This was my fourth trip to Japan to conduct research on environmental and family planning issues. At the same time, as I learned more about the church’s engagement with Japanese society, I was struck more and more by the tenacity of this church, with less than 1 percent of the total population, and by its efforts to reach beyond its own members. And in the seven years since my last visit in 1998, dramatic changes have also taken place within the church itself.
Among a Japanese population of about 126 million, the membership of the Catholic Church stands at approximately 850,000, or slightly less than 0.66 percent, a slight increase over the 1990 census. Other Christian denominations bring the total Christian population in Japan to just over 1 percent. For the past 30 years, according to the national census, the number of Japanese Christians has remained the same, while the face of the hierarchy in Japan has come to reflect less and less the European imports that began with Francis Xavier’s arrival on the southern island of Kyushu in 1549. In fact, all the bishops have been native Japanese since just before World War II.
The Japanese bishops, since their pronouncement at the 1998 Assembly for Asia of the World Synod of Bishops, have argued for more inculturation of Christian beliefs, liturgy and practices in modes more sensitive to the Japanese ethos. The bishops were more interested in a living faith than in truth, which is emphasized in the Western approach to faith as belief in abstract formulations. While Jesus is truly the way, the truth and the life, the Japanese bishops wished to place emphasis on the way and the life, since emphasis on the truth can be divisive and rationalistic.
Although some 18 percent of Japanese recently reported that they are Christian in their hearts, Western formalities in liturgy and practices as well as beliefs often prevent Japanese from joining Western churches. The ritual, for example, is often difficult to understand, with too many words and not enough reflection of mystery. At the same time the Catholic Church has an impact far beyond its numbers. The church operates 28 hospitals, over 250 facilities for children, 26 homes for the disabled and 80 homes for the aged. In the field of education, the church maintains 571 kindergartens, 55 primary schools, 98 middle schools, 114 high schools, 28 junior colleges and 17 universities, which in total serve over 350,000 students of various ages.
It is especially in its work with the poor, marginal and outcast peoples that the church in Japan gains notice for its mission of care, mercy and justice. Church leaders, mostly laypeople, work systematically in organizations that fight discrimination against Koreans, who have been in Japan for generations, and against widespread negative attitudes about the disabled.
Church ministries extend to hundreds of thousands of day laborers, mostly men, whom Japan’s miracle economy of the 1990’s overlooked and who in today’s sluggish Japanese economy struggle for daily survival. When I visited a day labor center in Osaka, I saw an island of men living in shelters tightly squeezed together, standing in long lines for bread and soup, stripping bark from trees for fuel. Neglected by the government and most members of Japanese society, these men receive support from Christian, mostly Catholic, workers.
Christian churches are among the few institutions in Japan that are able to place orphaned children in a homogeneous society where direct Japanese descent is highly valued. Likewise, the Catholic Church has become one of the few groups that accept and help the burakumin, native Japanese whose ancestors worked in areas of pollution, such as tanning hides and slaughtering animals. One evening one of the priests at the Maryknoll parish house in Kyoto was called out to plead with a Japanese father whose daughter, a Catholic, had dared to pledge her love for a Catholic burakumin.
Similar efforts of the church take place in establishing alcohol and drug recovery programs and in educating the general population about the plight of foreign workers, legal and illegal, and about human rights abuses. Catholic churches in Japan operate many centers for distribution of food and clothing as well. Caritas Japan, an advocacy and relief agency of the church, is involved in programs on H.I.V./AIDS, an issue all but hidden from view until recently. All these efforts witness to the Gospel message of care and justice for the most marginal of peoples and gain the church a great deal of respect from the larger society.
All the while, however, the very body of the church in Japan is changing dramatically because of the increasing numbers of foreign workers who come for better wages, more opportunities and improved living conditions for themselves and for the families they have left behind. Very often these workers undertake the dirty, dangerous and difficult work that the Japanese themselves avoid. The basic demographics reveal just what a challenge the church in Japan faces.
