Hermeneutics of Evil in the Works of Endō Shūsaku

Between Reading and Writing

by Justyna Weronika Kasza (Author)
©2016 Monographs 353 Pages


Evil is a salient component of Endō Shūsaku’s writing. Questions surrounding evil haunted the writer as a student of French literature, having discovered the works of Western authors like François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos. It is around the problem of evil that Endō would create his most renowned novels and the cross-cultural dimensions of the questions he posed on the nature of evil would make him one of the most widely translated Japanese authors.
This study offers new insight into the intellectual and artistic development of the author by focusing on a lesser known yet significant body of work: his essays and critical texts. The book is, on the one hand, an attempt to follow the path of thinking delineated by Endō Shūsaku himself and, on the other, a methodological approach to literary studies based on the application of selected categories of Paul Ricœur’s hermeneutics. Thus, the book accentuates the problem of subjectivity and personhood in Endō’s works, ultimately exploring the question, Who is the one who asks about evil?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Notes on the Text
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Paul Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics of Evil
  • Chapter 2: Endō Shūsaku and his Encounter with the West
  • Chapter 3: From Critic to Novelist: Towards the Problem of Evil
  • Chapter 4: The Writer’s Cogito: Evil as the Central Problem
  • Chapter 5: The Enigma of Suffering in Deep River (1993)
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix: Glossary of the Imagery of Evil
  • Index

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Evil is an abstract and polysemous notion, one that evokes a sense of anxiety and a series of negative associations. It personifies destruction and is the source of pain, sadness, and all forms of suffering. Multiple attempts have been made to define it more precisely by trying to understand the problem of evil, the discourse of evil, and the experience of evil. This does not, however, remove the overriding difficulty that arises, no matter what theoretical conventions are used, whereby a feeling remains that, in its destructive dynamics, evil resists and evades any ordering procedures based on principles of rationalization.

As can be seen from a wide spectrum of statements on evil, many areas of human activity attempt to come to terms with it. Literature, art, religion, theology, philosophy, as well as the everyday dimension of human life, testify to the ubiquity of humanity’s contact with evil. From the perspective of the cultural and historical criteria, evil has been conceptualized in a number of different ways that encompass specific traditions. For this reason, evil is seen as eliciting suffering, according to Buddhist thought, or as having a more personified shape, such as Iblis in the Islamic world.

In the context of Japanese culture, evil is characterized by ambivalence and a lack of distinctive forms and, thus, can be manifested in a variety of ways. One common manifestation of this form of evil could be, for example, the Japanese image of the oni [devil, demon, ghost] which can be wicked and violent as well as comic and laughable. Oni is the evil force that threatens the soul of the dying person. It can also be a curse that brings catastrophes, disasters and other misfortunes to humans. There are certain rituals observed by the Japanese in order to resist the negative power of oni, for example the annual festival of setsubun when people say ‘oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi’ [‘demons out, luck in’] to repel evil spirits. The imagery of oni, derived from folklore, is strongly connected with supernatural creatures, known in Japan as yōkai [strange apparitions]. Yōkai can take any shape – from animals to the objects of everyday life. Not only legends or folktales ← vii | viii → [densetsu and minwa] are full of images of yōkai; they are also noticeable in classical and modern Japanese literature. Numerous works of Japanese classical literature (for example Konjaku monogatari [The Tales from the Past, 1120] or even the more realistic Genji monogatari [The Tale of Genji, eleventh century]) provide a number of accounts and stories related to oni. Some of these stories were later adapted for the stage (classical Nō, kabuki as well as, by Mishima Yukio, for his modern versions of Nō dramas). In the literary and stage representations, the characters affected or possessed by oni, remain on the fringes of the worlds of both the living and the dead. Not being able to find peace, they return to the world to torment the living or they seek revenge for the suffering they have experienced (e.g. the famous Lady Rokujō from Genji monogatari whose jealousy leads her to turn into a demon and put a spell on a vulnerable character). Examples from modern literature include Yabu no naka [In a Grove, 1922] by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn, the ghost tales of Izumi Kyōka or the detective fiction of Edogawa Rampo. Yōkai also strongly influenced the development of the literary genre known as kaiki – mystery or horror fiction – that combines supernatural creatures and crime.

