Holy Ghosts – By Christopher Mayo

Christopher Mayo on Rebecca Suter’s Holy Ghosts

Rebecca Suter, Holy Ghosts: The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015, 208pp., $45
Rebecca Suter, Holy Ghosts: The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015, 208pp., $45
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Francis Xavier kicked off a “Christian century” when he arrived in Japan in 1549. Over the course of just a few decades, a small number of Jesuit priests who followed him managed to attract more than 300,000 converts to the Catholic church. It was a dynamic, uniquely cosmopolitan period in pre-modern Japanese history. The Japanese welcomed European visitors to their shores, lived together with them in communities, and sent delegations of their own abroad. But these developments were undone by prohibitions on the faith that started in 1587 and grew harsher over time. By the bloody end of the Christian-tinged Shimabara rebellion in 1637–1638, Japanese Kirishitan (a term used for Japanese Christians of the period) had been killed, forced to apostatize, or driven underground.

Nowadays, Japan is predominantly a land of temples and shrines. Churches exist, but in far fewer numbers and with a much lower profile. While the so-called Christian century came to a dismal end in the 1630s, and the physical traces of the religion on the urban landscape are faint, the period’s influence on the country has persisted. Rebecca Suter’s Holy Ghosts reminds readers that the eponymous “holy ghosts” of the Christian century have survived and thrived in Japanese fiction, and she offers an engrossing study of how they have continued to haunt the nation down to the present day.

Suter proposes that these Christian ghosts function in Japanese literature as a challenge to the country’s modern social and political structures. Specifically, she shows how their emergence forces readers to face their fascination, desire, and fear of the Other. Her interest is not in Christianity or the Kirishitan per se, but rather the critical potential of the Christian century as a lens through which authors have been able to view Japan’s modernity. Suter’s approach takes her through about 100 years’ worth of texts including Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s Kirishitan stories (Kirishitan mono; 1916–1927), Endō Shūsaku’s Silence (Chinmoku; 1966), Yamada Fūtarō’s Secret scrolls of the ninja arts (Gedō ninpōchō; 1962) and Demon resurrection (Makai Tenshō; 1967), Yokomizo Seishi’s Skull abbot (Doguro kengyō939), SNK’s Samurai showdown (Samurai Supirittsu; 1993–2007), and Takemoto Novala’s A child abandoned by Deus (Deusu no sutego008). Some readers may be familiar with the renowned literary masterpieces of Akutagawa or Endō, but less so with SNK’s popular video game. Suter’s unique juxtaposition of perspectives from assorted media is especially effective in demonstrating the pervasiveness of Japan’s continuing engagement with the Christian century.

Suter introduces her topic with a survey of Christianity in Japan from the sixteenth until the early twentieth century. This ambitious attempt to cover a great deal of chronological, theoretical, and disciplinary ground is valuable as background, but it would benefit from a little more geographical and historical precision. In a discussion of the Jesuit mission, Suter positions Usuki “near Nagasaki” and Funai “near Kyoto,” but both are actually nowhere near the two cities; they are a short distance away from one another in Ōita Prefecture. Suter claims that Shimabara was considered in official discourse to be a symbol of the shogun’s triumph over Christianity and the threat of a Western invasion. In reviewing the historical event, though, the reader would benefit from knowing that Dutch boats were called in to shell the rebels. This fact greatly complicates the picture, because it illustrates the more nuanced relationship Japan had with foreigners at the time. The government requested that they join with the Japanese forces in suppression of the rebellion. This suggests the foreigners were complicit in the persecution of Christians, following the orders of Japanese officials, being used to overcome the foreign influence in Japan, and being folded into Japan’s emerging centralized feudal system. Because the rebellion is at the heart of so many works of fiction in Suter’s analysis, it seems like a lost opportunity to explore this critical inflection point, possibly from the perspective of historical trauma and her holy ghosts. Finally, Japan never completely closed its ports to “foreigners” (Chinese, Koreans, and Dutch were allowed into the country). The “reopening” of ports to others did not happen in 1853 but in 1854 with the negotiation of the Treaty of Kanagawa. None of these problems dramatically impact the author’s assertions about representations of the Christian century in Japanese fiction, but from a historian’s perspective, they do make the first chapter the least satisfying part of an otherwise engaging study.

Suter then launches her investigation into Kirishitan paranormal activity by reflecting on the re-emergence of Christianity as a major preoccupation in Japanese literature during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The author Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927) is arguably at the core of her project, because he masterfully pioneers many of the themes that are carried into the twenty-first century. Over the course of several years, Akutagawa wrote a series of short stories with Christian themes that are collectively called Kirishitan stories. Where some scholars see Akutagawa’s distress and eventual suicide to be representative of a politically disengaged, intellectual angst that permeated the early twentieth century, Suter and others have discovered in his writings a lucid and nuanced exploration of a “Japanized modernity.” In Suter’s formulation, the figure of the pre-modern Kirishitan is an important hermeneutic device for Akutagawa that allows him to experiment with the idea of a “plotless novel,” and elucidate issues of Japanese identity in terms of Orientalism, self-Orientalism, and Occidentalism.

