When Pope Francis visits Japan this November 23-26, he will be received by a highly resilient Catholic community – one that endured centuries of violent persecution under anti-Christian leadership and, more recently, an atomic bomb drop on Nagasaki, the nation’s longtime Catholic epicenter.
But even for a community of proven endurance, complications are looming. One issue is that Japanese Catholics are such a small minority—less than half of 1 percent—that sustaining the faith throughout succeeding familial generations has been difficult, as many find themselves compelled to marry outside their religion and, as a result, have children who are less inclined to be Catholic. In fact, more than 75 percent of Japanese Catholics marry non-Catholics.
In most cases, it’s easy to name a country’s most prominent religion. However, Japan is a different place in this regard: some sources say that most Japanese follow the Shinto religion, while other sources say that most Japanese are non-religious; and there is also the factor of a longstanding Buddhist influence.
“There is an old truism in Japan that claims that Japanese are born Shinto and die Buddhist, the point being that the ancient working syncretism between Shinto and Buddhism still holds power in the consciousness of Japanese people,” says Dr. Eric Cunningham, a Professor of History at Gonzaga University and a specialist in modern Japanese intellectual history.
Cunningham, who notes that funerals in Japanese are typically Buddhist, adds how “Shinto is generally regarded as a life-affirming, naturalist kind of belief system, while Buddhism is more concerned with karma and emancipation from worldly existence.”
However, his experience of having lived in Japan for six years has led to his own truism: the “religion” of Japanese people is “being Japanese.” The Christians he met also “would regard their Japanese-ness as more practically determining than their faith.” Such is the power of ethnic identity in a land where Christians comprise just 1 percent of the total population.
Catholicism first came to Japan in 1549 with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries, most notably St. Francis Xavier. When the faith began to attract many converts, the ruling powers cracked down ferociously on its adherents, who were compelled to take their worship underground.
During this prolonged period of persecution, many martyrs were made, including the 26 Martyrs of Japan, a group of Catholics (six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits, and 17 Japanese laymen) who were executed by crucifixion in Nagasaki on Feb. 5, 1597. They were canonized by Pope Pius IX in 1862.
The ban on Christianity ended in 1871, when the ruling Meiji government established the Kyobusho, a bureau of religion and learning. Cunningham describes how, soon after this change, converting to Christianity (particularly Catholicism) began to acquire a certain vogue as a sign of modernity and cosmopolitanism. He adds that the late 1800s saw a number of famous Japanese converts, though he suspects that such conversions were often less about religious ardor and more about the rising social cache of Christianity.
Throughout the centuries, Nagasaki had retained its Catholic tradition. In fact, when the U.S. launched a nuclear attack on Aug. 9, 1945, the atomic bomb traveled fewer than 2,000 feet away from Nagasaki’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral. Though the attack occurred on a Thursday, it was noontime, and there were worshipers inside the cathedral; none survived.
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