Sunday, April 26, 2009

Catholicism in the Land of the Rising Sun

Apologies for no posts....I mentioned the loss of my internet, and had only had it back for about a day before I was scheduled to leave on an overseas trip. My trip was to Japan, and I'm going to post a little about it here.

Christianity is a minority faith in Japan- Roman Catholicism in particular only makes up 0.5% of the population, according to statistics from (among this small minority is Japan's current PM, Taro Aso). The majority of Japanese practice Buddhism (specifically Mahayana or 'Greater Vehicle' Buddhism) and the animist Shinto faith. If you stay in a Japanese hotel, not only will you find a copy of the Gideons New Testament (with side-by-side Japanese and English translation) in your bedside table drawer, but also a copy of the Teachings of Buddha next to it. The Buddha of Compassion (Kanzeon in Japanese) is often closely identified with Mary. Though I did see traditional statuary of Mary (St. Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo has a copy of Michaelangelo's Pieta), she is also depicted as a Japanese woman with long flowing hair and wearing traditional kimono.

It was Francis Xavier who brought the Gospel to the Japanese in the late 16th century, and the churches I visited all featured some statue or image in his likeness. The bust in the photo below is displayed in St. Mary's Cathedral- it once belonged to the Medici family and was donated to St. Mary's by Cardinal Josef Frings, the former Archbishop of Cologne. Catholic Christians in Japan have encountered some hostility; the story of the twenty-six missionaries and converts being crucified during the Edo period is well-documented, and Christianity was banned until the 19th century Meiji Restoration, which allowed for freedom of religion.

The church here is a parish in Ashiya, a suburb outside of Osaka and was built in the 1930s. It is looked after at present by three priests- two Japanese and a Frenchman (there was an Italian there during my stay, but he was due to leave for another parish within a few weeks). My friend and her mother, who I attended mass with there, related that Japan also suffers from a shortage of clergy, which may explain the presence of the expat priests. A few parishes in Tokyo offer masses in English, but most services will be in Japanese and in some cases Tagalog and Spanish.

During World War II, some churches were destroyed when the Americans bombed the country; the most notable example being Nagasaki's Urakami Cathedral, which was destroyed when the second atomic bomb hit a short distance from the building. As a consequence, some churches rebuilt after the war were constructed with a modern appearance. The pictures below are of St. Mary's Cathedral, which was one such parish that was bombed during the war. I attended Palm Sunday mass there, and while I felt initially staggered by the size of the place, I found the interior to my liking. It appears quite cave-like in the photos below, but the simplicity of it is quite pleasing to the eye in person.
Kawaramachi Church is the seat of the Bishop of Kyoto. I was surprised to find it a short distance away from my hotel. The layout of the church bears some similarity to that of the Stuartholme School chapel in Brisbane with its large triangular stained glass window behind the altar. This church too was fairly simple in layout, with only the right wall decorated with stained glass windows. The third photos shows a section of this wall depicting the Stations of the Cross.

I have taken no photos of the services I went to (something I wouldn't feel comfortable doing, since they're not my parishes and I don't know the parishioners), but will comment on what might be considered a particular quirk to Japanese worship. Standing during the entire Liturgy of the Eucharist is practiced by most, with kneeling for prayer after communion. The parish in Ashiya also employs a system where a plateful of unconsecrated hosts is placed at the church entrance alongside the ciborium, and before you take your seat you take a host from the plate and place it in the ciborium with tongs. This is done to ensure exact numbers for communion. Altar serving practices are not too different from ours here; most of the servers I saw were young children around the ages of 8-10 (with an adult supervisor), and were very disciplined and committed.

If readers would still like to learn more about the Japanese Catholic experience, I can highly recommend the works of the author Endo Shusoku, in particular 'Silence' and 'Scandal'.


Summa Theologiae said...

My goodness, I have to confess I find that quite horrendous. It doesn't seem to be in accord at all with the sound traditional norms of Church architecture.

Hypatia said...

St Mary's is certainly an example of modern church architecture (it was built between 1963-64), not traditional by any stretch of the imagination. The pamphlet on the cathedral explains that the concrete walls in particular are meant to evoke Ps 18:2 ('The Lord is my rock and my bastion...').

It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea (as a general rule, most modern church architecture has admirers and critics in equal measure, we all know that), but I also think it is the sort of church that needs to be experienced in person, photos don't really do it proper justice.

Stephen said...

Although I find a lot of modern religious architecture boring banal and cold, the Japanese seem to get it right. There must be something in the Japanese psychology that is able to make beauty in simple forms, whilst being very traditional (ie. no stupid tables in the middle of the nave etc)

Pennycake said...

Hallo! I'm a Singaporean Catholic studying in UQ and it was a pleasant surprise to come across your blog and see the photo in the sidebar of the St. Stephen's Cathedral chapel.. and is that St. Mary's Cathedral in the header photo?

By the way, did you know about the Japanese Catholics secretly keeping their faith alive for 200 years, forced to survive without priests, bishops or any other religious?

Happy Christmastide!

Pennycake said...

Hang on, I just found more.. They did have priests, of a sort!

"Following Buddhist tradition, their priesthood is hereditary, passed down from father to son. A celibate priesthood would be too conspicuous in Japanese culture."