Shiori Kimura, 34, a Catholic woman who works as a nursery school teacher in Tokyo, runs a Youtube radio show called “KatoRaji.” The name is Japanese portmanteau that means “Catholic Radio.”
On the show, she regularly talks to a priest about the liturgy. They use the show as a way of educating non-Catholics on the basics of Catholic theology, but it’s also an attempt to reach out and catch those who feel for one reason or another that they can’t make it to Sunday services.
“We want to reach people who are too busy to go to church,” Shiori said with a sad, polite smile.
Shiori also spoke up about an issue she sees in the way the Japanese media has addressed Pope Francis this visit.
“The news calls him the ‘Roman Pope,’” said Shiori. “It’s weird to hear.”
Many news outlets in Japan and some social media users attach the “Roman” label to Pope Francis’s title, specifying his domain. Shiori feels that this unnecessarily limits someone who should be seen as a universal spiritual leader, the leader of a faith transcending borders.
The nomenclature used for the pope in Japanese is a frequent source of irritation for Catholics who speak the language.
This month, news outlets have been reporting heavily about the change of houou, or “Lawful King” to kyouko, roughly “Emperor of Teaching” or “Emperor of Scripture” as the official terminology for the pontiff. The latter term has been in regular use among Catholics for a long time.
Minori struggled to convey her thoughts into precise English, saying, “The pope is like the Emperor of Japan – he has such authority. But we see him like close family.”
“People think we serve him,” Minori continued, “but he’s our servant leader. He serves us.”
Despite a general lack of understanding or aversion to Christianity, Japan has had a long love affair with its superficial decorations. Japanese pop culture is overflowing with references to the religion.
Crosses and crucifixes are extremely popular among Japanese youth, usually worn as jewelry or other accessories. Shirts and sweaters also often bear crosses or depictions of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, or angels.
Anime and manga in Japan make frequent use of the Catholic Church as a convenient plot element. Popular media franchises can carve out niche stories from Catholic and general Christian lore, such as the manga Vatican Miracle Examiner, which follows two priests who aim to stop a nefarious shadow organization from overthrowing a fictionalized, magical Vatican City.
It’s safe to say that Japan loves pieces of Christian culture, but do they actually appreciate the faith?
“I don’t think it’s connected,” said Damien Adorable, 25, a Filipino who has been living and working in Tokyo for years.
“Many of them like to play games, but… this is just my opinion, but maybe they want it just because it looks cool. They have no idea that the cross is a Christian thing,” said Damien. “It’s nothing serious.”
Minori said that she had heard the visit of John Paul II more than 38 years ago gave a small boost in the numbers of Catholics around that time. She hopes Francis’ visit will make an impact on church attendance and bring back to the faith people who have strayed away.
Minori has had negative experiences with foreign Catholic reporters before. According to her, these American and European writers often assume that Japanese believers are somehow deficient or bizarre in their version of the shared religion.
“Most of the time with foreign reporters, they start [the interview with], ‘Do you pray every day?’” said Minori, annoyed. “They think ‘We are the real Catholics!’ That is so rude.”
These interview experiences have made her jaded towards Western journalists.
“That fact hurts us. It’s not just Japanese people who hurt us,” muttered Minori.
The pope concluded his tour of Japan on November 25th, the first apostolic journey to the country in close to forty years.
After speaking at Tokyo Dome and offering a mass for the thousands in attendance, Pope Francis also met with college youths at St. Mary’s Cathedral, one of the busiest churches in Japan.