When Father Rodrigues first arrives in Japan, his head is filled with idealized visions of the country. Though Christians are currently being executed en masse in Japan, Rodrigues is confident that their glorious martyrdom won't go by unnoticed by the man upstairs.
Except it does.
As Rodrigues himself states: "in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent" (4.47). In this way, God's silence becomes a reflection of Rodrigues's growing doubts, not only due to his internal struggles but also due to the seemingly meaningless deaths of countless Japanese Christians. Though God does indeed break his silence by the end of Silence (har har), it's not quite in the way Father Rodrigues expects.
So God sure ended his silence in style, huh?
Let's rewind a bit. Rodrigues ended up apostatizing to save the lives of Japanese Christians, stomping on the fumie and renouncing his faith. Why? It's simple: "for love Christ would have apostatized [...] even if it meant giving up everything he had" (8.100). In Rodrigues's case, that means sacrificing his reputation, his religion, and his homeland. Though it hurts him, Rodrigues knows he made the right choice, because he can hear Jesus telling him to trample away.
With that, Rodrigues is renamed Okada San'emon and made a Japanese citizen. That's when Kichijiro shows up for the gazillionth time begging forgiveness—but something is different this time. This time, Rodrigues is able to realize something that he should have realized all along—that he's as much of a Judas as Kichijiro. At the same time, he also realizes that Jesus still loves both of them, just as he had loved Judas, the man who betrayed him.
Ultimately, Rodrigues forgives Kichijiro—not to mention himself. Although he might not ever return home to Portugal or step foot inside a church again, he'll always have a piece of the faith alive in his heart.
Silence takes place in Japan during the 1600s, at the height of the Japanese government's persecution of Christians. Though Christian missionaries had converted a sizable amount of Japan's population to Christianity, recent events like the Shimabara Rebellion—which was led by Japanese Christians—have prompted the government to persecute Christians and ban all Catholic priests from its shores.
It's the perfect time for our boy Father Rodrigues to enter the scene, don't you think?
Rodrigues's first stop in his all-inclusive—and by all-inclusive, we mean that it includes torture and death, of course—tour of Japan is Tomogi, a desperately poor seaside village. As it happens, Tomogi, and other small villages like it, are almost entirely Christian. In Rodrigues's eyes, this is because Christianity "has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew" (3.4). Unfortunately, the ban on Christianity makes isolation a necessity, as you never know who might rat out the community in the hopes of scoring some extra cash.
And that's exactly what happens. After several villagers from Tomogi are executed, Rodrigues is captured and forced along the road to Nagasaki. His travels are defined by the shocked reactions of the villagers who watch him pass: "children and adults alike [...] had kept staring at him with glimmering eyes like animals" (5.1). Surprisingly, many of these poor villagers had once been Christian but abandoned their faith after witnessing so much pain and suffering—something the villagers of Tomogi can surely relate to after recent events.
From there, Rodrigues arrives in a small cell that becomes his home for most of the novel. Oddly, "his prison life was filled with a strange tranquility and peace" (6.8)—two words we never hear from Rodrigues anywhere else. Though he had become increasingly paranoid during his time in Tomogi, this new sense of isolation somehow comforts him. Then, as we all know (you know, right?), Rodrigues renounces his faith, just as Father Ferreira did. Now our priest is officially a Japanese citizen.
Again, Rodrigues seems awfully peaceful about this turn of events. We watch as he stares "at this scenery of Japan [...] as though later he were to describe it all in detail to someone back home in his own country" (9.11). But he's never going back to Portugal. Mr. Sebastien Rodrigues is now Okada San'emon, respected Japanese citizen and expert on Christian iconography. Although Rodrigues came to Japan in the hope of inspiring change, he never realized that he might be the one doing all of the changing.
Silence is written in a pretty straightforward manner, so you should have no problem following the action. That being said, the novel is also very ambiguous, so it'll take a little extra effort to fully understand the themes Endo presents.
Father Rodrigues fantasizes about Jesus's face the way that teenage Beliebers fantasize about Justin's. As he spends more time in Japan, however, Rodrigues's mental image of Jesus shifts and changes, reflecting his own changing relationship with his faith.
