As he sat on the bus for Unzen, he drank a bottle of milk and gazed blankly at the rain-swept sea. The frosty waves washed languidly against the shore just beneath the coastal highway.
The bus had not yet left the station. The scheduled hour of departure had long since passed, but a connecting bus from Nagasaki still had not arrived, and their driver was chatting idly with the woman conductor and displaying no inclination to switch on the engine. Even so the tolerant passengers uttered no word of complaint, but merely pressed their faces against the window glass. A group of bathers from the hot springs walked by, dressed in large, thickly-padded kimonos. They shielded themselves from the rain with umbrellas borrowed from their inn. The counters of the gift shops were lined with all sorts of decorative shells and souvenir bean-jellies from the local hot springs, but there were no customers around to buy their wares.
`This place reminds me of Atagawa in Izu,' Suguro grumbled to himself as he snapped the cardboard top back onto the milk bottle. `What a disgusting landscape.'
He had to chuckle a bit at himself for coming all the way to this humdrum spot at the western edge of Kyushu. In Tokyo he had not had the slightest notion that this village of Obama, home of many of the Christian martyrs and some of the participants in the Shimabara Rebellion, would be so commonplace a town.
From his studies of the Christian era in Japan, Suguro knew that around 1630 many of the faithful had made the climb from Obama towards Unzen, which a Jesuit of the day had called `one of the tallest mountains in Japan'. The Valley of Hell high up on Unzen was an ideal place for torturing Christians. According to the records, after 1629, when the Nagasaki Magistrate Takenaka Shigetsugu hit upon the idea of abusing the Christians in this hot spring inferno, sixty or seventy prisoners a day were roped together and herded from Obama to the top of this mountain.
Now tourists strolled the streets of the village, and popular songs blared out from loudspeakers. Nothing remained to remind one of that sanguinary history. But precisely three centuries before the present month of January, on a day of misty rain, the man whose footsteps Suguro now hoped to retrace had undoubtedly climbed up this mountain from Obama.
Finally the engine started up, and the bus made its way through the village. They passed through a district of two- and three-storey Japanese inns, where men leaned with both hands on the railings of the balconies and peered down into the bus. Even those windows which were deserted were draped with pink and white washcloths and towels. When the bus finally passed beyond the hotel district, both sides of the mountain road were lined with old stone walls and squat farmhouses with thatched roofs.
Suguro had no way of knowing whether these walls and farmhouses had existed in the Christian century. Nor could he be sure that this road was the one travelled by the Christians, the officers, and the man he was pursuing. The only certain thing was that, during their fitful stops along the path, they had looked up at this same Mount Unzen wrapped in grey mist.
He had brought a number of books with him from Tokyo, but he now regretted not including a collection of letters from Jesuits of the day who had reported on the Unzen martyrdoms to their superiors in Rome. He had thoughtlessly tossed into his bag one book that would be of no use to him on this journey Collado's Christian Confessions.
The air cooled as the bus climbed into the hills, and the passengers, peeling skins from the mikans they had bought at Obama, listened half-heartedly to the sing-song travelogue provided by the conductor.
`Please look over this way,' she said with a waxy smile. `There are two large pine trees on top of the hill we are about to circle. It's said that at about this spot, the Christians of olden days would turn around and look longingly back at the village of Obama. These trees later became known as the Looking-Back Pines.'
Collado's Christian Confessions was published in Rome in 1632, just five years before the outbreak of the Shimabara Rebellion. By that time the shogunate's persecution of the Christians had grown fierce, but a few Portuguese and Italian missionaries had still managed to steal into Japan from Macao or Manila. The Christian Confessions were printed as a practical guide to Japanese grammar for the benefit of these missionaries. But what Suguro found hard to understand was why Collado had made public the confessions of these Japanese Christians, when a Catholic priest was under no circumstances permitted to reveal the innermost secrets of the soul shared with him by members of his flock.
Yet the night he read the Confessions, Suguro felt as though a more responsive chord had been struck within him than with any other history of the Christian era he had encountered. Every study he had read was little more than a string of paeans to the noble acts of priests and martyrs and common believers inspired by faith. They were without exception chronicles of those who had sustained their beliefs and their testimonies no matter what sufferings or tortures they had to endure. And each time he read them, Suguro had to sigh, `There's no way I can emulate people like this.'
