Tag Archives: Catholicism

On the road… to Golgotha

Hasekura Rokuemon (1571-1622), the titular samurai of Endô Shusakü’s 1980 novel is a middle-aged, low-rank (likened to a lance corporal) samurai, with no experience of battle, who is placed in nominal charge of a delegation of four envoys and some merchants dispatched to New Spain (later Mexico) in the second decade of the 17th century (C.E.). They are not representing the shogun (the newly dominant Tokugawa one, Ieyasu) or the emperor but a lord (daimyô) from Tohoku in northern Honshu, Shiraishi, who tells his envoys, “In the land of the foreigners, the ways of life will probably be different from those here in Japan. You must not cling to Japanese customs if they stand in the way of your mission. If that which is white in Japan is black in the foreign lands, consider it black. Even if you remain unconvinced in your heart, you must wear a look of acquiescence on your face.”


Having traveled to Acapulco, then overland to the capital (Mexico City), they learn that no decisions about trade or other relations with Japan can be made by the viceroy there, so they journey on to Vera Cruz, then across another ocean to Madrid. There, they learn from the king (Felipe III) that the pope (Paul V) must be consulted. The samurai and the three envoys still with him consent to be baptized in order to be received in the Vatican (that is, their “conversion” is policy, not motivated by belief in Christianity) They attain an audience with the pope in Rome, but nothing is resolved, and they return by the same route they had taken eastward.

While they were gone, Japan has closed itself off again. Hasekura has become a true believer, but even the nominal baptisms are viewed as treasonable in their xenophobic homeland. And the diplomatic/trade mission being back with them a Spanish Franciscan missionary, Father Velasco. He seems more jesuitical than Franciscan to me, though he battles with the Jesuits who had already established a toehold in Japan. Father Velasco is exceedingly vain, ambitious, manipulative, and lacking in scruples or doubts in his understanding of a very alien culture. He seeks to be named Bishop of Japan, but attains a spectacular martyrdom (before those missionaries who Endô portrayed in The Silence).


Endô himself had a sojourn in Europe (to study French Catholic writers), and much of his fiction that I like most involves Japanese outside Japan (Deep River,Japanese in Warsaw). Most of it concerned the incompatibilities between Japanese culture and Christian faith that he grappled with himself. The Jesuit debating Velasco sounds recurrent Endô themes:

“The Japanese basically lack a sensitivity to anything that is absolute, to anything that transcends the human level, to the existence of anything beyond the realm of Nature: what we should call the supernatural. I finally realized that after thirty years there as a missionary. It was a simple matter to teach them that this life is transitory. They have always been sensitive to that aspect of life. The frightening thing is that the Japanese also have a capacity to accept and even relish the evanescence of life. This capacity is so profound that they actually revel in that knowledge, and have written many verses inspired by that emotion. Yet the Japanese make no attempt to leap beyond it. They abhor the idea of making clear distinctions between man and God. To them, even if there should be something greater than man, it is something which man himself can one day become. Their Buddha, for instance, is a being which man can become once he abandons his illusions. Even Nature, which for us is something totally detached from man, to them is an entity that envelops mankind. We…we failed in our attempts to rectify these attitudes of theirs.”

The Holy Mother Church does not come off well in Samurai, but Hasekura’s faith and, ultimately, Father Velasco’s willingness to die for it are treated with respect.

BTW, the historical Hasekura Rokuemon died within two years of his return to Japan in 1620, but was not executed. And Endô has the Spanish priest speak directly (i.e., Velasco’s first person), but not the Japanese convert (i.e., third person narrative for Hasekura). There is little “local color” in Mexico and Europe in Endô’s novel about Christian faith, and no swordplay (or spearplay) contrary to the cover images..

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Pilgrimages in India other than the official raison d’être


I liked the setups of four Japanese characters who would go on a tour of Buddha sites in India better than the “payoff(s)” in 1984 Varanasi (Benares) in Endô Shûsaku’s 1994 novel Deep River (Fukai kawa). The location invites contemplation of death, pollution, and purification, with one of the setups being a dutiful, taken-for-granted wife telling her husband (Isobe) she will be reincarnated and he should seek her out. (Only as she was dying, did he discover he loved her.)

The forests of India recall Burma to Kiguchi who nearly starved at the end of WWII. As in much Japanese representation, the focus is entirely on the suffering of the Japanese (“Fires on the Plain” leaps to mind). There is literally nothing about what he did in the army before the final retreat. A heavy burden of guilt was carried by the buddy who saved Kiguchi, Tsukada, who died shortly before the pilgrimage to South Asia.

There is also a nurse (actually a volunteer, not a professional) who had attended Isobe’s wife as she died of cancer, Mitsuko, and a writer of stories about birds and animals (Numada) who does not consider that he writes for children. He had almost died (of tuberculosis). In his own view a pet myna bird died in his place, and he symbolically pays his debt by freeing another myna bird in India.

Mitsuko toyed with a very earnest Catholic, Ôtsu, in college, sought him out in France, and finds him again in Varanasi. A student of French literature, she was playing the part of Moira in the 1950 novel of that name by Julien Green in seducing Ôtsu. Later, she imagined herself as Théresè Desqueyroux in the 1927 novel of that name about a deeply dissatisfied wife by François Mauriac, the novel that she wrote about for her senior thesis.

Even in college Ôtsu is humble and self-effacing, and he turns into a modest saint, the embodiment of compassion (close to being a Christ figure, a lamb of God, despised and rejected…). The guide for Japanese tourists who do not see what he does in India, Enami, is an interesting character, not given a full-scale backstory (“Enami never displayed his true feelings. His present maxim for living was ‘passive resistance.’ He constantly repeated to himself: In front of your customers, you must always be the affable, accommodating tour guide.” And there is a newlywed couple, the Sanjôs who are caricatures of acute Japanese ethnocentrism.

Plus the assassination by her Sikh bodyguards of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to make sure that India is not presented as the homeland of religious tolerance, even as Ôtsu articulates a view of all religions partaking of something of the same spirituality, as well as some pointed discussions of the caste system.


I don’t know if Endô was as pantheistic a Catholic as Ôtsu, though he had severe lung problems (pleurisy).

The four chapters about characters before the trip to India can easily stand alone. Translator and Endô advocate in English,  Van C. Gessel, included the first one (Isobone) in Five by Endo, though it seems to me to be the one most lacking an ending as a story.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray