Afterthoughts: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Silence by Shusaku Endo

In a Nutshell: A remarkably eloquent and sympathetically penned novel which not only recounts a brutal period in Japan’s history, but also gives a voice to the thousands who paid the ultimate price for their Christian beliefs. If you only read one novel this year then please make it Silence

I’ve finally and regrettably turned the last page of the novel which I have been evangelising about so much in my reading journal entries of late (here’s an example for instance), and it’s time to put down my final thoughts. This is difficult because I want to leave as much of the novel as unrevealed as possible, so fellow readers can experience the same reading revelations that I did. I do think however that it’s appropriate in this instance to begin with a bit of factual background on the novel:

As the dawning of the seventeenth-century drew ever closer, Christians in Japan would have been forgiven for thinking that their Catholic religion would continue to flourish well into the new century. Established only decades earlier by Francis Xavier and his Jesuit Order, Christian converts in Japan had by this time reached the 300,000 mark, and Christianity, in a predominately Buddhist climate, was showing all the signs of firm and long-term establishment.

The seventeenth-century however did not bring the prosperous growth that the Japanese Christians had expected. Instead, the opening years of the century saw the coming to power of a zealously religious shogunate under Tokugawa Ieyasu, and it brought with it an edict of persecution against the Japanese Christians; an edict which initiated a period of atrocity against the Christians, in which four to six thousand were brutally murdered, and countless others were tortured until they had apostatized (which usually involved trampling on a fumie, a religious icon of which some real examples can be seen here). Approaching the mid seventeenth-century, Christianity in Japan had been virtually stamped out, and those Japanese Christians who secretly clung doggedly to their faith found themselves hunted, and if captured, subjected to the most brutal of treatments.

Into this harsh and unforgiving environment for Christians then comes Shusaku Endo’s Silence, and his principle character – Portugese priest Father Sebastion Rodrigues. Sent to Japan, or more specifically the Nagasaki area, to find out the current state of affairs with regards to the Christian community, and to discover the fate of Father Christovao Ferreira (the leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan who had been rumoured to have apostatized), Rodrigues, accompanied by friend and fellow priest Garrpe, quickly discovers the extent and brutality of the shogunate’s oppression. The priests discover, although they are eagerly welcome by the remnants of the Catholic community, that they cannot move around as freely as they may have expected, and so their mission becomes one of a covert and hidden nature, as they bear witness to the shogunate’s tireless mission to cleanse the country of this ‘unwelcome’ religion.

The first half of the novel is presented as if written by Rodrigues in letter form, and along with his colourful account of how badly the Japanese Christians are being treated, is the record of Rodrigues’ journey to date. What begins to emerge from his narrative, even at this early stage, is a sense that Rodrigues is perhaps not as firmly-rooted in his Faith as he may have first thought he was. After another questions his own Faith (a Japanese ‘guide known as Kichijiro), Rodrigues also begins to question why God can stand by in idle silence while His children are being subjected to such inhuman treatment. This underlying questioning not only drives the story forward, making it all the more compelling, it also fits in perfectly with Endo’s apparent passion for placing his characters in an alien environment and have them wrestle with some inner (usually religious) conflict.

During the second half of Silence the writing switches to third-person perspective (the reason why will become clear), but the theme of questioning God’s silence continues, gathering pace as the novel heads towards it climax. This not only has the effect of keeping the tension high throughout the entire novel, it also leaves a cloud of mystery hanging over the Portuguese priest, as to which direction he may take, as his own situation worsens (as the reader surely knows it will).

From the very first page of Silence until the very last, it’s clear just how incredibly talented Endo is as a writer. A subject as delicate as the persecution of Christians in Japan requires a tactful and empathetic treatment of course, and as a devout Japanese Catholic himself it would seem that Endo would be the right man for highlighting the plight of the Japanese Catholics during this dark period. It turns out that he was the right man because in Silence he has penned a novel which is not only remarkable, but truly unforgettable. Never pretentious in his prose and always conservative with his use of words (two things which make for really comfortable reading), Endo conveys his meaning so powerfully and so profoundly, and the devout love he shows for his religion shines through on every page.

So that’s really about all I’m prepared to say about Silence because I want people to read this novel for themselves, without any major spoilers from me. I will say that the copy I read – a 2007 edition from Peter Owen (translated by William Johnston), is flawless in its translation, and its short introduction from Martin Scorsese (who’s releasing a film version of the novel in 2010) is a real bonus. I will also say that this is the first time I’ve read any of Endo’s writing, and as a direct consequence of reading Silence it definitely won’t be the last. Take from this what you will. I score it a perfect 5. In other read it, and read it NOW!

Rating: ★★★★★

Peter Owen Publishers | 2007 | £10.95 | PAPERBACK | 306 PP | ISBN: 9780720612868

:: What others have said about Silence::

  • “This book powerfully affected me, and I’ve already sought out more books by this Japanese Christian author.”Michelle,
  • “Silence is an extraordinarily haunting novel. Although it is never a comfortable read, in its deceptive simplicity it is as stark and unyielding, as elegant and lean as the lines of a Japanese print.”Prof. Luke Reinsma, Seattle Pacific University
About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. Your “In a nutshell” is very encouraging because, on the strength of its cover, I bought this book a week or so ago but have yet to start it. Can’t wait long now!

  2. Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

    That’s great news Trevor. I really, really want to find out what you think of this novel. So when you get around to reading it then please drop me a line.

  3. I read this book several years ago and words cannot express the profound effect it had on me. It’s a beautiful, haunting book, and I’m so glad to see it getting some love. (And now I want to read it again.)

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      With your similar passion for Endo’s Silence It looks like I’ve found a literary soul mate. If only we could convince everyone that this is a book that really needs to be read. Looks like we’ve made start though. It’s just a pity that our first ‘encouraged to read Silence’ reader is you 🙂