Silence and Beauty
eBook - ePub

Silence and Beauty

Hidden Faith Born of Suffering

Makoto Fujimura

  1. 263 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Silence and Beauty

Hidden Faith Born of Suffering

Makoto Fujimura

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About This Book

Logos Bookstore Association Award
Dallas Willard Center Book Award Finalist
Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards Finalist
World Magazine's Best Books
Aldersgate Prize by the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University
ECPA Top Shelf Book Cover Award
Outreach Magazine Resource of the Year
Missio Alliance Essential Reading List

Shusaku Endo's novel Silence, first published in 1966, endures as one of the greatest works of twentieth-century Japanese literature. Its narrative of the persecution of Christians in seventeenth-century Japan raises uncomfortable questions about God and the ambiguity of faith in the midst of suffering and hostility.

Endo's Silence took internationally renowned visual artist Makoto Fujimura on a pilgrimage of grappling with the nature of art, the significance of pain and his own cultural heritage. His artistic faith journey overlaps with Endo's as he uncovers deep layers of meaning in Japanese history and literature, expressed in art both past and present. He finds connections to how faith is lived in contemporary contexts of trauma and glimpses of how the gospel is conveyed in Christ-hidden cultures.

In this world of pain and suffering, God often seems silent. Fujimura's reflections show that light is yet present in darkness, and that silence speaks with hidden beauty and truth.

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Asian Art

- 1 -

A Journey into Silence


I entered the darkly lit exhibit room alone.
The studio given to me as a National Scholar was a few blocks away from the Tokyo National Museum at Tokyo University of the Arts. In between painting layers I often wandered into the museum, an imposing building with a Western façade and a Japanese roof, reflective of the nineteenth-century Meiji restoration period combining the Japanese past with influences of the West in what is called the Imperial Crown Style. I was studying the Tokyo National Museum’s collections of Rinpa (seventeenth-century) and nihonga byobu screens. After spending time in the main hall where these majestic pieces were exhibited, I entered one of the smaller exhibits to one side. The display cases were full of what seemed like tablets laid flat. I read the description and learned that these were from seventeenth-century Japan, a collection of fumi-e (literally “stepping blocks”).
Fumi-e were created during the seventeenth-century Tokugawa shogunate Christian persecution. They are images of Jesus, or of the Virgin with a child, carved on wood or cast in bronze. Villagers were asked to line up on the beach and one by one renounce Christianity by stepping on these blocks. Later on, it was the custom of the New Year’s celebration, with villagers lining up to pay tributes to the temple and, for those suspected, to step on the fumi-e. Individuals who refused or even hesitated were arrested and most likely jailed and tortured.
I had just come to embrace faith in Christ at the age of twenty-seven, after several years of spiritual awakening. Now I faced, literally, the reality of Christian faith in Japan. I had just been baptized in a missionary church in Higashikurume, but this fumi-e encounter was my true “baptism” into being a Christian in Japan.
What haunted me, and continues to haunt me to this day, is that all of the fumi-e images were worn smooth. The cast or carved images were hardly recognizable due to so many people walking over them. The image of Christ, hidden beneath the smooth surface of the fumi-e, serves as an emblem of Japanese faith to this day. And the worn surface of fumi-e also captures Japanese beauty enduring trauma.