He had been baptized as a child, along with the rest of his family. Since then he had passed through many vicissitudes and somehow managed to arrive in his forties without rejecting his religion. But that was not due to firm resolve or unshakeable faith. He was more than adequately aware of his own spiritual slovenliness and pusillanimity. He was certain that an unspannable gulf separated him from the ancient martyrs of Nagasaki, Edo and Unzen who had effected glorious martyrdoms. Why had they all been so indomitable?
Suguro diligently searched the Christian histories for someone like himself. But there was no one to be found. Finally he had stumbled across the Christian Confessions one day in a second-hand bookshop, and as he flipped indifferently through the pages of the book, he had been moved by the account of a man whose name Collado had concealed. The man had the same feeble will and tattered integrity as Suguro. Gradually he had formed in his mind an image of this man genuflecting like a camel before the priest nearly three hundred years earlier, relishing the almost desperate experience of exposing his own filthiness to the eyes of another.
`I stayed for a long time with some heathens. I didn't want the innkeeper to realize I was a Christian, so I went with him often to the heathen temples and chanted along with them. Many times when they praised the gods and buddhas, I sinned greatly by nodding and agreeing with them. I don't remember how many times I did that. Maybe twenty or thirty times more than twenty, anyway.
`And when the heathens and the apostates got together to slander us Christians and blaspheme against God, I was there with them. I didn't try to stop them talking or to refute them.
`Just recently, at the Shogun's orders the Magistrate came to our fief from the capital, determined to make all the Christians here apostatize. Everyone was interrogated and pressed to reject the Christian codes, or at least to apostatize in form only. Finally, in order to save the lives of my wife and children, I told them I would abandon my beliefs.'
Suguro did not know where this man had been born, or what he had looked like. He had the impression he was a samurai, but there was no way to determine who his master might have been. The man would have had no inkling that his private confession would one day be published in a foreign land, and eventually fall into the hands of one of his own countrymen again, to be read by a person like Suguro. Though he did not have a clear picture of how the man looked, Suguro had some idea of the assortment of facial expressions he would have had to employ in order to evade detection. If he had been born in that age, Suguro would have had no qualms about going along with the Buddhist laymen to worship at their temples, if that meant he would not be exposed as a Christian. When someone mocked the Christian faith, he would have lowered his eyes and tried to look unconcerned. If so ordered, he might even have written out an oath of apostasy, if that would mean saving the lives of his family as well as his own.
A faint ray of light tentatively penetrated the clouds that had gathered over the summit of Unzen. Maybe it will clear up, he thought. In summer this paved road would no doubt be choked by a stream of cars out for a drive, but now there was only the bus struggling up the mountain with intermittent groans. Groves of withered trees shivered all around. A cluster of rain-soaked bungalows huddled silently among the trees, their doors tightly shut.
`Listen, martyrdom is no more than a matter of pride.'
He had had this conversation in the corner of a bar in Shinjuku. A pot of Akita salted-fish broth simmered in the centre of the sake-stained table. Seated around the pot, Suguro's elders in the literary establishment had been discussing the hero of a novel he had recently published. The work dealt with some Christian martyrs in the 1870s. The writers at the gathering claimed that they could not swallow the motivations behind those martyrdoms the way Suguro had.
`At the very core of this desire to be a martyr you'll find pride, pure and simple.'
`I'm sure pride plays a part in it. Along with the desire to become a hero, and even a touch of insanity, perhaps. But '
Suguro fell silent and clutched his glass. It was a simple task to pinpoint elements of heroism and pride among the motives for martyrdom. But when those elements were obliterated residual motives still remained. Those residual motives were of vital importance.
`Well, if you're going to look at it that way, you can find pride and selfishness underlying virtually every human endeavour, every single act of good faith.'
In the ten years he had been writing fiction, Suguro had grown increasingly impatient with those modern novelists who tried to single out the egotism and pride in every act of man. To Suguro's mind, such a view of humanity entailed the loss of something of consummate value, like water poured through a sieve.
The road wound its way to the summit through dead grass and barren woods. In days past, lines of human beings had struggled up this path. Both pride and madness had certainly been part of their make-up, but there must have been something more to it.
`The right wing during the war, for instance, had a certain martyr mentality. I can't help thinking there's something impure going on when people are intoxicated by something like that. But perhaps I feel that way because I experienced the war myself,' one of his elders snorted as he drank down his cup of tepid sake. Sensing an irreconcilable misunderstanding between himself and this man, Suguro could only grin acquiescently.
