Anti-Christianity in Japan?

Religious freedom has been legally guaranteed and practiced in Japan since the 1889 Constitution. Few people know that. Although Catholics make up less than one percent of the population, Japan has had three Catholic prime ministers in just over 100 years, beginning with Prime Minister Hara Kei in 1918. Even at the height of World War II, Catholics were unmolested by the government, and Catholics like Rear Admiral Stephen Yamamoto (1877-1942), a close confident of Emperor Hirohito, practiced their faith openly. Masses continued regularly and, to my knowledge, not a single bishop, priest, or layman was ever penalized for being Catholic. 

The contrast with today’s China could hardly be sharper. The prestige Catholicism enjoys in Japan today derives only in part from the fact that the current Empress was raised in a Catholic home and educated in Catholic schools from kindergarten through college. Her marriage to the Emperor was arranged by the Anglican Grand Chamberlain Koizumi and the Catholic Prime Minister Yoshida. There is so much interest in, and respect for, Christianity in Japan that the Vatican has allowed weddings of non-Christian couples to be performed in Japanese Catholic churches. The demand for such weddings is large.

In a society with such respect for Christianity, a recently publicized event is disturbing, but should not be misunderstood. Mr. Ichiro Ozawa is in a tight race with Prime Minister Naoto Kan for the presidency of the Democratic Party of Japan. The results of that intra-party election on September 14 will decide the next prime minister. Mr. Ozawa notoriously once asserted, “I don’t like British people.” They’re not the only people he doesn’t like.

Meeting with Buddhist leaders in 2009, Mr. Ozawa called Christianity “an exclusive and self-righteous religion,” adding that Islam was better “but still an exclusive religion.” The Archbishop of Tokyo, Peter Okada responded to Mr. Ozawa’s comments by saying, “I think his understanding of Christianity is pretty indicative of that of your average Japanese person’s. It means our practice of our faith isn’t as good as it should be.” 

Archbishop Okada’s reply is not only indicative of his humility and charity. It is also reflective of a common Japanese cultural penchant: when criticized, avoid whining and seek instead to win over opponents or critics through redoubling one’s own efforts. A combination of what is known in Japanese as ganbari sae sureba (if only we try harder [we can prevail]) and wakatte kudasai (please understand [i.e., “accept”] us). This is how, I believe, the archbishop’s words were understood in Japan. 

Outside Japan, there is greater risk that the archbishop’s words will be taken at face value and Mr. Ozawa’s intemperate remarks will be taken out of context. It is not only, as the media have reported, that Mr. Ozawa was pandering to a Buddhist group that has historically supported the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. The broader context is Mr. Ozawa’s on-going efforts to promote a new Pan-Asianism that seeks greater distance from the United States (and U.K.) and looks instead for closer ties to China. 

In December 2009, Ozawa took a 600-man delegation (including 143 members of parliament) to China on a highly controversial junket. So while Mr. Ozawa’s anti-Christian remarks are certainly offensive in their own right, it appears he was also awkwardly groping towards a cultural component of his new Pan-Asianist vision. His effort to explain his intemperate remarks suggests as much. “I wasn’t saying [Christianity] is good or bad as a religion. . . .It was about how the Orient is different from Europe and America.”

Mr. Ozawa’s remarks were challenged, notably by Mrs. Ayako Sono, a well-known novelist, former head of the Nippon Foundation, and founder of the Japan Overseas Missionary Assistance Society, or JOMAS. Since she entered the Catholic Church in 1948, she has written many “Catholic novels,” including in English translation, No Reason for Murder and Watcher from the Other Shore

Citing the passage in Matthew where Christ taught his followers to treat others, especially their enemies, with love and forgiveness, she points out that Christianity is just the opposite of “an exclusive and self-righteous religion”:

Mr. Ozawa is free to loathe Christianity if he so wishes. But before criticizing it in a public capacity, he should first get at least a basic grasp of its teachings as evidence for his views. I can understand if he protests he doesn’t have the time to read the Bible. But it is only prudent, and a minimal standard of decency, to keep one’s mouth shut when one is ignorant of a subject.

For Mrs. Sono, however, the crux of the problem is not religious freedom but the competence of Japan’s leading politicians and their ability to rise to the challenges of a complex, multicultural world. She concluded: “Such an incident may be overlooked in Japan. But if he had said the same thing in the Mideast, there’d be trouble. It would immediately give rise to recriminations and violence and might even invite something as serious as strife in the region. It appears that we still have in Japan a powerful politician who can’t see that.”

Mrs. Sono gets the significance of Mr. Ozawa’s remark exactly right. Those who might be tempted to think Japan is culturally exclusive or — by a misreading of Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo’s well known Silence — to conclude that Japanese culture is inhospitable to Christianity need to step back and get the broader picture. There are religious bigots in every society, but Japan is certainly not a country where most people are anti-Christian. Mrs. Sono’s successful career publishing Catholic novels is evidence enough of that. But it is a concern that Mr. Ozawa might become the next prime minister of Japan. And while religious freedom is not likely to be threatened in Japan, a Japanese embrace of China and other unsavory regional and global allies could bring no little trouble indeed.

Kevin Doak is a professor in the Catholic Studies Program and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Georgetown University.