ASIA/JAPAN - 'Money, money, money'. The reasons for conflicts and the arms race according to missionary Archbishop, Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi

Monday, 8 April 2024 local churches   weapons   caritas   martyrs   youth  

by Victor Gaetan*

Archbishop Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi, age 65, holds a startling number of key positions, yet he’s calm as a church usher.
President of Caritas Internationalis, Secretary General of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, President of the Japanese Bishops Conference—he waves these titles away.
“You know how it works: Excellent people do the real work, hard work, and I’m kind of a governor who comes in and says ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’” he laughs.
On the eve of his departure for the Japanese bishops ad limina visit with the Holy Father, Archbishop Kikuchi and I sat together in an unassuming meeting room at St. Mary’s Cathedral, a dramatic contemporary sculpture-like church constructed in 1964. No staff, no ground rules, uninterrupted—for 1.5 hours of discussion.
Following are excerpts from my interview with the man who in 2004 was appointed Bishop of Niigata by Pope John Paul II, and today, as Archbishop of Tokyo, manifests great closeness with Pope Francis' pastoral concern.

What is your dream for improving operations of Caritas Internationalis?
TARCISIUS ISAO KIKUCHI: I have been working with Caritas since 1995 when I was already a priest: I was a volunteer in refugee camps in [Democratic Republic of the] Congo. Then I was director of Caritas Japan. So, I knew Caritas Internationalis for a long time.

My dream at this moment is, there is always the problem between those who have and those who have not, among the Caritas members because remember Caritas is not one big NGO organization. It is a confederation of the national Caritas’ in each country, more than 160 countries and territories. So, Caritas is different. Some Caritas, like in the US and Europe, they have enough funds then some of those in Africa and Asia, they don’t have any funds.
We are always talking about “partnership,” we have to work in “partnership.” That means everyone is supposed to be equal, working together, as brothers and sisters. But that’s not what happens!
The reality is always: those who have money dictate over those who receive it. That sometimes creates a problem. So, I really want to introduce, or develop, the real partnership among the member organizations.

You were the first Japanese missionary to Africa, serving for 7 years as a parish priest in Ghana. How does that influence your leadership today? What lesson from that time remains with you?

KIKUCHI: Listen to the people. Don’t dictate.
Ghana was a British colony, but English is not the main means of communication. There are many local languages, meaning many local cultures. There I was, a missionary speaking English, and it was very difficult to communicate. I learned the local language of a small tribe, but I mainly learned that to be a good parish priest, I had to listen to the people—observe what they are doing, understand what they are thinking, but never dictate over the people.
That’s what I learned and every day I found something new. It was the same in Congo because I don’t speak French. I went there and everyone was speaking French including refugees from Rwanda. So, I had to hire a translator!

I know the conversation is private, but can you share some concerns that face the Japanese bishops to be discussed with the Holy Father during your ad limina visit?

KIKUCHI: It’s the first time we will meet with the Holy Father since he came to Japan in November 2019! The visit’s theme was Protect All Life, which we recommended to the Holy See. This includes not only the abortion issue in Japan but also respect for human dignity, abolition of the death penalty, operation of nuclear power plants that destroy the environment, and ecological concerns.

We wanted to try to organize a social campaign around this theme, but because of the pandemic, everything stopped, and we couldn’t do that. So, we want to talk to the Holy Father about it. We can report to him that he came and preached about protecting all life, about establishing peace, and abolishing nuclear weapons, but now, what are we going to do to highlight human dignity? Throughout the life of the human being, at every stage, there are issues around protecting life, protecting dignity, which is really neglected in Japan. The traditional family system is disappearing. Single parents are caring for kids, or children are neglected—all kinds of problems exist related to human dignity. These are big problems to discuss with the Holy Father.

I saw you took a strong stand on the menace of war and increased budgets for weapons. Please tell me more.

KIKUCHI: After the second world war, because of what happened, we abolished the military. The Constitution says, “No army.” Yet, there is an army in Japan so there is a big contradiction at this moment. We don’t say we should abolish the army and military. We need some kind of protection, but it is too much right now. They [the government] are spending too much money on that. [Encouraged by the US, Japan approved an 16.5% increase — $56 billion — in defense spending for 2024 fiscal year].
They are using the expanding influence of China as an excuse and the presence of North Korea as another excuse. Of course, these are not Countries like others, China, and North Korea, but I don’t think they are immediate threats. Especially with North Korea, once there used to be discussions. I don’t know what goes on in the minds of Japanese politicians, but they don’t want to talk let alone meet. If you don’t talk, nothing good can happen!

I met earlier with someone in high political circles who said, Japanese governments cannot make any move without getting permission from Washington DC.

KIKUCHI: It’s true. Most probably, it’s true.

The Japanese Catholic Church has admirably been involved in peace efforts and the nuclear disarmament movement. Do you perceive a growing threat regarding the use of nuclear weapons? Is this a subject you might discuss with the Holy Father?

