The recent visit of Prince Akishino, the younger son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan, and his wife Princess Kiko, with Pope Francis highlighted yet again the strong, friendly relationship that exists between the Holy See and the land of the rising sun.
It all began on Aug. 14, 1549, when St. Francis Xavier arrived at Kagoshima, on the island of Kyshu, and introduced Christianity to the people there. During his 27-month sojourn he baptized some 700 Japanese, including Bernardo of Kagoshima, who became the first Japanese person to set foot in Europe—and the first to meet a pope.
Thirty-six years later, official contact started between Japan and the Holy See thanks to another Jesuit, Alessandro Vagliano, who was superior there starting in 1579. He convinced Christian Japanese kings to send four young ambassadors to Spain, Portugal and Rome to ask for economic and spiritual assistance for the mission of evangelization.
They left Nagasaki in 1582 and arrived in Rome on March 22, 1585. The next day Pope Gregory XIII received them but died three weeks later, and they assisted at the enthronement of his successor, Sixtus V. When they arrived back home in 1590, however, the persecution of Christians had begun. They joined the Jesuits, and one of the four emissaries, Julien Nakakura, died a martyr in 1602.
Over the next two centuries Christians managed to survive in Japan, despite persecution and without priests. Then in 1873, Emperor Meiji lifted the ban on Christianity, allowed foreign missionaries to return and later guaranteed religious liberty. The Jesuits returned in 1908 and five years later established Sophia University, today one of Japan’s top educational institutions.
In 1919 Japan agreed to the Holy See’s request to appoint an apostolic delegate and two years later established its legation to the Holy See. Prince Héritier Hirohito visited Pope Benedict XV in June 1921, the first of many members of the Imperial family to visit a pope in the 20th century.
On April 25, 1942, Japan became the first Asian country to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Emperor Hirohito decided this for three reasons: The Holy See could act as a mediator for peace with the allies; it gathers information from all over the world; and it exercises moral influence on the major world players. Although the peace initiative proved impossible, the emperor upgraded the delegation to an embassy in 1958 and subsequently Pope Paul VI appointed the country’s first nuncio.
When Prince Akishino and his wife met Pope Francis on May 12, they were but the latest members of the Imperial family to visit the pope. His father, Emperor Akihito, met Pius XII in 1953 and Paul VI in 1965, and with his wife, Empress Michiko, he had a private audience with John Paul II in 1993.
No fewer than nine Japanese prime ministers have come to meet the pope since 1942, including Taro Aso, the country’s first Catholic prime minister. Shinzo Abe was the last to come; he visited Francis in June 2014.
John Paul II is the only pope to have visited Japan. He went Feb. 23 to 26 and was received by Emperor Akihito.
It is significant nevertheless that 467 years after the Gospel was first proclaimed in this land, Christians—among them 542,000 Catholics—count for only 1 percent of Japan’s 127 million people, most of whom profess Buddhism or Shintoism. It is surprising, therefore, that despite being a tiny minority, three Christians—including one Catholic— have been prime ministers.
There have been five Japanese cardinals in the history of the church, and they, too, have sought to build bridges between their homeland and the Holy See. The last to be created cardinal was Stephen Fumio Hamao, who died in 2007. As a young priest, he taught Latin to the then-crown prince who is now the emperor.
In interviews I had with Cardinal Hamao, we talked a lot about why Christianity has failed so far to spread widely in Asia and in Japan. He attributed much of the responsibility to Rome’s difficulty in understanding the Asian reality and the church there, in particular with regard to the dialogue with other religions. He felt the theology expressed in the Catechism is too European, too intellectual, too logical. He looked forward to the election of a pope who would lead Rome to have greater sensitivity to the cultures and the religions of this continent and “would listen to us.” He believed this would be important for the evangelization of his country.
Kagefumi Ueno, a former Japanese ambassador to the Holy See, speaking at the Circolo di Roma in 2010, shared much of the cardinal’s analysis. He attributed Christianity’s lack of growth mainly to the fact that most Japanese “do not cling to any absolutized values” and “many” even today “find Christianity somewhat foreign [or Western].” Significantly, however, he emphasized that “this does not mean that they decline to accept it [Christianity] in its entirety. Many have sympathy for its faith and tenets, however not to the extent of 100 percent, but to the extent of 70 or 80 percent” because of “the basic and fundamentally cultural or philosophical difference between the two sides.”
Mr. Ueno’s successor, Ambassador Hidekazu Yamaguchi, told trainee diplomats at the Holy See in 2012 that his government recognizes “the contribution that the Catholic Church has made to the education and health care of the Japanese people through its schools and hospitals” and the humanitarian aid and moral support given by the Holy See after the terrible earthquake of 2011. Other officials emphasize that Japan and the Holy See share much common ground on international issues.
A Jesuit brought Christianity to Japan and two future heads of the Society spent many years in this land where they are greatly respected: Pedro Arrupe and Adolfo Nicolàs.
Pope Francis, too, has personal links with Japan. As a young Jesuit, he wrote to Father Arrupe asking to be sent as a missionary to Japan, but his request was rejected for health reasons. Nevertheless, as Jesuit provincial in Argentina, he traveled to Japan in 1976 to visit members of his province working there. As pope, Francis seems to have made a big impact on the Japanese for his humility and openness, and both the government and bishops have invited him to visit.
If Francis decides to travel to Indonesia in 2017 for Asian Youth Day, as many expect, he might also visit another other country in Asia. Could it be Japan?