Originally published in Japanese in 1982, the novel Sachiko by Shūsaku Endō, perhaps Asia’s best-known Catholic author of fiction, has been recently translated into English by Van C. Gessel. In part a conventional love story of star-crossed lovers ripped apart from their embrace by the tragic whirlwind of the history of the twentieth century, Sachiko is above all a powerful and inspiring account of the moral dilemmas and tenacious faith of Japanese and Western Christians amidst the depravity of World War II, one whose outlook surprisingly contrasts with the pessimism of Endō’s best-known novel Silence.
Shūsaku Endō (1923-1996) was one of the best-known Japanese novelists in the West. His popularity outside Asia has often been attributed to the fact that he deals mostly with Christian themes, which are not esoteric to the Western reader. In 1994, he was a serious contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but lost to another Japanese, Kenzaburō Ōe. Born in Tokyo and having spent most of his adult life in his beloved adopted city of Nagasaki, Endō converted to Catholicism at the age of eleven or twelve under the influence of his mother or aunt (accounts vary).
Although Christianity is growing across Asia (tellingly, the world’s largest megachurch, an enormous congregation of 800,000, bigger than many Catholic dioceses, is in Seoul), it failed to gain a strong foothold in the land of the cherry blossoms. As of 2019, when Pope Francis visited the country, it was home to 500,000 local Catholics and another 500,000 Catholic foreign workers, a total of less than 1 percent of the population.
Beginning with St. Francis Xavier’s mission, European missionaries tried to bring the Gospel to Japan with some successes. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi became emperor in 1585 and began to unify the country, however, Christianity was outlawed; the persecutions of Christians were so severe that Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide,” first had the notion that apart from the murder of an individual an entire group of people could be killed when he read his compatriot Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, a classic novel of Christians in Rome under Nero, as well as about the martyrdom of Christians in seventeenth-century Japan. A group of crypto-Christians, the Kakure Kirishitans, continued to practice their faith in secret. Only in 1873 did Japan legalize Christianity under Western pressure.
The persecution of Christians in seventeenth-century Japan is the setting for Endō’s best-known novel, 1966’s Silence, which depicts the efforts of idealistic Portuguese Jesuits who try to bring the Gospels to seventeenth-century Japan. At this time, many Christians caved into the inventive tortures of their Shinto-Buddhist hangmen. They could be freed from these tortures if they committed apostasy by symbolically trample on the fumi-e, an image of Christ. The younger, more zealous Jesuit, Rodrigues, unexpectedly caves, after which he is given a respectable social position.
The novel generated some controversy in Japan, as many descendants of Kirishitans felt that Endō had disgraced the memory of their ancestors by not depicting their heroism. Likewise, when Martin Scorsese’s film came out in 2016, some Western Christian reviewers complained that the work glorified apostasy. Both accusations, I think, missed the boat. Endō depicts Rodrigues’ renunciation of Christianity as a tragic act that would torment him for years. Rodrigues’ apostasy is symbolic: through it, Endō tried to depict the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between being Christian and being Japanese, as well as the failed evangelization of his country.
Like Silence, Sachiko is also a historic epic, although one set in the twentieth century. Its two main characters are childhood friends Sachiko and Shūhei, two young Japanese Catholics in Nagasaki. We first meet them in 1930, when they are small children and their playmates include Jim, the child of American expatriates. An integral part of Nagasaki’s Catholic scene at the time are Polish Franciscan missionaries, led by the future saint and martyr Maximilian Kolbe, who pass out Japanese copies of the Knight of the Immaculate and try to spread the Good News in broken Japanese.
As often happens in friendships between men and women, as the two grow older, Sachiko begins to fall in love with Shūhei. Shūhei, by then an aspiring novelist, university student, and skirt chaser, fails to scare away Sachiko with his love for scatological humor (which hilariously turns on him during a trip to Shimabara Castle, the site of a seventeenth-century Christian rebellion against the shogunate, where he finds what he thinks is valuable ancient pottery, but his archaeological dig turns out to be nothing more than a piece of an old chamber pot). However, he pushes away her feelings of love and LJBFs her (“let’s just be friends”), which causes her pain.
As Shūhei and Sachiko walk around Shimabara Castle, they openly wonder if they will not meet the same tragic fate as their ancestors. At this time, Christians are treated as a fifth column in Japan; detectives infiltrate monasteries, Masses are disrupted, and Christians are insulted in public for following the religion of their enemies, America and England.
The ostracism the Christian characters of Sachiko face recalls that which many followers of Christ experience in the West today. Ono, a detective who investigates Nagasaki’s Catholic community for signs of subversion, tells Sachiko: “It’s fine to believe in Christianity, but when push comes to shove you have to make some compromises with the world around you.” Although this was said in Japan eighty years ago, every Christian in North America or Europe today has certainly heard something similar.
