Ideologies that a particular person or groups of people hold often prove pivotal in deciding the outcomes of world events. The importance of ideologies gains prominence when interactions occur among those with contrasting viewpoints. Although such foreign interaction can lead to constructive harmony, conflict of thought more commonly ensues and leads to destructive discord. Examining the historical interactions between the monotheistic beliefs of Christianity and the pluralism of Japanese thought effectively illustrates the respective discord and harmony that can occur when ideologies meet. Along with historical research, analyses of Silence by Shusaku Endo and Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida will enrich the contrasting Japanese responses to Christianity. Whereas Silence depicts Christian missions to Japan, Picture Bride portrays the experience of Japanese immigrants moving to Christian communities in America. Investigating the differing Japanese responses to Christianity will provide necessary information for gauging the most effective Christian approach to increasing Japanese belief.
Three traditional worldviews that pervaded Japanese culture when Roman Catholic missionaries initially arrived on the island during the 16th century affected Japanese mindsets toward the new religion. First, Shinto belief stresses the presence of divinity in nature. As Picken notes, “Japan is intricately crisscrossed by a network of some 100,000 Shinto shrines signifying devotion to the kami . . . phenomena of nature which express divine being” (20). Unlike Shinto belief, the foundation of Buddhism stems from its promotion of reverence toward ancestors. With a constant awareness of ancestors, Buddhist thinking holds central importance in Japan when citizens celebrate the birth of posterity and remember the death of relatives. Confucianism completes the triumvirate of major ideological views that influenced 16th century Japan’s stances toward the world. Instead of focusing on admiration for ancestors, Confucianism concentrates on creating public stability through the establishment of a social hierarchy. By enforcing the Confucian virtues of loyalty, obedience, and respect for superiors, Japanese rulers have attempted to ensure the preservation of Japanese culture.
The synthesis of Shinto, Buddhist, and Confucian beliefs in the minds of many Japanese citizens formed an inherent ideological hesitancy and, oftentimes, hostility toward Christianity. A Shinto understanding of divinity’s presence in all forms of the natural order contrasts Christian monotheistic belief. Although the Christian belief in an omnipotent Creator allows recognition of goodness in nature, their monotheistic worldview cannot affirm the deity of nature. Founded on the major tenets of (mujō) impermanence and (muga) self-is-illusion, Buddhist reverence for ancestors also preconditions many in Japan away from acceptance of Christianity. In an interview with William Johnston, Shusaku Endo- the Japanese Catholic author of Silence– delineates the inherent disconnect between Christianity and Buddhism by asserting “Buddhism talks about abandoning the self. It talks about getting rid of all attachments and it even claims that love is a form of attachment. We [Christians] can never say that” (2). Confucian insistence on strict social management and harmony also create difficulty for the infiltration of Christianity because individual acceptance of foreign beliefs challenges overall group stability.
Even with many mental barriers restricting Japanese belief, Christianity presented a new approach to religion that appealed to many and allowed it to begin taking root. A Portuguese Roman Catholic Missionary, Saint Francis Xavier arrived to Japan in 1547 after completing evangelistic work in China. Unlike other Christian missionaries to Japan, Xavier’s profound love of the Japanese people allowed him to win converts to the faith: “His theology may have been rigid . . . but he was practical where others were simply fanatical: he displayed consideration and understanding where others were intolerant and unforgiving” (Picken 32). Xavier’s apparent ability to demonstrate consideration toward those he wished to convert allowed the Christian message to extend from preaching into practice. With Xavier’s missionary work winning over 300,000 converts by 1582, attributing success solely to his profound human warmth toward the Japanese does not provide sufficient explanation.
A possible explanation for the achievement of Xavier’s mission stems from the environment of political instability Japan’s shogunate faced during his evangelistic work. Picken delineates, “Xavier’s arrival coincided with a period of enormous upheaval . . . It was a confusing age, one of great uncertainty, without a clear, effective central authority” (33). As evident throughout the course of history, societal turmoil of any kind often leads to attempts for reform or revolution. Although Christian revolutions did not occur during the 16th century missions, societal confusion drove many to search for a means of stabilizing the country. In his introduction to Christianity and Japan: meeting, conflict, and hope, Edwin O. Reischauer emphasizes social reasons that Christian missions experienced initial success in Japan. First, Reischauer notes that Christian missions benefitted from samurai church leadership. The samurai ability to take ownership of church activity decreased Japanese fear of Christian imperialism. Furthermore, Christian insistence on providing education offered a service that was not readily available in Japan and represented a liberal path to modernizing Japan (7). The Ashikaga Shogunate’s 16th century decline created fertile soil in which the roots of Christianity could extend.
When the Tokugawa Shogunate assumed governmental control in Japan, a time of relative ease of evangelism passed and-as portrayed in Shusaku Endo’s Silence-overwhelming religious oppression began.The novel achieves a sense of historical reliability through its frame of letters that the fictitious Portuguese missionary Sebastian Rodrigues composes. Reflecting on the necessity of continued Christian missions in Japan, Rodrigues writes, “These Japanese Christians are like a ship lost in a storm without a chart” (Endo 31). Rodrigues struggles to understand the insistence of Japanese Christians on blending various belief systems with Christianity. Although Rodrigues desires to persist in correcting misconceptions, stringent religious restrictions that the Shogunate imposes make this increasingly difficult. Commenting on Tokugawa paranoia, historian David Carpenter observes, “The obsessive Tokugawa search for political stability