ASIA/JAPAN - The face of the Japanese Catholic Church

Wednesday, 10 April 2024 local churches  

Vatican City (Agenzia Fides) - On the occasion of the ad limina visit of the Bishops of Japan, Fides publishes some figures and information about the Catholic Church in Japan.
The Catholic Church in Japan today has 419,414 Catholics, out of a population of 125 million inhabitants (about 0.34%). The missionary staff is made up of 459 diocesan priests, 761 religious priests, 135 religious men, 4,282 religious sisters and 35 major seminarians. The Japanese Church, present in the territory with three ecclesiastical Provinces, in which the 15 Dioceses are grouped, although small in number, manages numerous educational institutions (828 according to data from the 2023 Pontifical Yearbook) and charitable institutions (653).
The Constitution guarantees Japanese citizens the freedom to profess any religion (Art. 20). The main religions are: Shintoism (51.8%) and Buddhism (34.9%). Christians, of various denominations, represent a total of 1.2%, while there are small communities of Muslims (mainly made up of immigrants) and a large percentage of Japanese declare themselves "non-religious".
In general, the Catholic population is decreasing (ten years ago in 2014, there were 439,725 Catholics), but in the dioceses of Saitama, Naha and Nagoya, there is a slight increase.
Furthermore, the Catholic community in Japan has about 500 thousand foreign faithful, including immigrants from Asian nations, South America and Europe. The Church has assumed the mission of "welcoming immigrants, renewing Japanese society together and moving towards a multicultural society and ecclesial community". However, the presence of the large community of foreign Catholics constitutes an additional challenge for the local Church, which also feels the need to preserve a Japanese Catholic identity. Pastoral service towards Japanese and foreigners requires discernment and wisdom, and "multicultural coexistence", founded on unity in Christ Jesus, is always a community commitment and a point of arrival.

Historical data on evangelization

Evangelization in Japan begins precisely on August 15, 1549, St. Francis Xavier landed in the archipelago. The first Christian community was founded on the island of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four large islands that make up the archipelago. After Saint Francis Xavier left Japan, the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) arrived in the archipelago.
The Jesuits were followed by the Franciscan friars, mainly Italians.
Foreigners arriving in southern Japan with their dark-colored boats (to distinguish them from local boats made of bamboo, usually lighter in color) were called nan banji (southern barbarians), as they were considered rude and uneducated people, simply because they did not practice the customs and traditions of the country. During the 16th century, the Catholic community grew to more than 300,000 units; in 1588 the Diocese of Funay was therefore established. The coastal city of Nagasaki was its main center. The Italian missionaries, in their work of evangelization, followed the rules drawn up by Valignano, author of the Fundamental Ceremonial for Missionaries in Japan.
In 1582, the Japanese Jesuits organized a trip to Europe to witness the openness of the people of the Rising Sun to Christian faith. The journey lasted eight years. The delegation, made up of four prelates, first visited Venice, then went to Lisbon and finally returned to Italy, where it concluded its journey in Rome. The Japanese Jesuits were received by Pope Gregory XIII and also met his successor, Sixtus V. In 1590 they returned to their homeland.
The Tokugawa Shogunate soon understood that the Jesuits, through their evangelizing work, were influencing the imperial dynasty, which was in fact relegated to a merely symbolic function and therefore interpreted the presence of Christians as a whole, and the Nan Ban in general, as a threat to the stability of his power.
In 1587 the kampaku (political and military leader) Hideyoshi, “Crown Marshal” in Nagasaki, issued an edict ordering foreign missionaries to leave the country.
However, Christians continued to profess their faith underground.
Ten years later, the first persecutions began. On February 5, 1597, 26 Christians, (6 Franciscans and 3 European Jesuits, along with 17 Japanese Franciscan tertiaries) were crucified.
In 1614, the shogun Tokugawa Yeyasu, lord of Japan, banned Christianity with a new edict and prevented Japanese Christians from practicing their religion. On May 14 of that same year, the last procession was held along the streets of Nagasaki, touching seven of the eleven churches in the city, which were all subsequently demolished.
The policy of the shogun regime became increasingly repressive. A popular uprising broke out in Shimabara, near Nagasaki, between 1637 and 1638, animated mainly by peasants and led by the Christian samurai Amakusa Shiro, the revolt was repressed in blood, and was followed by several summary executions of its supporters. It is estimated that 40,000 Christians were massacred. In 1641, the shogun Tokugawa Yemitsu issued another decree, later known as sakoku (Armored Country), prohibiting any form of contact between the Japanese and foreigners. From then on, Christians created their own symbols, rituals and even their own language, incomprehensible outside their own communities. In 1644 the last remaining Christian priest was sentenced to death.

