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Saints, authors and prime ministers: The dramatic story of Japanese Catholicism

It’s too soon to declare the Church’s mission to Japan a failure

After his apostolic visit to Thailand later this month, Pope Francis will move on to Japan, a land of saints and martyrs, but also a country where Catholics are in a tiny minority. Less than two per cent of the population is Christian, and less than half of those Christians are Catholics. So, 370 years after St Francis Xavier landed at Kagoshima City, why has Japan been so hard to evangelise?

The answer given by Shusaku Endo in Silence, his controversial novel about faith, doubt and apostasy in the 17th century, is that Japan is a swamp in which the foreign religion, Christianity, has struggled, and will always struggle, to take root. This gloomy analysis still has a great deal of resonance in Japan – and not just in Japan, as recent debates around the Amazon synod showed – so we need to see whether it stands up to analysis and that means looking closely at Japanese history.

If we go back to St Francis Xavier’s mission, we find a tremendous success story. During his two and a quarter years in the country St Francis converted 800 people, and the Church continued to grow rapidly in the years that followed. By the 1630s, after only 80 years of missionary work, more than six per cent of the population – some 760,000 people – were Catholic. If Japan was a swamp it was a remarkably productive one.

However, this missionary success was brought to a shuddering halt by a dramatic change of outlook among Japan’s political leaders. After an initial bout of persecution in the late 16th century, which led to the martyrdom of St Paul Miki and his companions, a new wave of violence crashed over foreign missionaries and the native Christians of Japan in the mid 17th century.

For more than 200 years, Japan became a closed country. Christianity was proscribed, foreigners were expelled and missionary activity became impossible. At least 2,138 Christians were officially martyred between 1640 and 1873, though the true number is probably much higher than that.

However, despite the terrible suffering of those years, Christianity was not entirely snuffed out. The Christian population declined from its high point of 760,000 to a mere 50,000, but those 50,000 clung on to the faith for more than 200 years without priests, external help, or recourse to any of the sacraments besides baptism.

When these hidden Christians (kakure kirishitan) emerged from the shadows in 1865, French missionary priests who now had a toehold in the country were amazed to find that they knew the Apostles’ Creed and many prayers, including the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the rosary, in both Japanese and Latin. Even the harshest of persecutions had not fully eradicated Christianity.

The Church experienced an impressive rate of growth during the late 19th century, increasing by 37 per cent during the last years of the century. After 200 years when evangelisation had been unfeasible, the Church picked up where it had left off.

Despite a growing divide between the old believers centred around Nagasaki and newer converts who were more commonly found in places such as Tokyo and Osaka, the Church continued to expand well into the 20th century. In the decade between 1948 and 1958, for example, the Catholic population of Japan more than doubled from 111,209 to 227,063. This growth came despite the terrible losses of the war years, with the atom bomb killing many thousands of Catholics in Nagasaki alone.

It was only in the second half of the 20th century that the growth rate dramatically slowed. Shusaku Endo’s pessimistic analysis of evangelisation in Japan owes more to the time in which his novel was written – the 1960s – than it does to the historical realities it purported to depict.

Numbers, however, don’t tell the whole story. Japanese Catholics have certainly punched above their weight in the last hundred years. It is a striking fact, for example, that there have been more Catholic prime ministers of Japan than there have been Catholic prime ministers of Britain and Catholic presidents of the US combined. (Japan has had three Catholic PMs: Hara Takashi, Shigeru Yoshida and Taro Aso.)

Japanese Catholics have also played an important role in the realm of culture. An unfortunate side effect of Shusaku Endo’s fame has been to obscure the presence of many other fine Catholic writers in modern Japan, including Miura Shumon, Shimao Toshio, Kaga Otohiko and Sono Ayako.

Nor should we forget the impact of holy individuals such as Takashi Nagai, whose The Bells of Nagasaki is one of the most remarkable books to have emerged from the Second World War, and Satoko Kitahara, the Dorothy Day of Japan, who gave up her privileged existence in 1950 to live with and for the ragpickers of Tokyo.

“Far from being marginal or irrelevant, Catholicism has provided Japanese from the mid 19th century to the present with an important, alternative way of negotiating with modernity,” according to Kevin Doak of Georgetown University.

Even so, we are still confronted by a crucial question, which is not why Japan has been so hard to evangelise but why evangelisation became so ineffective from the 1950s onwards. Following on from that question, another one has to be asked: what can be done to reverse the trend?

In a recent interview, Archbishop Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo remarked that “In Japanese society, it is difficult to find tangible success in missionary activities.” Identifying various changes in Japanese society, he drew particular attention to the fact that Catholic schools had “unfortunately … not become a place for missionary activities”, pointing out that, while “schools should be independent from national politics, unfortunately they are tied up with subsidies from the country, and thus they are gradually losing their uniqueness, with only the name ‘Catholic’ remaining.”

However, the archbishop didn’t simply point the finger of blame. He also identified two signs of hope. The first is the contribution of Catholics to practical works of mercy; after the 2011 earthquake, for instance. The second is the enormous influx of Catholic immigrants and foreign workers in recent years: “In particular, those who have settled in marriage and built their homes in the rural areas make it possible for the Gospel to be brought in to areas where the Church had never had an opportunity to get involved.”

A report from the Catholic Commission of Japan for Migrants, Refugees and People on the Move in 2005 pointed out that “there are about 529,452 foreign Catholics in Japan. For the first time there are more foreign Catholics than the 449,925 Japanese Catholics.” Japan is no longer cut off from the outside world: hope lies in its embracing the catholicity of Catholicism.

The Archbishop of Tokyo is surely right to argue that “an important task that must be given priority is to encourage foreign nationals who have settled in Japan to become aware of their missionary vocation as Catholics”. The problems faced by the Church in Japan are all too familiar to us in the West – a very low birthrate, the lure of consumerism and theological confusion – but the answer to these problems remains what it has always been: the continued proclamation of the Gospel.

There have been dark times when Japan has been hard to evangelise but that does not mean that Catholics should ever abandon their God-given vocation. What St Teresa of Calcutta once said is as true for Japan as for anywhere else: God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.

Roy Peachey is the author of several books including 50 Books for Life: a Concise Guide to Catholic Literature (Angelico Press); Did Jesus Go to School? (Redemptorist Press); and a novel, Between Darkness and Light (Eyrie Press)