All these images have found their way into contemporary Japanese popular culture and are represented in a variety of media forms, for example, manga, anime, feature films, and computer games.

Moreover, depending on the socio-cultural circumstances, evil is linked to sin, guilt, natural disaster (the violence of nature), disease, death, war, suffering, and the figure of Satan, etc. In short, evil seems not to have one predominant shape that can direct our thoughts about it. There is no Ariadne’s thread to show us the way out of the labyrinth comprising the multitude of approaches to evil and the complexity of associations and feelings contained in descriptions of evil. Thus, as an initial premise, we can say that evil can be accepted as an undeniable reality of human existence that belongs to the sphere that generates a whole range of questions about its manifestation, its genesis, and how it can be overcome.

On examining the history of evil contained in the available historical texts, we see within the Biblical account a form of entanglement between physical evil (suffering) and moral evil (sin). The Biblical narrative of the ← viii | ix → First Man can be seen as the story of the birth of freedom and the beginning of questions about the nature of humanity. In a similar vein to other texts about beginnings that give accounts of catastrophe, chaos, and the working of chthonic and demonic powers, it exorcises evil or promises the possibility of overcoming it in the name of Good. Almost all aspects of life, in their own way and through the imagery that represents them, have something significant to say about the mystery of evil.

Evil in Literature

To the extent that philosophy and theology make an effort to define, explain, and comprehend evil, writers and poets undertake similar endeavours in the domain of literature. For it is literature that names evil the heart of darkness, sees evil characters created like Faust, Macbeth, Ivan Karamazov, Stavrogin or Kurtz, and contains searches for ways to convincingly depict evil by all the means available to figurative language (metaphor, allegory, symbols, myth). According to Terry Eagleton, all existing literary testimonies, which he terms ‘fictions of evil’, aim at revealing evil as ‘nothingness, pointlessness oriented towards annihilation and self-destructiveness.’1

While works of literature resist precise methodological analysis when it comes to defining evil, various ways of discussing evil have been developed in philosophy or theology. However, compared to these two areas of knowledge, literature has not developed a consistent discourse of evil. For whereas philosophy tries to pinpoint a rational cause of evil based on logical explanation, literature bases its outcomes on experience supported by the power of the human imagination.

Colin McGinn, in his study Ethics, Evil, and Fiction, points out that the significance of literature when dealing with the problem of evil lies in the fact that ‘the fictional work can make us see and feel good and evil in ← ix | x → a way that no philosophical treatise can […]. For moral experience lives by the story.’2

Though literature has not developed a precise system of speaking about evil, it provides us with a broad spectrum of images, or motifs of evil. These include, for example: evil as the result of humanity’s quest for freedom and power (Shakespeare’s tragedies, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness); evil as the mysterious sensation, the pleasure of evil or evil as the spectacle of cruelty and destruction (Les fleurs du mal by Baudelaire, the works of the Marquis de Sade); evil as the destructive force of order (the poems by William Blake, and the works of Jean Genet); evil and self-destructiveness (Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Heart of Darkness by Conrad, Mauriac’s Knot of Vipers); the personification of evil (Gogol, Dostoevsky, Hawthorne, Bernanos); evil as a system/network (Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Golding’s Lord of the Flies); evil that transforms the world into a large crematorium (as in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace).

Eagleton points out yet another aspect of evil: ‘The less sense it makes, the more evil it is. Evil has no relations to anything beyond itself […]. The evil are not really there. They have problems with being present.’3 As Eagleton reminds us, the peculiar ‘remoteness from reality’ became the axis of the reflection on evil of the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Literature is not devoid of images of evil remote from reality and this form of evil is embodied by the hero of The Devils – Stavrogin – and, as Rowan Williams observes: ‘Stavrogin […] – like other Dostoevskian vehicles of destructiveness – [is] essentially discarnate, cut off from the body and from the passage of time.’4

Twentieth-century literature responds to the problem of evil in the context of political and historical realities, namely, the two World Wars and the rise of totalitarian systems. The obviousness and tangibility of evil that was experienced by the generations of the twentieth century made it difficult to express evil through traditional interpretations that linked it ← x | xi → with notions of guilt or sin. And, probably for this reason, modern fiction transmutes questions concerning the problem of evil into questions about the human condition. Evil is perceived as annihilating the dignity and freedom of the individual, destroying their system of values, pushing them into a blind alley of solitude, anguish, and hopelessness. In this respect, some of the means used by contemporary literature to describe evil are remarkable. The surreal world of Kafka’s prose is the metaphor of the loneliness of the individual in society, their absolute alienation that leads to self-destruction. Human life, formulated by the inhuman mechanisms of bureaucracy and political systems, becomes a continuum without beginning or end. T.S. Eliot, recounting the plight of the ‘hollow men’, ‘the inhabitants of the waste land’ – as those deprived of any spiritual foundation – in a similar vein to Kafka’s characters, sees the human predicament as hanging in mid-air.

