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  • » 02/18/2011, 00.00


    Bishop of Fukuoka on Japan's missionary and mature church

    Pino Cazzaniga

    The Japanese "paradox": is the country recalcitrant to Christianity? Domenico Miyahara, Bishop of Fukuoka, helps us to understand the particular face of Christianity in Japan. The Church is increasingly conscious of having to take on a role of service and dialogue in the context of East Asia. "

    Tokyo (AsiaNews) - Japan is a paradoxical nation from the standpoint of Christian evangelization. In this nation where the right of freedom of religion is scrupulously respected, Christianity remains on the margins, despite the intense activities of the evangelising missionaries that has lasted over a century.

    There is a paradox in Japanese Catholicism, evidenced by the statistics of three dioceses. The Archdiocese of Tokyo (capital and Chiba prefecture), out of a population of 18 million are there are about 95 thousand Catholics, or 0.5%. In the Fukuoka (four prefectures of the island of Kyushu), there are 32 thousand Catholics in a population of 7. 758,000 inhabitants, 0.4%. In the Archdiocese of Nagasaki out of a population of 1,494,000 inhabitants, 66 thousand are Catholics, 4.3%.  Out of a total population of 127 million Japanese,  Catholics are about 450 thousand, the equivalent of 0.35%, spread over 16 dioceses.

    In comparason, South Korea, in numerical terms, with a population of 44 million has more than 5 million Catholics, over 10% of the population, and if we consider the number of Christians of all denominations, more than 20 % of South Koreans are Christians.

    The logic of numbers would push us to conclude that Japan is recalcitrant to Christianity.

    The Bishop of Fukuoka

    To understand, in some way, the Christian paradox of Japan, we have sought the help of Mgr. Domenico Miyahara (56), Bishop of Fukuoka. The very figure of the bishop and the place where the interview takes place are the historical and psychological environment best suited to illustrate and possibily, understand the significance of the second Christian evangelization in Japan.

    Bishop Miyahara was born in 1955 to a Catholic family in the region of Nagasaki, the city of martyrs. Ordained in 1982, he spent a period of further studies in Rome, and then devoted himself to teaching in a Catholic seminary. In 2000 at only 45 years of age he was consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Oita (Kyushu island), which has 6 thousand Catholics. Three years ago he was placed in charge of the more consistent diocese of Fukuoka: over 30 thousand Catholics.

    It is not difficult to imagine the inner conflict experienced by bishop Miyahara over this progression in nominations. The importance of the diocese does not correspond to the civil importance of the cities: Fukuoka with a population that exceeds half million inhabitants, is the capital of Kyushu island, in comparison Nagasaki, located on the same island, is a secondary city, with less than half a million inhabitants. But from the ecclesial perspective their importance is reversed: Catholics count for more than 4% of the population in Nagasaki, while in Fukuoka they are only 0.4%. And the difference of the percentages is not the main reason for the difference in the significance of two places: in the Nagasaki there is a pervading Catholic atmosphere, while in Fukuoka the "pagan" that is synonmous to all major Japanese cities dominates. Small wonder, then, that the title of Archdiocese was given to Nagasaki.

    The two faces of the Catholic Church in Japan

    And it is from this difference in atmosphere that our interview begins, with the question as to whether the fundamentally peaceful and optimistic attitude of the population of Nagasaki is due to the influence of Catholicism. Since the question posed in such a way could miscontrue a moral judgement,  Bishop Miyahara does not responded directly, but rather reformulates the question in terms of facts.

    The differences that can not be denied nor underestimated, he says, find their explanation in the history of Catholic evangelization in this country. Christianity was brought to Japan for the first time by the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in 1549. The fruits of the first evangelization were impressive: in a few decades the Catholic Church had over 400 thousand faithful. But in the first half of the seventeenth century a cruel and widespread persecution was unleashed followed by a "closed door" policy that not only stopped but destroyed the evangelization of Christianity in this country.

    In the second half of the nineteenth century Japan, for reasons of international politics, reopened the doors of the nation and, while not abolishing the edict of proscription of Christianity, allowed the entry of priests for religious services to members of foreign embassies .

