Shusako Endo’s The Golden Country and “the full symphony” of Catholicism

When threatened with petty political correctness, American Catholics should bear in mind Endo’s depiction of heroic Christian witness.

“Plunged into the boiling waters of Unzen, they hung on, believing this was the way to Paradise.  Even when they had huge rocks tied to them and were dropped into the middle of the sea, with their last breath they sang out their prayers … This is true fealty.  Even as a samurai, I have never to this day seen so great a fealty.” – Lord Tomonoga, Shusaku Endo’s The Golden Country         

In 1633 Jesuit missionary Christovao Ferriera was captured by agents of the Japanese shogunate, which had recently turned against Christianity. As a representative of the prohibited foreign religion Ferriera was then condemned to “the Pit,” a procedure described in grisly detail by scholar and priest Francis Mathy, SJ:

The victim’s body and arms and legs were tightly tied with rope and he was suspended head first into a pit filled with offal. A hole was drilled in his temple to permit the blood to fall one drop at a time, thus preventing rapid death from circulatory obstruction. This torture could be made to last several days and even an entire week before death took place. 

Ferriera did not last a week. After a few hours he emerged alive—and broken. In exchange for his life he had renounced the Faith. 

Ferriera was not, of course, the first Christian or even the first priest to deny Christ due to threats or pain. Such failures have an extensive lineage, stretching all the way back to St. Peter. But his case is rendered striking by the fanaticism he directed against the Church following his fall. Renouncing his baptism, Ferriera adopted the name of a recently executed criminal (“Sawano Chuan”) and then put his keenly-trained intellect to work constructing polemics against the Church and plots against the Christian underground. He had once been Superior General of the Jesuit order; now he became the order’s archenemy, and the author of anti-Christian works like A Clear Exposition of the False Doctrine

All this will be familiar to those who have encountered Shusaku Endo’s The Golden Country. A somewhat conflicted Japanese Catholic, Endo used his 1966 play to highlight the Faith’s multi-dimensional interaction with Japanese culture. “If I have trust in Catholicism,” he once explained, “it is because I find in it much more possibility than in any other religion for presenting the full symphony of humanity. The other religions have almost no fullness; they have but solo parts. Only Catholicism can present the full symphony.” In the case of The Golden Country, Endo’s longstanding desire to make this “full symphony” more accessible has formed the basis for a classic work of dramatic art.

The action begins in Nagasaki, where we are quickly introduced to Lord Tomonoga—middle-aged samurai, closet Christian, and one of the play’s foremost protagonists. Using his position as an official in the shogunate’s dreaded Bureau of Investigation to assist his persecuted co-religionists, Tomonoga falls under the suspicion of said Bureau’s Chief Investigator—a keen-witted, self-hating apostate by the name of Inoue. Intent on capturing Father Ferriera—who has, up till now, evaded the authorities by moving stealthily from village to village—Inoue decides to use the samurai as bait. Cornering Tomonaga, Inoue orders him to perform the fumi-e—a ritual of apostasy whereby Christian faith is denied by trampling on an icon of Christ.

As expected, Tomonaga refuses, thus outing himself. He is thrust into the pit, and Inoue publicly proclaims that his life will be spared if Father Ferriera turns himself in. After much soul-searching, Ferriera does just that, but Inoue goes back on his word, leaving Tomonaga in the pit until the samurai finally dies. Ferriera’s own turn in the pit comes, and he shocks the Christian community by giving in and performing the fumi-e for all to see. “You see,” crows Hirata, a petty Bureau official who detests all spiritual ideals, bushido and Gospel alike, “we are stronger than your God.”

Hirata feels doubly triumphant because he has entrapped Gennosuke, a young samurai who loves Tomonaga’s daughter Yuki. Though a pagan, Gennosuke has developed a soft spot toward Christianity for the sake of his devout beloved—and so treasures a crucifix she has secretly given him, even though he does not quite understand what it means. Of course crucifixes are strictly forbidden, so when Hirata discovers it he seizes the opportunity to denounce Gennosuke as a Christian sympathizer. Tied to stakes in the ocean, Gennosuke and Yuki sing hymns together until they are drowned by the incoming tide; in contrast the two apostates Ferriera and Inoue remain alive to contemplate their degradation. The play closes with the chanting of martyrs in the background, while word arrives that a new team of missionaries has infiltrated the country. By the time the curtain closes, it is evident that not even the Bureau can wipe out the Church completely.

As Lord Tomonoga most exemplifies the marriage of the Faith with Japanese culture, it is worth pointing out that the Catholic samurai is no invention of Endo’s but is rather an idealized representation of historical figures like Takayama Ukon and Bl. Melchior Kumagai Motonao. Thanks to his submission to the Gospel, Tomonaga sees the inner significance of the samurai code—the word samurai literally meaning “service to the master.” Nobility entails not privilege but duty, Tomonaga muses shortly before his death; the true aristocrat does not exploit his people, but instead seeks to set a good example for them. 

