Japanese Catholics are such a small minority—less than half of 1 percent—that sustaining the faith throughout succeeding familial generations has been difficult. When Pope Francis visits Japan this November 23-26, he will be received by a highly resilient Catholic community – one that endured centuries of violent persecution under anti-Christian leadership and, more recently, an atomic bomb drop on Nagasaki, the nation’s longtime Catholic epicenter.
But even for a community of proven endurance, complications are looming. One issue is that Japanese Catholics are such a small minority—less than half of 1 percent—that sustaining the faith throughout succeeding familial generations has been difficult, as many find themselves compelled to marry outside their religion and, as a result, have children who are less inclined to be Catholic. In fact, more than 75 percent of Japanese Catholics marry non-Catholics.
In most cases, it’s easy to name a country’s most prominent religion. However, Japan is a different place in this regard: some sources say that most Japanese follow the Shinto religion, while other sources say that most Japanese are non-religious; and there is also the factor of a longstanding Buddhist influence.
“There is an old truism in Japan that claims that Japanese are born Shinto and die Buddhist, the point being that the ancient working syncretism between Shinto and Buddhism still holds power in the consciousness of Japanese people,” says Dr. Eric Cunningham, a Professor of History at Gonzaga University and a specialist in modern Japanese intellectual history.
Cunningham, who notes that funerals in Japanese are typically Buddhist, adds how “Shinto is generally regarded as a life-affirming, naturalist kind of belief system, while Buddhism is more concerned with karma and emancipation from worldly existence.”
However, his experience of having lived in Japan for six years has led to his own truism: the “religion” of Japanese people is “being Japanese.” The Christians he met also “would regard their Japanese-ness as more practically determining than their faith.” Such is the power of ethnic identity in a land where Christians comprise just 1 percent of the total population.