The stage of the Theatre of the Absurd is for Beckett the space serving to reveal the ‘world without God’ and man’s existential incapability, as is Camus’ homo absurdus, whose existence consists of a constant battle to govern his fate in the realm of hostile, always unintelligible circumstances. Evil, according to Eagleton, is predestined to ‘eternal repetition’. Its time is cyclical time, ‘evil is something which threatens to return for ever’; it contains ‘obscene infinity’,5 just as Camus’ germ of plague in the city of Oran never dies out, but searches for new organisms to infect.

Evil in Critical Thought

The presence of evil in critical thought can be discussed in relation to the major traditions of philosophical thinking that, by attempting to subject it to the process of rationalization, assigned to it many different statuses, depending on the premises adopted. Thus, from a historical perspective, we can trace the presence of the topic of evil in Greek philosophy (in ← xi | xii → Platonist and Neo-Platonist theory) that linked evil to matter. This was followed by the ethical vision initiated by St Augustine that situated evil within human freedom contaminated with Original Sin. This continues with Thomas Aquinas’ way of thinking, according to which evil is the lack of good. In Leibnitz’s theodicy, thinking about evil appears as a justification of the economy of evil in the totality of God’s plans. According to Leibnitz, if God permits evil to occur, it is to emanate an incomparably greater good. Therefore, the optimistic aspect of the philosopher’s theodicy ultimately leads to a demonstration of the idea that although we know about the existence of evil in this world it is still the best world possible. Kant’s thought sees evil as determined by the sphere of practical reason and by the possibility that reason constructs ‘a bad maxim’. Doing evil is a consequence of us possessing the faculty of freedom and the possibility of resisting the maxims of law and good will. Evil is also recognized as a dialectical phenomenon, termed within the framework of Hegel’s dialectic of time as the ‘slyness of reason’. It is discovered at the end of time. Therefore, for Hegel, evil that exists in the world can be understood within the framework of the whole system as the historical process where the motif of the ‘slyness of reason’, with its covert and incomprehensible logic, intertwines with human history. Ultimately, its meaning becomes revealed in what Hegel terms ‘reconciliation of the spirit with universal history and reality’. The common feature of these various approaches to evil is the fact that, although they attempted to deal with this problem, their main focus remained directed towards the concept of good as the legitimate area of reflection. The issue of evil, with its evasiveness and esotericism, was kept on the margins of thought, and ‘good’ was thrown into sharp relief. Besides these main traditions representing the currents of ethical visions of evil, there are those in the history of thought who presupposed the original substantiality of evil, that is, its equipollence with good, a stance espoused by Manichaean thought, for example. In Schelling’s view, evil is seen as an independent, prior ‘pre-cause’ that determines the reality of creation and the human propensity towards evil. Apart from such systemic approaches, there are those who break the paradigm of comprehensive thinking and see manifestations of evil in a situational, existential aspect that explores the drama of evil through the actions of a single individual. ← xii | xiii →

The problem becomes more complicated when we attempt to talk about the principles underpinning the concept of evil from the perspective of the experiences of the twentieth century, whereby the perception of this problem changed because of the overwhelming experience of evil doing and suffering. A meaningful conclusion referring to the state of deadlock in contemporary thought on this issue suggests that ‘pure reason’ has capitulated to the enigma of evil.6

Contemporary philosophy that has the courage to include the problem of evil within its reflections, finds itself in a situation that compels it to consider the personal testimony of witnesses who have come into contact with the machinery of evil created by the political and ideological systems of the twentieth century. Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, writes convincingly that something hitherto unknown appeared – radical, absolute evil, ‘hell in the most literal sense’ – and the stories that occurred in this hell are as if from ‘another planet’. She then asks how we can possibly give an account of them. In her scrutiny of the essence of evil, Arendt finds one more trait that determines the condition of contemporary times: the banality of evil.

