Great Japanese Writers: Shusaku Endo

Source: Gaijin Pot

Literature — and the novel in particular — is a vehicle for empathy and understanding. Humanity has yet to invent a better method for getting inside someone else’s head, for seeing from someone else’s perspective, for being exposed to other opinions and ideas. This is why the most powerful and interesting writing often comes from marginal, minority or oppressed groups. National stereotypes allow little space for plurality in regular discourse, meaning people are often surprised at the mention of Chinese Muslims or Japanese Catholics.

Shusaku Endo was a Japanese Catholic and wrote extensively from and about that background and community, bringing a different philosophical and ideological slant than his peers to his stories of both modern and pre-modern Japan.

Born in Tokyo in 1923, and raised for a time in occupied Manchuria, he thought for a time of becoming a doctor before literary success decided his path for him. He won the coveted Akutagawa Prize in 1955 for his novella White Man, the story of a French collaborator during World War II. It is often sold alongside its follow up, Yellow Man, and is a remarkable work, showing early on all the themes and motifs Endo would explore throughout his career — how people behave under extreme pressure, whether their beliefs and principles can underpin bravery or whether they are abandoned in favor of simple survival. As you’d expect from a Catholic writer, redemption — or the possibility of it — features heavily.

As with all writers of his generation who survived the war, its specter hovered over everything he wrote. Endo spent the war working in a munitions factory rather than fighting, but where this gave Yukio Mishima an inferiority complex and saturated him in survivor’s guilt, it seems to have given Endo a distance from the horrors, space within which he …continue reading