Giulia Ajmone*Marsan sketches
the growth of Catholicism in the Fax East
ST FRANCIS Xavier was the first missionary to visit Japan in 1549. Thanks to his efforts and those of his successors, the Portuguese Jesuits, as well as the Spanish Dominicans and Franciscans, about 300,000 Japanese, out of a population of approximately 17 million, were converted to Catholicism.
However, Catholics were perceived to be subversive and at the beginning of the eighteenth century were banned and brutally persecuted. Only after Japan's opening up to the west in 1858 were Catholic missionaries allowed once again to enter the country.
Their activities induced the "clandestine Catholics" to come out in the open. These were the offsprings of those Catholics who went 'underground during the persecution. As they did not have the assistance of priests, they handed the faith down from father to son, often distorting the Latin prayers beyond recognition.
The need for concealment also led them to adopt local customs; in particular the worship of ancestors. They faced further persecution until 1873, when the Mejii Government lifted the 250 year ban on their right to practice.
Thereafter, the Catholic Church concentrated its efforts on the reunion with the "clandestine Catholics". However, a minority of these felt that an unbridgeable gap had developed over the years and feared that their community leaders would have to surrender their authority to the clergy.
The Church also succeeded in attracting a number of converts, especially from the urban middle-classes. Their number has been growing steadily since the beginning of the century and, in particular, during the early post-,war years: in 1965 16,669 adults were baptised.
At the time of the economic take-off in the mid 1950s though, the number of conversions started to decline, dropping to 4,025 in 1974. Since then it has grown again at a moderate pace, and today Japanese Catholics number about 500,000, representing only 0.35 per cent of the total population.
There are a variety of reasons why Catholicism has made such limited progress in Japan. Some are historical. For instance, unlike the neighbouring Philippines, Japan was never colonised by a Catholic power. Nor, does the Catholic Church represent a focus for political opposition as it does in South Korea. There are also cultural reasons: Catholicism is perceived to be "foreign", not Only because over half of the clergy are foreign, but because the Church has a strong elitist flavour, which discourages ordinary people from approaching it.
Thus, in the words of Fr O'Doneghue, who teaches at Tsukuba University, "this foreignness is native rooted". According to others the degree of inculturation is insufficient. They argue that only minor concessions to local customs have been made.
For instance, the burning of incense sticks in church is allowed and the Sign of Peace is given by bowing to each other. They would like the Church to learn more from Buddhism, especially from Zen, from which they have borrowed zazen, the seated meditation technique.
However, it is clear that some of the central features of the Catholic faith are distant from. the Japanese mind.
Nevertheless, in Japan "Catholic influence is great" says Fr Miiward, who teaches at Sophia University. This influence is exercised especially through education: the Catholic Church runs 589 kindergarten, 53 primary schools, 90 middle schools, 27 boys' high schools and 88 girls' ones, 33 junior colleges and 12 universities, which are entirely selfsupported. Undoubtedly the best known and most prestigious among these institutions is Sophia University of Tokyo, which was founded by the Jesuits in 1931 and today with about 10,000 students and an excellent arts department is one of the best private universities.
The activities of Church are not limited to education. In fact, it is deeply involved in social work.
The Japanese Church is striving to increase its influence, by becoming more open and active. These efforts were encouraged by the 1981 papal visit, during which John Paul II stressed the need for evangelisation. Responding also to the wishes of the majority of their flock, the Japanese bishops are, therefore, discussing a programme of evangelisation, which is likely to be a compromise between the views of the older and the younger bishops. The former stress the need for direct evangelisation, while the latter group argue that action within society is more likely to be effective.
In connection with this programme, the bishops are preparing a national convention of the clergy and the laity to take place in 1987. Such a convention, the first to be organised in Japan, is modelled on the German and Dutch "Catholics' Day" and represents an important step towards a greater participation of the laity.