Like Silence, Sachiko depicts the moral conflicts of Christians amidst more than challenging times. Shūhei is eventually drafted into the military and becomes a kamikaze pilot. He is torn between loyalty to the emperor and Christ, who taught non-violence (as Endō notes, being a kamikaze is a double sin, as it involves taking the life of not only one’s neighbor but also one’s own). Already before being drafted, Shūhei questions institutional Christianity, as the Japanese Church, which had once so vigorously proclaimed the Fifth Commandment, does not take a public stance condemning the war (from the Rape of Nanking, during which tens of thousands of Chinese were killed to the conscripting of many Korean “comfort women” into forced prostitution, the Japanese military at this time committed many horrible human rights abuses) and stops attending Mass, which causes Sachiko great sadness.
At the beginning of the novel, Jim, Sachiko and Shūhei’s American childhood playmate, is described in passing. He once again makes an appearance at the very end, when he is an American pilot ready to drop the Fat Man nuclear bomb on Nagasaki. As a Christian, Jim is confused; he realizes the profound loss in human life that dropping Fat Man will cause, but knows that if Japan is not castigated, its government will continue to rape and murder millions across Asia. This reappearance of what initially seemed like a marginal character in one of the novel’s central moments is truly the mark of a master storyteller who rewards his readers for paying attention to details.
Those familiar with Silence’s pessimistic ending are in for a big surprise with Sachiko. Unlike Rodrigues, the titular heroine is steadfast in her faith. Like Job, she continues to believe (she has a favorite spot in her parish where she prays looking directly at a statue of the Blessed Mother), even as her faith is hated, her country is falling into moral, economic, and military ruin, and her beloved (she and Shūhei do ultimately enjoy a brief period of idyllic, requited love) faces imminent death as a kamikaze. In the last chapter, titled “Aftermath,” we learn that after the war Sachiko has a comfortable middle-class existence and remains faithful to the Church, but greatly laments the fact that her children stop attending Mass.
A central figure in Sachiko is St. Maximilian Kolbe, whom Endō praises for having “demonstrated the majesty of human life” in his afterword. Endō had long been fascinated by the Franciscan friar, who plays a central role in his 1979 short story “Japanese in Warsaw” (available in English in the anthology The Final Martyrs). Kolbe’s martyrdom in the Auschwitz concentration camp, during which he offered to die in the starvation chamber so that Franciszek Gajowniczek, a family man, could live after the SS selected ten men (Endō incorrectly writes that the number is twenty; likewise, he wrongly puts the death toll at Auschwitz-Birkenau at four million, although it in reality was 1.1 million) to be killed as punishment for the escape of a prisoner, is recounted.
Among many Christians (apart from being a Catholic saint, Kolbe is also venerated in the Lutheran and Anglican liturgy, and a statue of him can be found on the façade of Westminster Abbey in London), Kolbe’s story is well-known; it was also inspiring to Viktor Frankl, the Austrian-Jewish psychiatrist and survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau who writes about the priest in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning. I assume that Endō’s Japanese readers were less familiar with this story.
However, Western Christians will likely find Kolbe’s dialogues with Henryk, a fictional atheist schoolteacher from Krakow and fellow Auschwitz inmate, to be an illuminating attempt at answering the ancient philosophical problem of theodicy (how can a good God allow evil?). If there is no good in Auschwitz, Kolbe tells Henryk, we must create it. Henryk finds these pious pronouncements to be irritating. “Love is bulls—t. Love can do nothing to rescue a man from starvation,” he muses. Yet Father Kolbe’s voluntary self-sacrificial death somehow moves him to share bread with a fellow prisoner. “This was the sole act of love that Henryk was able to perform. Still, he had carried out an act of love,” Endō writes.
The story of Sachiko’s translation is worth briefly mentioning. The translator, Van C. Gessel, a one-time Mormon bishop and professor of Japanese at Brigham Young University, translated most of Endō’s works into English. The two enjoyed a friendship, and even a minor American character in Sachiko is named after him (Gessel writes in a footnote that Endō had a habit of naming characters in his novels after people he knew as an inside joke). As someone who does not know Japanese, I cannot assess Gessel’s translation (although I am certain that Endō would not have enjoyed such a long collaboration with him if it wasn’t great). This Westerner found his footnotes, which explain different events and figures in Japanese history and popular culture, to be very helpful. I did, however, find one minor factual error: in a footnote, Gessel writes that kapos, Nazi concentration camp inmates who (often cruelly) oversaw the work of other prisoners, were by definition Jewish. In reality, kapos were inmates of all ethnicities.
Sachiko is the best Catholic novel I have read in a long time. Avoiding a sappy and simplistic depiction of a harsh reality, Endō honestly presents the doubts and dilemmas of Christians – Japanese, American, Polish – amidst hostile surroundings in a world where violation of the Fifth Commandment was the norm. Through the character of Sachiko and his beautiful tribute to St. Maximilian Kolbe, Endō affirms that it is possible to be a Christian witness even in the bloodiest conflict of all time.
Sachiko: A Novel
By Endō Shūsaku
Translated by Van C. Gessel
Columbia University Press, 2020
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