A Further Look at “Silence”

Over the last couple of weeks I have read a number of reviews about Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence,” based on the 1966 (Eng., 1969) novel by the same name written by Endo Shusaku. Endo (1923-96) was a Catholic Christian who became widely known and read as a Japanese novelist.


One major problem with most reviews of “Silence” is their, well, silence concerning the historical background and context of the events portrayed in the movie.

Francis Xavier, one of the original seven Jesuits, was the first Christian missionary to set foot in Japan, landing at Kagoshima August 1549. Kagoshima is on the southern tip of Kyushu, the island on which Nagasaki is located in southwest Japan.

Xavier’s missionary activities were so successful that by 1587, Hideyoshi, the most powerful daimyo (feudal lord) in Japan, became so alarmed that he promulgated the Purge Directive Order to the Jesuits in July 1587. That Order included a ban on missionaries.

Hideyoshi’s primary concern was not about religious beliefs. Rather, it was about the power of the Christian feudal lords in Kyushu. The ban was Hideyoshi’s attempt to expand his political power.

Ten years later Hideyoshi took even harsher measures against Christians in Japan: he had 26 Christians (literally) crucified in Nagasaki in February 1597. Six were missionaries and 20 were Japanese believers.

Hideyoshi died in 1598, and after a decisive battle in 1600 Ieyasu became the first shogun of the Tokugawa Era, which lasted until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

In 1614, Ieyasu was so concerned about Spanish territorial ambitions that he signed a Christian Expulsion Edict, banning the practice of Christianity and expelling all foreign missionaries. This decision, made partly through discussions with Englishman Will Adams, is described in the fourth chapter of Oliver Statler’s intriguing book Japanese Inn (1961).

All of this stands behind the characters in “Silence,” beginning with Cristóvão Ferreira the Portuguese Jesuit priest who was a missionary in Japan from 1609 until he apostatized in 1633. The beginning of the movie shows Rodrigues and Garrpe, two young Jesuits priests, deciding to go to Japan in order to find Ferreira, their revered teacher. They arrive there in 1639.


The most important thing to keep in mind from the historical background just given is the connection of the missionaries to the European countries that were involved in economic activities, and potentially imperialistic, activities in Japan.

While the movie gives the impression that there was a religious reason for the persecution of the Christians, in reality it was much more based on the fear of foreign political and economic influence in Japan. Religion, especially religious beliefs, was of a far lesser concern.

Many who see the movie think the actions of the Japanese were very cruel—and they were. But we need to remember that at the same time, the same sort of persecution of Jews, Muslims, and even Christian “heretics” was carried out by the ruling “Christians” in Europe.

Actually, the Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1478 to 1834. According to Wikipedia, “Although records are incomplete, about 150,000 persons were charged with crimes by the Inquisition and about 3,000 were executed.”

In a different vein, it is also important to pay close attention to the end of the book, an ending that was amplified in the movie. I found two websites with quotes from “Silence,” but neither had the most important of all, words from the end of the eighth chapter of the book:

. . . the Christ in the bronze [fumie] speaks to the priest [Rodrigues]: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross (p. 183).

Those who miss the significance of those words, miss the whole point of Endo’s book. According to Japanese-American artist and author Makoto Fujimura, Endo gave this explanation of the purpose of his book: “I did not write a book about the Silence of God; I wrote a book about the Voice of God speaking through suffering and silence.”

Surprisingly, Endo’s original title of his novel was “The Aroma of Sunshine”!


Stepping on a fumie


Makoto Fujimura, just mentioned, is the author of a book titled Silence and Beauty (2016). It is a marvelous book that gives insight into the nature of Japanese thinking, including the nature of the widespread Japanese understanding of beauty as well as silence.

Among other things, Fujimura explains that Endo’s novel is about grace. He writes,

By stepping on the fumi-e, Father Rodrigues inverts into his genuine faith, faith not dependent on his religious status or on his own merit, but a faith in grace— grace that, like the rays of sunshine after a rainy day, provides an aroma of the light (loc. 2263-65).

Then, in spite of the several times Inoue, the Japanese “inquisitor,” refers to Japan as an unproductive swamp for Christianity, Fujimura writes,

Christian faith is more than a mere rational proposition. It can take root deeply in a muddy swamp if it is designed for propagation there, like, for instance, planting rice in rice paddies (loc. 1189-91).

Later Fujimura claims that through Endo,

we may begin to detect the aroma of the sunshine and to see the possibility of the Golden Country of Japan, a country filled with rice paddies, a muddy swamp now resplendent with golden hues of the abundant harvest (loc. 2239-40).

That is the reason why Scorsese dedicated “Silence” to Japanese pastors. However, a review by a young Japanese pastor, while insightful and helpful in some parts, misses the point, even saying that “Silence” will drive Japanese people away from an understanding of God’s love.

I hope that that pastor, and that you who read this, will at some point read Fujimura’s book and learn from his insights.

And while “Silence” is probably too “heavy” for the general public and even though it demands more thoughtful reflection than most people are willing to expend, I do hope there will be many who go see the movie and then spend adequate time thinking and talking with others about its deep meaning.

In this time when the “prosperity gospel” continues to grow in popularity (think about some of those who will be praying at the presidential inauguration on 1/20), this is a good time to consider the gospel of grace for those who are not, and will never be, rich and powerful.

God is not silent. God speaks through suffering–and through the hidden beauty of the gracious Christ on the cross.

