The Sea and Poison 海と毒薬 (1958, serialized in 1957)

Endō Shūsaku – 遠藤周作

Translated by Michael Gallagher

There are two types of sins, we are often told—the sins of commission and the sins of omission. The former are the committed through immoral actions, the latter through the failure to exercise moral actions. The former is simple enough; if you murder someone you are guilty by your action. The latter is more subtle; what if you did nothing to stop the murder? Edmund Burke once said something about “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” He might have liked this book.

Endō, a rarity in Japan by virtue of being Catholic (whose baptismal name is, appropriately enough, Paul, i.e. apostle to the gentiles), explores this sort of moral predicament in The Sea and Poison. The plot develops around a university hospital in Fukuoka towards the end of WWII where, at the behest of the military, the medical staff carried out a series of vivisections on American POWs. Doctor Suguro, the protagonist (if there is one), is an intern at the time and is drawn somewhat reluctantly into the scheme.

The book is divided into three sections. The first establishes the basic elements: characters, plot, thematic, etc.  It includes a prologue, which heavy-handedly foreshadows the events to come. The foreshadowing is so forceful in fact that the book emanates an overbearing sense of inevitability, which reflects the internal disposition of many of the key players. The second section is a series of character studies, told in first person, of some of the participants in the vivisections. The first is a woman, a nurse, who is overcome with almost complete apathy after suffering a personal tragedy. The only feeling she seems capable of is hate. The other is Suguro’s fellow intern, who seemingly from birth cannot experience any real feeling, try as he may. He reveals a rather pathological portrait of himself, and then turns the judgment on the reader—aren’t you just like me in a way? But the reader is unlikely to suffer any apathy in this section; at any rate the heavy hand of the author is readily felt. Here it is, humanity, Endō seems to be saying, as we knew he would from the prologue.

This section does pose some probing questions. It hinges primarily on the old adage about character—its what you do when no one is watching. But here it is applied to morality. In the translator’s introduction Michael Gallagher lets the readers in on Endo’s ideas about Eastern and Western worldviews, although what he really means is Japanese and Christian. The line from Silence (沈黙) about Japan being like a swamp, that sucks in everything into the pantheistic pit and alters its core unrecognizably, comes to mind. Though the purported notions of concave East versus convex West are convenient, they are also preposterous. Japan holds no monopoly over situational ethics, the Nazis (familiar with the notion of the Christian God) likewise committed unbelievable atrocities. All peoples have the capacity to dehumanize and deprive others of basic human dignity. Nevertheless, it is useful to observe that, in the Christian understanding, one’s action are never not watched, even one’s thoughts and subconscious desires are unremittingly surveillanced by a Judge. This belief probably has much to do with an inclination towards a focus on interiority, the feelings, thoughts, and motivations behind one’s actions. Perhaps this tendency manifests itself in what we consider to be the modern (European) novel. And to those who sometimes find Japanese literature difficult to appreciate, perhaps that is why Endō’s works are so accessible.