At first, though, it's all puppy love, all the time. Rodrigues admits that he is "fascinated by the face of Christ just like a man fascinated by the face of his beloved" (1.50). This is a unique perspective, since it emphasizes the feminine aspect of Christ: his beauty, his grace, and his presumably godly beach bod. No matter which way you slice it, Rodrigues is head over heels for J. C. when he arrives in Japan.
The more his faith is tested, however, the more Rodrigues loses sight of that face. This is reflected in God's silence: despite all of the "terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent" to the plight of the Japanese (4.47). The love of Rodrigues's life seems to be giving him the cold shoulder, his face no longer representing the glory it once did.
Now, Rodrigues does see Jesus's face again—just not in a way he expected. The next time he sees it is when he's forced to stomp on an image of Jesus to renounce his faith. This isn't the Jesus he once drooled over, however: now the beloved face is "worn down and hollow with the constant trampling" (8.116). Looks like the bloom is off the rose?
When you think about it, though, this is a more honest portrayal of Jesus. Jesus is defined by his suffering—suffering that Christians believe redeems all of mankind. Though Rodrigues was once distracted by the glitz and glamor, he now sees his faith and his savior for exactly what they are.
In a way, Silence uses a series of plant-based metaphors to create its own theory of evolution. Instead of studying how biological organisms adapt to their environment, however, we'll be looking at the evolution of religious faith.
Throughout the novel, missionary work is likened to planting a seed in a garden. Rodrigues believes that this is a good thing, for obvious reasons.Ferreira, on the other hand, has a different opinion, stating that "a tree which flourishes in one kind of soil may wither if the soil is changed" (6.49). In other words, you can't merely plop Christianity into Japan and expect it to function just as it does in the West.
This metaphor is deepened by Ferreira's assertion that Japan "is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine" (7.220). Think about that one for a second. Swamps are known for their dense, messy vegetation, with plants of all shapes and sizes growing in every direction. Just as a plant from the mountains might go through some serious changes (or die altogether) when planted in a swamp, "the Christianity [...] brought to Japan has changed it forms and has become a strange thing" (10.55).
In the end, these metaphors serve to emphasize the cultural aspect of religion. Japanese Christianity certainly seems to be a unique beast: a full-bodied blend of Christianity, Buddhism, and Shinto. You can find similar examples of this kind of belief-blending—if you want to be all fancy, you can call it syncretism—from all over the world, whether you're talking Voodoo or Rastafarianism. As with Japanese Christianity, these religions were bred by the natural blending of Christianity and local belief systems.
The Magistrate Inoue uses the idea of marriage to illustrate Japan's relationship to the West. Because why not?
First, Inoue tells the story of a Japanese monarch forced to choose between his four mistresses. Each mistress wants the man for himself and "constantly quarreled out of jealousy" (7.5)—it's basically an episode of The Bachelor. But here's the thing: Inoue is actually talking politics. The king represents Japan, while the four mistresses represent Portugal, England, Spain, and Holland.
Like those four mistresses, Portugal, England, Spain, and Holland each want Japan all for themselves. Instead of marriage, however, these countries are looking for moolah—lucrative trade contracts, political alliances, and all that kind of thing. Just as it's wiser to dump all the mistresses because they've all proven themselves to be shady ladies, it's better for Japan to cut off contact with the West than be forced into an uncertain political situation.
But Rodrigues doesn't represent any country—he represents the Catholic Church. As it turns out, Inoue has a metaphor for that, too. He calls the Church an uggo, likening its missionary work to "the persistent affection of an ugly woman" (7.28). Ouch, that's harsh. What's more, the Church is a "barren woman" (7.28)—in other words, it has nothing to offer the Japanese government in political or financial terms.
When dealing with countries, Japan has at least the potential to gain something from the relationship: a trading partner or military ally could be valuable indeed. As for the Church, however, all she can offer is a permanent pain in the neck, in the form of domestic uprisings like the Shimabara Rebellion and foreign interlopers like Father Rodrigues.