About Leroy Seat

* Born in Grant City, MO, on 8/15/1938 * Graduated from Southwest Baptist College (Bolivar, MO) in 1957 (A.A.) * Graduated from William Jewell College (Liberty, MO) in 1959 (A.B.) * Graduated from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY) in 1962 (B.D., equivalent of M.Div.) * Received the Doctor of Philosophy degree in theology from SBTS. * Baptist missionary to Japan from 1966 to 2004. * Full-time faculty member at Seinan Gakuin University (Fukuoka, Japan) from 1968 to 2004. * Adjunct professor at Rockhurst University from 2006 to 2014.
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6 Responses to A Further Look at “Silence”

  1. Gary Barkley says:

    “Silence” is one of the most profound, thought provoking books I have read. While I have read it in English translation several times, reading it in the original Japanese is even more moving. However, the English translation is excellent. Never did I think the book was about the silence of God.

    As Leroy has written, it is so much more about the way God speaks through suffering. I have my students in the required Christianity classes at Seinan Gakuin University read and write about another of Endo Shusaku’s works, “The Life of Christ.” While a historical novel about the life of Jesus, it depicts a Jesus that draws students much closer to the Jesus of the gospels. I would encourage you to read that book as well.

  2. Leroy Seat says:

    Thanks, Gary, for reading and responding to my article. I appreciate your affirming the significance of “Silence” and for also calling attention to Endo’s “The Life of Christ.”

  3. ckpk3337 says:

    I was stricken by the crucifixion/martyrdom of Christians at Nagasaki by Hideyoshi in 1597, and had to wonder if the planners of the Nagasaki bomb in 1945 were aware of that event. I thought of the words of Lamech as we find them in Genesis 5:23-24:
    “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice.
    You wives of Lamech, listen to what I have to say:
    I have killed a man for wounding me,
    A young man for striking me.
    If Cain is avenged seven fold,
    Truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.”

    Were the planners of Nagasaki 1945 remembering Nagasaki 1597, and assuming the role of Lamech? I hope not, and doubt it. But there can be little doubt that the planners of Nagasaki (and Hiroshima) 1945 were remembering Pearl Harbor 1941 in the planning of those dreadful events. The vengeance was more than seventy-seven fold.

    • Leroy Seat says:

      Thanks for your significant comments, Charles.

      No, I don’t think the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki with 1597 in mind. Actually, that bomb was supposed to be dropped on Kokura in north Kyushu but because of the heavy clouds there the secondary city, Nagasaki, became the target instead.

      Thanks for the reference to 1945, though. Fujimura, whom I wrote about in the article, does write about the atomic bombing of Japan–and how that those two cities were “ground zero” and the devastation there far worse that at ground zero in 9/11/2001.

  4. A Japanese theologian defined “Apocalypse” as extreme enemies of yesterday becoming extreme benefactor-friends of today. Japanese experienced their extreme enemy–Americans–becoming their extreme benefactor in Japanese defeat and American occupation in the aftermath of World War 2. Such an extreme flip flop of destiny was my experience in viewing “Silence” last night.

    Of course I had read the book in Japanese and English many years ago. I had Endo Shusaku’s three books on Jesus and the Early Church as required reading for book reports for my students as I taught with Leroy Seat and Gary Barkley as my fellow missionaries in Fukuoka.

    Retired in Los Angeles today, I am part of 5 interreligious Dialogues, and Chair of 4 of them. As Chair of Nikkei Interfaith Fellowship, I host the monthly meetings of ministers and friends of all Japanese religions–Buddhist, Shinto,Catholic, Protestant, Konko-kyo, Tenri-kyo, and whoever else attends. The tribal structure of the Christianity I had learned taught that only Christianity was true and my job as missionary was to convert all Japanese to Jesus–religious tribalism of Western White Christianity.

    My tribalism has expanded to all humans of all cultures, all races, and all religions. I have been doing Zen meditations in Japan’s Zen monasteries for some 30 years. Besides occasional preaching in a Christian church, I also attend a Shin Buddhist temple close-by. I have integrated Zen and Amida with Jesus in overcoming tribal religion. Shin Buddhist East (Higashi Honganji) has come forth with a new slogan about 5 years ago: NOW LIFE IS LIVING YOU. That is, Amida Buddha is interpreted finally as LIFE.

    Amida is no longer an alien East Asian Buddha-god, but is finally unmasked as the LIFE FORCE. Old Testament scholar William Albright defines YAHWEH of the Hebrew Bible as LIFE FORCE. YAHWEH is the causative past participle of HAYAH, “to be.” YAHWEH is the LIFE FORCE. That is both YAHWEH and AMIDA BUDDHA are unmasked as the identical LIFE FORCE.

    This is APOCALYPSE. Buddhism torturing and killing Christians for some 240 years yesterday is today an extreme partner-benefactor. “Namu Amida Buuuu…” was the chant repeated in the movie by priests as the coffin of Rodrigues was carried to cremation. That is exactly the chant I repeat with fellow worshippers at the Shin Buddhist temple closely. It is an abbreviation of the standard chant, “Namu Amida Butsu.”

    My closest friends and fellow clerics now are Shin Buddhist priests. I was shaken as I saw the extreme enemy of the ancient Japanese Church unmasked as my closest companions and benefactors today.

    • Leroy Seat says:

      Thanks for taking the time to post these significant comments, Dickson.

      As I suggest in the article, the persecution of the Christians after 1597 had far more to do with the fear of political and economic imperialism and of the loss of Japanese culture than fear of or religious opposition to the Christian faith as such.

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