Thus, radicalism and banality are the two dimensions of evil whose most influential power lies in the fact that they turn out to be a ‘scandal to thought’ and a ‘defeat of thinking’. Paul Ricoeur uses these figurative expressions in his texts on evil in order to formulate his priority in discussing evil, while at the same time pointing to the deficiency and incompleteness of the cognitive apparatus of critical thought. The first, fundamental question that should be asked under circumstances when the set of concepts formulated by the continuity of the tradition of thinking becomes exhausted, obsolete, and extinct is whether there is a language that can be used to convey the discourse of evil anew. It can be categorically stated that no universal language exists that would provide a series of clear concepts on evil in a systematic way. One of the contemporary ways of talking about the problem of evil is ← xiii | xiv → the language of hermeneutical aporetics adopted and refined in the thinking of Paul Ricoeur. This approach locates evil at the centre of its reflection and proposes not to reject the repository of symbolic and mythological thought that offers cognitively rich and significantly inspiring insights. Since there is no system of knowledge adequately prepared to talk about evil, the way to approach this issue should lead through what is a constantly actualized trace of effort to articulate and verbalize the experience of evil. These traces are scattered among mythical and literary contents as well as in philosophical considerations. Evil is scandal and constitutes a ‘challenge to all certitude and dogmatisms, and incites us to intertwine our feelings of helplessness’.7 However, paradoxically, evil also ‘gives rise to thought’.8

Where can the literature by contemporary Japanese writer Endō Shūsaku be situated within the above discussion? What does Endō’s line of thinking, which this monograph aims at following and recreating, reveal regarding how the writer approaches the problem of evil? To what extent can the questions on evil posed within the group of texts that constitute the object of the analysis in this study, be classified as being of a literary nature, and to what extent are they inscribed into philosophical reflection? Do such distinctions matter in the case of Endō’s writing anyway?

There may not be a better time for a reconsideration and re-evaluation of Endō’s works than with the approach of the twentieth anniversary of the writer’s death and the fiftieth of the publication of his renowned novel Silence in 2016.

Hopefully, this monograph, which is the outcome of years of research, fieldwork, archival work, translations and interviews, will join the range of existing scholarship and yet will challenge and introduce – especially to Western readers – the lesser known face of Endō Shūsaku as the author of comprehensive essays and critical works. In accordance with the tenets of the entire project – where the leading voice has been given to the author himself – let us quote the words spoken by Endō in 1987 on his journey leading towards the ‘problem of evil’, ← xiv | xv →

Reading Mauriac […] I realized that sin is the prelude for the rebirth […]. Then, I heard of Auschwitz and I felt that there is one thing in this world that has no chance to for the salvation […].

When I heard of this in my twenties, I was shocked. It made me feel that there is some dreadful instinct inside human beings, but at the same time, I started to wonder how a writer like Mauriac could deal with such topics. I found out that none of the works of Christian literature had so far undertaken this matter. I followed the patterns of Christian literature, where the main topic was ‘sin.’ However, as I got to a certain stage, I realized that I had to pay attention to the problem of ‘evil.’9 ← xv | xvi →

1 Terry Eagleton, On Evil (New York: Yale University Press, 2010).

2 Colin McGinn, Ethics, Evil, and Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 176.

3 Eagleton, 3 and 51.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
evial ricoeu maurica bernanos
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XX, 353 pp.

Biographical notes

Justyna Weronika Kasza (Author)

Justyna Weronika Kasza is a researcher in Japanese language, literature and culture. She was previously based at the University of Central Lancashire from 2011 to 2015, where she taught Japanese language and culture. She received support from the Japan Foundation Doctoral Scheme (2008–2009) at the Sophia University in Tokyo and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation Grant for Research Projects (2015). Her interests include the life and works of the contemporary Japanese writer Endō Shūsaku, Paul Ricœur’s hermeneutics in reading Japanese literature, life-writing narratives and the notion of the ‘self’ and ‘subjectivity’ in Japan, and the reception of the works of the French writer François Mauriac in Japan.


Title: Hermeneutics of Evil in the Works of Endō Shūsaku