The first Jesuit arrived in Japan in 1549. Why are there so few Christians today?

A woman sets a floating candle lantern on the river Aug. 6, 2015, in Hiroshima, Japan, in observance of the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

On the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to Japan, Yoshio Kajiyama, S.J., the Hiroshima-born provincial of the country’s Jesuits from 2011 to 2017, spoke to America about his vocation and why so few Japanese people have embraced Christianity despite the fact that the Bible is a bestseller there and most Japanese consider religion “a good custom.”

In this exclusive interview, conducted in Rome on Nov. 9, the Japanese Jesuit identified six main challenges facing Japan today: the increasing gap between rich and poor, nationalism, the push to remove “the peace clause” from the Constitution, the plight of migrant workers and Japan’s low birth rate and high suicide rate. He talked, too, about the role of the Catholic Church in the Land of the Rising Sun today.

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Baptism and Vocation

Father Kajiyama was born into a Buddhist family in Hiroshima 10 years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on his home city on Aug. 6, 1945, killing 140,000 people, including his grandfather and aunt. His mother was in high school when the bomb exploded but survived, and his father was with the Japanese army in Manchuria at the time.

“By way of repentance or reparation,” he said, Californian Jesuits opened a high school in the city in 1955 called Hiroshima Gakuin. When he studied there the school had over 1,000 students in six grades, and among the teachers were 10 Jesuits from California.

Father Kajiyama was born into a Buddhist family in Hiroshima 10 years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on his home city on Aug. 6, 1945, killing 140,000 people.

At school he was feeling “sad” and “without much hope” and “began reading the Gospels,” he recalled. “I found Jesus in the Gospel. I found that he is with me, with us. I came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.” At the age of 15, he asked to be baptized. “I was the first Christian in my family.”

After high school, he went on to study history at the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo, which was founded in 1913 and is one of the most prestigious universities in the country. As he neared the end of his studies, he told his father about his desire to join the Jesuits, but his father was not enthused and told him he should go to work, earn a living and reflect deeply. He got a job as a history teacher in a girls’ school, but after five years, he spoke again with his father and reaffirmed his original desire.

“He gave me permission,” Father Kajiyama recalled. At the age of 24, he joined the Society of Jesus—one of four Japanese to do so at a time when there were only about 440,000 native Japanese Catholics.

The young Yoshio then studied philosophy and theology at Sophia University, where Adolfo Nicolàs, S.J., (the future superior general of the Society) taught him theology, and Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., (now a cardinal) was a fellow student. He also met Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., who came to the university in 1987 to visit Argentinean Jesuits that he had sent there, including the current provincial, Renzo De Lucas, S.J., who will translate for the pope from Spanish to Japanese during his visit.

“I only shook his hand then,” Father Kajiyama said of his meeting with the future pope.

“I only shook his hand then,” Father Kajiyama said of his meeting with the future pope.

After his ordination in 1990, he was sent to teach history and religion in Fukuoka (1991-2007) and became the principal of one of the four Jesuit-run high schools in Japan. In 2007, however, he was appointed “socius” of the provincial, and in 2011 he became the provincial, a post he held for the next six years. At that time, he said, the province had about 230 Jesuits, around half of them native Japanese, while the others were missionaries from Germany, Latin America, the United States and Spain. An average of 10 Jesuits died each year during his term as provincial, and the number of Jesuits in Japan has decreased to around 160 today, with an average age of 70.

A Complex History

Although Catholicism first came to Japan with St. Francis Xavier in 1549, today there are only 536,000 native Japanese Catholics in the country, which has a total population of 126.3 million. But Father Kajiyama said “we need to take into account many factors, including the long period of persecution,” to understand this. Moreover, he said, despite its small numbers, the Catholic Church runs “many educational institutions and most have an excellent reputation, and many Japanese students are influenced by Christianity.” He noted that after his ordination his parents were also baptized, though his brother and sister did not follow suit.

He cited many reasons why only a tiny percentage of Japanese have embraced Christianity. One is the process of evangelization that took place with the religious orders: the Jesuits came first, then the Franciscans, followed by the Dominicans and other orders, but the approach was “sectorial”; each order had its own zone, and there was “not a united effort.” At the same time, he noted, “many Japanese like reading the Bible, which is one of the bestsellers in the country.”

Although Catholicism first came to Japan with St. Francis Xavier in 1549, today there are only 536,000 native Japanese Catholics in the country.

