"Silence" the movie goes on general release today

The new Martin Scorsese movie Silence goes on general release in UK cinemas today.

It tells the story of Jesuit missionaries risking their lives to bring the Word of God to a persecuted Christian minority in seventeenth century Japan, and doing so explores the nature of faith, doubt and redemption.

In a recent edition of Jesuits & Friends Jonathan Wright explained the role Jesuits played in early-modern Japan:

It fell to Francis Xavier to inaugurate the Jesuits’ Japanese adventure. Shortly after arriving at  Kagoshima in 1549, he boldly announced that, among all the potential converts around the globe,
the Japanese were “the best that have as yet been discovered”. By century’s end, more than 300,000 people had been converted.

Two factors were crucial to this success. Firstly, up to the late 1580s, Japan was in a state of political chaos owing to a distinct lack of centralised authority. Local rulers could allow Catholic missionaries to preach and teach in their domains and, in a number of high profile cases, they came over to Rome  themselves. Secondly, the Society deployed astute missionary tactics. In the early years, there had been a tendency to treat local cultures and beliefs with a distinct lack of respect. As one disgruntled
contemporary put it, it was surely a sign of “diminished intelligence for a motley handful of foreigners to try to induce Japanese lords to renounce their customs and the etiquette of their own land” in order to take upthe “barbarous and vulgar ways” of Europeans. Gentler methods soon prevailed, however. Jesuits installed tea pavilions in their residences and followed local dietary rules. Scholars were courted through ‘a pastoral of the intellect’ and missionaries immersed themselves in the study of the Japanese language. Such attempts to engage constructively with indigenous culture could range from
the ground-breaking to the humdrum: talented Japanese youths were encouraged to join the order, while European missionaries were advised to bathe more frequently to meet exacting Japanese standards of hygiene.

Disruptive foreigners

All was not perfect, of course. Some converts were motivated by the promise of access to Portuguese trade; many were simply following the lead of their rulers. It proved inordinately difficult to convey   Western theological concepts and some Japanese treated the arrival of Christianity as little more than a fad. It was reported in 1594 that they “wear rosaries of driftwood on their breasts, hang a crucifix   from their shoulder... simply to show their familiarity with the latest fashion”.

Nonetheless, there had been genuine missionary achievement; but a seachange in Jesuit fortunes was on the horizon. From the late 1580s, centralised political authority was resurgent, culminating in the arrival of the Tokugawa shogunate. Jesuits were increasingly seen as disruptive foreign interlopers and decades of persecution ensued. Alongside prohibitions of all Jesuit activity  nationwide by 1614), there was harrowing violence. Three Japanese Jesuits-in-training were crucified in 1597   while the roster of Japanese martyrs beatified in 1867 included 34 Jesuits who perished between  1617 and 1632. The situation proved too much for some men, including the Jesuit vice-provincial Christovao Ferreira (a focus of Scorsese’s film) who apostatised after enduring the torture of the pit in 1633.

In the wake of the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637, in which Christians played a significant role, Japan completed its journey towards isolation. An edict of 1639 declared that “for the future... let no-one, so long as the sun illuminates the world, presume to sail to Japan”. Aside from a handful of later covert missions, the first Jesuit enterprise in Japan was over. 

Jonathan Wright’s The Jesuit Suppression in Global Context, co-edited with Jeffrey Burson, has recently been published by Cambridge University Press.

Read more about what to expect from the movie on Thinking Faith