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Kiku’s Prayer by Endo Shusaku

Kiku’s Prayer (女の一生:キクの場合, lit. A woman’s life: Kiku’s case) is a novel by Endo Shusaku (遠藤 周作) that was first published in 1980 in serialized form. The English version, translated by Van C. Gessel, was published in 2012.

Kiku’s Prayer by Endo Shusaku

This piece of historical-fiction is set in Nagasaki during the 1860s and 1870s, a period of transition for Japan that had previously shut out foreigners. With the recent re-opening of borders, foreigners enter for trade with the clergy also arriving in order to cater to the spiritual needs of their fellow countrymen. Although the construction of churches is permitted, the Japanese are still banned from practicing Christianity so the Japanese faithful continue to remain in hiding.

The story follows sixteen-year-old Kiku, a strong-willed girl, who falls in love with Seikichi, a young man who is slightly older than her. Seikichi holds onto the Catholic faith of his ancestors whilst Kiku is not a believer. She is aware of the religion but has no practical understanding of it.

Despite the change in government, the religious policy remains unchanged and the Christians, including Seikichi, are eventually arrested and taken to Tsuwano, Iwami province (today Shimane Prefecture) where they are cruelly imprisoned and tortured. Kiku desperately tries to help Seikichi, to mitigate whatever torture Seikichi may face.

Although Kiku is the titular character and the main viewpoint character, the narrative also takes the viewpoint of Seikichi and other characters, including Kiku’s young cousin, Mitsu, and the French priest Bernard-Thaddée Petitjean (b. 1828 – d. 1884).

The blurb describes the story as a historical allegory. There is that layer. In a way, Kiku represents the Japanese mentality and spirit at the time: on the one hand, concern of foreign interference in their ways and on the other hand, facing the new and unknown going into the future, however reluctant.

Nonetheless, like Endo’s other works, this is a story of faith and the classic question of the meaning of suffering. At least initially, Kiku does not understand why Seikichi doesn’t abandon the faith to save himself some trouble and perhaps his life. To her, the Virgin Mary to which Seikichi prays is a competitor. She is jealous that Seikichi can look at another woman “in such a way”, a woman who is also to her a mere statue.

And yet, out of love for Seikichi, Kiku accepts his stance and later takes certain steps of faith.

To the side of the altar was that woman: the statue of Santa Maria stared fixedly toward Kiku. The statue of the Blessed Mother that Seikichi had gazed on with such rapture…. It’s your fault! Kiku glared at the other woman. Even when frowning, her face was beautiful. You’re a woman, too. So you must understand how I feel. I prayed to you every single day that nothing terrible happen to Seikichi…. But… but you made terrible things happen to him. Since you’re a woman… you must understand how sad… how painful… how painful… Tears poured in a deluge from Kiku’s eyes. There was nothing else… nothing else Kiku could say. She looked up at the statue of the woman, her eyes brimming with resentment.

Like Mit-chan in The Girl I Left Behind, Kiku is not a believer in a formal sense but is nonetheless a Christ figure who passionately lives the answer to the question without being consciously aware of or understanding it. Whilst Kiku’s journey of faith may be predictable to some, Endo has packaged highly flawed characters with pathos with his usual skill that it keeps one reading.

Although Silence is well-written and is probably Endo’s most famous work, Kiku’s Prayer, written about 14 years later, is not surprisingly a more refined and well-constructed work that strongly conveys the atmosphere of Nagasaki at the time, the struggles of the Japanese faithful and the emotions of the characters.


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