Mothers by Endo Shusaku, 1979
by Endō Shūsaku, 1979
Although many of Endō Shūsaku's shorter works can be seen as precursors to full-length works devoted to the same or related themes, there are a few stories that clearly occupy an integral position in his oeuvre. Of these possibly the most impressive is "Mothers," which develops the theme that recurs throughout Endō's work to that date—the issue of whether the Christian God first introduced into Japan by Western missionaries in the sixteenth century could be molded into a figure with whom the Japanese could feel an affinity. The story adds significantly to the image of the divine as representing not merely the strong paternalistic figure of the Old Testament but also the more maternal figure, the "compassionate weakling" that Endō claimed to see encapsulated by Christ in the New Testament. As evidenced, for example, in Silence, Endō had long sought a literary depiction of Christ whose very strength lay paradoxically in his weakness, but it is in "Mothers" that the author succeeds as never before in incorporating within this image the various elements he had been seeking to reconcile in previous works.
The text itself is carefully crafted to incorporate both the present and the past. Narrated entirely in the first person by a young novelist engaged in research on Japan's "Christian century" (1550-1650), the story intersperses depictions of his current field trip to Kyushu island with a variety of flashbacks that are recollections of his childhood, in particular certain incidents involving his mother. The link between the two levels is, however, far from tenuous. The focus of the narrator's study is the Kakure (Hidden) Christians, the descendants of those who had succumbed to shogunate pressure to perform an outward act of apostasy toward the end of the Christian century and who had subsequently been forced underground. Discovering the existence of a small number of determined locals who had refused to revert to traditional Christianity even following the readmission of the foreign missionaries towards the end of the nineteenth century, the narrator is initially attracted to the psychology of those who have been forced to come to terms with their own weakness for agreeing to apostatize. Increasingly, however, as the story develops, the narrator comes to discern in the experience of the Kakure parallels not merely with many contemporary Japanese Christians struggling to reconcile the perceived clash between their faith and their native culture but also with his own experience of having been unable to live up to the expectations of religious piety that his mother had struggled so hard to impose on him.
On one level the story contains frequent references to the similarities the narrator perceives between his own situation and that of the Kakure. On arrival on Kyushu, for example, the narrator is met by a series of Catholic parishioners who will serve as his local guides. He is immediately reminded of the intensity of his mother's faith, but confrontation with such powerful spirituality only serves to heighten his feelings of empathy for the "weak" Kakure, leading him to conclude, "If I had been born in such a time, I [too] would not have had the strength to endure punishment." The more he contemplates their situation, the more he comes to realize that, just as the Kakure had been forced to endure the critical gaze of "stronger" people around them, so he too has been subjected to the censorious gaze of others as a result of his callous, occasionally deceitful treatment of his mother. As he admits, "I am interested in the Kakure for only one reason—because they are the offspring of apostates. Like their ancestors, they cannot utterly abandon their faith … sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in these Kakure, people who have had to lead lives of duplicity, lying to the world and never revealing their true feelings to anyone."
It may be the awareness of this mutual burden of guilt that initially attracts the narrator to the Kakure, but the more he comes to contemplate their situation, the more he comes to accept that, just as the Kakure had learned of the impossibility of merely abandoning God with no subsequent pangs of guilt, so, too, he is unable simply to forget his own mother. The result is a juxtaposition of scenes devoted to the Kakure with those involving recollections of the narrator's mother and the explicit acknowledgment that "to the Kakure, God was a stern paternal figure, and as a child asks its mother to intercede with its father, the Kakure prayed for the Virgin Mary to intervene on their behalf."
This process of fusion of images is gradual and is accompanied in the narrator's mind by a mellowing of the initial recollections of his mother. As the story develops, the image of the pious woman with the "hard, stone-like face" that so troubles him at the beginning is tempered, developing gradually into a more tender maternal figure who stands "with her hands joined in front of her, watching [him] from behind with a look of gentle sorrow in her eyes."
The depiction echoes a recurring image of Endō's literature of the time and represents his most concerted attempt to date to fuse the image of the mother with the vision of Christ as human companion and symbol of love and compassion. Seen in this light, the mother in the story is an idealized figure, and the text provides ample evidence of this intent. In the first flashback, for example, the narrator is portrayed as dreaming of his mother standing at his hospital bedside, although, as he subsequently acknowledges, "My wife … was the one who watched over me through every night after each of my three operations." Already, reality and imagination have become blurred, and as the author himself was ultimately to concede, the creation of this absolute mother figure owes much to the concept of the "great mother" archetype as outlined by Carl Jung. The more the narrator seeks to abandon this image, the more he is forced to recognize the mother as the personification of selfless love and to acknowledge that in the creation of this image he had "superimposed on the face [of his mother] that of a statue of 'Mater dolorosa', the Holy Mother of Sorrows, which [his] mother used to own."
The result is a single image—a fusion of the mother, the Virgin Mary, and of Christ—that is the key to an understanding of this and so much of Endō's work. This is overtly acknowledged by the narrator toward the end when he says, "When the missionaries had been expelled and the churches demolished, the Japanese Kakure, over the space of many years, stripped away all those parts of the religion that they could not embrace, and the teachings of God the Father were gradually replaced by a yearning after a Mother—a yearning which lies at the very heart of Japanese religion." It is significant, however, that the story does not end with this moment of insight. As the realization revives memories of his mother, the narrator's thoughts wander to the painting he has just seen—a picture of a Japanese farm woman suckling her baby—and he comes to view this as representative of the maternal element inherent in the Japanese religious sensitivity.
The conclusion is indicative of the progress made during the course of the story in the attempt to establish the framework for the process of the indigenization of Christianity. At the same time, however, this further juxtaposition of images provides testimony to the degree to which the author has been obliged to confront his own conscience in the composition of this story. Because it is a work of fiction, the extent to which Endō has drawn upon autobiographical information may be irrelevant. As an examination of a series of emotions shared by the author and his narrator, however, "Mothers" can be seen as establishing new parameters for the modern Japanese short story.