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Voices from a quiet Church

Lucy Alexander - The Tablet - Sun, Dec 9th 2018

Voices from a quiet Church

Interior of St Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo

Catholicism in Japan

Japan is a country on the margins of Christianity, a nation in which the missionary flame lit by its first evangelist, St Francis Xavier, for whose faith countless thousands of martyrs were slaughtered, has since sunk to a faint flicker.

Yet 2018 has been a stellar year for Catholics in a country where, at 0.4 per cent of the population, the general experience is one of marginalisation. The announcement by Pope Francis in May that he would elevate the Archbishop of Osaka, Thomas Aquinas Manyo Maeda (inset), to cardinal, was followed by the Unesco World Heritage listing of 12 sites associated with Japan’s persecuted early Christians. In September, Francis announced his intention to visit Japan in 2019.

He will follow in the footsteps of John Paul II in 1981, the first pope to visit Japan, and his own Jesuit predecessors. Led by Xavier in 1549, Portuguese missionaries, later followed by Spanish Franciscans, were initially welcomed by Japan’s military leaders. By the 1630s, the mission claimed 300,000 converts.

However, as devotees of Silence– the 1967 novel by Shusaku Endo that was adapted as a film by Martin Scorsese in 2016 – will know, around the end of the 16th century the shoguns turned against the foreign faith, suspecting Iberian imperialism (fears stoked by English and Dutch Protestant trade rivals). Thousands of converts, including children, were crucified, beheaded, flung from cliffs, burnt at the stake with babies strapped to them, boiled alive in hot springs or hung upside down over pits of sewage, bleeding to death from cuts behind their ears. The number of martyrs is thought to have been between 4,000 and 6,000.

A further 37,000 mostly Catholic peasants were beheaded in an uprising against the shogun, Iemitsu Tokugawa, in 1638. The following year, Iemitsu sealed Japan’s borders. The seclusion policy was to last until 1853, when the United States ended it at gunpoint.

For more than 200 years, Japan’s remaining Christians hid on remote islands off the Nagasaki coast, handing down their clandestine rituals (which grew increasingly idiosyncratic) over generations. Their existence was unknown until 1865, when a group of kakure kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), revealed themselves to a French priest in Nagasaki. They turned out to be 60,000 strong, and included the family of Japan’s new cardinal.

“In my childhood I heard many stories about our ancestors, how they welcomed Christianity and suffered because of it,” he told me when we met last month at his residence in Osaka. A modest, burly man who speaks no English, 69-year-old Cardinal Maeda was taken aback by his promotion. He felt unworthy. However, the announcement that his birthplace – the Hidden Christians’ islands off Nagasaki – was to become a World Heritage site, gave him a sense of mission. “That inspired me that we in Japan have something to say to the world,” he said. For Maeda, the sufferings of his ancestors and of his mother, who survived the bomb dropped on 9 August 1945 in Nagasaki, offer a powerful argument for peace.

At his elevation ceremony in St Peter’s on 28 June, Maeda whispered in Francis’ ear. “I told the Holy Father, ‘Please come to Japan’, and he showed his willingness. I would like him to make a strong appeal regarding peace. Japan has this important role in our world.”

The papal visit, he told me, will have to work around the enthronement of Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito, on 1 May. There is also the question of a detour via North Korea, where Francis was invited in October. “I hope he goes”, said Maeda. “To bring hope to the persecuted North Korean Christians would be very meaningful. I feel that it is a call from God.”

In South Korea, nearly a third of the population is Christian, compared to less than 1 per cent of Japanese. “In Japan, Christianity was brought by foreign missionaries,” explained Maeda. “In Korea, it arrived with Koreans who went to China [in the 1700s], were baptised, and brought their own faith to their own people. That makes a difference.”

The reticent Japanese Catholics are also averse to proselytising. South Koreans, who are typically gregarious, have no such qualms. “In Japan,” admitted Maeda, “we do not have a proactive attitude.” In fact, the barriers to the spread of Christianity in Japan are legion. It does not fit with the country’s core national characteristic, which is rigid social conformity. In school, children are taught to respect authority and submit to the group. The idea of prioritising a personal relationship with a foreign God – moreover, a social outcast who was executed as a common criminal – is seen by most Japanese as arrogant and utterly bizarre. Most Japanese Christians therefore keep their religion to themselves.

“There is no public persecution against Christians,” Yuichi Tsunoda, a lecturer in theology at Sophia University in Tokyo, told me. “But we do often see anti-Christian sentiment. So Christians sometimes find it challenging to bear witness to their faith in daily life.”

“We are divided,” says Keiji Notani, a Catholic and a professor at Kobe University’s graduate school of intercultural studies, where he specialises in Christianity in English Literature. “We aspire towards Western civilisation and culture but in our hearts we want to remain traditional. You cannot go really deeply into Christianity, only superficially. So those of us with a real faith must hide it in public.”

