In the 1950s, a young writer named Shusaku Endo used to visit that museum and stand alone staring at one particular display case, which contained an actual fumie from the seventeenth century, a portrait of the Madonna and Child engraved in bronze. Endo was especially struck by the small black marks defacing the bronze; these, he learned, were made by human toes, the impressions left by thousands of Christians who had committed the fumie.

The fumie obsessed Endo. Would I have stepped on it? he wondered. What did those people feel as they apostatized? What kind of people were they? Catholic history books recorded only the brave, glorious martyrs, not the cowards who forsook the faith. They were twice damned: first by the silence of God at the time of torture and later by the silence of history. Endo vowed that he would tell the story of the apostates--and through novels such as "Silence" and "The Samurai" he has kept that vow.

Later, reflecting on his own life, Endo realized what had held him so powerfully in the force field of a museum display case. The story of the Japanese Christians in the seventeenth century had haunting parallels with his own life in the twentieth. Although he had never had to face the wrath of the shoguns, ever since childhood he had felt a constant, unrelieved tension of faith. Externally, he was a Christian; what was he underneath?

At the age of ten, Endo had returned to Japan from Manchuria with his mother. Suffering from the pain and social rejection of a divorce, his mother found solace in the devout faith of her sister, and so she converted to Catholicism. She attended early mass daily. In order to please his mother, Endo went along with the conversion and was baptized a Christian. But had he meant it? Was he, in fact, the reverse image of the Kakure, a Christian who had gone through the externals while secretly betraying Christ?

"I became a Catholic against my will," he now says. He likens his faith to an arranged marriage, a forced union with a wife chosen by his mother. He tried to leave that wife--for Marxism, for atheism, for a time even contemplating suicide--but his attempts to escape always failed. He could not live with this arranged wife; he could not live without her. Meanwhile, she kept loving him, and to his surprise, eventually he grew to love her in return.

Using another image, Endo likens his Christian pilgrimage to a young boy squirming inside a suit of clothes. He searches endlessly for a better-fitting suit, or perhaps a kimono, but cannot find one. He is constantly, he says, "re-tailoring with my own hands the Western suit my mother had put on me, and changing it into a Japanese garment that would fit my Japanese body."

His own life story reads like the plot of an Endo novel. As a Christian teenager in prewar Japan, where the church comprised far less than 1 percent of the population, he suffered what he calls "the anguish of an alien." Classmates bullied him for his association with a Western religion. The war only magnified this sense of alienation: Endo had always looked to the West as his spiritual homeland, but these were the people now vaporizing the cities of Japan.

After the war, he traveled to France to pursue the study of such French Catholic novelists as Francois Mauriac and Georges Bernanos. Yet France hardly made him feel welcome either: as one of the first Japanese overseas exchange students, and the only one in Lyons, he was spurned this time on account of race, not religion. The Allies had cranked out a steady stream of anti-Japanese propaganda, and Endo found himself the target of racial abuse from fellow Christians.

During his three years in France, Endo fell into a depression. To complicate matters, he contracted tuberculosis, had a lung removed, and spent many months laid up in hospitals. He concluded that Christianity had, in effect, made him ill. Rejected in his homeland, rejected in his spiritual homeland, he underwent a grave crisis of faith.

Before returning to Japan, though, Endo visited Palestine in order to research the life of Jesus, and while there he made a transforming discovery: Jesus, too, knew rejection. More, Jesus' life was defined by rejection. His neighbors laughed at him, his family questioned his sanity, his closest friends betrayed him, and his fellow citizens traded his life for that of a common criminal. Throughout his ministry, Jesus purposely gravitated toward the poor and the rejected: he touched those with leprosy, dined with the unclean, forgave thieves, adulterers, and prostitutes.

This new insight into Jesus hit Endo with the force of revelation. From the faraway vantage point of Japan he had viewed Christianity as a triumphant, Constantinian faith. He had studied the Holy Roman Empire and the glittering Crusades, had admired photos of the grand cathedrals of Europe, had dreamed of living in a nation where one could be a Christian without disgrace. Now, as he studied the Bible, he saw that Christ himself had not avoided "dis-grace."

Jesus was the Suffering Servant, as depicted by Isaiah: "despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.

Like one from whom men hide their faces … " Surely this Jesus, if anyone, could understand the rejection Endo himself was going through.

Endo returned to Japan with his faith intact, yet sensing the need to reshape it, to fashion a suit of clothes that would better fit. "Christianity, to be effective in Japan, must change," he decided. He became a novelist, in fact, in order to work out these issues in print. A lean, sickly man, wearing thick glasses, on the fringe of society, he slipped easily into the bookish life of a writer. He began cranking out novels at the rate of one per year, and his pace has not slowed since the mid-1950s.

