5 Things You Should Know about Japan in Martin Scorsese’s Film “Silence”

In a previous post, I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s new film “Silence” based on the 1966 novel Chinmoku 沈黙 (translated as “Silence”) written by the Japanese author Shūsaku Endō 遠藤周作. In that post I linked to a wonderful article that appeared in America’s online magazine titled “Fr. James Martin answers 5 common questions about ‘Silence.’” The film is about the experience of Christians (read: Catholics) in Japan who suffered at the brutal hands of local war lords during the early days of the Edo period (1600-1868). The novel raises a lot of theological issues, that Scorsese masterfully captures in his film, so it is no wonder that Christian audiences of all denominations would be left with questions about both their own faith and faith in general.

In the America article, Martin addresses theological issues brought up by viewers after having seen the film. By addressing these religious issues, Martin hoped to give viewers who do not have the same understanding of Catholic faith and Jesuit philosophy as he does a better understanding of the film. Keeping Martin’s approach in mind, I’ll address some of the Japanese cultural aspects that the common viewer may not realize. I do not believe there are any spoilers in this post, but after reading it you will certainly be able to view the film (or read the novel) with a different perspective than that of just a casual viewer.

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I think the cover of this book is funny because Silence doesn’t occur anywhere near Mt. Fuji–come on Picador! Try harder!

1. “Japan is a wasteland, a swamp where nothing can hope to grow”

The two main religions associated with Japan are Shintō and Buddhism. Although Shintō is often referred to as the native religion of Japan, Buddhism (from India via China and Korea) had been the dominant religion politically and culturally in Japan from about the 6th century until perhaps the late 17th century. By the time Silence takes place (presumably around the 1640s) Catholics had been trying to establish a firm presence in Japan for a few decades, with little success. The Jesuit missionaries really needed the type of access that could only be obtained with the assistance of the ruling parties in Japan at that time. However, Japan’s government structure was very complex, consisting of both an “emperor” (tennō 天皇) ruling simultaneously alongside dozens of regional war lords. As one may imagine, language and other communication problems were also obstacles to the missionaries’ success.

To illustrate why Christianity had failed to take root in Japan the “inquisitor” Inoue (played by Issey Ogata) says to Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) that, to paraphrase, “Christianity won’t take root in Japan because Japan is a swamp, a wasteland where nothing can grow.”

To one familiar with Buddhism, this image of a swampy wasteland is really a classical metaphor. Travelling through Japan and other parts of Asia, tourists often stop to marvel at beautiful lotuses growing in city parks, shrine and temple gardens, and other places. These beautiful flowers grow in swampy conditions. The contrast between the lotus’s beauty and the filthy swamp from which it sprouts sometimes seems paradoxical. This paradox was not lost on followers of Buddhism. Lotus imagery commonly appears in Buddhist art, but the image of the beautiful, pure lotus shooting up through the filthy mud is a metaphor that Buddhists use quite purposefully in their teachings. Take for example this quote:

“The Buddha, like a lotus, is determined to grow out of the muddy surroundings, that is the defilements and sufferings of life.”


It may have sounded like Inoue was disparaging Japan by calling it a wasteland and saying nothing could grow there, but really this is a classical Buddhist metaphor for this entire world, not only Japan. If Rodrigues had known better, he would have easily been able to say that Christianity, like Buddhism, could be a lotus springing up from the swamp.

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Lotuses growing in Akita!

2. The Buddhist Version of Redemption and/or Forgiveness

Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) plays roles similar to that of a jester, a fool, or a Judas, but more importantly he is the snitch who gets dozens of innocent peasants tortured and killed. When I saw the film, Kichijiro’s antics caused quite a bit of laughter from the audience, especially the countless scenes in which he returns to the missionaries asking for forgiveness. Even though he purposefully turns in Christians to the authorities, which consequently gets them killed, he still wants forgiveness from the priests so that he may go to heaven. Audiences may wonder, “How could he be so foolish as to think that he’ll actually be forgiven and go to heaven?”

Many people may ridicule the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness through God’s grace, especially because forgiveness is possible no matter how atrocious the sin. Illustrating this, the worst case scenario would be if there was a mass murderer who made an act of contrition on his/her deathbed. According to Catholic doctrine, even this person could [possibly] be absolved of sin and enter heaven. Japanese people would have been very receptive to this notion of a last minute holy redemption because of the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdo-shū 浄土宗).

How exactly one may reach nirvana and leave the cycle of birth-death-rebirth (samsara) is at the root of Buddhist teachings. According to Pure Land, which became quite popular in Japan in the late 12th-13th centuries, one may reach nirvana not based on things like how one lives one’s life, how much money they offer a temple, how many times one copies sutra, but by simply repeating the nembutsu—something that costs nothing and that any one, regardless of wealth or social position could do. Reciting the nembutsu is as simple as saying the phrase namu Amida Butsu (Praise be to Amida Buddha!) There are tales of men who lived despicable lives but recited this phrase just before their deaths and were reborn in the Pure Land—such is the power of Amida. In the case of Kichijiro, a despicable man who causes pain and suffering to those around him, it is not the simple recitation of the nembutsu, but rather the Catholic act of confession that he put his faith into for a reward in the next life. Therefore, the notion of redemption after doing such terrible things would not have been such a foreign concept to Japanese people familiar with popular Buddhism at the time.

