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U.S. essays, Japan’s Christians


It may seem like cheating, but my first best book of 2012 is “The Best American Essays of 2012” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), part of the Best American Series. I read it each year and am never disappointed. This year’s selection was made by David Brooks, a moderately conservative author, columnist and PBS commentator. The 24 essays are wide-ranging in topic and tone, and every reader is bound to find a number that delight and instruct.

Among the strongest essays is Mark Edmundson’s “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” It is a passionate indictment of many American universities, where professors prefer writing abstruse articles to engaging in stimulating teaching, students are focused on what jobs they will get and how much they will earn rather than on the struggles and pleasures of real learning, and administrators are concerned above all that no one makes waves. (Edmundson’s description is at least as applicable to Japan as to the U.S., in my view.)

As the antithesis to all this, he quotes the wisdom of Emerson with approval and relish. This makes a striking contrast with Benjamin Anastas’ “The Foul Reign of ‘Self-Reliance’,” a feisty attack precisely on Emerson and his allegedly deleterious influence on the American character.

Another remarkable piece is Mark Doty’s “Insatiable,” a meditation on erotic desire that focuses on Walt Whitman’s poetry and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” fiction: “the intersection of the chosen and the compulsive, of consuming and being consumed, of the celebratory and of erasure.” Doty personalizes his essay with vivid, felt accounts of his own Whitmanesque sexuality.

This is only a minute sampling — I thoroughly enjoyed over half of the essays included and am confident there is “something for everyone” in this collection.

And now for something completely different: “In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy, and Survival” (Tuttle) by John Dougill. The author is well read in the secondary sources in English, which are extensive, and he gives the general reader an engrossing account of the dramatic, mostly tragic history of the 16th and 17th century Catholic missions, the relentless persecution endured by Japanese converts from the 17th century right up through early Meiji (into the mid-1870s), and the reasons for this persecution from the Japanese authorities’ point of view.

Well-considered comments are made on geography (the more isolated islands of Kyushu being the last bastion of the Hidden Christians), class (the peasantry were more loyal to their faith than their social “betters”), continuities with Catholicism (devotion to Deus, Jesu and Maria) and divergences (syncreticism with Buddhist and Shinto beliefs and practices and the development of what was in effect a Japanese folk-religion over the centuries of isolation). Dougill describes not only the return of many of the Hidden Christians to the practice of general Catholicism in the modern era, but also the abiding loyalty of a minority to their ancestral faith and practices.

And he describes how the hollowing-out of rural society with the departure of the young for great urban centers threatens the very existence of the remaining small Hidden Christian communities.

This is not a work of original scholarship, and there are technical problems like misprints and errors in Romanization. But the enthusiasm and skill of the author as he tells his sad but fascinating story, personally visiting many of the key sites both historical and contemporary, and reflecting on the meaning of all that happened over the centuries, makes this a fine introduction to this important topic, for the general reader.

Paul McCarthy holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has taught language and literature at universities in the U.S. and Japan, and is a literary translator and writer.