Fr Sudhakar Nukapogu speaks about India and Japan, ‘different but close’
by Alessandra De Poli

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida will be in New Delhi next Sunday following a path laid down by his predecessor Shinzo Abe. Yet the two Asian giants have cultures that are in some respects almost antithetical. The PIME missionary, originally from Andhra Pradesh but in Japan since 2015, explains how he had to adapt to people who are strongly community-oriented, yet flexible in religious matters.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will start a four-day visit to India next Sunday to boost bilateral economic, political, military, and cultural cooperation that began in the early 2000s under his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, and then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In India Abe is a respected and well-known figure; the day after his assassination in July last year, current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared national mourning.

Although India and Japan are on the same continent, the two countries could not be more different. Their “culture, food and people are different,” says Father Sudhakar Nukapogu, a missionary originally from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

After studying in the seminary in Italy, he moved to Japan in 2015 and now serves in the city of Hadano, in the Diocese of Yokohama.

"The Japanese are very reserved, strict, rigorous. They have great respect for the community,” the priest notes. “As soon as I arrived, at my first Japanese lesson, the teacher asked us to wear a mask if we had a cold out of respect for others. After the pandemic it seems almost self-evident, but in 2015 it was not at all, especially for us foreigners.”

This concern for others is seen in the small deeds of daily life. “One of the women who helps us in the parish comes to church by bicycle,” the Indian missionary explains. “A few days ago, after work, she found a note and a banknote on the saddle worth about US$ 10; a stranger had left them for her after accidentally causing the bike to fall and not knowing if it had been damaged.”

Yet, even after so many years, Fr Sudhakar is still surprised by the strictness of his parishioners. “Last year we organised a bus trip to start at 9 am. All the participants were already present at 8.30, but leaving early was inconceivable. The bus drove off only at 9 am sharp.”

You smile at such episodes, but they also require missionaries to adopt a new approach to people.

“During the pandemic, we set up a stand to hand out food parcels in the parish. Although we knew that many people had problems, no one came. So I asked the other priests to leave the food in church, and we invited those who needed it to come and get it with the lights off, late at night, after work.

"As the days went by, we saw it worked this way. People took only what they needed, earnestly. This is because, among the Japanese, the sense of shame is as strong as the sense of duty."

For the same reasons, it is also easy to experience loneliness in Japan. “The sense of friendship that you experience in India, where you chat and go out for tea, you don't feel it with the people here,” Fr Sudhakar notes.

“Sometimes it's hard to talk about deep friendship even after 10 years. The Japanese work very well in groups, but at the same time they are not good at relationships. They are silent and our work has to adapt to this. It is important to be with them, to use a few words and show the beauty of the relationship with Christ with one's own witness.”

Sudhakar, who is 38 years old, experienced this firsthand. “When they see that a young priest is here for them, they understand the meaning of my presence and follow me.”

Only 2 per cent of Japan’s population comes from abroad and the Japanese are known for being distant from foreigners; for the Indian clergyman, "there is no manifest racism, but they do keep an even greater distance from outsiders.”

In light of this, the priest whose mother tongue is Telugu, and speaks a little Hindi and Tamil, has also had to learn Spanish.

"A group of South Americans, mostly from Ecuador and Peru, asked me to say Mass in their language. They have lived in Japan for at least 20 years working at menial jobs like cleaning or farming, but they do not speak Japanese. Now they can at least pray in Spanish.”

According to a famous Japanese saying, you are born Shinto, get married as a Christian and die as a Buddhist. This something inconceivable in the Indian subcontinent.

“India is a great country where peoples of different languages and faiths coexist. The relationship with religion is very personal and conversion is forever.

“Indian Christians are a minority, as in Japan, but here the Shinto culture is also reflected in the life experience of Christians. For them, God is nature, with whom it is important to live in harmony.”

Even those who convert to Christianity, often in old age (Fr Sudhakar says he just baptised a 94-year-old woman) continue to go to the temple. "Because, first of all, one is Japanese,” the priest explains.

There is another saying in Japanese, dear to the Indian missionary, which comes from the Buddhist tradition: “wabi sabi”.

This concept tells people to find good even in imperfection. It means that even in the diversity between cultures there can be joy. For me it was a starting point as soon as I arrived in Japan and still is today."