Professor Notani says that most Japanese people, who tend to follow a syncretic blend of Shinto and Buddhism that allows for millions of deities, are uncomfortable with the idea of monotheism. They practise a form of compartmentalisation that allows often contradictory beliefs and behaviour to co-exist flexibly according to context. For most people, religious observances are merely another cog in the tightly calibrated machine that drives Japanese society, oiled by countless small social rituals. There is, he tells me, no deeper “meaning”.

“Japanese people are religious only on 15 August, when you have to go back to your home and worship your ancestors, and on New Year’s Day, when you celebrate with your family,” Notani explains. “Any other day, you are entirely free from any religious obligations. So the idea that God is present in all your actions and feelings – that is totally new to Japanese people.”

Even attending Sunday Mass is a challenge for those in full-time work or education. “It is almost impossible to attend Sunday Mass regularly as many work and school events are on Sundays,” Sr Maureen Lamarche, a French Canadian nun with the Congrégation de Notre-Dame in Fukushima, told me. So fundamental is the cultural preoccupation with group membership, and the resulting exclusion of anyone outside the group, that even Catholic parishes find it hard to embrace newcomers. “If you move to a new place, it can be hard to go to church,” says Notani, who converted to Catholicism as a student. “The parishioners seem very close – too close. It’s really difficult to get into a local community.”

After 300 years of state persecution, Christians are still considered “completely alien”, he says. “Are we marginalised? I feel pretty marginal.”

Cardinal Maeda has also spoken of his family’s experience of “continued segregation”. One side effect of Catholics’ position as an “alien” minority group is that it has given them a strong sense of identification with other disadvantaged minorities.

There is a famous Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks up must be hammered down”; the Church sees itself as the nail. It speaks out for other groups that come under the hammer, including victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, protestors against the United States military base in Okinawa, immigrants, and anti-nuclear activists.

Silence, as implied in the name of Endo’s novel, is a traditional Japanese virtue. Yet, in a country with no effective opposition to the nationalist government of prime minister Shinzo Abe (politics, like everything else in Japan, is a consensus game), the Church is not afraid to speak out. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan (CBCJ) is a surprisingly political organisation, openly criticising Mr Abe for everything from immigration policy to the use of state funds for Shinto imperial rites.

However, there are gaps in the Church’s social activism. “I wouldn’t say women Religious in Japan have an open role in decision making,” is how Sr Maureen put it to me. Cardinal Maeda admitted that “looking from the West, it seems maybe that the position of women in Japanese society is not so high as in other societies”. He added that he is working “to foster more important positions of responsibility for women”.

Women’s voices may not yet be heard, but in Japan they are not lectured at on sexual morality by bishops and priests. That, it seems, is a subject on which the Japanese Church is silent. No Japanese Catholic I spoke to recalled having heard church teachings on what Cardinal Maeda delicately refers to as “family issues”.

In a country with a precipitous demographic decline, the attention of the clergy is elsewhere. Most priests are in their seventies, and they spend their time “in the pastoral care of the elderly and sick”, according to the CBCJ. The Church is acutely aware that its clergy are dying out and its congregations are ageing, but the CBCJ admits that “generational differences make dealing with young people difficult”.

There is an obvious spiritual void here that the Church could seek to fill. Young people in Japan exist in a competitive society dominated by consumerism, and suffer disproportionately from internet addiction, alienation and suicide. However, the Church shows little urgency in addressing its lack of appeal to young people.

One area where Christians have become better integrated with the local community is through aid work in Fukushima. The key, says Sr Maureen, is quiet diligence and care without attempts at proselytising. Her community may not yet be winning converts, she says, but they “have created a space in which Christianity is well received and some of the stigma attached to it dissipates”.

This is unlikely to be enough to reverse the tide of faith’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”, to borrow Matthew Arnold’s famous metaphor. Endo frequently referred to Japan as a “mud swamp”, where Christianity cannot put down roots. Professor Notani shares that view, convinced that Japan cannot accept a faith that claims a monopoly on absolute truth. “There is no ambiguity, and ambiguity is very Japanese,” he says.

Cardinal Maeda, however, is quietly confident. He told me that Japan, like the Catholic Church, thinks in centuries. “The shoguns created a mentality that this is a strange, foreigners’ religion, and that lasted for 300 years. The law prohibiting Christianity was only repealed 150 years ago, so it’s going to take some time to change. I think that 100 or 200 years in the future people will come to appreciate what is good in our faith.”

By then, the remaining Hidden Christians, many of whom refused to join the mainstream Church in the 19th century, preferring the secret rites of their ancestors, will have died out. They chose silence. If the Church in Japan is to undergo renewal, it will need to find its voice.

Lucy Alexander is a freelance journalist and correspondent for The Times in Tokyo.

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