What does it mean to be Japanese and Catholic? Pope Francis in Japan raises the question

For centuries, Japanese intellectuals, emperors, and missionaries have asked the same question: What does it mean to be both Japanese and Catholic?

The arrival of Pope Francis in Japan this week has revitalized a conversation  about what happens to Japanese identity when Christianity enters the mix.

Archbishop Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo talked with CNA about attitudes toward Japanese Catholics from both Japanese and foreign perspectives.

“Receiving Christian baptism does not mean losing one’s Japanese identity. Neither does it change one’s lifestyle. Just because one is Christian, that does not mean it would bring trouble to one’s daily life,” said Kikuchi, who took charge of the Tokyo archdiocese two years ago.

Archbishop Kikuchi believes that while Japanese do not have a negative perception of Christianity, the religion appears around them, and in their media, as a mystical spirituality with complex rules and a completely different theology than they are used to.

For many Japanese citizens, Christianity is not “un-Japanese”, it is simply unknown, the archbishop said. And that is a crucial difference.

“The impression of Christianity as a foreign religion has stuck in the minds of many people. Some would talk about it on occasions when they dream about a magnificent church building similar to Gothic style ones in Europe.”

Christianity is obviously not native to Japan.

Shintoism is the original faith shared by the Yamato ethnic group, now commonly referred to as the “Japanese,” though other ethnic groups have and still do inhabit parts of the island nation.

However, “Shintoism” as a concept can be misleading. Each village and population center had its own local deities and rituals. Some gods became somewhat well-known throughout the country, such as Evisu the god of fishing and good luck.

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