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Chinmoku: Reading Shusaku Endo once more

I was 12 or 13 or so when Dad and his good Buddhist friend Hama-San (who to me was my second father) brought me to a museum in Nagasaki dedicated to Japan's Christians and the persecution they endured as the country became a "closed one" and how the faith survived for 240 years after sans priests, nuns, rosaries etc.

What I recall is the katana with the cross on the sword guard. This was owned by a Christian daimyo. I also remember the images of the Buddhist Kannon which is really Santa Maria.

I also remember clearly the Fumie, or icons of the Madonna which Japanese were to step on as a test of renouncing Christianity.

Japanese Christianity began with the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier who in 1547 landed in Kagoshima with co-missionaries. He carried icons of the Madonna and used these to explain to the Japanese what the Catholic faith was all about. By 1579, there were 130,000 Japanese Catholics by the start of the persecutions 10 years later, there were 300,000. . But the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi became alarmed that Catholicism would be an agent of Spanish imperialism and it was potentially subversive. The Jesuits were expelled but the height of the persecutions would happen under Tokugawa Ieyasu's shogunate which banned Christianity in 1614.

The Jesuit strategy was to convert the elite. Some in the elite converted for pragmatic reasons but the mass of Japanese converts were from the peasants, artisans and the lower class samurai.

The closing of the country resulted in Japanese culture developing independently of the West. The Japanese art forms like Kabuki flourished during the "closed country" era. The Catholics were forced to practice their faith underground and were known as Kakure Kirishitan (literally Hidden Christians). In the 240 years without priests, some Catholic beliefs got corrupted, belief in the Trinity disappeared and in some communities, the faith became a sort of ancestor worship. The Latin prayers became like Buddhist chants.

During the Meiji restoration in 1867, when the practice of Christianity was made legal, many of the Hidden Christians approached the reestablished Catholic missions. The priests were amazed that thousands of Japanese streamed from the hills and declared themselves Christians. While belief in core Catholic dogmas like the Trinity largely disappeared, the Hidden Christians maintained a belief in the Virgin Mary and in clerical celibacy. The Nagasaki Oura church where the first Kakure Kirishitan made themselves known in the only Western building declared as a Japanese cultural treasure.

The survival of Catholicism in Japan despite the closing of the country to foreign influences for 240 years is a prime example of religious inculturation. Japan unlike China, Vietnam and Korea was quite open to external religious influences. At first Christianity was thought to be a form of Buddhism. When the Shoguns knew more about Christianity, it was still tolerated for pragmatic reasons (e.g. trade) but when it became subversive, all effort to snuff out Christianity was done.

This is the background for my reading of Shusaku Endo's works. Endo is a celebrated author in Japan because of his overt Catholicism and he explored how Catholicism can be made part of Japan. Catholicism is still foreign to Japan and Catholics make up 0.4% of the Japanese population and Christians of all denominations just make up a little over 1%. It is amazing that in non-Christian Japan, Endo's novels and essays became bestsellers!

Endo believed that Japan is a "swamp" where all foreign ideologies and beliefs are sucked up and made part of its own and in the end come out unrecognizable if not to Western eyes or Asian eyes that see through Western lenses. Endo also wrote the only biography of Christ "A Life of Jesus" not seen through Western eyes.

Endo's most famous and celebrated book is Chinmoku (Silence) which is about two priests who apostatisized. The main character Father Rodrigues upon being arrested and having undergone torture found in prayer that Christ was silence. Christ only broke his silence after Rodrigues stepped on the Fumie thereby signifying his apostasy.

At the novel's climax

" Trample! said those compassionate eyes. "Trample!" Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque.... I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason I am here"

Endo believes Catholicism is the only religion that can present the symphony that is humanity. This religion of word and images and oftentimes silence seem to touch all facets of human experience.

Japanese Christianity began with the Image of the Madonna carried by Francis Xavier and for many its earthly manifestation ended in the blood of martyrs spilled on the Fumie.

The martyrs are many and this includes Lorenzo Ruiz of Manila, the First Filipino saint to be canonized.

There is something in the story of Japanese Christianity that gives light on the present troubles facing the Catholic Church, but I can't find the words except probably "Chinmoku"

In silence do I pray before a copy of the Fumie which my father had when he studied in Japan.


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