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By Simon Hudson, Metadata Editor Sr, Technology
Martin Scorsese’s latest movie is an adaptation of Shūsako Endō’s celebrated 1966 novel Silence which relates in epistolary form the little-known story of Christian persecution and martyrdom in 17th-century Japan. A labour of near-saintly perseverance itself, Scorsese’s adaptation has been over 25 years in development, and the still, contemplative tone of this remarkable movie stands at some distance from the bravura-style cinema we usually associate with his oeuvre. While Silence is more in keeping with the director’s previous releases on a spiritual theme like Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ, it distinguishes itself even from these movies by the unexpectedness and apparent obscurity of its subject matter. Knowledge of early modern Japanese history is likely to be scanty among average movie-goers in North America or Europe, and knowledge of the place of Christianity within that history scantier still.
Christianity was probably first introduced to Japan in 1549 through the missionary work of Francis Xavier, one of the co-founders of the Society of Jesus or Jesuits, a religious order established as an early Roman Catholic response to the rise of Protestantism. At first, Christian proselytism was largely tolerated in Japan, and as many as 300,000 native Japanese from all ranks of society were converted. Following the reunification of Japan under the shogunate of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1585-1591) and in the succeeding Tokugawa period, however, the status of Christianity in Japan came to be threatened. Misgivings about the influence of Christianity upon Japan’s strict social hierarchy, together with suspicions about foreign influence in general, led in the early 17th century to the religion’s outright ban. This was followed in the 1630s by the implementation of the Sakoku or ‘closed country’ policy which placed draconian restrictions on access to and from Japan, a unique form of religious, cultural and commercial isolationism that continued into the 19th century. One of the key events of this period occurred as early as 1597 in Nagasaki where a group of Christians who came to be known as 'the twenty-six martyrs of Japan' – among them foreign Franciscan missionaries, Japanese Jesuits, laymen adults and three children – were crucified and pierced with spears. Violent repression became the norm and, from then on, generations of Japanese who adhered to the faith would be forced to live their lives as 'secret Christians'. Shūsako Endō was himself a Japanese Catholic descendant of these secret Christians and it was his own experiences of religious intolerance in Japan and racial prejudice encountered in post-war Europe that led him to explore their harrowing story through his original novel.
Just as Scorsese’s movie introduces a new audience to an unfamiliar historical milieu, one of the pleasures of Early European Books is discovering the extraordinary range of printed titles made available during the early modern period. This range includes a body of works mostly drawn from the Bibliothèque nationale de France and Holland's Koninklijke Bibliotheek detailing early European encounters with Japan. Histories, travel narratives and news books all feature, as well as titles relating to diplomacy and trade. For example, titles from Holland include Arnoldus Montanus’ Gedenkwaerdige gesantschappen der Oost-Indische Maetschappy (1669) which describes diplomatic relations between the Dutch East India Company and the Japanese Emperor, while titles from France include Conversion merveilleuse à la foy catholique, apostolique et romaine de Idate Masamune grand et puissant roy de Voxu, à l'Empire du Jappon (1616) which tells of the alleged Christian conversion of Date Masamume, a daimyō warlord who sent an envoy to the Pope in Rome. Like this last title, perhaps most of the volumes expressly relate to Christianity in Japan. These include multiple works recounting the story of the twenty-six martyrs and their later beatification, such as Polycarpe Du Fay’s La Béatification des premiers martyrs du Jappon (1628) (see illustration). Further still, also included are a number of printed editions of the very letters of Jesuit missionaries upon which Endō modeled his novel.
Perhaps taking its cue from the role of consecrated objects in Catholic ritual, Scorsese's movie makes something of a fetish out of all kinds of objects as the story progresses, culminating in the customs house scenes where trade goods undergo intense scrutiny for secret markings indicating Christian sympathy. In the film, naturally enough, copies of the Bible are also venerated by the secret Christian communities the European missionaries encounter. Over the course of time, it can be said that works found in Early European Books like Du Fay’s La Béatification, or the letters of Christian missionaries like Portuguese Jesuit Luis Frois, have also taken on a venerable position: speaking silently but eloquently of secret or half-forgotten histories, of cruel rivalries between faiths and cultures – and of the human lives caught in the middle of them – in ways that have lost little resonance in the 21st century.
2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a seismic cultural and religious event triggered on the 31st of October 1517 when Martin Luther reputedly nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany. To celebrate this anniversary, Early European Books will be focusing the first of its two new collections scheduled for 2017 - Collection 11 – on some of the many varied religious texts printed and circulated in the early modern period.
Beatification – in the Roman Catholic Church, beatification is the first step towards canonization and occurs when a dead person is declared to have entered into heaven where he or she can be prayed to intercede with God. The twenty-six martyrs were also later canonized, or sainted, by the Catholic Church in 1862.
Daimyō – in feudal Japan, a daimyō was a great lord and vassal of the shogun.
Shogunate – the office or rule of a shogun. Shoguns were military dictators who ruled in Japan during the period 1185-1868.
Tokugawa period – also known as the Edo period, the Tokugawa period lasted between 1603 and 1868, in which time Japan was governed by the Tokugawa shogunate.