J-Lit Giants: 9 – Shūsaku Endō

Today sees the first guest post in our 2014 J-Lit Giants series, and I’m very glad to have someone come in and share the load.  Matt Todd blogs at A Novel Approach, and with an honours degree in Japanese postcolonial literature, he is a lot more qualified to do this sort of thing than I am – so I’ll just pass you straight over to him…

Endō Shūsaku (遠藤周作, 1923-1996) is notable in the Japanese canon for several reasons, though the most important—and most obvious—is his faith. In a country that has a troubled history with Christianity (in contemporary Japan, less than 1% of the population self-identifies as Christian), it is intriguing to read an author who is so defined by the fact that he believes in this Western system of belief.

Endō’s world-view comes from his own experiences with the faith. He was baptised as Christian as a child, and as a result, was often mocked and ostracised as he grew up in a country not exactly renowned for its taking up of Christianity.

Many of his works interrogate historical incidents and events that are not usually considered by other authors, particularly inside Japan. His Akutagawa Prize-winning novella, The White Men (白い人), for example, explores questions of original sin and the good/evil dichotomy in Western thought from the point of view of a young man tortured in Nazi-occupied Lyon.

Endō’s most famous work (and the one that won him the Tanizaki Prize) is Silence (沈黙), a novel about a Portuguese missionary who is forced to renounce his Christian faith in public while still spreading the word in private, despite the ban handed down by the bakufu (military government). Martin Scorsese is adapting this into a film.

Inspired by his childhood in Manchuria, The Sea and the Poison (海と毒薬) sees Endo explore the legacy of the Imperial Japanese Army and the war crimes they committed. The book is thought to be based on the work of Unit 731.

Did you know that the first Japanese embassies to Europe were all influenced by Christianity? The Samurai (侍) fictionalises one such mission, showing the fickle nature of politicians and faith in mediaeval Japan.

His work is a distinct voice in the modern history of Japanese literature. From historical novels about the first Western missionaries in Japan, as well as the first Japanese to visit Europe, to contemporary novels about atrocities carried out by the Japanese Imperial Army in the Pacific War, Endō explores the ways in which faith, violence and humanity interact and connect.

For anyone interested in learning more about his life and his work, I would strongly recommend this essay, which goes into more detail about what I have skimmed over here.


Thanks for that, Matt – a great overview of the life and works of one of J-Lit’s modern greats 🙂
As always, now it’s over to you.  Have you read anything by Endō?  Did Matt leave out any of your favourites?  Is the writer’s religious focus a drawing card, or has it put you off trying his work?  Leave a comment below, and let us know 🙂

About Tony

Championing the wonders of fiction in translation... ...but quietly (the kids are asleep...).
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4 Responses to J-Lit Giants: 9 – Shūsaku Endō

  1. jay says:

    i've seen silence around and long been interested in it. thanks for the background – i often find it enriching when heading well into another culture's literature.


  2. Always great to discover new authors from Japan. I have not heard of Endo before or read any of his books but I've listed this down just in case 🙂 Interesting too that Martin Scorsese is adapting “Silence” into a film.


  3. Tony Malone says:

    jay – I highly recommend it, a wonderful book 🙂


  4. Tony Malone says:

    5eyedbookworm – Endo's not one that many people start with, but he is a great writer, and his books are probably more accessible to Western readers than those of many other famous J-Lit authors.


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