Shusaku Endo’s Silence is the book under discussion for the month of January by the Reader’s Guild of the International Arts Movement. (And check IAM out -- it doing some important things in the areas of art, culture and faith.) Discussion groups have actually formed in various places and there’s a discussion guide you can download. The guild will be posting various reports from the discussions. There’s no discussion group in St. Louis, and I would be hard-pressed to attend even if there were, so I’m participating via blog posts.
In Silence, the story of two priests who travel to Japan in the 1600s at a time when Christians were being relentlessly persecuted, one character plays the role of traitor. Kichijiro is something of a ne’er-do-well the priests meet in Macao while they wait for a ship to take them to Japan. He is the only Japanese in Macao, and when the priests find him, he’s drunk and dressed in rags. His eyes are described as “dirty yellow” and he has a crafty look about him. Kichijiro is obviously going to be a problem and cause problems; he’s set up that way from the beginning. But he’s the only Japanese the priests have, and they taken him on as guide, even understanding that he will be a problem.
When they ask him if he’s a Christian, he says no, repeatedly. Eventually they learn that he is, or actually was, a Christian but apostatized. His apostasy doesn’t prevent him, however, from asking Father Rodrigues to hear his confession, even after he betrays the priest and the priest is imprisoned. Betrayal, apostasy, then a desperation to have his confession heard – this is the repeated cycle of actions that is the character Kichijiro.
Identifying strongly with Christ, Father Rodrigues sees Kichijiro as a kind of Judas, but the character and his role in the novel is more complex, and Rodrigues gradually comes to understand that. Kichijiro moves back and forth between Christianity and apostasy so many times that it becomes clear he has become neither Christian nor Buddhist; he is both and neither at the same time. In that sense, he stands for something larger for the author – the practical results of the clash of Western, Christian culture and Japanese, Buddhist culture. And the clash is played out in a time of terrible persecution, when one’s faith can and often does lead to torture and death.
It would have been almost too easy, and too much like a caricature, had Endo drawn his characters like Christ and Judas. But he reached for something beyond caricature, and one of the things the novel does is to explore the “traitor” in all of the characters, not just Kichijiro. One of the primary reasons Father Rodrigues traveled to Japan in the first place was to find Father Christovao Ferreira, the priest who had led the Christian mission in Japan and who had reportedly apostatized. Ferreira was also Rodrigues’ teacher, and so this mission to find him carried both theological and personal purposes for Rodrigues.
Father Rodrigues will find his former teacher, and his teacher will attempt to teach him a new lesson. The question becomes, will Rodrigues learn it, and become the Judas he sees in Kichijiro? Or is this the “traitor” that is in all of us, the betrayal most quickly exposed in a time of stress and trial?