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3. Torture in Japan

Many people associate Japan with its delicate arts and pastimes like tea ceremony, flower arrangement, or calligraphy. Others associate Japan with noble samurai charging fiercely into battle or bravely facing a single opponent in a respectful dual. Images like these are celebrated and romanticized in all kinds of movies, books, and what not, and while these bits of Japanese culture are indeed fascinating and commendable, Japan’s penchant for dishing out brutal methods of torture should not be ignored—a few of which are shown in Silence.

In fact, torture and abuse are key features of medieval Japanese literature, literature that was often a means of propagating Buddhism. In some narratives tales, such unfortunate people as slaves, people being used for human-offerings, or wrong-doers are made to suffer through quite gruesome methods of torture. Mild cases involve cutting in such a manner that the ensuing scars serve as a type of brand. More serious cases involve being burned alive, boiled in water or hot oil, skinned alive, and other hellish method. These tales are usually set in the present world, but are meant to illustrate what happens if one is to be reborn into one of the many Buddhist hells. Since the purpose of these tales is to convert people to Buddhism as well as make believers more steadfast in their faith, these tales of mutilation and agony are often conveyed to audiences in great detail. These gory images are absent from beautiful Japanese kimono patterns and tea ceremony accouterments.

After seeing movies like Memoirs of a Geisha or The Last Samurai, the sadism in Silence may catch audiences off guard. Certainly this type of brutality is at odds with the way modern Japan tries to market itself to the world. Japan tries to peddle kawaii 可愛い (cute) culture with its fluffy snuggle-ly mascots and ultra happy pop music groups, but historically there has always been an underlying dark side. In the last century in fact, torturing political dissidents was a common practice utilized in early 20th century Japan—something that Endō could in fact be alluding to in his novel.

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…torture scene from the gruesome children’s book “Hell” 地獄の絵本

4. Japan: a Closed Country

The time period in which Silence is set called the Edo period 江戸時代 (a.k.a. the Tokugawa period 徳川時代) and spans the time period between 1600 and 1868. For all intents and purposes, Japan was a “closed nation” during this time, similar to how North Korea is today. Come to think of it, EXACTLY like how North Korea is today. Any poor soul (like a fisherman washed-away to sea) who found themselves outside Japan was not allowed re-entry, and traders or voyagers from other lands who found themselves lost at sea were not allowed entrance. The rationale behind this was that Japan had been suffering through internal war and turmoil for centuries, basically from the late 12th century until 1600. Internal power struggles among wealthy warlords is the main reason for all of this turmoil, but external forces were also at hand. New trends in Buddhism making headway in Japan encouraged equality among all levels of society as well as between men and women. This new way of thinking disrupted social order and threatened war lords’ power and cushy lifestyles, so cutting off ties with the Asian mainland was viewed as one way to stem this revolt. One could easily see similarities in the effects Buddhist caused in society during medieval Japan and the perceived Christian threat of the Edo era with its message of universal salvation.

5. Trampling Objects of Worship

There are countless, countless similarities between Buddhist and Christianity, not the least of which are the two religion’s use of imagery and hand gestures. In Buddhism there are mudra and mandala. A mudra is a gesture or way that a Buddhist positions their hands during meditation or other such religious ceremony. Statues and paintings of Buddha depict mudra as well (think of how the Buddha’s hands are positioned—that’s a mudra!) Japanese people during the time in which Silence is set would certainly have been receptive to such similarities found in Christianity and may have in fact viewed what the Jesuit missionaries did with their hands (signs of the cross, the sign of peace, touching one’s hands during prayer, etc.) as mudra. They would have also noticed the way in which Jesus has his hands positioned in images of him and probably would have drawn similarities to Buddha and their own religious culture.

While mudra are physical aids to spiritual practice, mandala are visual aids. Mandala depict Buddhas, other worlds, and the subsequent relations between the various Buddhas and worlds. Mandala vary in importance and use depending on which sect of Buddhism is using them, but they are generally regarded with the utmost respect and reverence. In esoteric Buddhism, such mandala were even believed to have supernatural powers—not only mandala but statuary, too. Therefore, Japanese people at the time would have likely approached images and statues of Jesus with the same reverence, thinking that they too were capable of supernatural effects in this world.

Contrary to what Martin Luther wants people to believe, the idea that physical objects automatically have supernatural power and should be the object of worship is not Catholic doctrine. While images of Christ should of course be handled with the utmost respect, trampling on them (as is seen in the movie) is not really a big deal, and certainly Catholic superstars like St. Augustine would agree with me. However in the movie, the audience sees the great pain trampling the icons causes the poor Japanese peasants. One should not overlook the fact that to illiterate peasants, such symbols bear a great deal of authority—indeed a symbol or image can take the place of a written sign, so to illiterate followers who don’t have as much ownership over their own language, icons and images hold a great deal of importance.


Hopefully the ideas and concepts introduced here will add to your interest and enjoyment of Silence, either in its novel or film form. And, maybe even encourage you to read more about Japanese culture and literature.


I started this blog WEEKS ago, but with the end of the semester and other responsibilities, I could just not finish it in a more timely manner. COMMENT please! Would love to open a discussion~


One thought on “5 Things You Should Know about Japan in Martin Scorsese’s Film “Silence”

  1. Pingback: An Essay by Achim Bayer: “Silence (沈黙): The Cannon and the Cross” | Tōhoku Bentō

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