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Georg Evers {*}

Enormous Challenges

Japan and its Catholic Minority


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 3/2009, P. 150-155
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Japan is battered by the global economic crisis and is facing a radical change in its political landscape. The majority of the Catholic minority are now Japanese who have returned from abroad. That requires of the Church that she makes the appropriate pastoral efforts.


Behind the USA Japan is still the second largest economic power in the world. In the period 1990-2007 the economic growth of the Japanese economy was on average by 2 percent and was thus above the growth rate of the U.S. of 1.8 percent and of the Federal Republic of Germany's rate of 1.6 percent for the same period. In the public attention the People's Republic of China has pushed Japan into the background by its rapid economic growth observable in recent years. The times are long gone, when one also in Europe wanted to learn from the "Japan model".

The present currency and economic crisis has now fully hit the Japanese economy. In the press there is some talk about a record decline in industrial production, which in December 2008 was estimated at 9.6 percent. All signs indicate that Japan will experience a massive, if not the biggest recession since 1945. The export rate of the Japanese electrical goods and automobile industry has dramatically fallen by the drop in sales in the US, Europe and China. Even successful companies like Toyota and Sony are in the red and had to introduce short-time working and to make redundant parts of the workforce. The negative economic development begins to have an effect on the labour market too.

It affects more and more young people who after finishing their school and university studies remain unemployed and must struggle along with casual jobs. The group of those "Freeters" - an invented word put together from the English "free" and the last syllable of the German "Arbeiter" - increasingly develops into a socially marginalized fringe group. The unemployment rate increased to 4.4 percent, the highest level in three years. It is true though that with it the number of unemployed is still at a relatively moderate level in comparison with other industrialized nations.


The End of a Period of Economic Growth

At the beginning of 2009 the mood in the Japanese economy is very depressed. Since at the same time the winter brought temperatures along unusually low for Japan, one could often hear the phrase, "The cold penetrates to the bone", which did not only mean the atmospheric phenomenon of the winter cold but also the emerging financial and economic crisis. In circles of politics and economics as well as within the normal population there is at present an uncomfortable atmosphere of insecurity and fear.

The domestic trade announces big losses in sales, since among potential customers the desire to buy enormously declined by the prevailing negative mood. 70.5 per cent of firms expect that the Japanese economy this year will go through a recession which, according to economists' estimates, could cause a fall in gross national product of up to 3.8 percent.

The present recession is the end of a six-year period of uninterrupted growth of the Japanese economy. The downturn of the Japanese economy began in the last half of 2008. When searching for the reasons the firms questioned give as reason in the first place the state of the economy in the U.S. and only in the second place the unrest and uncertainty in the international financial markets. This highlights the dependence of the Japanese economy on its most important export country, the United States. Tax relief for businesses and consumers is demanded on the part of economy in order to deal with the recession. But stable political conditions are given as an even more important precondition for a recovery of the economy.



Economists and foreign observers give the managers and politicians a bad character. They are reproached with having learnt nothing from the experiences in the nineties, the so-called "lost decade", when the Japanese economy experienced a massive decline. One had then content oneself on the whole to dismiss employees but neglected consistently to implement the necessary structural changes. At that time Japan was able to overcome the crisis thanks to the only slightly reduced exports, whereas the current crisis would more heavily hit Japan, since the international export markets, which are decisively important for the Japanese economy, had collapsed because of the financial crisis.

In 2008 Toyota, the flagship company among the large Japanese corporations, was admittedly able for the first time to leave General Motors as the world's largest car company far behind, but on the other hand at the beginning of 2009 it had for the first time to admit a deficit in the annual balance. Until now the big corporations such as Toyota and Nissan in auto manufacturing, Nikon on the camera market, Shimano as bicycle producer and Nintendo in the field of computer games have to a large extent been spared by the crisis, even if they reckon with losses in 2009.

Several smaller Japanese companies got already at the end of 2008 into the red and are fighting for their existence. The Japanese electrical goods industry is particularly affected by the current crisis. One reason is that the big companies like Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba and Panasonic have on the whole the same range of products. There are nine companies that produce mobile phones, whereas five other companies in the field of electrical consumer goods provide the full range from vacuum cleaners to rice cookers and glut the market with their products. Positive signals, on the other hand, come from the area of those businesses that develop environment-friendly technologies like solar technology, electric car batteries for the production of cars with hybrid drive and other techniques, an area in which Japan is the world leader. The government makes available significant financial resources for the development of environment-friendly technologies.


The Ruling Party Facing the Loss of Majority?

The economic and financial crisis is just radically changing Japan's political landscape. For the first time in fifty years the Liberal Party (LDP) is threatened with the loss of the majority which it has, with short interruptions, been holding for decades. Since 24 September 2008 Taro Aso is Prime Minister. He comes from a family of big industrialists and is at home in Japan's political establishment by his mother, the daughter of the Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida (1946-1954), and by his wife, who in turn is a daughter of another Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki (1980-1982). Since his sister is married to Prince Tomohito Mikasa, a cousin of Emperor Akihito, he is also close to the imperial family. On the other hand, Taro Aso belongs as a Catholic to the small minority of Christians. But since the Prime Minister shows little of his religion the Japanese Catholics are not quite sure whether they are to be proud of Taro Aso as "one of them".

After the usual honeymoon period for a new man in the Office of the Prime Minister, the popularity of Taro Aso has quickly fallen dramatically. At the beginning of February 2009 the work of his government was, according to polls, positively rated only by 14 percent of the population, a unique negative record until now. However, not only the current turmoil in the economy and the financial world are to blame for this negative image of the Prime Minister and the ruling party LDP but also the lack of political ideas and initiatives.

In the past four years Japan has experienced four different prime ministers from the ranks of the LDP, who in their short time in office remained colourless and were scarcely able to give political stimuli. In the parliamentary elections, which are on the agenda at the latest in September 2009, it is widely expected that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which was up to now in the opposition, will win the majority and provide the Prime Minister. Since the opposition parties have already in September 2007 won the elections to the upper chamber the prospects of a political change in Japan are good. Prime Minister Aso hopes that the government's measures to support the economy and the cash injection of 22 billion yen for the private households may have the desired effects and improve the reputation of the government. His last weapon - which becomes blunter with each day, to be sure - is the right of the prime minister to determine the date of the election within the bounds of the still remaining time and thus to be able to use a possible improvement of the economic situation.

In a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in February 2009 Aso promised that Japan will provide 17 billion U.S. dollars in development aid for poorer countries in Asia. As second largest economy Japan were aware of its responsibility for the world economy and would put 100 billion U.S. dollar at the disposal of the International Monetary Fund. In addition, fulfilling its international responsibility the Japanese Navy would participate in the fight against piracy in front of Somalia's coast.

In the area of foreign policy the distressed Prime Minister was able to pick up points, as the first foreign visit of the new American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the end of February had Tokyo as its destination. With it Japan's role as key alley of the U.S. in the region, before the People's Republic of China and South Korea, was underlined.



At the same time it became clear that in the opinion of the new American government Taro Aso was not yet written off as Japan's leading politician. On the other hand, the new American President Barack Obama's charisma is also very great in Japan. Not a few Japanese want particularly in politics a breath of fresh air and change also for their country. Compared with that the current Prime Minister and his veteran LDP appear grey and worn out.


The Japanese Population is Overaged

Even without the current problems in the economy the negative impact of the increase in the proportion of elderly people in Japan's population has been felt for some years. The Japanese population is currently 127 million and will, according to statistical predictions, probably decrease by one third in the next 50 years. The incipient decline in the population shows increasingly negative effects on the domestic trade. The age classes of 1947 to 1949 with a high birth rate, which were to a good part responsible for the economic growth of Japan, have reached retirement age.