Between "hidden Christians" and martyrs

For two and a half centuries Nagasaki remained the only door open to trade with Europe and the Asian continent. The port, its surroundings and the islands off the coast (Hirado, Narushima, Iki) provided a refuge for the few hidden Christians. Without priests and churches, the Catholics organized themselves: the village chief led the community, established the religious solemnities based on the Christian calendar and kept the sacred books; the catechist taught the children; the baptizer administered the first sacrament; the herald visited families to announce Sundays, Christian holidays, days of fasting and abstinence.
Frenchman Théodore-Augustin Forcade was the first Apostolic Vicar of Japan from 1846 to 1852, the year in which he had to leave the country due to the persecution decrees. However, he was never able to actively exercise his ministry due to the impossibility of reaching the archipelago. Monsignor Forcade later became Bishop of Nevers.
In 1858, following the apparitions in Lourdes, the cult of Our Lady began to spread throughout Japan. In 1853, under pressure from the United States, the country was reopened to foreign relations. Even though proselytism was still prohibited, many missionaries of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox faith arrived. Christianity once again entered the country through trade routes and embassies, landing in the ports of Kobe and Yokohama.
In 1862 Pope Pius IX canonized the twenty-six Christians martyred in 1597. The following year, French missionaries built a church in their memory in Nagasaki: the Church of Oura.
With the Meiji Renewal of 1871, religious freedom was introduced, thus recognizing Christian communities the right to exist. New churches were built, largely inspired by French models. The Christian message was able to spread to market cities such as Osaka and Sendai, and even to the then capital, Kyoto. Cistercian communities entered the hostile northern territories of the island of Honshu and even beyond Hokkaido, until the beginning of the 20th century. On 24 February, 1873, the Japanese Government repealed the edict of persecution, dating back to 1614.
In 1888 the right to religious freedom was recognized, expanded in 1899 as the right to promote one's religious faith and to build sacred buildings.

The Church with a Japanese face

The first Bishop of Japanese nationality, after the return of religious freedom, was Januarius Kyunosuke Hayasaka, appointed on 16 July 1927 at the head of the diocese of Nagasaki (current Archdiocese).
In 1930, an evangelization mission took place in Japan, undertaken by Maximilian Maria Kolbe and his conventual confreres. Among the developments of this mission there was, in the 1950s, the experience of the "Ant Village", which welcomed the poor and dispossessed as a result of the war. Elizabeth Maria Satoko Kitahara distinguished herself in the care of poor children, declared venerable in 2015. After the difficult years of Japanese militarism and the Second World War, there was a certain renaissance of the Catholic community. The famous Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto also belonged to it.
In 1981, Saint John Paul II was the first Pope to visit the country. Following the appeal for reconciliation and peace on 25 February, the Japanese Bishops' Conference organized "Ten days for Peace", an annual series of events to commemorate the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear issue. The event, which involves all Japanese dioceses, is also open to other religious denominations. Some Catholic buildings have been declared “national treasures”. Japan has also drawn up a list of monuments to submit to UNESCO, which includes 47 buildings built between 1864 (Oura church, designed by French missionary Pierre-Théodore Fraineau) and 1938, as well as the new Urakami Cathedral, built in 1959 and the church of the 26 Martyrs, built in 1962.
On 24 November 2008, 188 Catholic martyrs, tortured and killed between 1603 and 1639 (all lay persons except the Jesuit Father Kibe), were beatified in Nagasaki, in a ceremony which saw the presence of Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2019, from 23 to 26 November, during his apostolic trip, Pope Francis visited Japan. The Holy Father had a private visit with Emperor Naruhito, gave speeches on nuclear weapons and paid homage to the martyrs. The apostolic journey strongly contributed to the visibility of the Catholic Church in the political, intellectual and cultural circles of the country, allowing the average citizen to differentiate the Church from the many other Christian denominations present. However, the population usually finds it difficult to distinguish Catholics from Christians of other denominations. (Agenzia Fides, 10/4/2024)