When Pope Francis visits Japan this November 23-26, he will be received by a highly resilient Catholic community – one that endured centuries of violent persecution under anti-Christian leadership and, more recently, an atomic bomb drop on Nagasaki, the nation’s longtime Catholic epicenter.
But even for a community of proven endurance, complications are looming. One issue is that Japanese Catholics are such a small minority—less than half of 1 percent—that sustaining the faith throughout succeeding familial generations has been difficult, as many find themselves compelled to marry outside their religion and, as a result, have children who are less inclined to be Catholic. In fact, more than 75 percent of Japanese Catholics marry non-Catholics.
In most cases, it’s easy to name a country’s most prominent religion. However, Japan is a different place in this regard: some sources say that most Japanese follow the Shinto religion, while other sources say that most Japanese are non-religious; and there is also the factor of a longstanding Buddhist influence.
“There is an old truism in Japan that claims that Japanese are born Shinto and die Buddhist, the point being that the ancient working syncretism between Shinto and Buddhism still holds power in the consciousness of Japanese people,” says Dr. Eric Cunningham, a Professor of History at Gonzaga University and a specialist in modern Japanese intellectual history.
Cunningham, who notes that funerals in Japanese are typically Buddhist, adds how “Shinto is generally regarded as a life-affirming, naturalist kind of belief system, while Buddhism is more concerned with karma and emancipation from worldly existence.”
However, his experience of having lived in Japan for six years has led to his own truism: the “religion” of Japanese people is “being Japanese.” The Christians he met also “would regard their Japanese-ness as more practically determining than their faith.” Such is the power of ethnic identity in a land where Christians comprise just 1 percent of the total population.
Catholicism first came to Japan in 1549 with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries, most notably St. Francis Xavier. When the faith began to attract many converts, the ruling powers cracked down ferociously on its adherents, who were compelled to take their worship underground.
During this prolonged period of persecution, many martyrs were made, including the 26 Martyrs of Japan, a group of Catholics (six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits, and 17 Japanese laymen) who were executed by crucifixion in Nagasaki on Feb. 5, 1597. They were canonized by Pope Pius IX in 1862.
The ban on Christianity ended in 1871, when the ruling Meiji government established the Kyobusho, a bureau of religion and learning. Cunningham describes how, soon after this change, converting to Christianity (particularly Catholicism) began to acquire a certain vogue as a sign of modernity and cosmopolitanism. He adds that the late 1800s saw a number of famous Japanese converts, though he suspects that such conversions were often less about religious ardor and more about the rising social cache of Christianity.
Throughout the centuries, Nagasaki had retained its Catholic tradition. In fact, when the U.S. launched a nuclear attack on Aug. 9, 1945, the atomic bomb traveled fewer than 2,000 feet away from Nagasaki’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral. Though the attack occurred on a Thursday, it was noontime, and there were worshipers inside the cathedral; none survived.
Aside from the city of Nagasaki, another Japanese setting with a significant Catholic presence is the Goto Archipelago, a group of islands (part of Nagasaki Prefecture) that is among the most remote settings in the country. Persecuted Catholics fled there in bygone centuries, forming villages where everyone was Catholic. These days, about 25 percent of the archipelago’s 25,000 residents are Catholic.
The Church in Japan tends to have a comparatively larger presence at coastal locations. Cunningham says how he used to attend Mass in a suburb of Yokohama, a maritime city where “a remarkable number of old Catholic mission churches still thrive.”
Japan has three archdioceses (Nagasaki, Osaka, Tokyo) and 13 additional dioceses. In an overall population of about 125 million, there are about 500,000 native-born Catholics (and an additional 500,000 Catholic foreign workers). The country has about 850 parishes and a total of about 1,600 priests (some 500 of them diocesan priests). It appears that Japan has only two seminaries, though Cunningham relates that the nation has stellar Catholic colleges and “some really strong monastic communities.”
Priests in Japan can come from many parts of the world. Cunningham has personally met ones from Africa, Mexico, Poland, as well as Ireland and the UK.
In a mega-city such as Tokyo, one can find Masses in such foreign languages as English, Spanish, Polish, Tagalog (Philippines), and Vietnamese. However, in much of the country, finding a Mass in any language can prove a challenge.
Most Japanese Catholics attend church with at least some frequency. Cunningham points out, “Since being a Christian in Japan is such a counter-cultural position, you tend to see them taking it seriously.”
Cunningham hasn’t noticed any real tension between different faiths, but mentions that secular Japanese tend to regard any sort of proselytizing as “a little irritating.” He has never seen Japanese Catholics engaged in proselytizing, though he notes that the Mormon faith has been quite active in converting “spiritually hungry” Japanese disillusioned by their modern society’s “materialist quagmire.”
However people may feel about materialism, one issue that all of Japan now faces is a national birth rate that’s declining about as fast as anywhere in the world. In 2016, the number of babies born in Japan fell beneath one million, a first for the country since its government began keeping count in 1899 and almost three times less than its peak year of 1949.
The nation’s current fertility rate is just 1.4 children per woman (a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman is necessary in order for a population to replace itself). Over the next 100 years, Japan’s population is projected to fall from 127 million to less than half that number. An additional concern is that so much of the population will be aging without a sufficient younger demographic to provide support. Indeed, some consider this a leading national security issue, as the populace could become too elderly to protect itself.
Cunningham notes that Japanese Catholics do not seem to have larger-than-average families. Nor does he ever recall a priest or prelate addressing Japan’s birth-rate problem. Furthermore, as Japanese Catholics are such a small minority, he doesn’t believe they “really feel part of any major demographic debate.” So, amid a falling birth rate and looming population imbalance, the Church in Japan maintains a stoic equanimity. After all, it has already “beaten so many historical odds.”
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