Before long he caught sight of a column of white smoke rising like steam from the belly of the mountain. Though the windows of the bus were closed, he smelled a faintly sulphuric odour. Milky white crags and sand came into clear focus.
`Is that the Valley of Hell?'
`No.' The conductor shook her head. `It's a little further up.'
A tiny crack in the clouds afforded a glimpse of blue sky. The bus, which up until now had panted along, grinding its gears, suddenly seemed to catch its breath and picked up speed. The road had levelled off, then begun to drop. A series of arrows tacked to the leafless trees, apparently to guide hikers, read `Valley of Hell'. Just ahead was the red roof of the rest-house.
Suguro did not know whether the man mentioned in the Confessions had come here to the Valley of Hell. But, as if before Suguro's eyes, the image of another individual had overlapped with that of the first man and now stumbled along with his head bowed. There was a little more detailed information about this second man. His name was Kichijiro, and he first appeared in the historical records on the fifth day of December, 1631, when seven priests and Christians were tortured at the Valley of Hell. Kichijiro came here to witness the fate of the fathers who had cared for him. He had apostatized much earlier, so he had been able to blend in with the crowd of spectators. Standing on tiptoe, he had witnessed the cruel punishments which the officers inflicted on his spiritual mentors.
Father Christovao Ferreira, who later broke under torture and left a filthy smudge on the pages of Japanese Christian history, sent to his homeland a letter vividly describing the events of that day. The seven Christians arrived at Obama on the evening of December the second, and were driven up the mountain all the following day. There were several look-out huts on the slope, and that evening the seven captives were forced into one of them, their feet and hands still shackled. There they awaited the coming of dawn.
`The tortures commenced on the fifth of December in the following manner. One by one each of the seven was taken to the brink of the seething pond. There they were shown the frothy spray from the boiling water, and ordered to renounce their faith. The air was chilly and the hot water of the pond churned so furiously that, had God not sustained them, a single look would have cause them to faint away. They all shouted, "Torture us! We will not recant!" At this response, the guards stripped the garments from the prisoners' bodies and bound their hands and feet. Four of them held down a single captive as a ladle holding about a quarter of a litre was filled with the boiling water. Three ladlesful were slowly poured over each body. One of the seven, a young girl called Maria, fainted from the excruciating pain and fell to the ground. In the space of thirty-three days, each of them was subjected to this torture a total of six times.'
Suguro was the last one off when the bus came to a stop. The cold, taut mountain air blew a putrid odour into his nostrils. White steam poured onto the highway from the tree-ringed valley.
`How about a photograph? Photographs, anyone?' a young man standing beside a large camera on a tripod called out to Suguro. `I'll pay the postage wherever you want to send it.'
At various spots along the road stood women proffering eggs in baskets and waving clumsily-lettered signs that read `Boiled Eggs'. They too touted loudly for business.
Weaving their way among these hawkers, Suguro and the rest of the group from the bus walked towards the valley. The earth, overgrown with shrubbery, was virtually white, almost the colour of flesh stripped clean of its layer of skin. The rotten-smelling steam gushed ceaselessly from amid the trees. The narrow path stitched its way back and forth between springs of hot, bubbling water. Some parts of the white-speckled pools lay as calm and flat as a wall of plaster; others eerily spewed up slender sprays of gurgling water. Here and there on the hillocks formed from sulphur flows, stood pine trees scorched red by the heat.
The bus passengers extracted boiled eggs from their paper sacks and stuffed them into their mouths. They moved forward like a column of ants.
`Come and look over here. There's a dead bird.'
`So there is. I suppose the gas fumes must have asphyxiated it.'
All he knew for certain was that Kichijiro had been a witness to those tortures. Why had he come? There was no way of knowing whether he had joined the crowd of Buddhist spectators in the hope of rescuing the priests and the faithful who were being tormented. The only tangible piece of information he had about Kichijiro was that he had forsworn his religion to the officers, `so that his wife and children might live'. Nevertheless, he had followed in the footsteps of those seven Christians, walking all the way from Nagasaki to Obama, then trudging to the top of the bitterly cold peak of Unzen.
Suguro could almost see the look on Kichijiro's face as he stood at the back of the crowd, furtively watching his former companions with the tremulous gaze of a dog, then lowering his eyes in humiliation. That look was very like Suguro's own. In any case, there was no way Suguro could stand in chains before these loathsomely bubbling pools and make any show of courage.