Japan admittedly uses the most industrial robots in industrial manufacturing and has reached here a high standard. But the growing bottlenecks in the number of workers can ultimately be overcome only by the admission of foreign workers. At present the number of foreign workers is officially stated to be 2.2 million, in comparison with European countries a still very low number. The majority of these workers have only a short-term work permit, as a permanent residence permit is only granted to those who have been living for ten years in the country.

Politicians, but also by the majority of Japanese are afraid that the internal security of the country would be endangered by the raise in the quota of foreign immigrants, which is actually necessary in order to meet the demand for workers. Already today the number of foreigners among the criminals was disproportionately high and it would continue to grow with an increasing immigration.

In Japan the fear of foreign influence has deep roots. As an island nation, Japan has no borders with other states. There is also the fact that the 250 years from 1610 to 1854, when Japan to a great extent was sealing itself off from the outside world, have been moulding the mentality of the Japanese until today. Japanese speak of themselves as people who have an "island mentality" (shimaguni konjo) out of which they are at first distrustful of foreign influences.

The complex Japanese language, the strongly marked awareness to have a special culture and unique traditions induce them to ward off foreign influences that are regarded as dangerous.



Japanese have trouble with regarding themselves as "Asians among Asians", because they feel superior to their neighbours, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and also China.

It is true though that this awareness of the uniqueness of the Japanese way of life has been seriously undermined in recent decades through the acquisition of many foreign elements. Susumu Nakamura, professor of literature and literary critic, in 2007 published a book entitled "What the Japanese have forgotten" (Nipponjin no wasuremono) in which he draws our attention to the many far-reaching changes in the lifestyle of the Japanese in the last decades. In the interpersonal relations many traditional ideas and rules have greatly lost in significance. The attitude of the Japanese has also greatly changed in the field of religion. For wide circles of the population the rites and festivals of the traditional religions Shintoism and Buddhism have rather folkloric character and only a reduced religious significance.

In the big cities where the overwhelming majority of Japanese lives, the style of dwelling has fundamentally changed. The modern co-op apartments have hardly any rooms that are still carpeted with tatami, i.e. rice straw mats. There is usually no room for the formerly usual Shinto, Buddhist and less numerous Christian domestic altars in these homes which are built according to Western architectural ideas. That's why even Japanese find it difficult clearly to identify the actual "Japanese" of their way of life, in order thus to maintain the distinctive features and the uniqueness of Japan.


Nationalist Tendencies are Unmistakably

In Japan it took a long time until after the end of the Pacific War nationalist groups could develop. With the increasing importance of Japan as an economic and commercial power also nationalistic ideas could flourish again. The humiliation of Japan's defeat and occupation and of being continually reminded of the Japanese military's atrocities in the neighbouring countries preyed on the self-esteem of the Japanese. Japan has admittedly fulfilled the obligations resulting from international agreements and paid reparations to the countries concerned. But since these were often paid as disguised investments of large Japanese companies they have on a long-term bases brought yield again.

In coming to terms with the past the Japanese have increasingly tried to minimize their own guilt or totally to deny it. In the school books the historical facts were and are still presented in such a way that little remains of Japanese war guilt. On the occasion of visits to foreign countries affected by the Pacific war Japanese politicians have often attempted to avoid the issue of Japanese war guilt and the expected request for forgiveness of the victims or to tone it down so that no claims for reparations arose from it.

Until today no state compensation has been paid to the few surviving women from Korea and the Philippines who as forced prostitutes had been abused by the Japanese occupiers, because the Japanese government refuses to take responsibility for crimes which it regards as unfounded.

The annual commemorations of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki serve next to the memory of the dead also to show Japan in the part of the victim. After all, Japan is the only country that has been the target of a bomb attack and can thus see itself as victim of American war crimes. The disturbed relationship to the younger Japanese history and to its assessment is reflected in the repeated flare-up of the discussion about the national commemoration of the war dead in the Shinto Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo.