Almost as intriguing is the conflicted Chief Investigator Inoue, who calls to mind Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. When Tomonaga refuses to perform the fumi-e, Inoue is not so much angry as sad. Convinced that Christianity is truly a glorious, enlightened teaching, Inoue is equally convinced that this teaching is incompatible with the Japanese temperament. If so, all the blood heroically shed for the sake of Japanese Christianity has been a tragic waste. Japan is not really the golden country of noble pagans described by St. Francis Xavier, Inoue tells Tomonaga with a hint of bitterness, but “a mudswamp,” one wherein “God’s shoots would not grow.” Far from being a source of triumph, Tomonoga’s eventual death only makes the Chief Investigator even gloomier, for he knows Tomonaga to be of an increasingly rare breed, a “samurai among samurai.” Now low-minded sadists like Hirata are the only people left working at the Bureau.

Except for Gennosuke, that is. An idealist, Gennosuke devotedly takes care of his widowed mother, looks up to Tomonaga, and dreams reverently of the girl he loves, and through him we get a sense of the best that pre-Christian Japan has to offer. At first he intends to carry out the fumi-e ritual to clear himself—he is not, after all, a Christian, so why shouldn’t he trample on the crucifix? But then Yuki speaks up at his trial, and in the ensuing exchange the pagan youth helps clarify the meaning of Christian martyrdom:

YUKI: Gennosuke, if you step on the fumi-e, the bond that binds our two hearts together will snap forever. This may have been made by an unknown craftsman in Nagasaki, but to me it has been all my life the most precious of all things. All my life I have adored it. If you step on it, you will go completely out of my life. Instead, step on me.

HIRATA: Oh, this is very interesting. I like nothing better than to throw mud at what is beautiful and spit on what is noble. This kind of perversion the officials of the Bureau must all have to some degree. Gennosuke, this lady is asking you to step on her face instead of on the     fumi-e.

YUKI: Hirata-dono, will you be satisfied if Gennosuke steps on me? Will that clear up your suspicions?

HIRATA: It most certainly will.

YUKI: Then, Gennosuke, please step on me. Everything that’s happened has been my fault. Step on me.

(She pauses as she waits for Gennosuke to step on her. But he cannot.)

GENNOSUKE:  I don’t know anything about the teaching of Christ. But now I see this clearly. If Yuki is to be hung in the pit, I want to be hung there too. If she is to be burned, I want to die with her.

Note that Gennosuke is hardly motivated by a commitment to love in the abstract. It is not his right to love which occupies his mind, but his commitment to his actual beloved. Likewise, Yuki could care less about some hypothetical right to practice Shinto or Buddhism or Taoism. What inspires her is not her religious freedom, but rather Christ. 

As for Father Ferriera, following his apostasy he seeks comfort, oddly enough, by comparing himself to Judas—who in Ferriera’s skewed theology was a martyr, too, insofar as Judas both suffered greatly for his actions and played a key role in bringing Christ’s work to completion. Yet Inoue will have none of it. Although deeming it his duty to war upon Christianity, the Chief Investigator is secretly disappointed by Ferriera’s failure. Hence Inoue has no patience for the rationalizations of “Sawano Chuan,” and acts as an unexpected voice of orthodoxy: “You are wrong. Stop deceiving yourself […] you are just bending the teachings of Christ to suit your weakness, trying to disguise your misery even from yourself.” Unlike the metaphysically passive Buddhist, Inoue insists firmly, the Christian acknowledges God’s gift of free will—a gift necessarily accompanied by responsibility.

Unlike Endo’s earlier controversial work Silence—a novel which dealt with much of the same material, albeit in a problematic fashion—The Golden Country offers us a vision of a robust and spiritually powerful Japanese Christianity. This comes as no surprise, given the historical source material that inspired Endo. Until the latter half of the 19th century, when authorities finally lifted their ban, the Japanese church kept alive by operating underground, patiently awaiting the day when the legendary fathers would return again from across the sea. Cut off from Rome and under constant threat of death, Japanese Christians baptized their children and taught them what they could via precious fragments of Scripture and doctrine. Need I point out the stark contrast with modern American Catholicism, which possesses far greater resources, opportunities, and liberty, yet has in most of its schools and institutions proven incapable of instilling even a minimum of respect for the Magisterium? 

For that matter, when all is said and done maybe we should even be careful about passing too harsh a judgment on Ferriera. After all, he only yielded to anti-Christian forces after having been put through torture as brutal as anything featured in a modern-day horror movie. Far milder forms of persuasion have proven effective in getting countless American Catholics to compromise with the enemy—and even, like Ferriera, to actively aid that enemy. Every time some mandarin of political-correctness tries to intimidate us with name-calling, or fines, or the prospect of getting fired, we should, instead of cowering, think long and hard of the boiling waters of Unzen, of the crucifixions at Nagasaki, of the pit where so many of our co-religionists breathed their last. Then, without rancor, we should laugh at him.

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About Jerry Salyer 56 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.