A momentary flash of white lit up the entire landscape; then a fierce eruption burst forth with the smell of noxious gas. A mother standing near the surge quickly picked up her crouching child and retreated. A placard reading `Dangerous Beyond This Point' was thrust firmly into the clay. Around it the carcasses of three dead swallows were stretched out like mummies.
This must be the spot where the Christians were tortured, he thought. Through a crack in the misty, shifting steam, Suguro saw the black outlines of a cross. Covering his nose and mouth with a handkerchief and balancing precariously near the warning sign, he peered below him. The mottled water churned and sloshed before his eyes. The Christians must have stood just where he was standing now when they were tortured. And Kichijiro would have stayed behind, standing about where the mother and her child now stood at a cautious distance, watching the spectacle with the rest of the crowd. Inwardly, did he ask them to forgive him? Had Suguro been in his shoes, he would have had no recourse but to repeat over and over again, `Forgive me! I'm not strong enough to be a martyr like you. My heart melts just to think about this dreadful torture.'
Of course, Kichijiro could justify his attitude. If he had lived in a time of religious freedom, he would never have become an apostate. He might not have qualified for sainthood, but he could have been a man who tamely maintained his faith. But to his regret, he had been born in an age of persecution, and out of fear he had tossed away his beliefs. Not everyone can become a saint or a martyr. Yet must those who do not qualify as saints be branded forever with the mark of the traitor? Perhaps he had made such a plea to the Christians who vilified him. Yet, despite the logic of his argument, he surely suffered pangs of remorse and cursed his own faint resolve.
`The apostate endures a pain none of you can comprehend.'
Over the span of three centuries this cry, like the shriek of a wounded bird, reached Suguro's ears. That single line recorded in the Christian Confessions cut at Suguro's chest like a sharp sword. Surely those were the words Kichijiro must have shouted to himself here at Unzen as he looked upon his tormented friends.
They reboarded the bus. The ride from Unzen to Shimabara took less than an hour. A fistful of blue finally appeared in the sky, but the air remained cold. The same conductor forced her usual smile and commented on the surroundings in a sing-song voice.
The seven Christians, refusing to bend to the tortures at Unzen, had been taken down the mountain to Shimabara, along the same route Suguro was now following. He could almost see them dragging their scalded legs, leaning on walking-sticks and enduring lashes from the officers.
Leaving some distance between them, Kichijiro had timorously followed behind. When the weary Christians stopped to catch their breath, Kichijiro also halted, a safe distance behind. He hurriedly crouched down like a rabbit in the overgrowth, lest the officers suspect him, and did not rise again until the group had resumed their trek. He was like a jilted woman plodding along in pursuit of her lover.
Half-way down the mountain he had a glimpse of the dark sea. Milky clouds veiled the horizon; several wan beams of sunlight filtered through the cracks. Suguro thought how blue the ocean would appear on a clear day.
`Look you can see a blur out there that looks like an island. Unfortunately, you can't see it very well today. This is Dango Island, where Amakusa Shiro, the commander of the Christian forces, planned the Shimabara Rebellion with his men.'
At this the passengers took a brief, apathetic glance towards the island. Before long the view of the distant sea was blocked by a forest of trees.
What must those seven Christians have felt as they looked at this ocean? They knew they would soon be executed at Shimabara. The corpses of martyrs were swiftly reduced to ashes and cast upon the seas. If that were not done, the remaining Christians would surreptitiously worship the clothing and even locks of hair from the martyrs as though they were holy objects. And so the seven, getting their first distant view of the ocean from this spot, must have realized that it would be their grave. Kichijiro too would have looked at the sea, but with a different kind of sorrow with the knowledge that the strong ones in the world of faith were crowned with glory, while the cowards had to carry their burdens with them throughout their lives.
When the group reached Shimabara, four of them were placed in a cell barely three feet tall and only wide enough to accommodate one tatami. The other three were jammed into another room equally cramped. As they awaited their punishment, they persistently encouraged one another and went on praying. There is no record of where Kichijiro stayed during this time.
The village of Shimabara was dark and silent. The bus came to a stop by a tiny wharf where the rickety ferry-boat to Amakusa was moored forlornly. Wood chips and flotsam bobbed on the small waves that lapped at the breakwater. Among the debris floated an object that resembled a rolled-up newspaper; it was the corpse of a cat.