“We have to see evangelization as a long process,” he said. “There is hope.”

Most Japanese consider religion to be “a good custom,” Father Kijyama said. “They bring their children to the Shinto shrine to be blessed by the priests. They often get married in Christian churches and go to the Buddhist temples for their funerals.”

But there is also some “bad feeling” toward religion in Japanese society, he said, because so many died “in the name of the emperor” under State Shintō during the Second World War. There is also suspicion toward new religions, like Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult that launched a Sarin chemical gas attack in the Tokyo metro on March 20, 1995, which killed 13 people and injured thousands.

Today’s Challenges

When asked to identify what he perceives as the main problems or challenges facing Japanese society today, Father Kajiyama mentioned six.

First, he said, even though Japan is the world’s third largest economic power after the United States and China, “there is the biggest gap between rich and poor in Japan than at any time in recent decades.” He recalled that in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s “most Japanese thought they belonged to the middle class.... This is no longer the case because today an estimated one in six Japanese lives in a state of poverty.”

A second major problem is nationalism, he said. Father Kajiyama noted that it finds support in the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the political forces close to him. “Nationalism has taken root and has resulted in xenophobia,” he said.

“We have to see evangelization as a long process,” Father Kajiyama said. “There is hope.”

A third major concern is the effort by Prime Minister Abe and the government’s allies to amend Article 9 of the Constitution, often referred to as “the peace clause.” That clause states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” Father Kajiyama recalled that in the week before we met, there had been “discussions in the Diet”—the Japanese parliament—on this subject. But, he said, “it will not be easy to change the Constitution as this requires a two-thirds vote in the Diet to do so, and people are divided in the country on this.”

A fourth issue relates to the plight of the migrant workers in Japan, Father Kajiyama said. “So many find themselves in terrible situations; they are forced to work like slaves, and even those who get good salaries don’t have the freedom to enjoy it.” He recalled that in the 20th century, many migrants came from countries like Brazil and Colombia because it was easy for them to get visas as descendants of Japanese who had immigrated to Latin America in earlier times. But, he said, they were not treated well in Japan because they did not speak Japanese well or at all.

Today, he said, “the migrants come also from Vietnam, many of them between 20 and 25 years of age, and often only stay for two years, make money and then go home.” He noted that because many of those from Vietnam come on “internship contracts for job training” their rights are not fully protected under Japanese law.

The Catholic Church in Japan “continues to work for evangelization today, with a focus on social justice,” Father Kajiyama said.

Father Kajiyama said he intends “to build a high school for immigrants” and serves as the chairman on the committee for this purpose.

A fifth major problem is the low birthrate in Japan, the lowest in 100 years. “Most families have only one child,” he said, and many couples have children without getting married. The current birthrate stands at 1.43 children per family. At the same time, 20 percent of Japan’s population is aged 70 or over.

Finally, Father Kajiyama speaks about the country’s high suicide rate. “Many don’t have hope, can’t find hope,” he said. “Some commit suicide as form of ‘revenge’ on society, such as by throwing themselves under a train to cause disruption.” According to government figures, a total of 332 Japanese elementary, junior high and high school students died by suicide in 2018, the highest number since the data was first gathered in 1988. Overall, 20,840 Japanese people died by suicide in 2018.

The Church in Japan

The Catholic Church in Japan “continues to work for evangelization today, with a focus on social justice,” Father Kajiyama said. “It promotes peace, and in a very important statement, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident on March 11, 2011, the bishops called for the abolition of nuclear power plants in the country.” The accident was triggered by a major earthquake and a 15-meter-high tsunami. He said the government initially decided to stop the power plants but has now allowed a few to open.

He acknowledged that the government was very keen to have Pope Francis visit the country and thought there could be a number of reasons for this. First, “many Japanese have a good impression of Pope Francis,” and, moreover, “when John Paul II came, they loved him especially because of his statement in Hiroshima.” Important, too, “we have a new emperor,” and “maybe the government also wants to get more support from the church.” Of course, he added, “there’s a political gain from the pope’s visit, as is true for every country.”

For his part, Father Kajiyama hopes Pope Francis “will give an excellent message about the abolition of nuclear weapons” and “will also meet many young people.” He looks forward to meeting him with the Jesuit community at Sophia University where he once studied and where the pope will spend his last morning in Japan.

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