Pursuing the aesthetics of Japan, I studied as a National Scholar for six and a half years, apprenticing under several masters of nihonga—in particular, Professor Kazuho Hieda and Matazo Kayama. After being invited to continue my studies as a master of fine arts student, I became the first outsider to be invited into the university’s doctoral-level lineage program, which is linked to the seventeenth century. (Tokyo University of the Arts receives over four hundred applications for its undergraduate class of twenty, and rarely is an outsider of the university system, let alone a foreigner, allowed to study there.) By the time I encountered the fumi-e, I had realized that my path would be quite different from other nihonga students. While I deeply affirmed Japanese tradition and beauty, I had to assimilate my earlier training in American abstraction and minimalism. Further, I now had to live out my newfound faith in Christ.
I had just been led to Christian faith by my wife. My account of my faith transformation, and my transfer-of-allegiance experience of becoming a follower of Christ drawn out by the poetry of William Blake, is depicted in my first book, River Grace, and is reprinted later in this book. It was then that God began to immerse me in the history and aesthetics of Japan.
I began to work in response to Endo’s writing and my own encounter with fumi-e. My first series of works, exhibited at Tamaya Gallery in Tokyo and later installed at Yokohama Citizen’s Gallery (curated by Kenji Kitazawa), was called the Ju-nan (Passion) panel series. These small, square, minimalistic works were simple layers of pulverized pigments, layered over and over and distressed by rubbing them with sandpaper and other materials. In my doctoral thesis I created an installation using a series of narrow panels on the floor to “quote” fumi-e works. I used nihonga methods, but the delicate surfaces were precariously installed right on the floor. I called the installation “The Resurrection.”1

Struggling with Shusaku Endo’s Works

I read Shusaku Endo’s Silence soon after this encounter with fumi-e at the Tokyo National Museum. I knew it was one of the most important novels of the twentieth century, and I had frequently noted Endo’s name even as an undergraduate in the United States. As a new follower of Christ, I found it fascinating that this Japanese Catholic writer had become an important, popular cultural voice worldwide.
Reading Silence, though, was an excruciating experience, especially as a new believer in the Christian faith. Understanding Christ’s suffering for our sake is one thing, but a gruesome and graphic depiction of his followers’ torment is never easy to digest. After the first reading, my foremost questions were about the timing and motive of the missionaries’ trek to Japan. Why did they choose to go to Japan knowing that they might be captured and killed? Was their motivation a martyr complex, a type of a death wish to make themselves significant? Did they sense a divine call to come to a closed country hostile to faith, or did they make the journey because of foolish ambition? What is the nature of the faith that missionaries of the past and present desire to bring to a foreign context? And why did the Tokugawa feudal authorities decide to persecute only Christians? What threats did they perceive that made them single out the Christian faith?
I deal with these uneasy questions in this book. Not all of them will be answered satisfactorily, but they do open up a larger set of questions about faith, betrayal and the question of evil and suffering, which theologians call “theodicy.”
But one fact remains jarringly clear to me as I write: this book is proof of the remarkable impact Silence has had on the world and certainly in my life. Testament to a writer’s impact may not lie in how successfully a book sells or even in whether the author wins a Nobel Prize. The true testament is the generative impact the work has over time and how the work seems to expand with each age. Silence, in that sense, is proving to be an extraordinarily enduring and generative work of art.

