05/07/2015, 00.00
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Bishop of Niigata: Population decline major challenge for Japanese Church and society

by Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi*
According to government figures, the percentage of the population under 15 years of age fell for the 41st consecutive year. Today young people represent only 12% of the total. The economic crisis is a major cause, and the most affected are rural areas where there are small Catholic communities. Msgr. Kikuchi tells AsiaNews: "By 2040, 80% of rural communities will disappear. As the Catholic Church we are doing too little to prevent it".

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - The percentage of the population under 15 years of age in the Land of the Rising Sun under fell for the 41st consecutive year, reaching a record low of 12.7 percent (16.17 million). This is according to demographic data published in recent days by the government as a result of an update of the national census. In 1950, young people under 15 accounted for 35% of the Japanese people, and since then the numbers has steadily declined (apart from the baby boom of 1971). According to government estimates, the prefecture of Tokyo is the only one registering, year after year, an increase of the young population, in contrast with the rest of the country. Below an analysis  sent to AsiaNews by Mgr. Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi, Bishop of Niigata.

Though an aging society with fewer number of children is the current trend in Japanese society as a whole, this problem is much more acute in rural areas, such as in my diocese, Niigata in northen part of Japan. An aging society with fewer children and drastic shift of youth population to major cities such as Tokyo means the collapse of the present local communities. Recent report from one of the governmental think tanks on population change in Japan said by the year 2040, decreasing population may force more than 890 communities to close them down. Especially, according to the report, in political prefectures of Akita and Yamagata in my diocese, 80% of their communities will perish by year 2040 if nothing is done to prevent it. This trend of decrease of population will definitely affect Catholic communities in the diocese.

In Niigata diocese with population of more than 4 million in three political prefectures, Akita, Yamagata and Niigata, quite a number of farmers have been facing difficulties to find spouses from the native Japanese community. Therefore, it has become commonplace to see foreign-born wives in farming villages in the diocese. The majority of these wives are from the Philippines and, thus, it has become a pressing necessity to find a suitable way to extend pastoral care to this new type of immigrants to our diocese.

One does not have to make any intensive research to find this trend of fewer kids in Japanese society and its effect on Catholic communities. Probably exception for parishes in Tokyo area, attending Sunday Mass in one of parishes in my diocese would be enough to notice immediately that the average age of the community is quite high. It is quite common to see elderly members serving as "alter boy" as there are no younger generation existing in the community.

This trend may affect the very existence of parish communities in financial aspects as contribution from parishioners may go down drastically in near future with less membership. By the way, this is exactly the problem for the government pension scheme as fewer younger generation have to support pension of growing number of senior generation.

It also affects vocation promotion as families tend to have only one child or two. If they have only have one son, then it is quite natural that parents feel reluctant to send their only son to the seminary.

As for our efforts to reverse this trend as Catholic Church in Japan, not much or nothing has been done as such. Main reason of this is that majority of marriage are between Catholics and non-Catholics. In these commonly found marriage cases, it is quite difficult for a catholic party to engage a non-catholic partner to follow Catholic teachings. Sometimes, a catholic is allowed to be Catholic on condition that she or he engages oneself with Catholic activities only on Sundays. And as recent economic condition in Japan has been not conducive to raise many kids and recovering from recession for some time, it is irresponsible for Catholic Church to impose more children policy while many families have been suffering from financial difficulties to raise their kids without much support from government and general public.


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