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Saints, authors and prime ministers: The dramatic story of Japanese Catholicism

After his apostolic visit to Thailand later this month, Pope Francis will move on to Japan, a land of saints and martyrs, but also a country where Catholics are in a tiny minority. Less than two per cent of the population is Christian, and less than half of those Christians are Catholics. So, 370 years after St Francis Xavier landed at Kagoshima City, why has Japan been so hard to evangelise?

The answer given by Shusaku Endo in Silence, his controversial novel about faith, doubt and apostasy in the 17th century, is that Japan is a swamp in which the foreign religion, Christianity, has struggled, and will always struggle, to take root. This gloomy analysis still has a great deal of resonance in Japan – and not just in Japan, as recent debates around the Amazon synod showed – so we need to see whether it stands up to analysis and that means looking closely at Japanese history.

If we go back to St Francis Xavier’s mission, we find a tremendous success story. During his two and a quarter years in the country St Francis converted 800 people, and the Church continued to grow rapidly in the years that followed. By the 1630s, after only 80 years of missionary work, more than six per cent of the population – some 760,000 people – were Catholic. If Japan was a swamp it was a remarkably productive one.

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