The town extended in a thin band along the seafront. The fences of local factories stretched far into the distance, while the odour of chemicals wafted all the way to the highway.
Suguro set out towards the reconstructed Shimabara Castle. The only signs of life he encountered along the way were a couple of high-school girls riding bicycles.
`Where is the execution ground where the Christians were killed?' he asked them.
`I didn't know there was such a place,' said one of them, blushing. She turned to her friend. `Have you heard of anything like that? You don't know, do you?' Her friend shook her head.
He came to a neighbourhood identified as a former samurai residence. It had stood behind the castle, where several narrow paths intersected. A crumbling mud wall wound its way between the paths. The drainage ditch was as it had been in those days. Summer mikans poked their heads above the mud wall, which had already blocked out the evening sun. All the buildings were old, dark and musty. They had probably been the residence of a low-ranking samurai, built at the end of the Tokugawa period. Many Christians had been executed at the Shimabara grounds, but Suguro had not come across any historical documents identifying the location of the prison.
He retraced his steps, and after a short walk came out on a street of shops where popular songs were playing. The narrow street was packed with a variety of stores, including gift shops. The water in the drainage ditch was as limpid as water from a spring.
`The execution ground? I know where that is.' The owner of a tobacco shop directed Suguro to a pond just down the road. `If you go straight on past the pond, you'll come to a nursery school. The execution ground was just to the side of the school.'
Though they say nothing of how he was able to do it, the records indicate that Kichijiro was allowed to visit the seven prisoners on the day before their execution. Possibly he put some money into the hands of the officers.
Kichijiro offered a meagre plate of food to the prisoners, who were prostrate from their ordeal.
`Kichijiro, did you retract your oath?' one of the captives asked compassionately. He was eager to know if the apostate had finally informed the officials that he could not deny his faith. `Have you come here to see us because you have retracted?'
Kichijiro looked up at them timidly and shook his head.
`In any case, Kichijiro, we can't accept this food.'
`Why not?' The prisoners were mournfully silent for a moment. `Because we have already accepted the fact that we will die.'
Kichijiro could only lower his eyes and say nothing. He knew that he himself could never endure the sort of agony he had witnessed at the Valley of Hell on Unzen.
Through his tears he whimpered, `If I can't suffer the same pain as you, will I be unable to enter Paradise? Will God forsake someone like me?'
He walked along the street of shops as he had been instructed and came to the pond. A floodgate blocked the overflow from the pond, and the water poured underground and into the drainage ditch in the village. Suguro read a sign declaring that the purity of the water in Shimabara village was due to the presence of this pond.
He heard the sounds of children at play. Four or five young children were tossing a ball back and forth in the nursery school playground. The setting sun shone feebly on the swings and sandbox in the yard. He walked around behind a drooping hedge of rose bushes and located the remains of the execution ground, now the only barren patch within a grove of trees.
It was a deserted plot some three hundred square yards in size, grown rank with brown weeds; pines towered over a heap of refuse. Suguro had come all the way from Tokyo to have a look at this place. Or had he made the journey out of a desire to understand better Kichijiro's emotions as he stood in this spot?
The following morning the seven prisoners were hoisted onto the unsaddled horses and dragged through the streets of Shimabara to this execution ground.
One of the witnesses to the scene has recorded the events of the day: `After they were paraded about, they arrived at the execution ground, which was surrounded by a palisade. They were taken off their horses and made to stand in front of stakes set three metres apart. Firewood was already piled at the base of the stakes, and straw roofs soaked in sea water had been placed on top of them to prevent the flames from raging too quickly and allowing the martyrs to die with little agony. The ropes that bound them to the stakes were tied as loosely as possible, to permit them, up to the very moment of death, to twist their bodies and cry out that they would abandon their faith.
`When the officers began setting fire to the wood, a solitary man broke through the line of guards and dashed towards the stakes. He was shouting something, but I could not hear what he said over the roar of the fires. The fierce flames and smoke prevented the man from approaching the prisoners. The guards swiftly apprehended him and asked if he was a Christian. At that, the man froze in fear, and jabbering, "I am no Christian. I have nothing to do with these people! I just lost my head in all the excitement," he skulked away. But some in the crowd had seen him at the rear of the assemblage, his hands pressed together as he (Continues...)