Note: The following article is an excerpt from Silence and Beauty, by Makoto Fujimura. Silence and Beauty is a great resource to reflect on Martin Scorsese’s film Silence (based on the book by the same title, by Shusaku Endo). We highly recommend the study guide and video resources at to get the most out of the many intricate and complex themes in Silence.

On a day I spent in Kyoto to do research for this book, the front-page news was a picture of two Japanese journalists who were being held hostage. Japanese journalist Kenji Goto was captured by the terror organization Islamic State while trying to find information on his friend Haruna Yukawa, who had disappeared some months before. In a story eerily reminiscent of the journey of Father Rodrigues [in the novel and movie Silence] trying to find information about Father Ferreira, Kenji Goto risked his own life to try to negotiate his friend’s release. He was captured because of a betrayal by a trusted source, and to the outrage of many both men were decapitated after negotiations failed.

That day on the front page of the Japanese newspaper in the ryokan (a traditional Japanese bed-and-breakfast inn) in Kyoto there were photos of the orange-clad journalists, bound, on their knees, with a jihadist behind them with a sword. The picture was intended to bring fear and inject terror into our psyche, and broadcast the message of ISIS. On that very day I had visited the site where the twenty-six martyrs were paraded through the city of Kyoto in 1597. The plaque noted that among the martyrs were Franciscan and Jesuit priests, both Japanese and missionaries, and three children. The authorities cut the ears off some and the noses off others, and had them walk from Kyoto to Nagasaki, where they would meet their martyrdom.

I could not help but notice that the photo in the newspaper was manipulated; it looked photoshopped; it appeared to be a collage of images. The headline and article identified facts of the incident that seemed to support this. ISIS communicates through such hastily collaged elements, creating an image of a jihadist standing tall in the wind-blown desert, with a menacing gaze through the mask. Tokugawa magistrates also designed the parading of twenty-six martyrs to strike fear into the hearts of those who saw them pass.

Fumi-es [images of Christ or Mary that suspected Christians were forced to trample upon to repudiate Christ] were created as a visual symbol of such fear and terror. Images can indeed be powerful tools for manipulating public perception.

Kenji Goto, I found out later, was a Christian who sought to report on the lives of children and orphans caught in a war zone or in situations of poverty. In Syria, in Chechnya during the crisis there, in northern Japan after it was stricken by the 3/11 earthquakes, his way of journalism was a fulfillment of his calling. When he went to orphanages, he began by embracing children. He said, “By embracing them, I can talk with the people. I can hear their views—their pain and their hopes.”

The photoshopped image of Goto-san about to be beheaded successfully carried terror into our hearts. But I noticed that even in this photo, Kenji Goto’s face is filled with quiet resilience. Even a manipulated photo could not take away the calling of a courageous journalist whose faith seemed full of confidence and peace.

It is ironic that in Japan the beginning of fumi-e culture was, in fact, a courageous and quiet defiance of terror, similar to what Kenji Goto displayed. In sixteenth-century Japan, arresting and even killing Christians led to the growth of the church. Magistrate Inoue devised ways to counter the growth of the church with one of the most cruel forms of torture for the priests. They not only wanted to eradicate the Christian faith; they also wanted to broadcast publicly the Christians’ forced conversion to Buddhism. They used Christian love, love toward our neighbor, against the priests to apostatize. Whether or not one is a Christian, it is clear that this tactic was a type of mind control, the type of coercion that terrorist organizations continue to exercise. Carry that further with consistency and duration, and a traumatized fumi-e culture will be birthed.

“There are many small bread shops in Kyoto,” the kimono-clad nakai-san (attendant) at the ryokan in Kyoto told me. “I was told by a friend that it’s because there were so many Kakure Kirishitan [Hidden Christians] in Kyoto.” There is no way to prove definitively what nakai-san stated about the bread shops, but she noted, “Why else would Kyoto, a place that gave rise to Japanese culture, have so many little bread shops? It makes sense to me.” Christians, forced to hide their faith, kept some links to elements of Western culture. Bread is a symbol connected with the Eucharist. I nodded in agreement. Perhaps Hidden Christians went to bread shops to receive Communion. Japanese have hidden their deepest longings and have assimilated hidden Christianity deep into their culture. These little shops serve some of the most delectable bread, a highly refined and typical Japanese translation of a Western product.

They are beautiful little breads. Beauty is a refinement of fumi-e culture, a Christ-haunted culture that cannot disappear. Fumi-e could be also interpreted as a condition in our lives that leads us to believe there are only limited options and limited resources. Fumi-e represents a road to persecution, entrapment and torture.

Japanese often use the expression shikata-ga-nai (there is nothing you can do) as a fatalistic response to a given circumstance. They assume that circumstance is all there is; they face that shikata-ga-nai with stoic resignation. But the Christian God offers a reality far greater, a possibility of the infinite breaking through, even though the fallen world is cursed and operates within the limitations of a natural, closed mechanism. Our Darwinian struggles in this closed, limited-resource world are at the root of despair in our hearts, because we know that death is the end game of such a system. But our deep convictions are not based purely on observation of how our world and universe operate; they are based also on a certain belief system. I will develop this idea theologically at the end of this book.

Although it has been centuries since the Japanese had a culture of dependence forced on them by dictatorial authorities during the two hundred years of isolation, the wounds remain fresh. The fear of independence, the difficulty of differentiating oneself from society, carry shame. Japan’s fumi-e culture is quite debilitating. It is a culture that values strong allegiance to the power of the age, whether it be nationalism leading to Pearl Harbor or the pragmatism that led Japan to build and develop utter dependence on over seventy General Electric nuclear power plants – an amazing number when one considers that all the islands of Japan combined are roughly equivalent to the land mass of California.

Forced allegiance and insistence on consensus produce a stoic, blind march that is ultimately dehumanizing. Today, after a century of rebuilding, the Japanese find themselves trapped in the wounds of such a fumi-e culture – and, just like the priests in Silence, unable to recover hope.


Taken from Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura. Copyright (c) 2016 by Makoto Fujimura. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL  60515-1426.  


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