What does it mean to be Japanese and Catholic? Pope Francis in Japan raises the question

A Japanese depiction of Francis Xavier dated to the 17th century From the Kobe City Museum collection Public Domain CNA A 17th-century Japanese depiction of St. Francis Xavier, from the Kobe City Museum collection. | Public Domain.

For centuries, Japanese intellectuals, emperors, and missionaries have asked the same question: What does it mean to be both Japanese and Catholic?

The arrival of Pope Francis in Japan this week has revitalized a conversation  about what happens to Japanese identity when Christianity enters the mix.

Archbishop Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo talked with CNA about attitudes toward Japanese Catholics from both Japanese and foreign perspectives.

"Receiving Christian baptism does not mean losing one's Japanese identity. Neither does it change one's lifestyle. Just because one is Christian, that does not mean it would bring trouble to one's daily life," said Kikuchi, who took charge of the Tokyo archdiocese two years ago.

Archbishop Kikuchi believes that while Japanese do not have a negative perception of Christianity, the religion appears around them, and in their media, as a mystical spirituality with complex rules and a completely different theology than they are used to.

For many Japanese citizens, Christianity is not "un-Japanese", it is simply unknown, the archbishop said. And that is a crucial difference.

"The impression of Christianity as a foreign religion has stuck in the minds of many people. Some would talk about it on occasions when they dream about a magnificent church building similar to Gothic style ones in Europe."

Christianity is obviously not native to Japan.

Shintoism is the original faith shared by the Yamato ethnic group, now commonly referred to as the "Japanese," though other ethnic groups have and still do inhabit parts of the island nation.

However, "Shintoism" as a concept can be misleading. Each village and population center had its own local deities and rituals. Some gods became somewhat well-known throughout the country, such as Evisu the god of fishing and good luck.

Evisu became widely-known across ancient Japan and shrines to him can be found throughout the country. However, in Japan's traditional religion, devotion has varied widely between villages, which shared in common sometimes only the use of sake, salt, and other such ritual accoutrements.

It was foreign visitors who first roundly grouped all of regional faiths together into an umbrella term, lumping many different creeds and forms of worship into the same bag, and calling it one religion. For this reason, it's hard to talk about Shintoism as a uniform faith. It is instead more akin to a spirituality or philosophy that underscores and shares traits across hundreds of Japanese folk religions.

Buddhism arrived in 467 AD, brought from the Asian mainland by monks.

That new religion, completely distinct from the Japanese concept of spirituality, introduced more concrete systems of metaphysics and worship to the island. Buddhism rapidly gained popularity and now makes up the largest group of people in Japan with a declared, affiliated religion, and by a wide margin.

Christianity arrived in a meaningful way in 1549, with the landing of St. Francis Xavier, more than a thousand years after Buddhism. Xavier found great success in converting the local population, with tens of thousands of converts made by the Jesuits under his leadership.

To this day, children as young as elementary-schoolers learn about the life and mission work of Xavier in schools, where he is depicted in the traditional icon: clutching his burning heart and staring lovingly up a crucifix that extends into heaven.

Xavier's life and success converting the Japanese en masse to Christianity before the mass executions of the Edo Period are far better known in Japan than in the West.

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But despite this familiarity with the man, there's virtually no familiarity with his faith.

"Since Christianity came to Japan from Europe, and thereupon assumed the role of introducing European culture to Japan, it left an image of Christianity as a foreign religion," Kikuchi told CNA.

An interesting situation can be extrapolated by comparing the numbers of self-reported Shinto practitioners versus self-purported Christians in Japan.

Christians make up 1-2% of the population of Japan. Less than half are Catholics.
While more than 90% of the population reports participating in Shinto rituals and festivals, less than 5% report any official ties to a sect or rite of Shintoism. They are participating, but they do not say they believers, and don't consider themselves followers.

"At present, Shintoism is still at the framework of traditional events (festivals) of local communities in Japanese society, and the presence of shrines and temples is widely accepted as something ordinary," said Archbishop Kikuchi.

"On the other hand, the church is still trying to find its specific role in the local community, perceived as a special place."

All this considered, Archbishop Kikuchi finds the idea of Japanese identity being compromised by conversion to Christianity to be unfounded.

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"In the first place, Japanese society is quite indifferent to religion. It does not matter whether you have one or not," said the archbishop.

"Therefore, becoming a Christian or belonging to any religion for that matter does not make one any less Japanese."

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