Japanese Catholics - a Minority in their own Church

Since into the register of the war dead kept there the names have been taken down also of those generals and politicians who as war criminals were sentenced to death or life imprisonment, visits of leading politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine are seen very critically in Germany, but even more so in Korea and China. The annual visits which the Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made during his tenure of office (2000-2006), admittedly not in his capacity as Prime Minister but as a "private man", repeatedly lead to diplomatic irritation and protests in Korea and China.

In March 2005 the Commission for Migration of the Japanese Bishops' Conference published statistical information showing that the number of Catholics in Japan had for the first time exceeded the mark of one million. The number of Catholics is given by 1.015.637, of which 449.926 are native Japanese and 565.712 foreign Catholics. The number of native Japanese Catholics has hardly changed for more than a decade, whereas the number of foreign Catholics has steadily been increasing, with the result that they are now the majority within the Japanese church.

The native Japanese Catholics are enrolled in the respective parish registers, whereas the figures of foreign Catholics are based on the data of the Japanese Ministry of Justice on the number of officially registered foreigners in Japan; however, these are only data on nationality but not on the religion of the foreigners.



Since there are no reliable statistical data, because of the large number of aliens illegally living in the land, the number of foreign Catholics might rather be higher.

Tani Dazji, Bishop of Urawa gives another reason for the inaccuracy in the figures for foreign Catholics. The amount of the financial duties of the individual dioceses to the Japanese Bishops' Conference depends on the number of Catholics registered in them. A little negligence in counting foreign Catholics therefore helps to keep taxes low.

The largest group of foreign Catholics are the 250.000 Brazilians of Japanese origin of the third generation who returned into the land of their grandparents. By their appearance they often look like "Japanese", but they are usually very estranged from the culture and language of their ancestors. In Japanese society they are little respected and have to struggle with the image to be failures. The number of 150.000 Catholic Christians emigrated from the Philippines is also very high. They are, firstly, women who often illegally work in the entertainment and sex industry and, secondly, unskilled workers who too are illegally in Japan, because due to the lack of qualification they can get no official work permits from the Japanese authorities. Also the Koreans are strongly represented by 55.000 and the Peruvians by 47.000 Catholics.

In the dioceses of Urawa and Nagoya the proportion of foreign Catholics is 80 percent, followed by Yokohama and Kyoto with 69 percent of foreign Catholics. It has taken a long time until the Japanese bishops and local parish priests responded to the pastoral challenge caused by the influx of foreign Catholics. Initially one contented oneself with choosing from the ranks of the foreign missionary orders some priests who came from the respective countries of the immigrants, so that they celebrated the Eucharist in the respective local language on Sundays and public holidays.

The dioceses of Urawa and Yokohama, where many of the Catholics of Brazilian origin live, have begun to send some diocesan priests to Brazil in order to learn the Portuguese language, so that they by means of their acquired language skills can, after their return to Japan, more effectively work in the pastoral care for the Catholics of Brazilian origin. In the late nineties those dioceses in which the number of foreign Catholics often surpasses that of the locals started to establish refuges, the so-called "Catholic International Centres", which besides divine services in various languages also offer counselling and assistance for the immigrants and their families.

The work of these centres has been well received by the foreign Catholics, especially in personal emergencies such as illness, difficulties with the authorities, delinquency and other difficult situations. The number of centres does not suffice for the large number of foreign Catholics. In order adequately to respond to the pastoral and human challenge, the local parishes are asked to take care of the foreign Catholics and to find new ways of integrating them into the parish life on the spot.


Difficulties with the Neocatechumenal Way

In many parishes it has now become customary to offer, in addition to Japanese, regularly divine services in English, Spanish or Portuguese. Increasingly, foreign Catholics are members of the parochial church council and the parish council [Pfarrgemeinderat]. They are often even the driving force, whereas Japanese Catholics are rather restrained in their willingness to cooperate in such bodies. In some cases this has already led to protests by the native Japanese Catholics, who do no longer feel quite at home in their own church, as the foreign element has become so strong.

