Evangelization in Japan

Bradly Rozairo OMI: Is evangelization difficult in Japan? This is a question often asked by many, and the answer is, Yes. Having lived in Japan for a good number of years I would say that missionaries do struggle, get disappointed and sometimes even plan to go back to their own country. The reason is that a materially rich country like Japan poses a big challenge to missionaries when it comes to evangelization.

Japan as a country has a long history of missionary activities. For example, the Catholic kindergartens and schools have contributed to the faith education of many, including the elite of society. But recently, secularization in Japan has forced this tradition to falter, thus it has become very difficult to promote gospel values through Catholic education. However, looking at many of our churches and the society in Japan, I feel that there is hope for evangelization. According to my observation, there are two ‘visible signs’ which I consider important for evangelization:

1. Presence of Church in the midst of Calamity

2. Immigrant Missionaries

Presence of Church in the midst of Calamity

Japan is a country prone to many natural disasters. Whenever there is a calamity many Catholic/Christian volunteers go out to help the needy and engage themselves in disaster relief projects. For example, on January 17, 1995, the ‘Great Hanshin Japan Earthquake’ registering magnitude 7.2 struck Kobe, Japan, and its surrounding area. The earthquake claimed more than 6,000 lives, injuring at least 34,900 people, destroyed over 150,000 buildings and left about 300,000 people homeless. During this time a big number of volunteers from different churches came forward to help the needy and were very much involved in the relief activities organized by the Catholic Kobe Central Church. It has been already 25 years since that disaster, and the church still continues to serve the poor through the Catholic Social Welfare Center situated next to the church in Kobe.

I am sure you will remember the ‘Great East Japan Earthquake’ in March 2011. A magnitude of 9.0, the earthquake struck in the Pacific Ocean off the northeast coast of Japan’s Honshu island and triggered a massive tsunami. An estimated 20,000 people died or went missing, approximately 470,000 were displaced and 400,000 structures were partially or totally destroyed by the tsunami. In addition, the tsunami destabilized the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, leading to a major leak in radiation, which, to this day, continues to cause severe human suffering, environmental damage and economic woes.

Today in the tsunami-affected areas there are still volunteer centres set up by the Church whose support activities continue to give hope to the people. These centres according to the Archbishop of Tokyo Bishop Kikuchi “serve as a witness to the Gospel through works of mercy”. He further says that “the Church gives priority to witnessing the Gospel in a visible way through these steadfast works of mercy. Certainly, these activities may not lead immediately to the reception of baptism, but there is hope that many people who were touched by the spirit of the Gospel would actually be led to the Church.”

I think when the Church gets involved in the disaster relief efforts there is room for evangelization. This I could feel during my study tours to the nuclear-hit region of Fukushima where there is a community centre. This new facility has become a “visible sign” to the local people who feel that they are being cared for and accompanied by many volunteers. I believe that when the spirit of the gospel is shared through missionary activities God intervenes in the lives of people.

Immigrant Missionaries

Evangelization takes place when people begin to live their faith. In many of our churches in Japan, the gospel is preached through the presence of Catholics from abroad, particularly those that have decided to make their home in Japan. In one of our Oblate missions on the island of Shikoku, there are women from the Philippines who have settled down in marriage and built their homes in the countryside. Thanks to these women because they make it possible for the Gospel to be brought to places where the church had never had an opportunity to get involved.

Not only the Filipinos but also others from countries like Vietnam, Brazil, Peru, etc. who are very much involved in church activities, and their dedication makes one feel that the minority Church in Japan is alive. I often experience this at Sacra Famiglia Church in Umeda in the archdiocese of Osaka where I had served both the Japanese and the foreign communities. Last year covering for Fr. Jude OMI for about six weeks in the mission of Toyohashi in the diocese of Nagoya, I also experienced this joy and energy that immigrants bring into church, and that it does make a big difference.

Sometime back, during a discussion about the future of the Church in Japan, a Japanese diocesan priest said that he would not worry too much about the dwindling number of Japanese Catholics, because the immigrants and migrants would constitute the greater part of the Church in the future! I think it is already happening practically in every diocese. The Bishops in Japan continue to encourage the Japanese faithful to welcome immigrants and help them work in their process of integration into the society, and for those who are Catholic, into the Japanese Church. For the Archbishop of Tokyo, an important task that must be given priority is “to encourage foreign nationals who have settled in Japan to become aware of their missionary vocation as Catholics”.

Jesus has given us the missionary mandate: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). In these verses, we see how the risen Christ sent his followers to preach the Gospel in every time and place so that faith in him might spread to every corner of the earth. Let us hope that through these ‘visible signs’ that are around us, many who do not know Jesus Christ may get to know him, and through him, God may touch the lives of people.

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