Shusaku Endo - World Literature

World Literature

Shusaku Endo


BORN: 1923, Tokyo, Japan

DIED: 1996, Tokyo, Japan


GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction


White Man (1955)

Yellow Man (1955)

The Sea and Poison (1958)

Wonderful Fool (1959)

Silence (1966)

The Samurai (1980)



Shusaku Endo. Endo, Shusaku, photograph. AP Images.



Shusaku Endo was one of the most prolific novelists of postwar Japan. Since he began writing in 1955, he published more than 175 books, including forty-five novels and seventeen short-story collections, in addition to scores of volumes of essays, criticism, travel reminiscences, plays, and screenplays. An internationally recognized novelist, Endo is considered one of the most influential and popular writers in postwar Japan.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Life in Manchuria. Endo was born on March 27,1923, in Tokyo, Japan. When he was quite young, his father, Tsunehisa Endo, a bank employee, was transferred to a branch office in Dalian, a city in Japanese-occupied Chinese Manchuria, and the boy moved there with his parents and older brother. (While Manchuria was a region in northeast China, international agreements sanctioned a Japanese presence there, which was resented by the Chinese. One point of contention was Japanese control of the key South Manchurian Railroad.)

Religious Conversion and Schooling. When Endo was ten, his parents divorced, and his mother, Iku, returned to Japan with him and his brother, moving in with her sister’s family in Kobe. Endo’s aunt was a devout Catholic, and at her encouragement his mother converted to Catholicism. At her urging, her sons attended catechism class, which Endo agreed to do only after he learned that the foreign priest would provide candy. Endo was baptized a Catholic in 1934.

During this time, social and economic policies in Japan were swiftly turning against the importation of foreign goods and foreign beliefs, and an impetus toward purging such alien artifacts and ritually cleansing the land through warfare was beginning. At the age of eleven Endo could certainly not have been aware that his conversion to Christianity was an action directly opposing the growing nationalistic, jingoistic, and antiforeign trends that were reshaping Japan and moving the country toward war.

Rebelling against the influence of his deeply religious mother, Endo moved in with his father. When the time arrived for college entrance exams, though he was a poor student, Endo did well enough to be admitted into the prestigious, private Keio University in 1943. His father was angry when he learned his son had applied not to medical school but to the Department of Literature. Thrown out of his father’s house, Endo settled in a dormitory for Christian students.

Interrupted Schooling. Endo began studies just as war began between Japanese and Western powers. Because Japan wanted to become a major industrial, military, and imperial power, it moved to control other territories, including China, and signed a pact in 1940 with Nazi Germany and Italy to form an alliance against Great Britain and France. When the United States tried and failed to deter Japan and its territorial ambitions with economic sanctions, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941 hoping to force the United States to accept Japan’s recent conquest of the Philippines, Malaya, and Burma. Instead, the United States declared war on Japan and joined World War II in Europe as a member of the Allies.

Because of the war, classes were often canceled and students sent out to perform labor service. Endo worked in an airplane parts factory. Though he never saw armed combat, he was nevertheless impacted by the pressures by classmates or teachers who often demanded to know whether he would choose between the divine emperor of his native land or the God of the foreigners. Endo resented such coercion to choose between one morality and another, and his responses were to later provide the material for his novels.

Saved by Illness and Christ. To deal with the moral dilemma, Endo began creating a ‘‘Maternal Christ,’’ an image of a personal, pocket-sized Christ that would not compel him to make hard decisions, accuse him of moral cowardice, or send him off to die for a political ideology. This Christ was to appear in his best novels from the 1960s through the rest of his career. Ironically, a serious case of pleurisy—a respiratory disorder in which the membrane that surrounds the lungs becomes inflamed and makes breathing painful—kept him from being drafted.

Brief Studies in France. Using superior economic and military resources, the United States isolated Japan then launched bombing attacks on its industrial centers. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing tens of thousands of people instantly in both cities Japan surrendered. In the postwar period, the United States assisted Japan as reforms were implemented and an open society based on capitalism was put in place. One way this was accomplished was through educational opportunities provided to Japanese students.

After the war, on recommendations of a French priest, Endo became part of one of the first Japanese groups chosen for overseas study, and in June of 1950, he sailed for France, where he spent two and a half years studying French Catholic literature at the University of Lyon. He had to conclude his studies prematurely when he succumbed to a serious lung ailment in Lyon and was forced to return to Japan. Shortly thereafter, he began to write. His first novella, White Man (1955), was awarded the Akutagawa Prize.