Suter highlights how Akutagawa inverts binaries that were of particular concern to Japanese authors in the early twentieth century such as the scientific West/superstitious East, foreign/native, original/copy, and reality/fiction. Akutagawa’s story about a doctor named Ogata is illustrative of the potential for the Christian century to help authors reach back into the past to produce simulacra to articulate an alternative perspective on modernity. In the doctor’s story, Akutagawa describes how Ogata treats a Christian woman and forces her to recant her faith in order to receive treatment for her daughter. When the woman’s daughter dies, it drives her to act like a madwoman in her grief. Remarkably, though, where the Japanese experts fail, foreign priests manage to bring her daughter back to life through the performance of incantations. Here, Suter sees a reversal in the usual East/West relationship in the contrast that Akutagawa makes between the image of a calm, scientific-minded doctor (Japanese) and an emotional, irrational woman (associated with foreigners).

Suter goes a step further to reconnect the seemingly “disengaged” Akutagawa to contemporary society by elucidating some of the political implications of his writing. In the case of the story about Ogata, she believes that having the doctor force the woman to apostatize and pledge her allegiance to the social and political apparatus to which the doctor belongs gives the lie to both systems of control. According to Suter, Akutagawa thereby lays bare the fact that the Christian religion and modernity (medicine, in this case) are technologies of power that are designed to produce loyal subjects. Spaces for resistance to such technologies are opened up in this way by the inclusion of the Christian century in the discourse, a point echoed in other works of literature she studies. In Akutagawa’s stories about apostasy and martyrdom, she reads conflicting allegiances as a metaphor for early twentieth-century choices intellectuals had to make: how to fight against dominant ideologies and how to deal with demands for loyalty to the emperor and other ideologies such as Socialism and Communism. She concludes that Akutagawa is staking out a political claim about those who are willing to embrace ambiguity, complexity, contradictions, and irony while existing within a system that cannot easily accommodate his characters.

Later in her discussion, Suter moves away from the verisimilitude of Akutagawa’s Kirishitan depictions. Suter’s analysis focuses on fictional representations of a resurrected Amakusa Shirō (1621–1638), the teenage leader of the 1637–38 Shimabara rebellion. Historically, Shirō died at the hands of pre-modern government forces, but he has returned from the dead in modern Japanese literature to wreak havoc on those who rejected him in life (including God, who forsook him and his followers). At times Shirō is characterized as a vampire, demon, or a kind of vengeful ghost. Often, he is also an ambiguously sexualized being, and by placing Shirō squarely in the realm of pure fiction, Suter shows how authors have been able to use him to critique modern gender and sexual norms in Japan. In the 1993–2007 video game Samurai Spirits, players have the ability to become Shirō and directly experience some of the ambiguities embedded in the re-imagined character: Shirō is both a follower and enemy of God; the Christian God is both the enemy and ally of Japan; Shirō has both male and female aspects; and he is both foreign and native. Suter also discusses Shirō’s charcter in a variety of manga, where he is leveraged to explore male-male relationships or cross-dressing. Of particular interest is the effect that the 1995 sarin gas attack by the Aum religious group had on the portrayal of Shirō. Authors betray how uncomfortable society has become with unorthodox religions by turning him into a charlatan deceiving his followers. Or, they drain him of specific religious significance and imbue him with “spirituality” tied into oblique countercultural critiques, healing, and well-being. Suter concludes with Takemoto Novala’s 2008 version of Shirō as an outcast and sex worker who gives voice to the economically disenfranchised and those who do not fall within sexual or social norms.

Holy Ghosts contains close readings of many texts but does not claim to have defined a Christian century canon. Nor does it profess to be the last word on the critical potential of this moment in history. There are certainly works that Suter could have included or explored in more depth, though, in order to elaborate on her thesis. Fans of Endō’s Chinmoku, for instance, might well be disappointed if they expected her to focus on this influential work. Her rationale for devoting so little space to Endō, who was himself a Christian, is that she chose to analyze nonreligious appropriations of the Christian century. One has to wonder, though, about the criteria she has chosen for the scope of her study. Are any of her readers, much less the authors of any works she covers, “nonreligious?” If Suter had not concerned herself with the religious affiliation of authors, at a slim 173 pages (including the Introduction), her monograph could have easily accommodated a chapter on Endō. This is not to say that anything is “missing” from her work. Rather, as any good book does, it piques the interest of its readers and leaves them curious to learn more.

In fact, now that Suter has opened this line of inquiry, we can take this opportunity to build on her work by discarding other restrictions on its scope. I think her monograph invites researchers to explore appropriations of the Christian century further afield. I propose we set aside the religious affiliations, nationalities, and languages of authors to make this more of a global project. In keeping with the modern theme of Suter’s monograph, we could profitably apply her framework to material such as The Sparrow (1996) by Mary Doria Russell, which tells the story of a 2019 failed Jesuit mission to another planet to convert the inhabitants there. In the book, one of the priests is forced into sexual slavery and mutilated, which resonates with some of the themes raised by Suter in the Japanese context. Suter has shown us how the ghosts of Japan’s Christian century haunt Japan, but her research also raises the intriguing prospect of finding them haunting other lands as well.