In the diocese of Takamatsu, located in the north of the island of Shikoku, the movement of the Neocatechumenate has been running for several years the international seminary "Redemptoris Mater" in which most of the seminarians who are trained there have come from abroad to Japan. The behaviour of members of the Neocatechumenal Way, who showed little understanding and respect for Japanese culture, language and lifestyle, led to arguments with the local church. After taking office in his diocese in 2004 Bishop Francis Xavier Osamu Mizobe repeatedly tried in vain to achieve the closure of the seminary approved by his predecessor.

His failure is probably due to the fact that Cardinal Ivan Dias, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, who is well disposed towards the Neocatechumenal Way, protects the seminary. Only when in May 2008 five Japanese bishops under the leadership of the chairman of the Bishops' Conference were able personally to describe the Pope their problems with the seminary of the movement they at first got the permission to close the seminary. Later, however, Benedict XVI decided that the seminary was changed into a papal seminary and is thus directly subordinated to the jurisdiction of the Holy See.

The occurrence makes clear that significant differences continue to exist between the bishops' and the Pope's valuation of the Neocatechumenate. Anyway, Archbishop Peter Takeo Okada of Tokyo expressed his rejection very clearly when he said:



"In the small Catholic Church in Japan the sectarian-like activities of members of the Neocatechumenal Way prove to be divisive and confrontational. They lead to splitting and quarrels in the church."

For a long time the Japanese bishops, priests and religious have been worrying about the fact that the number of indigenous Japanese Christians has been stagnating for decades. They have repeatedly tried to find new ways to evangelize. The large-scale conferences on evangelization at national level, which took place in 1987 in Kyoto and in 1995 in Nagasaki, had little or no success. The number of foreign missionaries, which for a long time was higher than that of the local clergy, is steadily declining, since hardly any foreign missionaries come into the country.

The majority of remaining foreign missionaries do the ordinary pastoral work in schools, universities and other church institutions. Most of them are so fully stretched by those tasks that little room remains for direct evangelization and missionary work. There is some helplessness, how the Catholic Church can win a greater attraction for the Japanese society.


A "Church of the Martyrs"

The mega-event of the beatification of the 188 Japanese martyrs on 24 November 2008 in Nagasaki in a baseball stadium with 30 000 participants let once again for a short time the Catholic Church find attention in the national media. 188 martyrs were beatified, most of them lay people aged from 1 to 80 years, who were executed for their faith together with priests and religious during the period of persecution from 1603 to 1639.

The beatification was pursued by the Japanese bishops, in order to remind - by the example of those 188 chosen martyrs - of the 50.000 men, women and even children who in the probably cruelest persecution of Christians in the history of the Church have been killed by the Japanese authorities. Particular prominence was given to the Jesuit Petro Kibe who as the last of the martyrs beatified in Nagasaki was killed in 1639 in Tokyo and whose name was given to the entire group "Petro Kibe and the 187 Martyrs".

The beatification ceremony was preceded by a time of inner-church preparation. In the parishes one reminded of the many martyrs by means of study and prayer materials. On that occasion emphasis was put on the importance of martyrdom in Christianity in general and for the spirituality of the Japanese church in particular. After all, the Japanese church regards itself as a "Church of the Martyrs" and sees in the memory of their legacy the outstanding characteristic of its spirituality.

But this emphasis on martyrdom at the same time keeps alive that within the Japanese society the Japanese church was for a long time regarded as an outlawed group because of its foreign nature and its strange doctrine. In spite of the high respect for the testimony of the martyrs, one can therefore not ignore that keeping alive the memory of persecution entails directing one's attention perhaps too much to the past. Even though of course still Tertullian's dictum is valid, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians".


    {*} George Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on theology of religions. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In that capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Union of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.


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