The Japanese Graham Greene. Endo met and proposed to Junko Okada, a young woman studying French literature at Keio University. She accepted, and they married two months after the ceremony for the Akutagawa Prize had been held. They had one child, Ryunosuke. Endo pursued his lifelong preoccupations with problems of choices and morality in his writing in these years— publishing Yellow Man, his second novella and the companion piece to White Man (1955); The Sea and Poison (1957); and Volcano (1959).

In 1959, Endo also published the first of many popular ‘‘entertainment’’ novels that helped earn him the title of ‘‘the Japanese Graham Greene.’’ Novels such as Wonderful Fool (1959) and Song of Sorrow (1977) continued to grapple with the same moral issues addressed in his serious novels, but they presented these issues in a semicomical, nonreligious way that made them more accessible to Japanese readers.

Relapse. In 1960, Endo took another trip to Europe to gather materials for a study of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), a French writer of psychological and philosophical works best known for his belief in absolute fTeedom and sexual immorality. There, Endo suffered a major relapse of pleurisy. He was hospitalized for two and a half years and underwent three operations. His novels then changed somewhat. From Silence (1966) through Deep River (1993), Endo featured the suffering of those individuals physically and spiritually weak and those social institutions that caused the suffering. Silence was awarded the Tanizaki Prize for literature in 1967.

From Lecture Circuit to Theater. Between 1967 and 1969, Endo lectured on the theory of the novel at Seijo University. But his larger interests lay in Kiza, the amateur theater company that he organized in 1968 and that has run, with a few lapses, annually since its founding. Kiza performances—versions of Western classics and an occasional adaptation of a Japanese work—invariably sold out.

Jerusalem and Jesus. In 1968, Endo became for a time the chief editor of Mita Bungaku, Keio University’s literary journal. On his way to Jerusalem in March of 1972 to research his next novel, Endo stopped in Rome for an audience with Pope Paul VI. While still pondering the shape his novel would take, Endo wrote a highly idiosyncratic work, A Life of Jesus (1973). In this novel and two that followed, Endo focused on his view of accounts and struggles of Jesus in scenes past and present. The results were sometimes shaky, and both critics and readers were disappointed.

Endo’s continuing interest in the ‘‘Christian century’’ (1549-1639) also informed his next writings, a series of works that are perhaps most accurately described as contemplative histories in which Endo embraces Christianity, starting with The Iron Pillory: Konishi Yukinaga (1977). After several more works with similar themes, Endo published The Samurai (1980)—perhaps his most acclaimed novel except for Silence. The novel won the Noma Prize. In 1986, Endo published his quasi-autobiographical Scandal. In 1993 Deep River—his last major novel and a portrait of Christian behavior that transcends all human- made prejudices—quickly became one of his most popular works among Japanese readers.

In October 1995, Endo was in the hospital recovering from a stroke when, on the day before the Tokyo premiere of Steven Dietz’s new bilingual stage adaptation of Silence, the Japanese government named Endo the newest recipient of the Order of Culture. After frequent hospital stays following his stroke, Endo died on September 29, 1996.



Endo's famous contemporaries include:

Robert Bly (1926—): American poet and activist who founded the Mythopoetic Men's Movement.

Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998): Japanese director who created classic Japanese-language films such as Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), and received an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1990.

Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989): Japanese artist credited as the father of the Japanese style of comics known as manga.

Daniel Inouye (1924—): United States senator from Hawaii for more than four decades and the first American of Japanese descent to be elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.



Here are a few works by writers who also investigated themes of spiritual identity:

Catfish and Mandala (2000), a novel by Andrew Pham. The author visits his native Vietnam to find his true self and his place in two cultures.

Death of a Naturalist (1966), a poetry collection by Seamus Heaney. In this volume, the poet depicts childhood, reflects on identity, and focuses on the settings of rural Ireland.

Jacob Have I Loved (1980), a novel by Katherine Paterson. A young girl feels abandoned by a God who puts her sister first.

The Last Spin, and Other Stories (1960), by Evan Hunter. Several stories in the collection highlight identity— including the title story, which looks at the impact of gang life on the individual.

The World of Malgudi (2000), four novellas by R. K. Narayan. In this collection, the author expresses the values and mores of domestic life and explores what it means to be Indian in modern times.


