Kiku’s Prayer is set at the moment Japan was reaching out to modernity, in a period of immense fracture, when the nations own view of itself was becoming more divided as it faced a major internal change and also had to confront how it was perceived by the western world. It is at this point that Endo has chosen to set his tale of love and sacrifice, this is a tale of Kiku, a confident brash young woman who falls head over heels in love with Seikichi, an abhorred Kirishitan, a practising Catholic in a land where Christianity is illegal. At the start of this book the Japanese Christians are pretty much ignored, as long as they keep a low profile there seems to be a tacit agreement to let things be. This comes to an abrupt halt after a French priest, sets out on a mission to locate any native Christian followers left from the last purges*. After much searching & upsetting the local authorities during the searching, he finally locates a village of believers. The believers want the priest to say mass & to perform more of the rituals of their catholic faith, this leads to a confrontation with the authorities. The Government respond by having the Christians rounded up & given the option of renouncing their belief or being punished, this ends up with them being exiled from their village and after continued pressure and refusal to renounce, torture.
Whilst this is happening Kiku, who is passionately in love with Seikichi, although she doesn’t understand his faith, is desperate to find him, this leads to her meeting a minor and corrupt official who, after forcing her to have sex with him, makes her give him money which he says he will give to Seikichi to make life easier for him. Kiku willing to do anything to help Seikichi has to sell her body to raise the necessary funds which the corrupt official pockets for himself.
Although there is hope in this book, the Christians due to pressure from the outside world do get released and sort of get their lives back, but Kiku never fulfils her dreams of a life with Seikichi, as what she goes through to help him eventually kills her. This is a really powerful book that questions not only ones faith, but what would you do for the love of someone, although I suppose at the end of the day it’s the same question, it’s just a matter of where your love is directed, for Seikichi this was God, although mainly in the form of Santa Maria. Only towards the end of his exile did he realise a love for Kiku, at this point to late - Kiku whose love was only for Seikichi was dead and to her, whilst she was alive, Santa Maria appeared as the rival, the point at which his love was fixed. It was only towards the end that she shared an understanding with this saint, as women who had both lost people they loved and through this awareness reached some kind of redemption.
*This book is based on a real event the “Fourth Persecution of Urakami” which happened around the start of the Meiji period, and came about when the villagers who had secretly been practising their faith for around 250 years met the missionary priests and no longer wanted to remain silent about their faith, this led them to a direct confrontation with the government through their local representatives. In 1867, 68 villagers were imprisoned marking the beginning of the “Fourth Persecution”. During the following year another 114 were exiled. Whilst this was happening Japan itself was going through major change as the old feudal system was overthrown & with it the warrior class. This didn’t do anything to help the Christians as the new Meiji government kept the prohibition of the Christian faith, with around 3400 being exiled. After five years of exile and pressure from nations like England, the USA, France etc., 1,930 were returned home. Of the original number arrested 662 died through disease & maltreatment (torture, starvation etc) and another 808 never returned or were accounted for, just missing.