Catholicism in the Land of the Rising Sun (and declining population)

Japanese Catholics are such a small minority—less than half of 1 percent—that sustaining the faith throughout succeeding familial generations has been difficult.

A young Japanese girl attends Pope Francis' general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 11, 2017. Pope Francis will be visiting Thailand and Japan from November 21-26. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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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About Ray Cavanaugh 19 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.


  1. Holy Father well aware of the World War 111 that we are in the midst of ..the words from Fatima , prior to WW 11 , as to how sins of the flesh lead many to hell and Japan , no exception to such sins either .

    His devotion to Our Lady , Undoer of Knots and to St.Joseph , to aid in the war that is against family and marriages , as intended by the enemy , raging world over .
    Being of the family of Jesuits , his own heart might also be aching in reparation , over the past when incursions into these lands , to bring the Good News had not met with enough success , the crew and such of the ships that came , possibly having added to the very area of debt of sins in the very same area , undermining the power of holiness and deliverance needed . That would have served to undo the lies and powers set against the truth of the dignity of men AND woman , of marriage and chastity to help open hearts and lives to the Father’s love and richness in relationships , to help bring the joy of seeing themselves too as part of the family of humanity , free of all ethnical false pride .
    May the visit help to also aid the many departed generations in these lands , whose distant relatives here as Native Americans , with the blessed connections to The Woman clothed with the sun, Our Lady of Guadalupe are the real heritage that these people too should not be deprived off .

    St.Albert and all the Carmelites too would come to aid , undoing the evil connections of the past , to be on the side of the King of Kings , a side that all of us too could join rejoicing .

  2. It’s misleading to insist that a population stabilizing itself is “depleting” or “declining.” It only matters for ponzi-scheme capitalism, which needs an infinitely/exponentially growing consumer base to buy more stuff. Ridiculous lines about “too old to defend the country” are more hysteria when you have drones doing the majority of fighting in modern conflicts. The real aim is always to increase the number of consumers -that’s always the undertow of the “birthrate” proponents, even if they themselves don’t know it. But anyway, on to the more important topic:

    On whether the faith is declining in Japan, this article doesn’t say much, other than it is hard to grow such a small population that marries outside of the faith. Missionary zeal is needed, especially in wealthy materialist nations. It’s unsurprising, yet nonetheless disconcerting, that groups like the Mormons or evangelicals find a receptive audience. Despite their numerous problems, they recognize an opening. Churches that are so focused on survival often find it difficult to evangelize. I notice this in my own diocese, where so many parishes are concerned with maintaining themselves that they wall themselves off from the wider world. This is understandable, but a mistake! Talking about your faith with others is key, and how it’s an important part of your life. The personal invitation is key, as is having the church visible in the public.

    To respond to SOL, this is one thing that Francis has been good at advocating for in line with his predecessors: the going-out aspect of the faith (the “margins” if you will), versus the coming-in.

    • Negative population growth is not “stabilization.” Even more ridiculous is the characterization of economic freedom as a “ponzi-scheme.” Economic freedom has no dependence at all on economic growth but economic growth and prosperity is an inevitable benefit of economic freedom.

  3. Less than half of 127 million is not the whole story. The 60 million left will be overwhelmingly beyond their reproductive ability, and the number of girls between 14 and 44 will likely have shrunk to an almost inconsequential element of the population, as in many other countries. Japan is not alone. The scope and implications of the drop in world population over the next 80 years is difficult to contemplate.

    • Difficult to contemplate, perhaps, but in the large picture, the global “baby boom” coming to an end is ultimately a good thing for the planet. To jump from 1 billion to 9 billion in a hundred years is in many areas beyond the ability to sustain or manage.

      What makes it ‘difficult’ are economic systems that wrongly link birth rate to productivity and capital – in an age where many basic needs can be met more efficiently and with less cost, unsustainably exponential birth rates only benefit large businesses that need ever-expanding pools of cheap labor and consumers to satisfy their true golden calf, the shareholder.

      “Inconsequential” amount of women? You have been spooked by propagandists. They are the same people who spread scare stories about the coming ‘brown hoard’ of immigrants outbreeding the ‘declining’ whites (despite the fact that those populations thought in ‘decline’ are in fact increasing as well, just not exponentially). The same tricks used over the years towards the same ends: maintaining power and status quo.

      • Declining population in the first world only. This so Millenials in prosperous nations including the Japanese can take advantage of the “Good Life” without the financial burden and existential resposibility of raising children. It’s sickening: hedonism and egoism of self over the joy of parenthood. A vicious cycle in which, because they think religion is an anachonism they cannot and never will learn what it means to be morally mature adults with the capacity to love another as much as oneself if not more so. As our local Priest would say, in a state of perpetual spiritual adolescents.

