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BOOK REVIEW | 'Handbook of Japanese Christian Writers'

Editors Mark Williams, Van C Gessel, and Michihiro Yamane's book profiles 17 19th and 20th century intellectuals who identified as both Japanese and Christian.



"Handbook of Japanese Christian Writers" Edited by Mark Williams, Van C Gessel, and Michihiro Yamane (Amsterdam University Press, 2022)

These are 17 Japanese Christian authors. More precisely, they are 17 authors. All of them are Japanese. All of them bring some connection to the Christian tradition. And some of them were extraordinarily talented. They wrote what they did within the Japanese and Christian traditions. But necessarily and simultaneously, they also wrote within a broader social and intellectual context — both Christian and secular, Japanese and Western. 

Three obvious questions follow. Beyond the obvious demography, what (if anything) does it mean to be a Christian author? What does it mean to be a Japanese author? And what might it mean to be a Japanese Christian author? I do not find the answers to any of these questions clear, but I appreciate the reluctance of the editors to force any answer on the material.


Questions Central to Life

Among the authors profiled, the best known in the West (especially after Martin Scorsese's movie) may be Shusaku Endo. Endo is both famously Christian, and just famously famous. In his best-known work Silence, he does indeed centrally address questions that arise from the intersection between the Christian faith and Japan. And yet his reputation within Japan does not just follow from the way that he addresses specifically Christian themes. It follows from the way that he addresses questions basic to a thoughtful life more generally. 

And so with the other sixteen. The group includes well-known authors like Shimazaki Toson, Akutagawa Ryosuke, and Dazai Osamu. University students regularly read these authors. They do not read them in courses on Christian literature. They read them in courses on literature. And the authors speak to us because of the way in which they address questions central to life as a contemplative human being. They create characters who ask how to live in community, how to express compassion and generosity, and how to handle our inevitable failure to offer the compassion and generosity to which we so often aspire. 

A still from the film "Silence"

Aspiration, Failure, and Redemption

Given that the authors work within the Christian tradition, they sometimes describe this conflict between other-regarding love and self-interest through a series of metaphors basic to this faith. These metaphors locate the central expression of this love in the regard that the creator shows to the created beings. 

As the volume editors put it, the authors create their fictional characters within (sometimes explicitly within, sometimes only implicitly) the literature of the Christian tradition (xvii) — as "human beings, created in the image of God and yet retaining their identities as 'fallen' individuals." The fictional characters aspire to self-less love, as the creator offered redeeming love through Christ. But they fail in that aspiration, as Peter denied Christ, and they encounter their own redemption through the experience of the eucharist. Dostoevsky wrote within this tradition. So did the 17 authors.

"Jesus and Peter on the Water" (1863) by French painter Gustave Brion.


The 17 authors also identify as Japanese. Does this matter? The more elderly among us lived through the Nihonjinron (theory of the Japanese) debates of the 1970s. Over the course of a decade or two, we spent more hours thinking about Japanese culture than we would ever recommend to anyone. Is Japanese culture different? Well yes, of course. All cultures are different. But is Japanese culture differently different? Several of the contributors to this volume seem to think so. 

Massimiliano Tomasi (100), for example, writes that "[m]any Meiji writers experienced first-hand the dichotomies caused by this encounter" between Christianity and Japan, and "struggled to mediate between newly imported notions of an absolute God and ancestrally rooted beliefs that were diametrically opposite." Leith Morton (61) and Jukichi Yagi (97) make similar points.

Shusaku Endo

Rightly or wrongly, several of the 17 authors studied thought Japan was differently different too — especially, again, Shusaku Endo. "In many of Endo's works," writes Van C Gessel (232), "the challenge of being a Christian in Japan" is often "foregrounded ... consistently and unapologetically." 

As Endo (235) himself put it, "I wondered whether it was possible for me to reshape this western [suit] that my mother gave me and make it fit my Japanese body; that is, whether it was possible to adapt Christianity to our mentality without distorting Christianity." Maybe not, he seems to have thought. As one of the priests in Silence famously mused (100): "This country is a swamp ... Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow, and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp ..." 

But Endo wrote Silence in 1966. He and his friend Yoji Inoue (discussed in the chapter on Endo) wrote many of their essays about the distance between Christianity and Japanese society during the 1960s and the 1970s. These were the high-water days of Nihonjin-ron, and Silence and these essays fit it to a tee. Endo and Inoue note that Christianity does not fit Japanese culture. And so it does not. But it does not fit American culture either, and 2000 years ago did not fit Hebrew, Greek, or Roman culture. That was — in a sense — the point of the "gospel." 


Kitamura Tokoku

Although the 17 authors wrote as both Japanese and Christians, they also wrote within the broader world of 19th and 20th-century self-conscious intellectuals. Endo described Christians caught within a world in which the calls of compassion and the calls of more specifically Christian duty sometimes contradict. But so did Graham Greene. That was the point (or one of the points) of the "whiskey priest."

In a more macabre fashion, Kitamura Tokoku (described in a chapter by Michael Brownstein) seems to have built his entire life around 19th-century Western poetry. Yes, he (sort of) lived the troubled life of a committed Christian. But he also cited Goethe, Schiller, Shelley, and Byron, and lived the very caricature of a self-absorbed 19th-century romantic poet. He fell in love. He married. His wife bore him children. Then he fell in love with a younger student and made her pregnant too. He fought with both his wife and this new lover and wrote self-absorbed essays. His lover caught tuberculosis and died. Never mind anything about the Christian tradition. Tokoku responded by killing himself and dying as well. 

Kitamura Tokoku circa 1890 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

Intellectual Context

Christian authors live and write within an intellectual world defined in part by the church, but only in part. And Japanese writers live and work within Japan, but also within a broader, international world of intellectuals. 

Endo torments his characters about a disjunction between Japanese culture and Christianity — but he torments him during a decade when Japanese intellectuals obsessed themselves with what they thought was a disjunction between Japanese culture and the West more generally. Tokoku studies the Bible, but he also studies Shelley and Byron. Unfortunately for his wife and children, he seems to have imagined himself living in a Puccini opera.

About the Book:

Title: Handbook of Japanese Christian Writers

Editors: Mark Williams, Van Gessel, Yamane Michihiro

Contributors: Michael Brownstein,  Kevin M Doak, Philip Gabriel, Van C Gessel, Anthony Haynes, Irina Holca, Imai Mari, Miyasaka Satoru, Leith Morton, Nagahama Takuma, Ryota Sakurai, Sekino Miho, Massimiliano Tomasi, Mark Williams, Yamane Ibuki, Yamane Michihiro,

Publisher: Amsterdam University Press (2022)

ISBN: 9789048558216

Price: Hardcover ($229 USD) and eBook (€194.99 EUR, about $208 USD)


Reviewed by: J Mark Ramseyer


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