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Great Japanese Writers: Shusaku Endo

A deep dive into the work of some of Japan’s greatest writers.

By 4 min read

Literature — and the novel in particular — is a vehicle for empathy and understanding. Humanity has yet to invent a better method for getting inside someone else’s head, for seeing from someone else’s perspective, for being exposed to other opinions and ideas. This is why the most powerful and interesting writing often comes from marginal, minority or oppressed groups. National stereotypes allow little space for plurality in regular discourse, meaning people are often surprised at the mention of Chinese Muslims or Japanese Catholics.

Shusaku Endo was a Japanese Catholic and wrote extensively from and about that background and community, bringing a different philosophical and ideological slant than his peers to his stories of both modern and pre-modern Japan.

Born in Tokyo in 1923, and raised for a time in occupied Manchuria, he thought for a time of becoming a doctor before literary success decided his path for him. He won the coveted Akutagawa Prize in 1955 for his novella White Man, the story of a French collaborator during World War II. It is often sold alongside its follow up, Yellow Man, and is a remarkable work, showing early on all the themes and motifs Endo would explore throughout his career — how people behave under extreme pressure, whether their beliefs and principles can underpin bravery or whether they are abandoned in favor of simple survival. As you’d expect from a Catholic writer, redemption — or the possibility of it — features heavily.

As with all writers of his generation who survived the war, its specter hovered over everything he wrote. Endo spent the war working in a munitions factory rather than fighting, but where this gave Yukio Mishima an inferiority complex and saturated him in survivor’s guilt, it seems to have given Endo a distance from the horrors, space within which he could objectively and artistically explore the recent past. He was never afraid to tackle big, controversial subjects. His next book, The Sea and Poison, drew on his medical interests (not for the last time) in a powerful story of medical experimentation on a prisoner of war. It was turned into a film starring Ken Watanabe.

Endo’s interests and approach make him one of the most accessible Japanese novelists for “Western” readers.

Another novel to be adapted for the screen is his famous — and arguably best — work, Silence. Set in the 17th century during the persecution of Christians. The shogunate had no particular ideological issue with Christianity — as Marx pointed out: a faith in a better life to come can make the masses more pliant in this life, teaching endurance, fortitude and delayed satisfaction through rewards after death. Rather, it was the threat of an alternate “king” in Rome demanding obedience from the shogun’s subjects that was perceived as a threat. Silence terrifyingly evokes the mood of the time for Christians in Kyushu worshipping in secret, forever fearing betrayal, facing torture and death if caught. It was a world he would return to again in Kiku’s Prayer and a play, The Golden Country.

Published in 1974, When I Whistle returns to Endo’s fascination with medicine. Set in a hospital, it delves into the corrupt world of career politics amongst doctors and touches again on a recurring Endo theme —t he failure of the good man to thrive in modern society. Ambitious surgeon Eichi uses his colleague’s compassion for his patients as a way of discrediting him, furthering his own chances of promotion and preferment. The colleague, Tahara, is posted to a rural hospital — a punishment in Eichi’s eyes — but as always with Endo, it’s never that simple.

The late novel, Deep River, perhaps best encapsulates Endo’s concerns and approach. Made up of an ensemble cast on a package tour from Japan to India, it takes the heavy issues Endo toiled with all his life —death, redemption, faith, ambition, fear, control — and wraps them in a comedy. The mismatched group copes with hygiene standards they aren’t used to and the chaos that erupts when Indira Gandhi is assassinated mid-trip.

Endo’s interests and approach make him one of the most accessible Japanese novelists for “Western” readers, and his style — empathetic and wry — means that whatever subject he tackled, the reader will experience a multitude of perspectives. He was a gifted storyteller as well and his collection Stained Glass Elegies is, in my opinion, one of the finest short story books out there.

He died in 1996, a year after receiving the Order of Culture. A museum in Nagasaki devoted to Endo and his works is well-worth a visit if you are in the area. There, a monument to Silence bears the inscription: “Humanity is so sad, Lord, and the ocean so blue.”

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