Twenty years with Catholics in Japan: Reflections on the Development of the Catholic Church in the Land of the Rising Sun

Speech delivered at the Belgian Embassy to the Holy See, on the occasion of the visit of Pope Francis to Japan, 8 November, 2019. 

The Catholic Church in Japan has about half a million believers, 0.4 percent of the population. There are 16 Dioceses, including three Archdioceses, with 1,329 priests and 777 parishes. It is small compared to the great religious Traditions of Shintoism and Buddhism. Whereas in the West we are used to the Catholic Church being present on all levels of society, the Church in Japan is used to being a minority. However, it does have an influence on society as we will see while describing the basic developments we perceived while living and working as a missionary in Japan between 1990 and 2010.

  1. Internationality

When my confreres went to Japan after World War II, there wished for more older people in the Church. Now, those Japanese Catholics are aging, as is Japanese society as a whole. When we look at the statistics concerning the Catholics, we notice a growing number of foreigners, among them the so-called “Nikkeijin” from Brasil (300.000), descendants of Japanese emigrants. The Filipinos and Vietnamese will play an important role in the future of the Church in Japan. Whereas previously the Church was oriented to helping and welcoming foreigners; now the foreigners are taking more and more care of the Church in Japan. As a CICM I may say we take great care of foreigners to help them integrate into the Church and society. Besides saying mass in their own language, we encourage them to also attend masses in Japanese. Japanese are not gifted at languages, and so the missionaries are those who can bridge the language and cultural gap.

The CICM also took great care of the Vietnamese ‘boatpeople’ who arrived around 1975, but were not directly welcomed by the Japanese Government. We did that work illegally until the Government started to recognize this work, gave subsidies, and eventually took over the “Himeji Resettlement Promotion Center”, that was set up in our compound in Nibbuno, in 1979. It was closed in 1996. The Christian Vietnamese now form a stronghold of Christianity in that area of Japan, between Osaka and Hiroshima. The Dutch confrere who took care of them from the beginning, Fr. Harrie Quaadvliet, CICM, passed away only recently.

It is now very different from Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Visit, 38 years ago. Thus, Pope Francis will encounter an international Church. Indeed, the future of the Japanese Church lies with the foreigners. The Vatican seems to have acknowledged this development by appointing a missionary Archbishop for Tokyo Diocese, Kikuchi Tarcisio Isao, SVD, and a Spanish Auxiliary, Bishop Josep Maria Abella for Osaka Diocese. Some years ago, the American Father Wayne Berndt, OFM Cap, became Bishop of Okinawa. He was the first non-Japanese bishop since World War II.

  1. Introduction to Vatican II

There is a great difference between West Japan and East Japan what concerns how Christianity is lived. West Japan was been the cradle of Catholicism in Japan. It underwent 200 years of persecution and it colors their way of living the faith.

One cannot understand the Japanese Christians without knowledge of this specific past. At the beginning I went around to see these places of tortures and the places of “hidden Christians”, who are called “Kakurekirishitan”. They were able to survive 200 years without no priest among them. They are therefore much more traditional in the East of Japan. This is evident in the way liturgy is celebrated, but also in the prayers. In West Japan, the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima pray fast as if to fulfill their duty as Christians. In East Japan, on the contrary, the people of Tokyo pray calmly and with great intensity.

But overall, the Japanese Church is still a bit pre-Vatican II. The Teaching of Vatican II was introduced to the people only 25 years ago! They call it “Shinsei” (New Life). The idea of Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation as a pastoral endeavor is still new to them. Bishop Matsuura Goro of Nagoya Diocese, with whom I spent a year in Osaka, works a lot for the poor, the downtrodden, the foreigners. However, not all parishioners appreciate this. Social engagement is not yet normal for them. When I was studying Japanese in Osaka, I stayed in the Seminar where Bishop Matsuura was responsible and I went with him in the streets at night to give food and blankets to the homeless. Women too, who were obliged to work as prostitutes, found shelter in the Seminary before they were able to return to their country. When he was still young, one of our confreres, Fr. François Mouchet, a great animator of the Young Christian Workers movement, lived with his family while working in a garage for one year.