According to the Bishops Conference figures as of 2005, some 449,000 of the Catholics in Japan are Japanese, while 565,712 are foreign. In some dioceses, like Tokyo and Osaka, foreigners make up almost 60 percent of the Catholic population, while in Yokohama there are almost twice as many foreign-born Catholics, and in Nagoya nearly three times as many. Only in the Archdiocese of Nagasaki, the birthplace of Christianity in Japan and home of the hidden Christians who practiced underground for some 250 years of persecution, do Japanese Catholics significantly outnumber foreign-born Catholics.
These shifts in the Catholic population present both problems and blessings. Almost half the foreign-born Catholics are Brazilians, and a quarter are Filipinos. The rest are divided among Koreans, Peruvians and other groups. This spread in its membership presents language, culture and social/political issues for the church in Japan. Priests who speak Portuguese, English, Spanish and other languages are imported for services, ministries and other aspects of church life. St. Ignatius Church in Tokyo, for example, which is attached to Sophia University and staffed by Jesuits, has Mass in English and Spanish every Sunday in addition to Japanese. At present these differing cultural groups maintain their own separate identities and present a Japanese church with complex problems in its efforts to minister to Western peoples as well as to attend to Eastern sensitivities.
On the other hand, this increasing diversity presents the church in Japan with opportunities to open up a closed, homogeneous church to a broader participation, an international church. While for many Japanese Catholics attendance at Mass often conflicts with obligations to work and family and is low on any given Sunday, foreign-born Catholics look to the church and its Sunday services as the cultural center for their communities, somewhat as immigrants coming to the United States did in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Through its many forms of outreach, from English-language teaching to A.A. meetings, the church provides a unifying element for people in a country that has yet to embrace ethnic diversity and is at times fearful of foreigners. The dilemma is well exemplified by two pastors: one told me that one-third of his Philippine choir is transient but have wonderful voices, while anotherrather than attempt to assimilate Filipinos into his Japanese populationtold them to build their own church. This mixed, diverse and dynamic church in Japan will continue to grow in its own ways, and its influence will expand as it continues its works of charity and justice.
Bold Steps by the Bishops
The Japanese bishops themselves have taken some bold steps recently, directing their voices not only to their members, both Japanese and foreign-born, but to society at large. In 2001, for the first time, the bishops directed their major statement, Reverence for Life: Message for the Twenty-First Century from the Catholic Bishops of Japan, to all of Japanese society. The long document takes up a host of difficult issues: the drastic decline in fertility rates; the increasing numbers of aging; the practice of enjo kosai, whereby teenage girls give sexual favors to older men to earn spending money; increases in child abuse and suicides, especially among pressured school children.
The bishops challenge Japan as the only developed society besides the United States to have a death penalty; they argue for increased concern and policies on H.I.V./AIDS victims. Recognizing that many foreign-born female immigrants are brought to Japan to enter the pink world of prostitution for Japanese men, the bishops criticize Japanese exploitation of poor women in Japan and in developing countries. And they take up questions of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic research and the environment. At the same time, the bishops do not speak in dogmatic, absolute tones, but recognize the many positive aspects of Japanese society and call upon that society to honor the best of its traditions. The basis for their voice here is an appeal not just to the Gospel and Christian and Catholic teachings, but also to basic questions of respect, community and the common good.
Since the publication of Reverence for Life in 2001, the bishops have issued other prophetic statements, such as their Call for a Peaceful Solution to the Problem of Iraq in February 2003.
The church in Japan has gained a new maturity, shedding much of its Western, largely European shape. Many Japanese Catholics enjoy Western church architecture, as can be seen in Western wedding chapels and in Tokyo’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, designed by the famous Japanese architect Tange (a giant, cement teepee, as one person described it). More recently, structures show more sensitivity to the Japaneselike St. Ignatius Church at Sophia University, built in 1996, with a lotus ceiling and stained glass windows with scenes from nature.
An orphan church no longer, the Catholic Church in Japan today stands on the margins along with other Christian churches in terms of numbers, but nonetheless speaks more strongly to the centers of power in Japan on behalf of the poor, oppressed and marginalized. Through its witness of caring and social ministries it provides a powerful incentive for more Japanese to find themselves Christian in heart.