Tag Archives: Endô Shusakû

Alienated Japanese trying to understand Europe(ans)

Endô Shûsaku’s Ryûgaku (1965) took a long time to reach English (a 1989 translation by Mark Williams as Foreign Studies). Among other things, this confused realization that its second component, “Araki Thomas” preceded Endô’s grisly novel about 17th-century martyrdom of Roman Catholic missionaries and Japanese convers in his 1966 novel Shinmoku (The Silence).


The tale in Foreign Studies focuses on a Japanese man who went to Europe to Rome to study (Catholic) theology and who later returned to Japan, knowing of the Tokugawa persecution of Christians and renounced the faith, urging other converts to save their lives by trampling images of Jesus. To me the case is more one of pragmatism than one of alienation in Europe.

The other two involve Japanese students in France, ca. 1950 and 1965, despairing of ever understanding Europeans (specifically French). “A Summer in Rouen” focuses on Kudo, who is boarded by a French family whose son aspired to become a missionary to Japan. Kudo is dubious about Catholicism spreading in Japan and about taking on the dead son’s missionizing project.

Most of the volume (78 percent) is occupied by the third variation on Japanese in Europe, “An You, Too.” There is no overlap of characters or even sites between the three variations, and I reject Endô’s claim that the book is a novel. I’d accept applying the category to “And You, Too” although it contains long extracts of what the junior faculty member, Tanaka, writes in the way of a thesis on the Marquis de Sade.

Before being stricken by tuberculosis (which also ended Endö’s studies in Lyon), Tanaka visits sites where Sade lived and/or committed crimes, including La Coste in the south of France (the Vaucluse), where he had a chateau that was partly destroyed in 1799. The village is buried under snow on both visits, to the fields of poppies were not in bloom.


(tower of the Chateau Le Coste, my photo)

Tanaka tries to avoid contact with other Japanese in Paris, though he ends up arranging the repatriation of an architecture student living in the same hotel after Sakisaka is diagnosed with tuberculosis. (There is no indication that Tanaka was infected by Sakisaka, though I couldn’t avoid suspecting this). Tanaka is particularly miffed when a junior colleague from the same school, Suganuma, arrives and inflames Tanaka’s concerns about the security of his position back “home,” what appears to be a viper’s nest of academics jockeying for position.

Tanaka is also irritated by what his wife writes him, though feeling sentimental about their son. Tanaka feels that he would never be able to understand/communicate with the French.

In his introduction, Endô stresses that Kudo is not autobiographical, studying in Rouen rather than Lyon as Endô did. Surely the pressures and frustrations of the fictional character were not solely invented. Tanaka resides in the capital a decade and a half later, when there were other Japanese (even if he seeks to avoid associating with them). Endô also says that he had become more optimistic about the possibilities of intercultural communication than he was when he left France. Understanding the life and/or the writings of the Marquis de Sade strikes me as posing difficulties other than being in a foreign language, a very different time for one. What Tanaka writes about the transformation of the libertine into a sort of philosopher of sadomasochism seems plausible, though Tanaka treats Sade more as a saint (conducting pilgrimages to sites where the Marquis suffered and/or made others suffer) than many would (for instance, me).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


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

Two men and a volcano approaching extinction


Like his British analog, Graham Greene, Endô Shusaku (1923-96) had a fascination with spoiled Roman Catholic priests. The (as it were) second lead of his 1959 novel Volcano (Kazan), thedefrocked French missionary priest, Durand, has a sort of dutiful son in the priest who succeeded him, Father Sato. The main character, Suda Jinpei, a lifetime employee of the national weather service (twenty years in Manchuria, fifteen in southern Kyushu) was more interested in the nearby volcano, Akadaké (red peak), of which he had meticulously recorded observations since arriving in Kagoshima Prefecture, than in his family. He has a still-dutiful wife, though

“in Jinpei’s scheme of things, Taka was never anything more than a helpmeet. He viewed the married state as being no more than a social convention, a practical arrangement in which the very essence of a wife lay in the menial service of washing his clothes, packing his lunch looking after his children.”

In a coma after a second collapse, he realizes he has never loved anyone and never been loved by anyone. Certainly not by his elder son, Ichiro, whose remark overheard after the first collapse (which his father keeps replaying in his head) is shockingly callous: “The Old Man has probably spent all his retirement bonus [on hospitalization]… If he had only dropped dead right on the spot, the retirement bonus, the whole thing, would have come to us intact. I don’t like old people, the way they are. They eat their rice off others, for free, and keep on living, a pain toe verybody, and never learn what a burden they are.”

I really can’t imagine why a son thinks his father’s retirement bonus should be his! Ichiro did not work 35 years for the weather service, and has lived off his father’s salary even after marrying his frequently sneering wife Sakiko, who helps not at all with caring for her father-in-law (and is IMO as undeserving of any inheritance as her husband is).

The greedy younger generation members are revolting. Suda and Durand are despairing. Suda is committed to the view he picked up from the now-dead volcanologist who concluded that Akadaké did not pose any threat of further/future damage and had anthropomorphized that “a volcano resemble shuan life. In youth it gies reign to the passions, and burns with fire. It spurts out lava. But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of past evil deeds, and it turnas as quiet as a grave.” Well, Akadaké continues to smoke, and geological time moves at a much slower pace than the 80 years since the most recent catastrophic eruption of Akadaké.

Suda is encouraged by a politician/businessman who wants to build a resort part way up Akadaké to provide “scientific” assurances that it is safe from volcanic danger. Durand, in contrast, longs for the volcano to erupt and bury the retreat that Father Sato is building on another part of the Akadaké slope.

