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Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ and the Catholic connection to the atomic bomb

The period drama portrays the 17th century persecution of Jesuit missionaries and their converts in Japan.

Martin Scorsese’s Silence will have its premiere at the Vatican, where it will be screened to hundreds of Roman Catholic priests. The famed director’s first foray into East Asia links to familiar themes of Catholic guilt and redemption, as he portrays the brutal 17th century persecution of Jesuit missionaries and their converts in Japan.

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‘Silence’.

Scorsese’s film, which will be released in the United States of America on December 23, is an adaptation of Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence. It tells the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) who travel to Japan at a time when Christianity was banned to find their mentor (Liam Neeson) and support the local converts. The pair are imprisoned and tortured.

A pieta ‘fumi-e’ image, from Nagasaki 1923. Credit: National Library Australia.
A pieta ‘fumi-e’ image, from Nagasaki 1923. Credit: National Library Australia.

The characters of the priests Cristóvão Ferreira and Sebastian Rodrigues were based on Portuguese and Italian Jesuits found in the historical record. Endo’s novel describes the hostile environment that leads to the missionary priests’ relinquishment of faith. They were forced to place their feet on fumi-e (religious images) to demonstrate that they had given up all faith. Rodrigues (played by Garfield in the film), believes he hears Jesus’s voice telling him to apostatise by stepping on the fumi-e.

The remaining Christians went underground. The persecution continued until the ban against Christians was removed in 1873. But the indigenous Japanese who returned to Catholicism in the 1870s after 250 years of “hidden Christianity” remembered their long period of “betrayal”.

A painting of the ruin of Urakami Cathedral drawn by Nagai Takashi. Credit: Author provided by permission of Nagai Tokusaburo, director of the Nagai Takashi Memorial Museum
A painting of the ruin of Urakami Cathedral drawn by Nagai Takashi. Credit: Author provided by permission of Nagai Tokusaburo, director of the Nagai Takashi Memorial Museum

Most descendants of the native Christians lived in Nagasaki during World War II. On August 9, 1945, when the United States dropped the A-bomb on Urakami, a northern suburb of Nagasaki, 8,500 of the 12,000-strong Catholic Christian community were amongst the dead. The bomb was meant to target Nagasaki city, but because the Americans were low on fuel and clouds opened above the northern suburbs, the eventual Ground Zero happened in Urakami. Its cathedral – the biggest Catholic church in Asia at the time – was only 500 metres from Ground Zero.

Nagasaki Catholics remember the A-bomb in particular ways, as I show in my research on memory in Nagasaki. My work has involved interviewing nine Catholic survivors of the atomic bombing, as well as three other non-Catholic survivors, and members of the Urakami community.

The Catholic interviewees explained that their grandparents had been exiled to other regions of Japan in the 1860s and 1870s due to their return to Catholicism after 250 years of “hidden Christianity”.

One interviewee, Matsuo Sachiko, explained that her grandmother was a double survivor, having first survived the Christian exile (referred to as the 4th exile) imposed by the government in 1867-73 and then later, the 1945 atomic bombing. She says:

Yes… my grandmother was one of the Urakami Fourth Exile survivors and at that time there were still some of those survivors who were alive… these people still believed, everyone was able to stick at it and get through… Within their testimony, they didn’t talk about their pain.

Matsuo Sachiko pictured in 2014. Credit: Author provided
Matsuo Sachiko pictured in 2014. Credit: Author provided

Orphaned Ozaki Tōmei adopted a new name after the bombing, as a novice at a Polish monastery in Nagasaki. Normally Japanese monks would adopt the name of a Western saint, but he selected a Japanese saint, Ozaki Tōmei, who is a child martyr of 1597 from Nagasaki.

Ozaki remembered his mother telling him that the 26 martyrs of 1597 were marched directly past his childhood home in the middle of winter on the way to their execution. The child martyr Ozaki had been separated from his mother and was marched to Nagasaki from Kyoto. Along the way, he was able to write a letter to his mother, in which he reflected on the “transience of the world”.

My informant Ozaki linked his own experience to this boy of 1597, writing:

The experience of the atomic bombing was exactly like that. Everything in the world is breakable and vanishes. As far as the atom bomb went, there was nothing to be known of reality which was not destroyed. Koware-iku sonzai ni tayotte wa naranai. We cannot depend on a life so fragile. Nonetheless, after that, staring at reality, what I saw was the indestructible God’s existence. The Lord God who holds all created things, the source of love and life is the God I know. This is also the source of faith.

Brother Ozaki Tomei. Credit: Author provided
Brother Ozaki Tomei. Credit: Author provided

Despite the destruction around him and the tragic loss of his mother, Ozaki, orphaned monk and survivor of the atomic bombing, held on to the faith of his ancestors.

His resilience might be considered one fruit of the missionaries whose ambivalent lives are depicted by Scorsese in Silence. Ozaki turned 88 this year and continues to write prolifically on his blog.

Silence was originally controversial amongst Christians in Japan for the perceived faithlessness of its priest protagonists. Nevertheless, Scorsese’s film version – which has taken 27 years to make – is eagerly awaited in Nagasaki, where the descendants of the hidden Christians still continue to be a practising community of faith.

Adam Driver in ‘Silence’. Credit: Cappa Defina Productions.
Adam Driver in ‘Silence’. Credit: Cappa Defina Productions.

Gwyn McClelland, Oral historian and associate, Japanese history, Monash University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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