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The Church in Japan prepares to welcome Pope Francis

Father William Grimm - UCAN - Tue, Oct 1st 2019

The country's Catholics are shaped by persecution, war and reverence for nature.The Church in Japan prepares to welcome Pope Francis
Pope Francis waves at pilgrims on his arrival for his weekly general audience at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican on Sept. 11. The pope will be visiting Japan from Nov. 23-26. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
Pope Francis will be in Japan from Nov. 23-26 for the second-ever visit by a pontiff to the country. The first was that of John Paul II in 1981.

The theme of the pope’s visit, Protect All Life, is quoted from a phase in “A Christian prayer in union with creation” at the end of his 2015 encyclical Laudato Sí.

Francis will go to Nagasaki on Nov. 24 to visit the shrine of the Japanese martyrs and the atomic Peace Park before celebrating a Mass.

Then he will go to Hiroshima and onto Tokyo, where he will celebrate Mass on Nov. 25 in the Tokyo Dome stadium that seats 42,000. He will also meet atomic bombing victims, survivors of the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear power plant disaster in northern Japan, young people and students as well as Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before returning to Rome.

The logo (see below) that expresses the theme of the pope’s visit captures the influences on the Church in Japan.

United with the red flame representing martyrs as the foundation of the Church in Japan and the light blue flame representing the Blessed Mother embracing all humanity as her children, the green flame in the likeness of Japan abundant with nature expresses the mission to proclaim the Gospel of hope. The red circle as the image of the sun symbolizes the love that embraces all life equally.

There is speculation and some evidence that Nestorian Christians were in Japan more than 1,500 years ago, even before the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century, but the history of Catholicism in the country began on Aug. 15, 1549, when the Jesuit St. Francis Xavier landed in Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu.

St. Xavier only spent a little over two years in Japan, leaving on Nov. 15, 1551. However, in that short time he planted seeds that were nurtured by his companions and successors.

The Jesuit mission’s activities focused on setting up lay organizations that would be responsible for such activities as catechesis, prayer gatherings and care of the poor and sick. Later, when all the Jesuits and other priests had been exiled or killed, those “confraternities” handed on the faith (sometimes in a gradually warping form) for generations until the tacit end of persecution in 1873.

In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, de facto ruler of Japan, issued an edict forbidding Christianity in the country. He was motivated in part by the close connections between missionaries and European colonizers in Latin America and elsewhere. By 1639, Japan had closed itself off from the rest of the world.

In 1597, the edict outlawing Christianity was strengthened by the start of outright persecution with the crucifixion in Nagasaki of 26 Christians on Feb. 5. By that time, there may have been as many as 300,000 Japanese Catholics, slightly fewer than today, but a much higher percentage of the population.

In this photo taken on Nov. 21, 2016, Father Renzo de Luca, director of Nagasaki's 26 Martyrs Museum, poses in front of a memorial at the museum commemorating Japanese Christians executed in the late 1500s. (Photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP)

Torture and execution

To root out Christians, various forms of torture and execution were used. Starting in 1629, people were forced to periodically step on bronze plaques, fumi-e, depicting Christ or Mary. Those who hesitated were executed. Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence and Martin Scorsese’s film of the same book portray the persecution and the use of the fumi-e.

Many Christians fled to outlying islands. Others remained in villages on the main islands of the country, practicing their faith in secret, and stepping on the fumi-e as a regrettable necessity.

After Western powers forced the opening of Japan to commerce and relations in 1853 and after, Christian clergy were allowed into Japan as chaplains to the foreign community. However, Christianity remained forbidden to Japanese.

On March 17, 1865, rumors that there were hidden Christians in Japan were proved true when a group of Japanese from the village of Urakami outside of Nagasaki approached Paris Foreign Missions Society priest Bernard Petitjean in his church at Oura in Nagasaki.

The people asked if he was married, if he was loyal to the pope in Rome and if he had a statue of Mary. When he gave his answers, the Japanese told him they had the same heart as he. It was the first confirmation that Japanese Christians had been faithful through nearly 250 years of persecution.