Endo’s Art of Perseverance

Endo was born in Tokyo in 1923 but spent some of his early childhood years in Manchuria. After his parents divorced, his mother returned to Japan with him in 1933. He was brought to a Catholic church in Kobe by his mother and his aunt, and was eventually baptized as a child. Even in his early days as a student he knew his future path would be tenuous. His Catholic identity meant that he was a misfit in the broader society of Japan. This was not simply an issue of faith, of being a Christian in a country of Buddhism and Shintoism; bound up in it too was the cultural perception of Christianity as a foreign import. Leading up to the Pacific War, Christians were thought to be suspect: if they valued foreign religion and customs, the thinking went, they therefore were aligned with enemies of the state. This stigma became even more complicated in postwar Japan: Christianity became equated with the push for cultural reconstruction in dependence on American powers. An added burden was the identity of postwar Japan—modern, yet still vacillating between adopted aspects of the Western past and the onslaught of modernist secular values also introduced by the West.
Endo felt early that his commitment to faith was not his own, but that he was adopted into faith by others. Philip Yancey explores this in his in-depth analysis of Endo’s career:
“I became a Catholic against my will,” he now says. He likens his faith to an arranged marriage, a forced union with a wife chosen by his mother. He tried to leave that wife—for Marxism, for atheism, for a time even contemplating suicide—but his attempts to escape always failed. He could not live with this arranged wife; he could not live without her. Meanwhile, she kept loving him, and to his surprise, eventually he grew to love her in return.
Using another image, Endo likens his Christian pilgrimage to a young boy squirming inside a suit of clothes. He searches endlessly for a better-fitting suit, or perhaps a kimono, but cannot find one. He is constantly, he says, “re-tailoring with my own hands the Western suit my mother had put on me, and changing it into a Japanese garment that would fit my Japanese body.”2
Endo’s resumé is filled with setbacks. Throughout his youth, he attempted to fit in by retailoring. Life was harsh no matter what cultural cloth he wore. It was not just his Catholicism that made him a misfit. Though clearly gifted, he often avoided schoolwork, frequently ending up in a movie theater instead of going to classes. He later would call his student self rakudai-bozu, meaning an abject and comical failure. During those days his mother was often his only support, encouraging him to write; as a gifted violinist herself she saw something unique in Shusaku’s storytelling skills.3 Later, he was fortunate to find friends who were part of the intellectual circle of postwar Tokyo. One of those friends/mentors, Yoshihiko Yoshimitsu, had a profound influence, as Yoshimitsu saw the gift inside a verbose, gregarious young thinker. Yoshimitsu, who studied in Paris under Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, made an indelible mark on Endo’s future path. Endo’s many attempts to enter a university ended up in disappointments. He applied to nine schools and was rejected by them all, but after three tries he was accepted into the literature department at Keio University. After graduation he was among one of the first postwar groups of Japanese students to study abroad in France; he traveled to France by boat, buying the cheapest ticket possible.4
He thought that his Catholic faith would finally find a cultural home in France. He later joked that much of what he knew about French culture came from watching French movies, but in reality his early linguistic acumen allowed him a serious and ample look into French literature and culture; he identified with writers such as Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac. However, upon arriving in Lyon in the fall of 1950 he experienced the tenuous reality of Catholic faith during the war years. He expected to find a new connection toward building his identity and his faith, but he found instead the increased cultural apathy toward faith and racial discrimination against him as a Japanese. He fell in love with a French philosophy student, Françoise Pastre, but both of them knew their relationship across racial and cultural barriers would be unacceptable to their parents. He ended the relationship abruptly before leaving France, and later he noted that he was most happy that they did not consummate their relationship sexually. What he does not say is how deeply affected he would be; he was haunted by the experience for the rest of his life. He perhaps saw in his girlfriend an innocence that was not to be violated—and he saw in her virginity an increased sense of a sacred bond to the Virgin Mother of Jesus. But the confounding story behind the story is that the breakup was far more significant and messy than Endo gives credit.5
This longing to reach beyond cultural barriers and the frustration of not being able to fit in are recurring themes in his novels. At home in Japan he did not fit in because he was Catholic; abroad he found himself alone because he was Japanese. Compounding his isolation was his poor health; he received treatment for several bouts with tuberculosis. This eventually required thoracoplasty surgery, and the illness forced him to end his study in Paris early, abandoning his desire to stay to complete his PhD in French literature from the University of Lyons.
Shusaku Endo’s life symbolizes Japan’s psychological journey after the World Wars. As one single writer, uniquely Catholic, he can be seen as a macro lens on the postwar Japanese experience. Endo belongs to a generation of Japanese males who were not drafted, often because they were deemed physically unfit to be soldiers. They were left behind at home, watching their peers and relatives join the march toward blind nationalism on the battlefield, and then dealing with the void of most of them not returning. Many who did survive the war did not survive the ensuing depression and alcoholism; Endo’s diary is filled with notes about fellow intellectuals and writers who endured health problems, and many names of those who ended up committing suicide.
Endo’s generation was also the direct product of intellectual ferment that had begun during the Meiji restoration, when intellectuals’ learned gaze could finally be lifted to go beyond the oceans into a wider world. They were thrust into carrying out the postwar reconstruction, still traumatized by the war, in many cases without paternal influence, or, in some case...

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