At the Church we gave Griffin courses to help people to talk about their problems, aspirations, future, and to become more active in society as Christians. The Griffin course teaches one to measure up to one’s own vocation as an individual, but these days I think we should teach them the value of working in a group, as individualism is becoming a problem in Japan too.

  1. Discrimination

Japanese society, as in every society, is not without discrimination. Discrimination towards their own people, the Burakumin, has a historical background. This is because the area where they come from was in olden times the area of the poor. The CICM explicitly build a church in such a Burakumin area to help to build bridges. Discrimination towards Koreans has improved a lot since a Korean student tried to save a drunk Japanese at the cost of his own life in the underground in Tokyo in 2001, and the joined World Cup 2002. Some of our Christians are now studying Korean and are enjoying the food. The Japanese do not really feel they are part of Asia. Our Indonesian and Filipino confreres experience that the most, and only when they wear their Roman collar as a priest do they feel they are respected. On the other hand, a form of positive discrimination and a minority complex exists towards White people, because they won the war. The same forms of discriminations can be seen at work within the Catholic Church in Japan, even when the religious leaders try to avoid it, but it is getting less now.

  1. Catholic education is weakening

The Catholic Church contributes a lot to Japanese society through education. There are many Catholic schools and universities in the country, most of them were started by missionaries, and they offer a very good education: e.g. Sofia University (SJ) and Nanzan University (SVD). It has a great influence on the whole society through this. But now the missionaries going home, and with less educated clergy, it is not possible to maintain the same level. Also less children in the country forced for instance Eichi University of Osaka Diocese to close in 2014.

The CICM has a boys High School (with junior and senior sections) in Himeji, Junshingakuin. Every year five or six students graduate and enroll at the best university in Japan, Tokyo University. The present Empress graduated from a Catholic school and she has called her child “Aiko”, which means literally “child of love”. The character for love, “ai” was however never used before, because in the Buddhist sphere it has a negative connotation, an impure love (katsu-ai). In my opinion, this shows her love for Christian teaching. Many kindergartens are also conducted by priests and sisters.

  1. Christian weddings go on but…

If I can believe my confreres, it was they who started blessing young non-Christian couples. Now 60 to 70 per cent of the young couples choose a Christian wedding (blessing). It became a big business outside the Church too and hotels are specializing in Christian weddings with lay “white” foreigners acting as ministers.

  1. Church becomes more outspoken

The Japanese church has become more aware and more outspoken in its specific context. For instance, Archbishop Ikenaga Jun spoke at the Synod for Asia in 1998 about the female aspect of God. In the Document that the Japanese Church presented to the Synod of the Family in 2014 it said that “the Church is too western oriented” and “not realistic enough”. The Church keeps opposing an amendment to Article 9 of the Constitutions that states that Japan may not have its own army.

  1. Dialogue with other religions

Many Churches have a yearly encounter with nearby Protestants or an interreligious Prayer for Peace. In the Tokyo area of Shinjiku it was our Oriens Institute of Religious Research that took the initiative a long time ago. This peaceful coexistence is thanks to the Confucian concept of general respect for tradition, as I explained at the Meeting of Asian Ambassadors to the Holy See in June this year at the Pontifical Urban University, in Rome. In Japan it was Kobo Daishi, back in the 9th century, who started the idea of “shinbutsu-shugo”, “intermingling of gods and buddhas”. Of course, believers always tend to exclude, but thanks to this Teaching there is an attitude of openness. I might not have been able to have studied for the Buddhist priesthood had I been here in Rome. In Japan, the effort to understand the other is appreciated, not so much by the Church as by the believers themselves. Sometimes, they live two or three faiths at once. When the father of a Japanese friend of mine died, there was a problem because although he had converted to Protestantism, he had never informed his original temple. So after his death, the family and the Buddhist priest wanted a Buddhist funeral, whereas the Protestant parish wanted a Christian funeral. In the end, on the first day they held a Buddhist funeral for the family and the next day a Christian funeral for the parishioners. However, in the very traditional east of the country you can find Buddhist graves with a cross placed on top of it, or on the home altar, the Butsudan, with a cross or a statue of Mary beside the Buddhist statue. Believers will not show or tell about it to the Catholic priest as missionaries always taught that when you become a Christian you have to throw away all the “pagan” objects. Even some of the older confreres did that. We just had a similar example here in Rome during the Synod on the Amazon when people threw the religious objects from the Amazon into the River Tiber.

