In 1994, on the day when Kenzaburo Oe was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature — the second Japanese writer to receive the award — eminent literary scholar Donald Keene received a long-distance call from Peter Owen, publisher of novelist Shusaku Endo’s works in London, demanding to know why the Swedish judges had not given the prize to Endo instead.
Owen had done everything he could to ensure Endo took the ultimate prize — including wooing the Swedish judges over lunch — and was sure that Endo would win. But it was not to be.
Why had Endo been snubbed by the Nobel Committee? Owen speculated that it was due to pressure from the Japanese themselves, because Endo had written about controversial subjects, such as the appalling vivisections conducted by the Japanese military in World War II on captured American airmen in his early 1958 novel, “The Sea and Poison.” Or perhaps it was simply because Endo was a Catholic and thus always regarded as an outsider in Japan, where less than 1 percent of the population are Christian.
It will be another 29 years before we will know how close Endo actually came to winning the Nobel Prize in 1994 — the Swedish academy only reveals its deliberations after 50 years have passed.
And for Endo, there were no second chances: he died two years later, in 1996.
He may have lost the Nobel Prize to Oe, but his works were more valued by an international audience than Oe’s could ever dream of being and, crucially, he had captured the heart of acclaimed director Martin Scorsese. The director even penned the forward for the 2007 Peter Owen edition of “Silence,” Endo’s harrowing 1966 novel about Jesuit priests suffering oppression and torture in Japan during the 17th century.
Scorsese referred to “Silence” as Endo’s “greatest novel, and one that has become increasingly precious to me as the years have gone by.” He wrote that he had re-read the novel “countless times.”
Scorsese is currently filming an adaptation of Endo’s novel in Taiwan with Hollywood A-listers Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield in the starring roles.
Scorsese has been dreaming of making the film for well over 20 years — even Daniel Day Lewis was rumored to be involved at one point. But its torturous production history has included numerous false dawns, with the project postponed either due to lack of funding or litigation disputes. Now it’s finally happening, but once again, the production has been troubled, this time by a fatal accident on the set in January.
The release of the film promises long-overdue recognition and exposure for one of the most misunderstood and unfairly marginalized of Japanese writers.
Born in Tokyo in 1923, Endo moved with his family to Manchuria as an infant and was plunged into life as a minority in an alien culture. After his parents separated, his mother took him and his brother to Kobe where — under the influence of an aunt — they converted to Catholicism. When the World War II erupted, Endo found himself suffering prejudice as an adherent of the religion of Japan’s hated Western enemies.
As the war ended, Endo went to study in France, only to find himself the recipient of racial prejudice — even from his fellow Christians. He contracted tuberculosis, was repeatedly hospitalized and had a lung removed. Suffering a crisis of faith, he decided to write about the life of Christ and journeyed to the holy lands — it was a trip that would transform his vision of Jesus.
For Endo, Jesus was neither a commanding figure nor miracle worker. He was someone who had suffered identity crises and was physically frail; he was despised and ridiculed all the way to crucifixion.
As Endo wrote in his 1973 book “Life of Jesus,” this human struggle was where the beauty and power of Christianity lay, not in the grand architecture of cathedrals or the strength of crusading armies.
Endo took this central, neglected message of Christianity — the torment of the isolated individual — and turned it into an ongoing exploration of the nature of identity and the cultural gulf between East and West. In works such as “The Samurai” — a 1980 novel about a group of 17th-century samurai who reluctantly converts to Christianity on a mission to Europe, just as the repression of Christianity was taking hold in Japan — he argued that it was the dissonance between competing cultural systems that forces individuals to contemplate who they really are, what they believe in and why.
Scorsese’s interpretation of “Silence” — which he elucidates in his forward to the 2007 edition of the novel — is that the Jesuit priest protagonist believes it is his destiny to suffer a Christ-like martyrdom, but discovers instead that his fate is to follow in the footsteps of Christianity’s greatest villain, Judas.
The extraordinary literary world of Endo, however, is much more than “Silence.”
Western interest has tended to focus on his larger, more serious works, with characters often tortured by their consciences. But Endo also penned a considerable amount of humorous writings, many of which have yet to be translated into English. Also notable are numerous writings about his love of animals and his long periods of convalescence in hospitals.
In his late works, he moves beyond Christianity and explores Buddhism, showing how suffering and undergoing an existential crisis can ultimately grant you a deeper level of perception.
One of his final works, the 1993 novel “Deep River,” about a group of Japanese tourists in India, moves toward a pantheistic view of life, accepting both a multiplicity of perspectives and a kind of one-world spirituality. A former Catholic seminarian goes native and joins in with the Hindu rituals along the Ganges, while a war veteran seeks comfort in the rituals of Buddhism — Christianity is ultimately presented as one of many ways of attaining spiritual transcendence.
But even right to the end, Endo was unafraid to rock the boat.
His 1986 novel “Scandal,” a psychological thriller that probes the hidden corners of human sexuality, explores taboo subjects such as pedophilia and sexual sadism. It’s also an excoriating self-portrait.
Was this fearless, uncomfortable vision the reason why Endo was ultimately denied the Nobel Prize?
The question now is whether Scorsese, and Hollywood, will be able to give the uniquely insightful writer the international exposure the Nobel Committee so conspicuously failed to do.
Damian Flanagan is the author of “Yukio Mishima” published by Reaktion Books and “Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature” published in Japanese by Kodansha International. This is the final installment in a three-part series on Japanese writers and the Nobel Prize.