However, persecution was still in effect, and when officials learned of the Urakami Christians’ existence, the village suffered the last major outbreak of persecution. Between 1867 and 1870 more than 3,000 people were exiled to other parts of the country, and more than 300 were executed.

The Western powers eventually forced the government to end the persecution and allow the exiles to return to Urakami in 1873. When the exiles returned home, however, they left behind nascent Christian communities in the places to which they had been exiled and where they taught the faith to people there.

Eventually, the Catholics of Urakami, which by then had been incorporated into the growing city of Nagasaki, built the largest church in Asia on the plot of land on which they and their ancestors had been forced to step on the fumi-e.

Catholics pray for atomic bomb victims during a Mass on Aug. 9 to mark the 74th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II. (Photo by Jiji Press/AFP)

Atomic bomb

That church later became the place where World War II ended. The atomic bomb that forced Japan’s surrender in that war exploded over Urakami in Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, destroying the church and killing more than half the Catholics of the area.

Takashi Nagai, a Catholic survivor of the attack who found his wife’s remains in the ashes of their home, wrote of the bombing of Urakami as a sin offering like that of Jesus on the cross.

“The human family has inherited … the sin of Cain who killed his younger brother; we have forgotten that we are children of God; we have believed in idols; we have disobeyed the law of love. Joyfully we have hated one another; joyfully we have killed one another. And now at last we have brought this great and evil war to an end …. Our church of Nagasaki kept the faith during 400 years of persecution when religion was proscribed and the blood of martyrs flowed freely. During the war this same church never ceased to pray day and night for a lasting peace. Was it not, then, the one unblemished lamb that had to be offered on the altar of God? Thanks to the sacrifice of this lamb many millions who would have otherwise fallen victim to the ravages of war have been saved.”

Since then, the Catholic Church of Japan has made peace a major focus. Each year from Aug. 6 (the date of the Hiroshima bombing) to Aug. 15 (the date of Japan’s surrender), the Church marks “10 Days of Prayer for Peace,” a period of prayer, workshops and other activities directed toward peace.

Catholics are active in opposition to moves to weaken Article Nine of the Constitution of Japan that outlaws war and the maintenance of military potential, a law that is, in fact, largely ignored in practice.

Of course, the Japanese were not solely victims of the war. They were the perpetrators of it in China and the Pacific. In 1989, the Japanese bishops admitted and regretted the responsibility of the Catholic Church in Japan for supporting the war effort.

One result of reflection on the war and Japan’s actions in other countries is a highly developed internationalism on the part of the Catholics of Japan. Because of its small size and the high costs in Japan, the Church there is, in fact, poor. Yet through Caritas Japan and other activities Catholics support relief programs throughout the world.

After the war, the Catholic Church of Germany contributed to the rebuilding of Japanese churches destroyed by bombing during the war in which the two countries were allies. The Tokyo Archdiocese has initiated an annual collection to “repay” the Germans by imitating their generosity. The collection goes to support the local Church in Myanmar.

The grave of a Japanese 'hidden Christian' at Karematsu forest, where Catholics used to hold religious ceremonies in the town of Sotome in Nagasaki prefecture. (Photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP)

Sensitivity to nature

Japan is a place of great natural beauty. Even its great metropolises (Tokyo is the world’s largest) are never far from mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and the sea. But nature in Japan can also be unexpectedly dangerous, with volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons floods and landslides. The 2011 tsunami that struck Japan caused a nuclear power plant explosion. All this gives Japanese a sensitivity to nature that is captured in its art and literature.

That sensitivity comes together with the post-war nuclear “allergy” and internationalism to produce a commitment to environmental issues.

The Japanese bishops chose as the theme of Pope Francis’ visit to Japan Protect All Life, a phrase from “A Christian prayer in union with creation” that closes his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.

Pope Francis is expected to affirm the concerns of the Church in Japan regarding peace, an end to nuclear power plants, care for the marginalized of society, the problems of immigrants in Japan and protection of the environment.

Father William Grimm is a New York-born priest active in Tokyo. He has also served in Cambodia and Hong Kong and is the publisher of The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of

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