        • Gosh, first the boomers tell kids to have sex less, now they tell them to have sex more! Old people can never make up their mind about sex. No wonder the kids tune them out, especially when the crones start yammering about “hedonism and egoism” among those couples without 9 kids. I don’t know your priest but hopefully he is better at connecting with young people that your arguments are!

          Hint: the population isn’t ‘declining,’ the rate of growth is declining. There is a difference.

  4. I go often to Japan, as my daughter-in-law is Japanese. I completely agree with Mr. Cavanaugh that the “religion” of Japan is Being Japanese. When my grandson was young, they lived with us in the USA. We used to tell him Bible stories, and when his mother heard the stories, her response would always be some version of, “Yes, but in Japan we think of it this way…” And she would give a rebuttal.

    I have not had trouble finding a Catholic mass to attend in Japan, but I have not found the faithful to be very ardent in their participation. My Japanese is not good enough for me to understand most of the homilies, but in general the priests don’t seem very ardent either.
    The one exception I found was when we went to Akita, to the convent where Our Lady appeared from about 1973 to 1981. The place was infused with prayer; the sisters seemed to be fully immersed in their faith, and mass there was wonderful. The priest was an American Franciscan, apparently living in Japan; mass was entirely in Japanese. He also heard confessions, in Japanese or English.

    I pray for the Catholic Church in Japan daily, and I would encourage others to pray with me. The Church in Japan can only grow and become vital through the grace of God, and we have to pray for that.

    • Victoria
      I am a pastor from south Tamilnadu in India. I had been to vatican from 3rd Nove 19 to 10th Nov 19 fora conference on Justice and Reconciliation organized by Jesuits. I met the holy father.A book released on MARTYR’S tells how Jesuit priests have been crucified for the sack of gospel.This motivated me to pray for their gospel and social work globally. Your concerns touched me. I too join with you in the prayer for Japan

  5. I am pretty sure the girl in your picture is Korean as she appears to be wearing a modified traditional 1 button Hanbok dress with green accent on the label. Not implying anything, just saying.

  6. gka:
    Declining population in the first world only.”

    No, actually global fertility rates are projected to continue falling to a 1.7 sub-replacement average. Have you looked at recent fertility rates in Brazil & Latin America? They’ve all plummeted.
    Only a very few regions in sub Saharan Africa & SE Asia are not following that trend & because of that, are subjected to intense pressures from population control interests.

    • As I’ve noted elsewhere, what we call ‘sub-replacement’ only makes sense if we think that the human population should ALWAYS be exponentially growing. This is nonsense, without bringing in “population control interests” as your go-to boogeyman. Can you imagine the “intense pressure” of 1 billion more people competing for limited resources?

      Instead of ‘decline,’ think ‘stabilization’ – as in, the population is no longer growing at an unsustainable exponential rate everywhere. Africa and Asia too will ‘stabilize’ in time.

      • Joe,
        The problem we will face in the not too distant future is a population implosion. Many more elderly and fewer and fewer young people going the workforce. Less working age taxpayers and a strain on limited health and social welfare resources for an increasing number of elderly and infirm.
        Demographic projections are not for a stable global population but a steady decline.

        • A decline – which leads to stabilization. Plateau =/= stable. The population rises, the bottom will fall out, and then it will be stable.

          The ‘problem’ you speak of is purely one of current economic systems. In other words – it’s only a problem because the people who force a neoliberal system on us say it’s a problem. These are the same people who say we can’t afford more equitable health-care, but can spend more for the military with each passing year. If automation replaces most jobs, and it likely will, then the griping, now, about ‘fewer young people in the workforce’ is going to seem like a small pittance. The overall population lowering is a reasonable response to a false and unnatural system that is presaged on an impossibility (eternal upward growth). In a society where technology produces more and at less cost, things like Universal Income, public healthcare, etc. are going to not just become more common, but necessary.

          You have to realize that in the last 200 years we’ve went from a global population of 1 billion, to 7 or 8 billion. That itself is not stable, but the opposite of implosion. An explosion. And they say what comes up, must come down…

          • Joe,
            Again, the critical issue isn’t a smaller population overall, it’s the looming age imbalance we face.
            Please look at some current demographic stats & projections.

            Human beings are resourceful & intelligent. I believe we will find a way to get through this eventually, but it looks to be a rough ride.
            God bless!

  7. Let’s not forget that when the a-bomb fell on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 there was a Catholic Church near ground zero in which the Rosary was being said, and it withstood the blast.

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