Silence, the latest film from director Martin Scorsese, opens in UK cinemas today. Set in 17th-century Japan, the film follows two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) sent on a grueling and dangerous mission to find their mentor (Liam Neeson), who they fear may have abandoned his faith.
We spoke to Mark Williams, Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Leeds, about the remarkable real history behind the film…
Q: The film is set during the 17th century. Can you give us an idea of what Japan was like during this period?
A: At the time, Japan was just coming out of its equivalent of Europe’s Hundred Years’ War. During this time the country was divided up into more than 200 feudal-style domains, each run by its own daimyō (feudal lord). This whole system was nominally under the control of the shogun. During the 16th century, a process of reunification of these disparate domains had occurred under three successive strong men, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the last of whom really completed the process of reunification and became shogun with real power in 1600, marking the start of the Tokugawa shogunate (1600–1868).
Q: Scorsese’s film is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Endō Shūsaku, but can we draw any parallels to real-life situations or characters?
A: Yes, the novel is based on the life story of an Italian figure called Giuseppe Chiara, who in the novel becomes the protagonist – the young Portuguese Jesuit Rodrigues. Rodrigues is sent to Japan to help the local church and investigate reports that his mentor, the Jesuit priest Ferreira (based on the historical figure of Cristóvão Ferreira) has committed apostasy [abandoned his faith] – a fact which Rodrigues finds impossible to believe. Endō told me once that his inspirations for the novel were twofold:
Firstly, he happened to see a fumie (a crucifix that those suspected of Christian sympathies were forced to step or ‘trample’ on in order to force confessions out of them – as seen in the movie) in a Nagasaki museum. He was overwhelmed by the way in which the brass fumie was worn away, presumably from constant trampling. His heart went out to all those he could imagine trampling on the fumie under duress with a heavy heart. Endō acknowledged that even he, as a committed Catholic, would doubtless have done the same in those circumstances.
Secondly, his consequent research into the Jesuit archives of the period led him to the historical figure of Cristóvão Ferreira – and the intriguing fact that the archives and any other information about Ferreira came to an abrupt end in around 1630. At that point, as an author, Endō allowed his imagination to run riot: he surmised that one possible explanation for this might be that Ferreira had fallen from grace at that time – that he was effectively excommunicated. Endō was at pains to stress that whether this was historically true or nor was not the point: it is certainly a credible explanation and, as author, that’s what he sought.
Q: How much interaction did Japan have with other countries – especially European nations – during this period?
A: During the period leading up to the start of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1600, Japan had gradually begun to open its doors to western traders and subsequently to missionaries, who first arrived in the late 1540s. They were initially welcomed as foreign and exotic – but increasingly perceived as a threat to national security. Such visitors were nevertheless welcomed by certain daimyō (feudal lords) as they could prove useful allies against neighbouring daimyō, particularly since their cargoes included western armaments.
The century from 1550–1650 is called the ‘Christian century’ in Japan – but the fact is that the faith was increasingly persecuted during the second half of this period, starting with the ‘26 martyrs’ – Roman Catholics who were executed by crucifixion in Nagasaki in 1597. It was finally obliterated (overtly) by around 1640.
Endō’s novel is set in the 1630s, by which time there was already a total ban on all foreign missionaries from entering Japan and on all Japanese from leaving. This ‘closed country’ situation persisted until 1854, when US Commodore Perry sailed into Yokohama Bay and demanded that Japan open its doors to the west – an ultimatum that Japan was in no position to refuse. As such, between 1600 and the 1860s, precious little western knowledge entered Japan – with the one exception of the port of Dejima in Nagasaki, which was kept open to a small number of Chinese and Dutch traders.
Q: What were the key cultural differences between Europe and Japan in the 17th century?
A: Closed to the outside world, Japan had decided to reject Christianity – it reverted to reliance on its indigenous belief system, a syncretic mix of Shintō and Buddhism. The social hierarchy was clear, with the samurai at the top and the merchants at the bottom of the scale. Life was largely arranged on the basis of the feudal domain to which one belonged. Having said that, there was also a flourishing of the arts, especially in the latter half of the 17th century.
Q: The film revolves around the persecution of Japanese Christians. How long had Christianity been practiced in Japan and what was the religious situation in the country at the time?
A: When the first Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1549, they were initially welcomed, then tolerated, as they brought with them trading opportunities to individual daimyo. Initial figures for conversions to Christianity are very high: historian Charles Boxer suggests some 300,000 by 1580. But this is partly due to the fact that individual daimyō were powerful and could order the conversion of their entire domain. However, the missionaries were later banished by edicts that were enforced with increasing rigour.
By 1600, the increasingly powerful central authority (emerging as the Tokugawa shogunate) felt strong enough to banish this foreign import, and Christianity was effectively eradicated. The official doctrine of this ‘closed country’ era was a hybrid of Shintō and Buddhism – though many would argue that neo-Confucianism was actually the most significant religious strand of the day.
However, it’s interesting to note that when the missions returned in the 1850s, they were amazed to discover the existence of Kakure (hidden) Christians who had kept the faith alive for more than 250 years.
Q: How common were Christian missionaries in Asia at the time and what were their motivations?
A: The Jesuit mission, led by St Francis Xavier, was particularly active in Asia at the time – motivated to a large extent by good, old-fashioned missionary zeal to ‘save the heathens from the fires of hell’. China was the prime target. But in the mid-16th century, they stumbled across Japan and soon saw it as a land full of potential. Xavier’s letters back home describe Japan as “the best country we have yet encountered”.
Q: Why did the Japanese authorities feel so threatened by Christianity?
A: Largely because it was perceived as a threat to their native traditions. As Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, the shogunate increasingly came to see Christianity as a threat to Japan’s indigenous traditions, which it believed had stood the test of time.
Mark Williams is Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Leeds, having recently returned from a secondment as Vice President for Academic Affairs at Akita International University in northern Japan. He is the translator of two novels by Endō Shūsaku and author of a critical study of the author’s work, Endō Shūsaku: A Literature of Reconciliation. Silence is in UK cinemas now.