I’ve had a soft spot for Shūsaku Endō for many years now, and the end of December saw me enjoying a long-overdue reread of his wonderful novel Silence (translated by William Johnston), as well as the linked short story ‘Unzen’ (tr. Van C. Gessel), available in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories. For anyone who wants to know more about the trials faced by Japanese Kirishitans, though, the writer went on to explore the issue in other historical eras. Sachiko (tr. Gessel) looked at life in Nagasaki before and during World War II, and today’s choice takes us back further, in a way acting as the second book in a trilogy with those mentioned above. It’s the 1860s, another pivotal time in Japan’s history, and with the Christians again under siege, you might want to offer up a prayer or two to a couple of young star-crossed lovers caught in the middle of a clash of cultures…
Kiku’s Prayer (tr. Gessel, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) is the story of a young woman from a village just outside Nagasaki, whose horizons begin to expand when she and her cousin, Mitsu, are sent to the big city to work for a year to help support her family. Despite the hard work, the impetuous, headstrong Kiku enjoys her adventure, particularly when she meets up with Seikichi, a young man from a different village whom she remembers meeting (under unusual circumstances) when she was a young girl. It isn’t long before the two come to a tacit understanding, with the maid looking out for his daily visits to her workplace.
She has to be careful, though, as she has been warned off Seikichi owing to his identity as a Kuro, which we soon learn to be code for those Japanese Christians who have secretly carried on a form of the faith ever since the seventeenth century. As the Tokugawa Shogunate nears its end, these believers start to become more confident, hoping that an end to religious persecution is in sight. Alas, that’s not the case, and while Seikichi and his friends will have their faith tested in horrible ways, Kiku will be left wondering why the young man she loves can’t just apostatise and move on. Not that this changes her feelings in any way – while no Christian, Kiku is a young woman who will sacrifice herself for what she believes in.
Kiku’s Prayer is yet another great read on a subject Endō obviously couldn’t keep away from. There are links here to the later work Sachiko (with the protagonist of that book related to characters in this one), but it can be read as a separate novel in its own right. Once again, the focus of the story is Japanese Christians and the suffering they endure for their faith, and the writer describes the conflict taking place on the religious battleground of a ‘pagan’ country.
For those who enjoyed Silence, much here will be familiar. The unfortunate Seikichi and his fellow believers are subject to a great deal of torture and temptation, with their captors alternating between subjecting the prisoners to painful humiliations and tempting them with honeyed words. However, given the Christians’ immunity to spoken persuasion, the officials always return to a physical approach, with one particular punishment standing out:
“I see. So you won’t comply no matter what we do, eh?” The officer sounded resigned, but then he gave orders to several policemen, who forced Seikichi into a tiny box. It was a mere three feet in width and height, with thick planks of pine wood for walls. A single hole had been cut in the roof to pass items through. Seikichi was unable either to stand or to stretch out his legs.
“If you just say, ‘I give it up’, he heard the officer’s voice through the hole in the roof, “I’ll let you out of here. Give it some thought.”
p.219 (Columbia University Press, 2013)
After the horrors of the pit in Silence, this book sees Endō introducing a new form of torture for the poor believers, one that is just as nasty, and painful.
It’s an all-too-familiar story, then, but Kiku’s Prayer does have one telling difference. The reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate is beginning to crumble, and the outside world has (reluctantly) been granted access again. With the foreigners come, of course, priests, and since the religious crackdown still applies to the natives, trouble will soon arrive in their wake. The main figure here is Bernard-Thadée Petitjean, a (real-life) French priest and missionary with a fixed belief that some of Japan’s underground believers managed to pass on their faith, albeit slightly corrupted, in the two centuries since the last crackdown.
Petitjean is overjoyed when he’s proved right, having been contacted by the underground Christians, and he wastes no time in establishing contact with the secret communities and holding mass far away from the pretty church in Nagasaki:
In the shed that they used in place of a church, Petitjean said the Mass. Old and young, male and female, from not only Nakano but also Ieno and Motohara, had crowded into the shed, and the space reeked from the smells of sweat, body odors, and their expelled breath.
