New evangelization in Japan. Interview with bishop Isao Kikuchi

Pope Francis could visit Japan. The invitation came from japanese bishops, as the Pope signed the decree of beatification of Takayama Ukon, the “warlord of Christ”. Takayama, born in 1552, was baptized at the age of 12. Following the Tokugawa feudal government’s ban on Christianity, he was exiled to Manila in 1614 and died of disease the following year.

Takayama Ukon gives us the opportunity to talk about new evangelization in Japan with Isao Kikuchi, bishop of Niigata.

Your Excellency, why catholic Church is still so small in Japan?   Is there any cultural/political problem for new evangelization?

First and most, school education has been priority in evangelisation in Japan for more than 100 years. It is true to say that Catholic schools in Japan, starting from kindergartens to universities, made significant influence over many people who studied there and quite number of them have been baptised. But that influence stopped there, I mean, within the converts and did not penetrate into their family members.  Majority of converted Catholics are lone Catholic in their family. Then there are general indifference to any serious religion among people in Japan. As for past 70 years after the WWII, economic growth and technological advancement were priority in our society in Japan. Supernatural being are to respond people’s requests or do something for people which can not be materialised by money or by technology. In such situation, orthodox religion such as Christianity is considered as something too much, or something always demanding people to take concrete action. People love to visit Shinto Shrine for something like fortune-telling to know their luck or good fortune. That is something to be given from supernatural. But if they come to our Church, they are asked to make their own decisions and take action. That is too demanding. Thirdly, there are general suspicion against any religious groups since 1995 when AUM Shinrikyo staged deadly gas attack in Tokyo. Recently, presence of terrorist groups such as Islamic States created among general public fear against religious groups.

Politically speaking, we do not have any problem to practice our faith in Japan. The present Constitution provides freedom of belief and freedom of association. However, at the same time, the Constitution prescribe
strict separation of religion and government. So Catholic Church in Japan has no political influence in Japan.

I might say that there are not so much problem for new evangelisation in Japan but only indifference of general public might be the biggest and strongest obstacle for new evangelization.

How catholic Church could grow?

After the March 11, 2011 massive earthquake and tsunami, Catholic Church in Japan, together with Caritas Japan, for which I have been the president, has been working for rehabilitation program in the area.
Together with local diocese, Sendai Diocese, we have established 8 volunteer bases in coastal area to accept volunteers from all over the world. Because of the reason I mentioned above, we did not specifically
used name “Catholic” in these bases but used “Caritas Volunteer Base” instead.

Majority of volunteers are Non-Catholics. And many of them became so-called “repeaters” who join the activities again and again. According to them, they love the serene or spiritual atmosphere of our Caritas
Volunteer Bases where Catholic members say prayer together and also do daily sharing for which Non-Catholics are not forced to join. But these spiritual aspects have been appreciated by many. Also through our activities, we now have a lot of opportunity to meet and live with local people and offer help to many in need. Catholic Church in Japan is doing new evangelisation in this disaster hit area and will continue to do so till 2021.

Another point. There are quite a number of migrant Catholics residing in Japan. Many are from Latin America and Philippines. For instance, I have a parish where more than 90 members out of 100 are Filipinos. And they
are married with Japanese farmers. So Filipinos are wife and mothers in Japanese Non-Christian families. And they do good work on evangelisation. Their kids are baptised and there are cases of baptism of their husbands,
though not so many yet. Our migrant Catholic communities are hope for future.

Are there catholic media?

Yes, there are Catholic media but only in printing business. It is not easy to get license to open other media such as TV or Radio stations in Japan and running such media activities cost millions of Yen. So it does not pay. I should say Catholic media does not have much influence over general public in Japan.

Is there any particular impact of Jubilee of Mercy? Has Laudato Si’ had a special interest in Japan society?

Jubilee of Mercy per se has not so much impact over general public in Japan. It is surely celebrated well in our Catholic communities in Japan but our message, though message of mercy, love and forgiveness is very much relevant and necessary in modern Japanese society, does not have enough power to penetrate into people’s heart.

Laudato Si has not been translated into Japanese yet. A team has been working on the translation at this moment. We have been already talking about it in our homilies or messages but still do not have much impact.
Once the translation is finished, we may be able to launch a campaign to raise awareness of general public. In connection to the Laudato Si, in 2001, Japanese Bishops published a message titled “Reverence for Life”
on the issue of human dignity and protection of life. Refer to the link:

The message was well accepted even by general public. So at this moment, a team has been appointed to revise the text and write a new message on the topic addressed to entire Japanese society. This would be much related to the contents of Laudato Si. I hope we may also be able to influence our government on matters such as human dignity and environmental issues, especially on the issue of use of nuclear energy
after Fukushima disaster.

As you might know, Japanese Bishops are calling for complete abolishment of nuclear energy facilities in Japan based on our experience in Fukushima. And the present government is trying to utilise them again
despite the fact that Fukushima is still not under control.

Why could Pope Francis change something in Japan?

As you know, Japanese in general has much love to European history and culture. Because of this, Italy and, particularly, Vatican is one of the most popular tourist destination. That is why many people in Japan know
something about Pope even though they do not notice that Catholic Church exists nearby them. Also politicians have special reverence to Holy See. In 1981, Pope John Paul II visited Japan for very first time and that
created quite a sensation among people especially among youth. Maybe Catholic Church at that time could not take advantage of such positive feelings of people for evangelisation.

So if Holy Father makes visit of Japan this time and pays visit to tsunami hit area and shares his message of mercy, I am sure it will create a kind of positive feeling to christianity. So it is up to us whether we are able to utilise that sensation for good cause of evangelisation or not.