Works in Literary Context

Influences. Several influences are apparent in Endo’s work. He was most impressed by the writings of Christian novelists such as Francois Mauriac and Georges Bernanos, but his experiences, which proved generally frustrating, are more apparent as influences. He vividly presented in his fiction images of faith that he shaped through his own experience, his feelings toward his mother (some responses to the wrath of his father), and his literary sensitivity.

Moral Motifs and Christian Concerns. Endo’s writings collectively present examinations of the search for spiritual roots. Although his readers are often uncertain about whether to embrace him as a serious or as a comic writer, Endo was a dedicated, serious thinker about the cultural gaps separating Japan from the West, the problems of contrasting moralities, and the conflicts between individuals and the institutions that tortured them.

Endo expressed this thought in major works with spiritual and Christian themes. With Scandal venturing into psychological drama, for example, Endo explores the question of multiple (and morally contradictory) personalities. With the greater portion of his works from Silence through Deep River, Endo focuses his sympathy on those weak in both body and spirit and presents features of his forgiving, accepting Christ.


Works in Critical Context

Critics have praised Endo for the power of his words as well his accessibility to both Japanese and Western audiences. Many critics theorize that it is his Christianity that makes his work more accessible to the Western reader. Many reviewers assert that the issues of cultural conflict prevalent in his fiction are universal themes that make his work powerful and substantive. Endo has been praised as courageous in addressing questions of faith and sin in his work, in which his understated style and his infusion of humor prevent his moralizing from becoming off-putting to the reader.

Silence. One of Endo’s most critically praised works and the first of his books to be translated into English is Silence. The novel is a fictional account of the first seventeenth-century Christian expeditions to Japan, during which Italian and Portuguese missionaries and their followers were persecuted. Of the book, Jean Higgins observed, ‘‘Silence concerns itself with the theological question of the image of God, Eastern and Western. Yet it does so without dogmatizing or indoctrinating.’’ John Updike wrote in the New Yorker that ‘‘one can only marvel at the unobtrusive, persuasive effort of imagination that enables a modern Japanese to take up a viewpoint from which Japan is at the outer limit of the world.’’


Responses to Literature

1. As a boy, Endo witnessed the conflict between the Manchurian Chinese and the Japanese who had occupied the area. Of his countrymen in Manchuria, Endo later wrote: ‘‘The Japanese, brimming with the vulgarity and the high-handedness of the parvenu, strolled these streets disdainful of the Chinese who had lived here for countless years.’’ In a group effort, research the conflict between the Japanese and Chinese in Manchuria. What did the Japanese culture want from the Chinese? How did the Chinese respond to the invasion of the Japanese? Who resisted? Who protested? Reconsider Endo’s comment. What tone (or attitude) does he express?

2. Endo’s early studies and experiences convinced him that an insurmountable wall separates Western Christian culture from the polytheistic culture of Japan, which celebrates many gods and goddesses. Beginning with his first essay, ‘‘The Gods and God,’’ his writings reflect an effort to come to terms with dueling identities—those that positioned him between two worlds. Search an Endo work for either (a) aspects of Western Christianity or (b) aspects of Japanese religion of many gods. In a paper, introduce your choice by pointing out examples from Endo’s writing that will help your audience understand the general nature of that world and Endo’s frustration at being between those worlds.

3. Endo chose a particularly violent period in Japanese history (a time of intense persecutions of Christians in the early seventeenth century) to show the brutal ways in which society oppresses the individual and makes the practice of a personal faith all but impossible. Why do you think he chose this time period to write about? Create a presentation in which you share your views.

4. Endo’s novel Silence is primarily an epistolary novel, or a novel in the form of a letter or letters written by the narrator. Try writing a short story in the form of a letter to someone. It can be a real or fictional person, and the events of the story are entirely yours to choose. After you finish, make a list of the ways in which a story in the form of a letter is different from any other kind of story you might write.




Rimer, J. Thomas. Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions: An Introduction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Sherry, Patrick. Images of Redemption: Art, Literature, and Salvation. London: Continuum, 2003.


Higgins, Jean. ‘‘The Inner Agony of Shusaku Endo.’’ Cross Currents 34 (Winter 1984-1985): 414-26.

Updike, John. ‘‘From Fumie to Sony.’’ New Yorker, January 14, 1980, 94.

Web Sites

Koiti, Kato. Endo Shusaku. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Kropp, David. Review of Silence by Shusaku Endo,

translated by William Johnston. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Matsuoka, Fumitaka. ‘‘The Christology of Shusaku Endo.’’ Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Phillips, Caryl. ‘‘Confessions of a True Believer,’’ Guardian. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from,12084,868113,00.html.