The citizens of Nagasaki thought of Urakami as a foul-smelling village caused by the stench from the animals that were raised there. The smell had gotten worse especially of late, when the villagers began to raise goats and pigs for the foreigners who lived in Nagasaki. As he recited the Mass, Petitjean thought of the horse stable where Jesus had been born. This shed that functioned as a church was similarly filled with the smells of cow dung and urine.
And yet Lord, is there another church this beautiful anywhere in the world? (pp.98/9)
Unfortunately, the believers’ confidence in coming out of the shadows proves to be misjudged. The time is not quite ripe for religious tolerance, and the officials crack down on the clandestine meetings, in spite of the protests of the foreign diplomats.
The setting of Kiku’s Prayer makes for an intriguing story. Endō uses both fictional and real-life characters to tell his tale, which features a wide range of characters, from peasants to priests, courtesans to ministers. Most recognise the changes in the air, hoping to take advantage of the new age beginning, and whether they’re priests, officials, workers or peasants, they sense that things will soon be different, and that there might be something for them in this new era.
While there’s an undoubted historical significance to the book, Kiku’s Prayer is still very much about individuals. Yes, there are the Christians, of course, but in many ways it’s the other characters that are far more fascinating. One of these is Shuntarō Hondō, a rising star, ambitious and intelligent. Early on he senses the need to adapt and spends his time learning languages, realising that a knowledge of western ways will be key to future success. The contrast here lies with Itō Seizemon, who is to this book what the apostate Kichijiro was to Silence. Itō isn’t a Christian, but their torturer, one who recognises his own dark nature. Deep down he envies those he brutalises for their faith for their strength of character, and after a hard day spent beating, stealing and lying, he often ends up drinking and weeping for his own failings.
Another important character is, naturally Kiku herself, and interestingly she’s *not* a Christian. She’s characterised by her overwhelming love for Seikichi, even if she can’t understand why he won’t just give up his faith. A bold, forward, headstrong young woman, she’s prepared to give up everything, even her chance of a happy future with Seikichi, just to help him, and there’s an irony in her inability to understand the young man’s determination when her own is just as unshakeable. One impressive aspect of Endō’s rendering of the young woman is the close connection between Kiku and the Virgin Mary. Quite apart from the ‘medaille’ Seikichi gives her as a token of his love, there are Kiku’s conversations with a statue of the mother of Christ at Ōura Church, in which the young woman prays for the foreign ‘idol’ to keep her lover safe.
One notable feature of the book is the unusual style adopted at times, whereby the story is narrated from the present (Endō’s time), featuring frequent mentions of changes:
Were you to drive in Nagasaki toward the epicenter where the A-bomb was dropped, on the right side of the highway you would see a temple with a sign reading ‘Shōtokuji Preschool’. That area used to be known as Magome District.
These days there is nothing to see there but a drab national highway with cars and trucks weaving in and out, but around the time Mitsu and Kiku were born, the area was right next to the ocean. The Shōtokuji was perched on a hill at the edge of the water. (p.2)
The writer returns to this style throughout the novel, and along with a number of footnotes exploring people and events, this has a slight distancing effect. In truth, as intriguing as the overall picture is, Kiku’s Prayer is at its best when it focuses on individuals. The best parts of the book involves Seikichi’s trials, Kiku’s whole-hearted determination to help him, whatever the cost to herself, and Itō’s gradual collapse in the face of his conscience.
Judged on its own merits, I wouldn’t say that Kiku’s Prayer is among the best of Endō’s books, but when read in conjunction with the writer’s other works on Nagasaki, it’s an absorbing read. As with these other novels, there’s a nice blend of the personal and the historical, the micro and the macro, showing how individuals coped with societal upheaval. It just goes to show that everyone has their own cross to bear, regardless of whether they believe in the one who did it literally two thousand years ago…