Ironically, his lifelong determination to mine the depths of rejection and alienation has brought Endo success and acclaim. He has become Japan's best-known living writer, his books translated into 25 languages, his name often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Graham Greene called him "one of the finest living novelists." Luminaries such as John Updike, Annie Dillard, and Yukio Mishima have joined the chorus of praise. He is something of a cultural hero in Japan, prominent in newspapers and magazines, and for a time he even hosted a television talk show.

Not the least of the paradoxes surrounding Endo is that no important novelist today works so unashamedly and exclusively with overt Christian themes. Christians in Japan still do not exceed 1 percent of the population, which makes it all the more remarkable that Endo's books land on the national best-seller lists. Within Japan, he has helped a large number of writers and intellectuals find their way into the church. Outside Japan, he has shed new light on the faith--at once a harshly revealing light that exposes long-hidden corners, and a softening light that erases dark shadows.

From the very beginning, Endo sought to expose the differences between the Eastern and Western views of the world. He had been schooled in the Catholic literature of the West, which assumes a Supreme Being separate from creation.

The Japanese, however, believed in no such Supreme Being, and as a result the profound themes of God, sin, guilt, and moral crisis--the focus of much Western literature--had little relevance to the average Japanese reader.

In the early novels, Endo portrays Japan as a kind of swampland (and sometimes a literal swamp) that swallows up all that is foreign, including Christianity. "Yellow Man," one of his earliest works, shows a French missionary abandoning his priesthood in order to marry a Japanese woman, and then later choosing suicide. The priest wonders aloud whether his God "can sink roots into this wet soil, into this yellow race." In "Volcano," written a few years later, the foreign priest has not only defected but turned seducer, enticing others to give up their faith. Behind these figures can be seen the shadow of a lone young man standing before a display case in a Nagasaki museum.

To many American readers, these works seem didactic, bulging with telltale symbolism. The volcano, a mountain of molten judgment that will pour down on people who deny the need for redemption, becomes a symbol as omnipresent as the white whale in Moby Dick. In another novel, "The Sea and the Poison," Endo explores the Japanese insensitivity to sin by basing his plot on an actual incident involving the vivisection of a captured American airman in World War II. He paints with a broad brush, using little subtlety.

In time, though, the novelist Endo seemed to find a path out of the swampland. Japanese writers have the custom of spinning off light, entertaining works in between their more serious books. In these "entertainments," serialized in periodicals, a new figure emerged from Endo: the good-hearted fool, a Japanese comic version of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot."

"The Wonderful Fool," perhaps the most successful of this genre, presents a bumbling, horse-faced missionary who would easily win an "ugly American" contest were it not for the fact that he is French--Gaston Bonaparte, to be precise, a descendant of the famous emperor. Gaston offends his hosts, commits a cultural faux pas every five minutes or so, and seems attracted to all the wrong people: a prostitute, an old hermit, a murderer. Nevertheless, his bumbling/ loving actions rekindle life for those he contacts: the closing scene takes place in a swamp where the forgiving love of Gaston moves the murderer (named Endo!) to repentance.

Novels in the genre of "The Wonderful Fool" solved the problem of clashing cultures by letting them clash, with no apparent resolution. Gaston brought a new ethic of grace, irrational Christian love directed toward the least deserving, but notably this grace always originated from outside. Proper Japanese never adopted the new ethic and responded to Gaston with bemusement or scorn. Even when grace penetrated the alien culture it stayed intact, separate, like a tiny pearl growing inside the host oyster--a byproduct of the bivalve's attempt to seal off a source of irritation.

In "The Samurai" and "Silence," the clash of cultures works itself out in the terms of tragedy, not comedy. Both novels reflect actual historical events and characters from the early 1600s, when shoguns were tightening the noose around the Christian community in Japan.

The Samurai takes place just as the shoguns are reconsidering their policy of open exchange with the West. A priest leads four samurai on a trade mission to Mexico and Europe where, hoping to enhance the success of their mission, the samurai become nominal Christians. During their time abroad, however, Japan closes its borders, and upon their return they are executed as traitors. (Overtones of Endo's own life--the nominal baptism, the trip abroad, rejection for a faith he barely believes--abound.)

At least one of the samurai, though, may grasp the true meaning of a martyr's death. His servant Yozo speaks to him of Jesus--not the triumphant, resurrected Christ, rather the rejected One whom Endo himself had come to know on his visits to Palestine:

I suppose that somewhere in the hearts of men, there's a yearning for someone who will be with you throughout your life, someone who will never betray you, never leave you--even if that someone is just a sick, mangy dog. That man became just such a miserable dog for the sake of mankind.

The samurai dies with these words from Yozo ringing in his ears: "From now on he will be beside you. From now on he will attend you."

(continued in Part 2)

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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