There’s a haiku by Masaoka Shiki that doesn’t get translated all that often, because it ruins people’s image of peaceful, Buddhist Japan: “At the temple / beneath peonies in full bloom / we trample on the face of Christ.” It refers to a common annual sight, nationwide in the samurai era, of locals lining up to walk across a picture of Jesus or Mary, in order to prove that they were not secret Christian believers.
The novelist Shusaku Endo, baptised as a child at his convert mother’s insistence, was fascinated by this cul-de-sac in Japanese history, specifically by the undercover Christians that such ceremonies were designed to root out – men and women so devout in their faith for a foreign religion that they were prepared to die an agonising death rather than step on a holy image. Endo’s work was suffused with a question about his own faith. Would he be as brave as his forebears, or, if ever put on the spot with such high stakes, would he take the easy option and cave in?
Endo’s 1966 novel Silence was pressed into the hands of the famously Catholic Martin Scorsese at a 1990 screening of his controversial movie The Last Temptation of Christ. The director soon resolved to adapt it into a film, intrigued by its deep investigation of the nature of religious faith. The story focusses on two priests sneaking into the closed country of Japan, not only to administer to the Hidden Christians, but also to hunt for a fellow Jesuit who has reputedly gone native. Eventually played, after two decades in pre-production purgatory, by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, they search for the missing Liam Neeson, and inevitably fall into the hands of samurai Christian-hunters. Not unlike the similar quest narrative of Apocalypse Now, it’s a journey into the heart of darkness, in search of a phantom figure that might best remain unfound.
Endo’s book, and by association, Scorsese’s film taps into one of the most fascinating stories in Japanese history – the savage suppression of the Christian religion in Japan, and its long aftermath. Christian missionaries found thousands of willing converts in the 16th century, particularly in the south, where communities of believers flourished around the ports that had contact with foreign traders. Nagasaki, in particular, became a Christian enclave, handed over to the Jesuits by a devout local warlord, in gratitude. Gratitude for what? Well, there was all that spiritual awakening, of course, plus the money brought in by the silk trade, and (almost forgot) all those guns brought in from the West.
Gunpowder helped turn the tide in the long civil war that left the Tokugawa clan in charge, but Christian samurai were unluckily to be found largely on the losing side. Thousands of them were packed off for a time-wasting crusade in Korea, and the survivors resettled as farmers in the south. But with the conclusion of the civil war came the end of the political uncertainty that gave Christianity a foothold in the first place. The Tokugawa Shoguns were deeply suspicious of a religion that owed its allegiance to a foreign god-king in Rome, particularly after an angry Spanish captain had boasted that missionaries were merely the vanguard of an insurgency that would eventually be followed by conquering soldiers.
Christianity was hunted down and stamped out. A rebellion in the south, led by a teenage messiah, ended with the massacre of 37,000 Christians. The survivors went underground, worshipping in shadows and caves, hiding their icons inside Buddhist statues, and passing on the Bible by word of mouth. It’s these “Hidden Christian” communities that Silence documents, nests of forbidden believers among the most remote fishing communities, hosting a dwindling number of foreign priests smuggled in from the outside world. As the decades passed, their understanding of religious doctrine grew garbled and confused, but their faith remained strong.
Scorsese’s movie also boasts a who’s-who of big-name Japanese actors, including Tadanobu Asano as a creepy interpreter and Shinya Tsukamoto, director of the cult classic Tetsuo, as one of the Japanese faithful. Snubbed at the Golden Globes, for which it may have been released a few scant weeks too late, it was sneaked out in America late last year in a bid to secure last-minute Oscar nods. By the time you read these words, you will know whether that was a matter of blind faith or not [Time Travel Footnote: Yes, apparently it was].
Jonathan Clements is the author of Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #17, 2017.