KIKUCHI: Honestly speaking, for the people who have the right mind, those who are not insane, they will never use nuclear weapons because it is really so destructive and it will destroy not only the target, but also the country that originates the attack. If the US attacks Russia and Russia fires back, that’s the end of the world.
Everyone knows this, at least, those who are not insane. As long as this balance of power still exists, probably no one will use nuclear weapons but then they always use threats as an excuse to develop new arsenals—spending so much money for nothing. It does not secure actual protection, so they are just putting money into a trash bin.

In Western circles, the international geopolitical situation is presented as a struggle between the “good” North Atlantic West and many other countries presented as "bad" (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea etc). How do you judge this Western way to present the the geopolitical state of the World, and the continous opening of new fronts of war?
KIKUCHI: That’s a good question. It used to be very simple, that the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in conflict. But the Soviet Union disappeared, and the fight continues!
I think we, human beings, are destined to look for conflicts all the time, that’s why there is always a war. We want to fight to have a sense of our existence. It’s going on right now. Everybody says it’s politics but it’s not just politics. Most probably, the biggest problem is money. Money, money, money.
When we look at the reality of the world, only a very few people with money are really controlling the economy and politics of the world. And the majority of people are under this control. So that imbalance between those who have, and those who don’t have, is becoming acute and it is affecting all political problems.

Indonesian Government and Bishops confirmed that Pope Francis will go to Indonesia. How does this benefit the region?

KIKUCHI: Many of us really appreciate the pope’s attention to countries that nobody knows of—places such as Indonesia, East Timor, and Mongolia. He is quite interested in Asia!
For Asia, Indonesia is famous as the largest Muslim country in the world. It’s very important. Christianity is protected by the Constitution there, but there are local problems between Christians and Muslims. So, it is very significant for the Holy Father to go. He will speak about religious freedom as he did in the Gulf countries, and it will have a strong impact.

Regarding religious freedom, in Japan for centuries Christians transmitted the faith from generation to generation, baptizing children in silence. Without means, without strength, in persecution, yet the faith was alive. What does this historical experience suggest about the nature of the Christian faith?

KIKUCHI: Whenever we talk about persecution and martyrs, we always see examples from Nagasaki area because Nagasaki is famous and it is the origin of the Catholic Church in Japan. But there are many who died for the faith all over Japan. Like in northern parts of Japan or in Tokyo or in rural parts of Japan there used to be huge Christian communities existing in the villages. The examples of the martyrs are great. But why were there so many Christians in areas of Northern Japan? Because at that time the Christians took over providing social welfare, taking care of the poor and sick, and also education.
During the Shogun period [Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate from 1603-1868], the power in Tokyo were really serious about promoting education all over the country based on the Buddhist temple. Why? Because they were really afraid of Christian influence, so they wanted to take over Christian influence. That is why the Christian presence actually modeled the social welfare system in Japan.

What has remained of that history and that experience of grace in the Church today in Japan?

KIKUCHI: Unfortunately, the legacy of the martyrs is much stronger in the Nagasaki area today but here in Tokyo, not so many people care about this. We did not do the proper promotion of this.

Please tell me something beautiful you see among the faithful in Japan.

KIKUCHI: This question reminds me of my first ad limina visit in 2007 with Pope Benedict XVI, who had a private audience with each bishop. (Francis changed that and meets with everyone all at once.)

When I met Pope Benedict for the first time, he asked me, “What is your hope in your diocese?” He was always talking about hope! So I told him, I can tell you many hopeless stories, but hope…Then what came into my mind was the existence of Filipino immigrants. They are married to Japanese farmers because even now, rural farmers don’t have Japanese wives, because not so many people want to be a farmer anymore, so they look for wives among Filipinos, who are Catholic!
These Catholic women are coming to Japan for the farmers, and they reside in villages where we don’t have churches. That is hopeful—wives as missionaries coming to Japan. Cardinal Tagle from the Philippines said the same thing. He encourages Filipino migrants, “You are the missionaries, sent by God!” And it is true.

Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis both said often that Christianity spreads through attraction and not through proselytism. How can Christianity's promise of salvation and happiness appeal to young Japanese today? What are the factors that prevail today in determining the psychological condition of Japanese boys and girls?

KIKUCHI: Attracting youth, this is crucial.

One answer is in the work of Caritas. Since 2011, in response to earthquakes and tsunamis in northern part of Japan, we established volunteer teams to support local people through Caritas. Non-Catholics began calling the youth volunteers, “Miss Caritas” or “Mr. Caritas,” with affection. So we are saying, this is our way of mission in Japan! It shows what the Church is. Caritas is most important in a country such as Japan to show the people the real meaning of what we preach.

Thank you so much your Excellency, for your time and honesty. (Fides News Agency 8/4/2024)

*Victor Gaetan is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Register, focusing on international issues. He also writes for Foreign Affairs magazine and contributed to Catholic News Service. He is the author of the book God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) published in paperback in July 2023. Visit his website at