  1. Dialogue with Shingon Esoteric Buddhism

I was graced to come to know the Shingon Esoteric Buddhist Tradition of Koyasan, a mountain near Nara in Japan, very early in my missionary life in Japan, in fact exactly two months after arrival. I went to study a few years later at the Buddhist Koyasan University there, and those were the most beautiful years of my missionary life so far. Being the only Catholic and foreigner among Japanese Buddhists was a nice experience. Koyasan is a “bessekai”, meaning “other-world”, because it is so different from the big towns. There are more than 120 Buddhist temples on a small plateau in the mountains, only open to men up to one hundred years ago. Now, it has been designated as a World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. The rituals that are performed in the temples have not changed since the start, over a thousand years ago. Every morning I went to the Buddhist temple Muryokoin to take part in the morning ritual. The priest there has been in touch with the Catholic Church for many years, and had met Pope John Paul II as many as 12 or 13 times. For almost 30 years he came to the Rimini Meeting to give a talk. He had a good contact with Don Guissani of the Comunione e Liberazione Movement. He learned the value of dialogue, and teaches it to his students and priests as he is responsible for more than 100 temples in the country. The Risshokoseikai, a Buddhist lay Movement of Japan, has been helping the Church greatly in the dialogue too. Many of the new religious movements in Japan have interreligious dialogue as one of their pillars.

In Japan, one can find Christians, priests, and religious who are from a Buddhist or Shinto background, who do not feel they have left that religion in becoming Christian. Here, the problem of “double-belonging” arises. When I said to my confrere, late Jan Swyngedouw, specialized in Shintoism, that he had also become a bit of a Shinto believer, he did not negate it. Carmelite philosopher and mystic Fr. Okumura Ichiro, from a Buddhist house, became Christian while studying at a Buddhist university. He wanted to show that Christianity was not a true religion, and he ended up becoming a Christian. I asked him short shortly before his death the same question, and he too admitted it silently. In the same way, some Buddhist priests are very Catholic. There is a temple in Sakai, near Osaka, that is called Amen-temple. There is a cross there above the Buddhist statue, and it is said that a statue of Maria was placed under the place where the priest knelt in prayer. Shodo Habukawa, a Shingon priest, has seen Pope John-Paul II more than 13 times, and Shodo Harada, a Zen priest, always talks lovingly about his visit to Trappist monasteries in Belgium, and the beer he enjoyed there.

Through taking part in Buddhist rituals I came to understand better the importance of rituals for our religious life. By repeating the same actions, words, and thoughts over and over again, one enters more easily into a meditative mood. Maybe this is why the Japanese Christians are keen on the ritual aspect of the liturgy: silence, correctness, order, and so on. In fact, in the whole of Eastern religions, ritual is more important than knowledge. A Zen monk for instance has first to practice meditation for more than ten years before he is encouraged to study the sutras.

To conclude:

The Catholic Church is a minority in Japan. However, it works like the Kingdom of God given by Jesus, as a mustard seed or as yeast. For instance, the CICM asked the Brothers of Charity from Ghent to go out to Japan to start to work for the handicapped people in the Tottori area. They were often hidden at the back of the house. Now, the institute is supported by the Japanese Government and Japanese society is taking more and more care of their weaker brothers and sisters. We can say therefore that the Japanese people has not become Christian, but that Japanese society as such did.

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