The Golden Country: A Play About Christian Martyrs in Japan (1970) is a retelling of Endō’s earlier novel Silence (1966). (You can watch my three-part video review of Silence on YouTube, if you like.) Both stories follow the trials of Father Ferreira, a Portuguese missionary to Japan in the early 1600s. The character of Ferreira is based on real-life Cristóvão Ferreira, who, after 24 years of missionary work, renounced his faith under torture. He took on a Japanese name and continued to live in Japan as a writer, with evidence suggesting he helped his former persecutors interrogate other Christians. Endō takes the known historical facts and tries to envision what was going on in Ferreira’s mind in the days leading up to his decision.
This play takes the main themes of Silence and condenses them into play format. Is God silent during believers’ suffering? Are some people just born with more moral strength, and others born “weak”? Is Japan a “mudswamp”—an impossible landscape to grow the seeds of faith—or is it the “golden country,” a land full of promise? And is a picture of Christ just a picture, or does it hold more meaning?
The introduction by Francis Mathy is perhaps as interesting as the play itself. Mathy describes Endō’s portrayal of Ferreira as “charitable,” pointing out that “there were at the time of his capture and torture no farmers in prison or under threat of death for him to protect.” If so, this is important because the great moral dilemma of Silence is whether a person could apostatize to save others—Mathy suggests that Ferreira was not actually faced with this in real life. (For an overview of the priest’s life, this 1974 article by Hubert Cieslik seems to be the most detailed). Mathy also describes the struggle within Endō himself, who, in Christianity and I (1963), wrote about his doubts whether a Japanese person could be a Christian, due to cultural views on God, sin, and death. This personal struggle was manifested repeatedly in his historical writing, not just with these two works but also the short story “Unzen” and the novels Kiku’s Prayer and Sachiko.
But back to The Golden Country… Endō holds back nothing in the dialogue of the characters. We’re led through the heroism of the samurai Tomonaga and his daughter Yuki. We’re also faced with the blasphemous taunts of the interrogator Inoue, himself a former Christian. There is nothing sugar coated about this Christian fiction—it is uncomfortable to read, but it strikes me as very true to life.
I believe that Silence is one of the most misunderstood books. At this point in my life, I do not understand it to be about the validity of apostasy under extreme pressure, but rather about listening to temptation vs. the promises of Scripture, which I tried to describe in my video series. The final conversation between Inoue and Ferreira in this play gives more support to my interpretation.
What made this play most worthwhile for me was its ending. I won’t give it away, but I will say it leaves you with a light at the end of the tunnel. After all, Endō was brought up Catholic, over 300 years after Ferreira. It may be true that Christianity will never be a large religion (today, just about 1%), but the fact that 1-2 million people still hold the faith shows that even the horrors of persecution could not stamp out Christianity.