On his last two visits to Akadaké, Suda has to recognize evidence that the volcano may be dormant, but is not dead, though he is unlikely to live to see his claims falsified. (Suda and Durand have their only conversation on Suda’s final visit to the island volcano, though they are in adjacent rooms in the hospital.)

Durand does not believe Japanese can feel guilt or believe in a single (and male) God. Though defrocked and an embarrassment to local Christians, he believes in and fears death. As translator Richard Chuchert put it: “The Japanese heart and mind seek a merciful mother-image of God, rather than the stern, demanding, threatening father-image which (in Endo’s opinion) has been unduly emphrasized by missionaries, and which accounts in great part for the failure of Christianity to strike deep roots in the ‘swampland’ of Japanese culture and religion.” (Endô valued the compassion of Christ, the most Buddhist aspect of the religion called “Christian,” which has rarely had much to do with the example or reported sayings of the Christ of the Gospels.)

Like Sakurahima, Akadaké is across a bay from the city of Kagoshima. Unlike it, Sakurahima is a composite volcano, not a single peak like Fiujiyama. And, unlike Akadaké,no one thinks Sakurahima is dormant. Nor is it red. (For Durand, “Evil itself is a volcano that will never be extinct,” and he doesn’t believe Akadaké is extinct, either.)

Sakurajima.jpeg(Sakurahima from Yagosima, Creative Commons (2009 photo by Tanaka Juuyoh)

Endô was only 35 when he wrote this book about old age (I’m not sure how old Durand is, but Sude Jinpei is 59 at the beginning (which means 58 by western reckoning). Endô had already undergone two years of hospitalization for pleurisy and would have a second bout and three more years of hospitalization in 1960. (He had one son; Sude’s younger one, who is in middle school, hardly figures as a character in Volcano.

Shusaku Endo 2.jpg

I prefer Endô’s last two novels (Scandal and Deep River) to Volcano. For my tastes there is too much vulcanological analysis of a fictional volcano plus the international “silence of God” funk of the 1950s (epitomized by Ingmar Bergman). And translator Schuchert keeps having Father Sato speaking of “the Christians,” as if he is not one (this would make sense for the ex-priest Durand). Surely, he would have referred to them in English as his “parishioners” or his “flock” (he shepherds them to the opening of a chapel on the site of the retreat he is having built on the mountainside).

©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

Five stories by Endô Shûsaku


After Mishima Yukio, Endô Shûsaku (1923-90) is the Japanese novelist of “the third generation,” i.e., those who began publishing after WWII, who has been most translated into English. His tale of the persecution of Jesuit missionaries and Japanese converts in the 17th century, Silence (Chinmoku) has been filmed in Japanese (by Shinoda Masahiro) Portuguese, and in English (by Martin Scorsese).

The first of the five stories in Five by Endo, translated by Van C. Gessel, “Unzen,” also reaches back to the 17th-century persecution, apostasy, and torture, as a 20th-century Japanese man, Suguru, seeks out sites, particularly the “Valley of Hell,” in which Christians were partially boiled before being burned alive (singing a hymn). Suguru lacks their conviction, and his story lacks any closure.

The second story, “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” is more mundane and, for me, more moving. The title character, Mr. Chiba, has been taking ballroom dancing lessons for his health, though they exhaust his legs and back. The story is not about his stint as a dancing student, however. Rather it is about trying to come to terms with his dying brother, who is only three years older than he is, and Whitey, the mutt he adopted thirteen years earlier (that is, a very old dog). Mrs. Chiba suggests that one dies to save the other, an explanation I don’t credit, but his feelings about his own mortality and that of the two creatures closest to himI found affecting.

The story that seems to me to reveal the most about Japanese people and worldview in the collection is “Japanese in Warsaw.” In the latter years of communism in Poland, a Japanese student in Warsaw is a guide for Japanese tourists. They have not interest in Polish history and are appalled at the shoddiness of tourist facilities. Their paramount interest is in hooking up with white women, so that Shimizu feels that he must be a pimp (albeit one who does not take money from the females whose bodies are rented). There is a Catholic angle to this story, and to the next one.


(Endô in 1954)

The Box” of the tale’s tile contains some old (wartime) photos, postcards, and a Bible. The narrator who bought the box (and had spent time evacuated to Ueda during the war) seeks out someone who knew the recipient of the postcards, the daughter of a missionary (from a country that was neutral during WWII; I’d guess Swiss in that her name was Lougert) who was tortured a bit by a diffident secret police agent so that she would spy for the Japanese. The narrator speculates that the cards contained Bible-coded messages. (She was not tortured for being Christian, btw).


(Ueda region (Shinano) in winter)

The final story, “The Case of Ibose,” is actually the first chapter of Endô’s 1993 novel Deep River, involves the death of a dutiful wife who was more concerned about her husband being able to take care of himself without her than with her agony and oncoming death from cancer (which her husband refuses to acknowledge to her, though lying to patients about the seriousness of their ailments was very common practice in Japan). It is moving and is fairly self-contained (though her dying wish for him to seek out her reincarnation propels him into a trip to India with three other Japanese).


I prefer the stories without the weight of Catholic martyrdom, “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” and “The Case of Isobe,” along with the tangential Catholic martyrdom one, “Japanese in Warsaw.” Despite its apparent focus on varying religious beliefs, “Isobe” has interested me in Deep River.

In addition to translating multiple works by Endô (including another collectio of stories that I don’t like as much as this one, Stained Glass Elegies, Van Gessel wrote about Endô in The Sting of Life: Four Contemporary Japanese Novelists.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray