Votes : 0

Mission in Secularized Japan

Shun'ichi Takayanagi, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Nov 25th 2019

1Analyzing the Japanese words used to indicate the concept of “mission” may help to better facilitate understanding of what mission should be, the perception of which has become even more acute over the last 50 years. In fact, every definition entails a model or a paradigm of how to carry out a missionary activity. Vatican Council II introduced a change in the paradigm of mission and how to carry it out. Our aim here is to offer a contribution on the topic of “mission” by presenting several innovative considerations.

A change in the paradigm, beyond terminology

Nowadays, the word “mission” is often used for any sort of pioneer project or new activity opening up a new historical era for humanity, such as sending a man to the moon, or to other destinations in the universe. In his sense, modern Japanese renders the word “mission” in katakana – the syllabic Japanese phonetic writing – as “mission,” that is, the same English word. Modern Japanese offers three possibilities for translating the word “mission” in the Christian sense: “dendo” (teaching the way), “fukyo” (spreading the truth) and “senkyo” (announcing the truth).

These three terms are used in different ways, especially in Christian Churches. “Dendo” is taken from the Buddhist vocabulary and was mainly used by Protestant missionaries. The word is not so different from the second one, but the older generation of Evangelical Christians prefers the former. At first, Catholics spoke rather of “senkyo.” This is the reason why the proclaimers of the Word, the missionaries, were called “senkyoshi” for a long time. Later on, after the Second World War, and up until the end of the twentieth century, the term “fukyo” was used more. However, since “kyo” means the doctrine and its truth, the difference between “senkyo” and “fukyo” is not as significant as it may seem at first glance. In both cases, they mean “spreading the doctrine.”

Use of the word “fukyo” became more widespread among Catholics after Vatican Council II. Probably, the “sen” in “senkyo” was linked to memories of the ancient missionary activity carried out by foreign missionaries who had arrived in the country, while the “fu” in “fukyo” is considered as more open to new forms of missionary activity. As this word is also used by other Christian churches, it helps ecumenical dialogue among the various Christian denominations and confessions.

The search for the most appropriate word also entailed choosing the title for the main missionary magazine in Japan. When the monthly magazine “The Japan Missionary Bulletin” was published in 1959, it was called “Fukyo” in Japanese, as it included articles and reviews in Japanese. This situation lasted until 1993 when the Japanese edition was published as a monthly autonomous magazine, whose title was “Fukuinsenkyo,” where “fukuin” (Gospel) and “senkyo” (proclamation), are used to translate the new concept of “evangelization.” The history of this magazine somehow reflects the search for the most appropriate expression needed to grasp the meaning of mission. One may wonder if, actually, the preference given to “senkyo” entails a step backwards. Nevertheless, the issue is to understand the concept of mission in the sense that both the clergy and the laity have to share in the missionary activity as well as in Church life.

On this last point, we need to mention two other terms that are closely connected to the development of the post–Council mission paradigm: “pre–evangelization” and “inculturation.” Use of the first term with the prefix “pre–” dates back to a sixteenth century Portuguese word, namely “pre–evangelizacin,” used by Jesuit missionaries in Japan. The General’s Visitor, Alessandro Valignano (1539–1606), had issued a directive to adapt the missionary strategy being followed to the local customs, thinking and culture, while preparing to spread Christian teaching and welcome conversions. Therefore, the first step that is required for evangelization consists in assimilating the culture into which one is assigned in order to proclaim the Gospel and to foster its deep understanding.

In this respect, it would be necessary to consider pre–evangelization, as well as evangelization, as a single dynamic process in which the Word of God is incarnated and plays an active, guiding role within a culture. “Inculturation” was enthusiastically welcomed after the last Council. However, we still have some problems concerning the translation of this concept with the Japanese word “dokuchakuka,” which stands rather for indigenization. This term may, in fact, lead to a distorted idea of mission, as if the contents of revelation were not important and our faith could be totally absorbed by an indigenous culture, so that all we are left with is an indigenous religion. We believe that one should rather speak of “junikuka” (incarnation) or “bunmyakuka” (contextualization). These would better express the need for faith to be introduced into the local context, i.e. the culture of a given country. For Origen and other Church Fathers, the created world is filled with seeds of the divine Logos. These seeds that are already present must be re–awakened to life through the proclamation of faith, so that each one of them may grow within a culture, even if it requires the attention of those looking after them for a long time to come.

Proclamation of the Word and dialogue

“Proclamation of the Word” is clearly meant to be another expression to indicate mission. It aims at highlighting the transmission of the “message.” “Proclamation” is the core of mission; however, it cannot be confined to merely the handing over of the “message”. The “Word” has to be planted and must grow, in order to become part of the life, culture and tradition of the country where it is proclaimed. We face almost insurmountable difficulties when we try to define the process and when we want to analyze the way in which the Word interacts with the spirit, culture, history and people’s concerns in the country where it is proclaimed. Hence, there is the urgent need to redefine the idea of mission and find a new way to carry it out.

A consistent mission approach must be rooted in three documents of the Second Vatican Council, which deal with this issue. Fifty years after the end of the Council, we believe that a full harmonization between the Declaration on the Church’s relationships with non–Christian religions, Nostra Aetate (October 28, 1965) and the Decree on the Church’s missionary activity Ad Gentes (December 7, 1965) has not yet been achieved. The Declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae (also published on December 7, 1965, at the end of the Council) includes religious freedom as an essential feature of human dignity. It therefore has to be protected by civil authorities both on the moral as well as juridical levels. In a way, this document represents the cornerstone of the former ones.

The first impression one gets when reading the last of these three documents is that only in the end did the Council Fathers become aware of the fact that the concept of mission required renewal. They seem then to have turned to the expression “dialogue with other religions” because mission (i.e. to attract followers and make converts for the Church) had to go on even to a greater extent.

Two great post–council pontifical documents urging missionary activity tried to nurture a new spirit. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), ten years after the Council, Paul VI strongly highlighted the importance of mission. In the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1990) – twenty–five years after the promulgation of the Decree Ad Gentes – John Paul II reaffirmed the need for mission, which apparently seemed to have vanished. He tried to include dialogue in evangelization or proclamation of the Word.

After the Council, both on the theoretical and practical levels, the key word to indicate new missionary activities was “dialogue” (not only with people of other faiths or religions, but also with those who do not belong to a specific religion). This process coincides with the post–Council creation of the “theology of religions.” Undoubtedly, in this respect, the situation has much improved, for mutual understanding and overcoming of mutual prejudices due to frequent national and regional conversations and cooperation in social programs in treatment of the sick and disabled. Recently, in this respect, the issue that has come to the fore concerns resource management and environmental protection, about which we may learn much from a number of Buddhist and Shinto colleagues.

Today, dialogue is carried out from a positive standpoint, as it helps us to consider how people live, what they think and are involved in. Dialogue prepares those who are committed to Gospel proclamation to deeply root the Word and to overcome their worries and superficial attitudes (their hidden tendency of feeling superior to the culture of the country where they operate, as well as to the people to whom they try to proclaim the Gospel).

The pre–Council method, which aimed at obtaining visible and tangible results, that is, a large number of conversions, required making use of a large number of workers. However, in Japan it did not work. This is the reason why today new attempts are being made. Nevertheless, “Proclamation of the Word” does not conclude with “dialogue” but sees it as a crucial step.

While “mission” achieved great results in Japan during the sixteenth century, it is not possible to do the same today in a period characterized by the rapid progress of materialistic culture as well as high living standards. So the old notion of mission – which derived from the Western period of colonialism in the nineteenth century and persists in the subconscious of many missionaries, both natives or from abroad – needs to be replaced with a new idea regarding the people one works with and for. The new strategy in proclaiming the Gospel has to express the need for religion amongst today’s people. Dialogue must develop our knowledge of other religions, as well as the common human need for religious values. The problem is how to go about doing so.

Secularization in Japan: anonymous Christians, baptized pagans

When dealing with the missionary approach in Japan today, we need to consider that the country is a modern secularized society. “Secularization” is a word that was originally employed to indicate the development of Western history, both overall and in general terms. Through this process, the dominion of the Christian Church over social and individual life has transformed into today’s free and individualistic society, in which everyone makes their own choices without worrying about religious rules. Nevertheless, this concept cannot be applied as such to the global situation1.

Max Weber and other sociologists used the term “secularization” in order to explain the social tendency to break free from institutional Christianity. They thought this was an irreversible trend. Recalling the distinction made by Karl Barth between faith and religion, several theologians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Gerhard Ebeling, linked secularization to the inevitable development of a Christianity that had become “adult” and that was made up of Christians who are willingly committed and represent a minority in today’s society. Toward the end of the 1960s, a “theology of secularization” was born, strongly inspired by Bonhoeffer. The debate lasted until 2007, with the work “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor.2

Theologian Harvey Cox3 and sociologist Peter Berger4  believe that Western society has lost sight of natural relationships between individuals. As occurs in supermarkets, each one of us freely chooses what we like among the items on the shelves. Later on, Cox divided Western history into the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief and the Age of the Spirit (spirituality finds a way to be connected to the former Ages). For this American theologian, modern times are not favorable to traditional religion, rather belief depends on an individual choice. In his book “Religion in the Secular City. Toward a Postmodern Theology”5 he anticipates the return to religion in postmodern times. Nevertheless, this forecast mainly concerns the future of a post–Christian civilization, which has unilateral features and is not characterized by global and culturally complex events.

When the Gospel is proclaimed to followers of other religions or to those who do not feel they need to embrace a specific religion, it is also necessary to consider the increasing number of “baptized pagans.” Some time ago, Pope Benedict XVI introduced this expression when describing the Church and Christianity in the Western world.

The number of Christians who are not practicing even though they were baptized is increasing in the traditionally Christian part of the Western world. This entails a loss of the basis upon which mission is rooted, both spiritually and practically. However, in this way, the foundation of the faith of those missionaries proclaiming the Christian message is undermined as well. There is the risk that this leads to a weak form of indifference, for which there is no solution. This is nonetheless an element needing close study when dealing with mission in Japan.

After the Second World War, Shinto sanctuaries were denationalized. Ever since, governments have considered them, as well as all the other places where religious beliefs are expressed in Japan in a neutral way. It seems that there is no other country in which freedom of conscience and expression are so highly regarded. Japanese are now free to enter any sanctuaries, temples and churches or attend any events they wish, even though in this respect the new religions with some form of cult configuration are exclusivist.

The market of religions is still open to the Japanese public. Christian foreign tourists often ask us how is it possible for a Japanese to enter a Shinto sanctuary, participate in Buddhist celebrations or even a Christian liturgy for Christmas. One needs to consider that for the Japanese it is rather odd to be obliged to follow one religious belief. Modern Japan did not witness a secularism that completely rejects religion. In a cultural setting that is not monotheist, what at first glance may appear to a foreign Christian as being a frivolous attitude, is not at all eccentric for the modern Japanese culture.

Non–Christians, who are highly considered and who do not belong to any religion, are used to this attitude. In a way, in today’s Japanese society what Cox calls the spirituality of the Western modern secular society might already be in place. In fact, no other country today enjoys such freedom as far as religion and belief are concerned. This freedom also includes living one’s daily life without any religious practice.

If we conceive mission in Japan in the old–fashioned way and hope to witness mass conversions as occurred in South Korea after the Second World War (with a total of 5,444,996 conversions in seven years, over 10 percent of the total population), there is no possibility whatsoever. Problems may arise in an attempt to increase today’s small Catholic population of 444,719 faithful, especially if we consider that we are dealing with the generation of those who were baptized when they were children, after the first generation of conversions, and who faced many difficulties in their daily life, even if we cannot speak of religious discrimination. For example, students must attend their sport events on Sundays. They may even have to attend special schools that enable them to prepare for entrance tests to the better secondary schools, and these special schools begin while they are still enrolled in primary school. Compared to the opportunities offered by various sports, leisure and fun, attending Church and taking part in Sunday Mass are certainly not so appealing to young people who were baptized when they were children. This is a Church living in a consumerist society that clashes with its values.

We would now like to quote a passage from an article by Keiichi Tadaki, former Prosecutor General: “I am an ordinary Japanese. Therefore, this year I received chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Some years ago, many middle–aged men, on Christmas Eve, put on Santa Claus’ red hood and walked in the streets after drinking their sake. Many couples chose to marry in a Christian church, yet how many of them still attend Mass on Sunday? One might claim that the Japanese are geniuses, who share the talent of converting other religious festivals into their own, while wiping out traditional features of other religious traditional celebrations.

“Our people have long been used to playing a double role: on the one hand, that of the devotee who supports the family’s Buddhist community, then on the other hand, that of the member of the city’s or village’s Shinto sanctuary family or even of the city where one originally comes from. It is almost impossible to evaluate the level of commitment that people have toward religions.

“Lately, as I am getting older, the number of my friends’ funerals is on the rise. I decide to participate not according to the way the funeral is conducted, that is a Shinto, Buddhist, Christian or non–religious ceremony. If bonzes recite their sutras or if I listen to a choir singing in a church, I recall the kind face of my friend who is looking at me from the upper world and I tell him in my heart: ‘Wait for me, I will soon join you.’ This is my concept of religion.”6

These words do not express a trivial indifference nor an anti–religious or secular feeling. At first glance, they might seem cold; however, they do not reveal a disrespect for religious values. On the contrary, they show the high consideration for religion that a very intelligent person might hold.

The risk of religious intolerance?

Because Shinto polytheism refers to spiritual values, today’s Japanese do not have any problem with religious pluralism. Nevertheless, they were shocked by some brutal events that could be connected to the world of religions. For example, on March 18, 2015, the world media broadcasted the terrible news of a terrorist attack against a group of tourists in Tunis. Immediately after, we learnt that there were three Japanese among the 21 tourists killed. News of the terrible cruelties being carried out by the so–called Islamic State, as well as the destruction of ancient monuments was coming from the Near East. We also recall the nerve gas attack perpetrated in the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo sect on March 20, 1995, killing 13 people and injuring 6,300, most of whom still suffer painful consequences today.

Religion may certainly foster human growth and development. But in extreme cases, belonging to a given religion may also distort human nature. Is Christianity able to prevent extremism and this form of distortion? For us, this is a pressing matter that we need to reflect on while carrying out our missionary activity. Christianity’s history in this respect is certainly not irreproachable. John Paul II had asked the International Theological Commission to study this issue: the result was the document “Memory and Reconciliation. The Church and the Faults of the Past” (2000).

In particular, although in a vague and unconscious way, while gathering inspiration from polytheistic Japanese culture, several Japanese intellectuals have started to ask if monotheistic religions, under a thorough examination, can truly prove to be tolerant toward the members of other religions. Early evidence of this intellectual effort can already be seen in two books: “Monotheism vs Polytheism” (Tokyo, 2002) by Shu Kishida and Masaki Miura, and “Polytheism and Monotheism” (Tokyo, 2005) by Ryoji Motomura. These intellectuals think that the cultural polytheistic background of Japanese Shinto may ensure an irenic approach toward other religions.

Half a century ago, Islam was almost unknown in Japan. However, today there are 110,000 Muslims and 80 mosques in urban areas. It is bound to become a force that will have to be taken into consideration. We Christians need to open up our religious perspective in order to foster peace among religions – in so far it is an essential component of evangelization – thus strengthening dialogue while we proclaim the Word, because the Word became flesh and came into this world in order to commit to a dialogue with all humanity.

1. Today, some regions of the world are experiencing a post–colonial age whose main feature is often a militant return of local religions, such as Islam in the Near East and Hinduism in India.

2. Cf. Ch. Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007.

3. Cf. H. Cox, The Secular City, New York, Macmillan, 1965.

4. Cf. P. Berger – B. Berger – H. Kellner, The Homeless Mind. Modernization and Consciousness, New York, Vintage Book, 1974.

5. Cf. H. Cox, Religion in the Secular City. Toward a Postmodern Theology, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1985.

6. K. Tadaki, “Friends in the World Beyond” in Nihon Keizai Shimbun, February 24, 2015.

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.