    Thus began the second evangelization of Japan, thanks to the zeal of missionaries and the intelligence of Foreign Missions of Paris. And since then a Japanese Catholicism of two faces has been formed: that of Yokohama and that of Nagasaki. The missionary Father Petitjean, ostensibly in the service of the French Embassy in Yokohama (the port city not far from Tokyo), knowing that Nagasaki in the south, was the cradle of the first wave of Christianity in Japan and the city of martyrs, visited the city and went on to build a church on a hill overlooking the harbor. In this way, after two centuries of persecution, the "hidden Christians" were discovered: an unprecedented fact in the history of Christianity,

    The discovery of the "Hidden Christians" gave rise to two different ways to evangelize: the apostolate of "comfort" and "exhortation" in the area of Nagasaki, the first apostolate of evangelization in all other parts.

    In a Bible psalm we read: "those who sow in tears will reap in joy."

    Applying this prophetic to the areas of Japan above indicated we would have to say that the Church of Nagasaki is reaping in joy, while evangelism proceeds amid sweat and tears in the other areas. Some clarifications: suffering in Nagasaki lasted until 1945 and experienced a moment of tragic escalation on August 9 of that year with the second inhuman atomic bombing of the that destroyed the city and decimated the most fervent and numerous Catholic community throughout Japan.  

    But now its beautiful churches have been rebuilt, foremost among them the Urakami Cathedral 500 meters from the epicenter of the atomic bombing and the fervent community reflects the atmosphere of those who are reaping in joy.

    Moving towards a missionary church open to Asia.

    One gets the impression that the Church of Nagasaki is somewhat jealous of her happiness and fervor and fears losing this by offering to evangelize other regions of Japan and Asia. Bishop Miyahara says impressions of this kind are the result of viewing the reality on the ground outside of its historical context. Before coming to Fukuoka he was bishop of the Diocese of Oita with a total of only 6 thousand faithful. In Europe this figure is equal to a local parish. In addition, this little flock live in the midst of a non-Christian population of 2,300,000 people. We have, therefore, limits of resources, personnel and formation. It takes time. This essentially, also applies to Nagasaki.

    Moreover, the concept of mission in Asia, is currently seen as the evangelization of the cultures among which they live. Today Japan is increasingly conscious of having to take on role of service and dialogue in the context of East Asia. The Catholic Church here is doing it by promoting dialogue with "sister Churches" of neighboring nations.

    At the level of episcopal conferences, Japan and South Korea have already set up annual meetings. But we are aware that cultural dialogue in the context of faith should be promoted even at the grassroots level. For this reason the Bishop of Fukuoka is organizing exchanges of students and seminarians with the dioceses of Korea.

    However, says the bishop, to achieve this communion of sister Churches at a cultural level, a suitable instrument is needed, which, according to Miyahara, would be a Catholic University. In this area, the Jesuit Sophia University in Japan plays an excellent part. Nonetheless, it is located in Tokyo. The problem would be resolved by setting up branches in the various dioceses. The bishop plans to establish a campus of Sophia University in Fukuoka where students could have access to the first two years of formation.

    The role of foreign missionaries in Fukuoka

    It is well known that the flow of foreign missionaries from the churches of Europe and America has been interrupted. Asked if they are still useful, the bishop replies with an invitation to reflect on what is happening in the parish of Taku, for decades under the guidance of an old PIME missionary: Father Claudio Gazzard. Having reached 85, in theory he should have the right to retire,  but if he leaves the parish there is no one to replace him. The bishop speaks of him with great admiration. It is not a unique case, he points out.

    But probably the lack of European missionaries may be providential, because it pushes the Japanese Church to turn to the Catholic Churches of Asia, full of clergy. Miyahara speaks especially of vienamese missionaries, who, being in Asia would also be better able to interact with Japanese culture.

    The church in Japan has matured. This is the belief that emerges from the interview with Bishop Miyahara. His pastoral program this year is no exception. After spending the first two years getting to know his new church, now he has a program that can be summarized as "the mystery of Christ," which calls on the faithful to experience this in liturgical celebrations, to live this in the context of their family and society and transmit it through evangelisation. But to achieve this, they must first know and understand it. Manabi, "learn" is the watchword of this year’s pastoral program.
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    See also

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