ASIA/JAPAN - Bishop Berndt: "We learn peace and non-violence from the people in Okinawa"

Thursday, 11 April 2024 peace   non-violence   evangelization   gospel  

Vatican City (Agenzia Fides) - "We learn peace and non-violence from the people of Okinawa. These gentle people give us the Gospel, they give us a completely Franciscan value such as that of peace, both internally and in the practice of life," emphasizes the Bishop of Naha on the Japanese island of Okinawa, Wayne Berndt (OFM Cap) to Fides. The American-born bishop is taking part in the Ad Limina Apostolorum visit to the Vatican together with the Japanese bishops. The name Okinawa means "rope in the sea" and is a fairly apt description for a long stretch of islands between the main islands of Japan and Taiwan. Okinawa Prefecture consists of the main island of the same name and other smaller islands (49 inhabited and 111 uninhabited islands) and is the southernmost prefecture in Japan, which stands out for its thousand-year-old culture and natural beauty. As an American religious, Father Berndt, who came to Japan as a missionary in 1981, initially worked as a pastor in the dioceses of Naha and Saitama, and in the latter also in the “Open House Center for Migrants”. Back in Naha, he was a parish priest and since 2017 has been bishop of an island diocesan area in the prefecture with around 1.5 million inhabitants, a group of around 6,000 registered Catholics, "but around 10,000 in reality," as he emphasizes. Okinawa is the largest island in the Ryukyu archipelago, which once formed an autonomous kingdom and was only formally annexed in 1874. The local population has retained its own cultural and linguistic characteristics, dialects and customs: Okinawans see themselves as different from the mainland Japanese (some still harbor resentment over how the islands were treated during World War II). Okinawans proudly call themselves “uchinanchu,” or “people of the sea.” The bishop explains: "The culture is completely different than in Japan. The religious landscape is also different: While the Shinto-Buddhist faith predominates in the rest of Japan, the basis here is the "Ryukyuan", the indigenous belief system. It is in this context that the Christian faith dialogues with people's lives: The inhabitants are messengers of non-violence. Even in the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, when there were neither weapons nor an army, there is a goodwill for one another that springs from the depths of the people's hearts. "This is an evangelical and Franciscan value that we encounter and rediscover every day," he says. Gospel values go hand in hand with Okinawan culture, he emphasizes. Icharibacho-de, for example, means "once we meet, we become brothers" and expresses how Bishop Berndt himself - and many others - were welcomed by the Okinawans, as it is a local belief that "those who "choose to live and be together with them, become a family". Another concept is that of "Chimugurusan", which translates as "feeling the pain of others" and sharing it in order to grow stronger in one's own soul.
"People have a deep spirituality. The famous Ikigai, the philosophy of finding the reason for one's life, what gives life meaning, comes from Okinawa," he recalls. At the ecclesiastical level, in 1927, Okinawa Prefecture and Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Japan were separated from the Diocese of Nagasaki and combined to form the Apostolic Prefecture of Kagoshima. Then there were political events that affected the organization of the church: With the San Francisco Peace Treaty at the end of World War II, Okinawa Prefecture and southern Kagoshima Prefecture were under American military occupation. Therefore, the territories of Okinawa and the southern islands were placed under the direct jurisdiction of the Holy See and entrusted to the American Capuchins (the New York religious province). In May 1972, when Japan regained sovereignty over Okinawa, the Ryukyu Apostolic Administration was elevated to the rank of a diocese and became the Diocese of Naha, with the first Capuchin bishop, Father Tadamaro Ishigami OFMCap. "For 80 years, people have known and appreciated the Franciscan charism and associated it with the proclamation of the Gospel of Peace, even today, here in Okinawa, an area where American military bases are located (70% of American forces in Japan are in Okinawa) and in which the tensions in relations with China or the tense situation in Taiwan are clearly noticeable," the bishop states. "Today," he reports, "the Catholic community is diverse: in Naha, the faithful are mostly elderly (this is a famous 'blue zone' of longevity, ed.) and are spread across the 14 parishes of the diocese.
International groups include the Filipinos, Spanish-speaking communities such as Peruvians, Vietnamese and Americans, but in terms of demographics and baptisms the situation is stable. Certainly it is difficult to pass on the faith to the new generations: for this reason the diocese promotes pastoral initiatives such as an annual summer camp for Okinawan children, organized by university students returning from mainland Japan, with the idea - for the children and also for the young people - to see themselves as Okinawans, with their own peculiarities and cultural sensitivity". The Bishop concludes: "Between the two giants of indigenous territory, the Japanese and the Americans, the Okinawan culture and community maintains its identity that combines the Gospel with the promotion of peace and non-violence". (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 11/4/2024)