Places: Silence

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Chimmoku, 1966 (English translation, 1969)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 1632-1644

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Kyushu

*Kyushu Silence (kyew-shew). Southernmost island of the Japanese chain, where the Portuguese missionaries land. Their entry at the foot of the nation suggests an interesting geographic resonance with the importance of feet and faces in this text. The island’s coastal villages are places where Christianity survived, but the faith of the local people is not one that many Europeans would recognize as Christian. Only such an isolated area could support this life. Far removed from the seat of governmental and indigenous religious power, the villagers use their landscape to hide their religious activities.

Their faith is at once simple and complex–a mixture of native folk beliefs and Western Christianity that is the cause of death (and perhaps eternal life) for many villagers and their missionaries. This duality is also manifested in the landscape, as the bounty of the seacoast itself becomes the setting for their hand-to-mouth existence, and the presence of such an immensity of water gives way to many instances of dire thirst throughout the text.

The villages are also places of trust and betrayal. While the missionaries trust the peasants and are trusted by them, Kichijiro, one of the peasants closest to the missionaries, eventually betrays them. When the lone surviving Portuguese missionary is led to Nagasaki, Kichijiro remains with him throughout his captivity, attempting to explain and justify his actions as he begs for forgiveness. The isolation of the villages allows Kichijiro his life: News does not travel fast, so he can remain, in effect, a double agent, professing his Christianity while subverting its spread in his nation.


*Nagasaki (nah-gah-sah-kee). City on the northern half of Kyushu, which can be seen as the “head” of the island to which the missionaries must travel after landing at the foot. In the seventeenth century, Japan closed itself off almost entirely from the outside word, leaving only Nagasaki open to foreigners. The missionary Rodrigues seeks his teacher, Ferreira, there, where both are gaijin (outsiders), in Japan’s city of gaijin.

Nagasaki is a center of civic and religious power where the formerly great missionary Ferreira has been sucked into the Japanese bureaucracy. He has turned his back on his faith but can still make himself useful as a translator for the government. Here, Western religious power has met the East and lost. Nagasaki represents not the triumph of Buddhism or Shinto, but the ultimate failure of Christianity. In this urban environment, the crypto-Christians of the villages are spared by the apostasy of their missionaries. Shūsaku Endō suggests that the relative isolation of the rural villages may make it easier to persevere in one’s faith. When one’s faith must rub shoulders with faiths of those who do not believe, or indeed who are actively opposed, as in Nagasaki, the faith may quaver.

Sources for Further StudyBeverly, Elizabeth. “A Silence That Is Not Hollow: The Mindfulness of Shūsaku Endō.” Commonweal 116 (September 22, 1989): 491-494. Contrasts a Western focus in Silence with a Japanese focus and argues that, for Shūsaku Endō, human indifference to the fate of others is a greater sin than being weak or cowardly.Gessel, Van C. “Hearing God in Silence: The Fiction of Endō Shūsaku.” Christianity and Literature 48 (1999): 149-164. Analyzes the concept of silence in the novel, exploring whether God is presented as silent or if God speaks through the silence in the novel.Higgins, Jean. “The Inner Agon of Endō Shūsaku.” Cross Currents 34 (Winter, 1984-1985): 414-426. Records Endō’s shift from Buddhist to Christian perceptions and his resultant identity crisis. Examines Silence as Japanese and Western views in confrontation, with the Japanese discovering their spiritual insensitivity and Westerners exchanging a patriarchal for a maternal image of God.Johnston, William. “Endō and Johnston Talk of Buddhism and Christianity.” America 171, no. 16 (November 19, 1994): 18-20. A dialogue emphasizing the differences in philosophical perceptions and emphasis between East and West.Netland, John T. “From Resistance to Kenosis: Reconciling Cultural Difference in the Fiction of Endō Shūsaku.” Christianity and Literature 48 (1999): 177-194. Argues that the novel attempts to construct a specifically Japanese Christianity, one that fits Japanese culture while remaining true to the Christ of the Bible.Mathy, Francis. “Bookings: Shūsaku Endō: Japanese Catholic Novelist.” America 167, no. 3 (August 1, 1992): 66-71. Discusses how Endo has made Catholicism more accessible to the Japanese through books such as Silence.Ribeiro, Jorge. “Shūsaku Endō: Japanese Catholic Novelist.” America 152 (February 2, 1985): 87-89. Discusses the moral issues raised in Endō’s canon and the conflicts between the interpretations and assumptions of Japanese and Western critics, with the Japanese missing the spiritual implications in Silence and Westerners projecting their own cultural values into the novel.Sano, Hitoshi. “The Transformation of Father Rodrigues in Shūsaku Endō’s Silence.” Christianity and Literature 48 (1999): 165-175. Explores the often-neglected appendix to the novel to gain insight into Rodrigues’s relationship to Christianity after the main plot’s conclusion.
Categories: Places