Students and young people at Tokyo’s Sophia University discuss the Nov. 23-26 2019 visit of Pope Francis to Japan. Credit: Suzuka Oiwa/CNA
.- “Most of Japanese people don’t know we exist,” Minori Takeuchi told CNA last week.
“Or they think we are connected to cults. They think, ‘You must be dangerous! Or crazy!’ They don’t say it but –”
Minori, 22, is the college student who started Tokyo Christian Vox, a Youtube channel aimed at providing more religious content for Catholics in Japan. She translates, shares, and uploads videos on Catholicism for a Japanese speaking audience.
She’s also a student at Sophia University, Japan’s premier Catholic college, whose reputation rivals even that of National Universities, the Japanese equivalent to the Ivy League.
Minori called together a ragtag group of students and local parish members in the small library of Joseph Hall for an interview with Catholic News Agency a few days before Pope Francis arrived in the country for a visit Nov. 23-26.
Some spoke English, some spoke Japanese, and some switched rapidly between the two.
The group of about ten Catholic youth leaders talked to CNA about the state of the Church and the problems that young Catholics are facing in Japan today.
“When I was in junior high school, I was in the baseball club. I was not able to go to church except for Easter and Christmas,” said Kazuki, 20, a Sophia student.
“Japanese people don’t want to be different from others.”
Juno Matsumoto, 22, was in the basketball club around the time of her First Communion. In order to attend her own ceremony, she was required to miss an important basketball game, an uncommon and generally unaccepted experience in Japanese society, in which youth participation in clubs is heavily emphasized.
Juno’s parents forced her to skip the match and Juno became upset at how it would affect her and her team. She cried and refused several times to receive the Eucharist.
“I still have trauma,” she said about the struggle.
Juno believes that social media’s popularity in Japan can be an opportunity for young believers to feel “normal,” and develop a network of friends in a country where meeting young Catholics can be tough.
“I used to stay away from the Church when I was a junior high school and high school student,” said Yuhki Iizaka, a 26 year old Catholic in Tokyo. Yuhki had attended Mass weekly while in elementary school, but moving into junior high school culture changed him.
“What got me back to church was music. Somebody said there will be a folk Mass, so I heard that you could play the drums. I played the drums and everyone seemed happy to see me again.”
“For me, music is a bond to the church.”
Joshua Kurniawan, 24, works in Tokyo and participates in youth-oriented Catholic events.
Joshua told CNA he was looking forward to an upcoming discussion among Catholic youth on using their natural talents for the propagation of the faith. The small seminar featured a speaker from the Philippines, singing, and bonding exercises for those in attendance.
However, for every student and worker in the community forming strong bonds within the church, there are many more hovering on the outskirts and not engaged fully with the group.
Naoya Okuda, 25, is a student leader at Sophia University, and oversees several group chats on the popular messaging app Line. The chats are geared towards forming groups of support for Catholic students. But not everyone who signs up is active.
“In my [parish], half of them don’t come [to] church. They don’t comment on Line, they don’t come,” he said.
“We have 60 or 70 members, but half of them –,” Naoya cuts off. “It’s difficult to say they lost interest, but they’re busy with a job, or children.”
Naoya also manages a student group on Facebook with 165 members.
Shiori Kimura, 34, a Catholic woman who works as a nursery school teacher in Tokyo, runs a Youtube radio show called “KatoRaji.” The name is Japanese portmanteau that means “Catholic Radio.”
On the show, she regularly talks to a priest about the liturgy. They use the show as a way of educating non-Catholics on the basics of Catholic theology, but it’s also an attempt to reach out and catch those who feel for one reason or another that they can’t make it to Sunday services.
“We want to reach people who are too busy to go to church,” Shiori said with a sad, polite smile.
Shiori also spoke up about an issue she sees in the way the Japanese media has addressed Pope Francis this visit.
“The news calls him the ‘Roman Pope,’” said Shiori. “It’s weird to hear.”
Many news outlets in Japan and some social media users attach the “Roman” label to Pope Francis’s title, specifying his domain. Shiori feels that this unnecessarily limits someone who should be seen as a universal spiritual leader, the leader of a faith transcending borders.
The nomenclature used for the pope in Japanese is a frequent source of irritation for Catholics who speak the language.
This month, news outlets have been reporting heavily about the change of houou, or “Lawful King” to kyouko, roughly “Emperor of Teaching” or “Emperor of Scripture” as the official terminology for the pontiff. The latter term has been in regular use among Catholics for a long time.
Minori struggled to convey her thoughts into precise English, saying, “The pope is like the Emperor of Japan – he has such authority. But we see him like close family.”
“People think we serve him,” Minori continued, “but he’s our servant leader. He serves us.”
Despite a general lack of understanding or aversion to Christianity, Japan has had a long love affair with its superficial decorations. Japanese pop culture is overflowing with references to the religion.
Crosses and crucifixes are extremely popular among Japanese youth, usually worn as jewelry or other accessories. Shirts and sweaters also often bear crosses or depictions of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, or angels.
Anime and manga in Japan make frequent use of the Catholic Church as a convenient plot element. Popular media franchises can carve out niche stories from Catholic and general Christian lore, such as the manga Vatican Miracle Examiner, which follows two priests who aim to stop a nefarious shadow organization from overthrowing a fictionalized, magical Vatican City.
It’s safe to say that Japan loves pieces of Christian culture, but do they actually appreciate the faith?
“I don’t think it’s connected,” said Damien Adorable, 25, a Filipino who has been living and working in Tokyo for years.
“Many of them like to play games, but… this is just my opinion, but maybe they want it just because it looks cool. They have no idea that the cross is a Christian thing,” said Damien. “It’s nothing serious.”
Minori said that she had heard the visit of John Paul II more than 38 years ago gave a small boost in the numbers of Catholics around that time. She hopes Francis’ visit will make an impact on church attendance and bring back to the faith people who have strayed away.
Minori has had negative experiences with foreign Catholic reporters before. According to her, these American and European writers often assume that Japanese believers are somehow deficient or bizarre in their version of the shared religion.
“Most of the time with foreign reporters, they start [the interview with], ‘Do you pray every day?’” said Minori, annoyed. “They think ‘We are the real Catholics!’ That is so rude.”
These interview experiences have made her jaded towards Western journalists.
“That fact hurts us. It’s not just Japanese people who hurt us,” muttered Minori.
The pope concluded his tour of Japan on November 25th, the first apostolic journey to the country in close to forty years.
After speaking at Tokyo Dome and offering a mass for the thousands in attendance, Pope Francis also met with college youths at St. Mary’s Cathedral, one of the busiest churches in Japan.