I’m often asked about the state of Catholicism in Japan and about being a Catholic expat in Japan in particular. I thought this might be a good time to write about it, given that Japan might be on a lot of Catholics’ minds with Pope Francis having just wrapped up the first papal visit to the country since John Paul II’s trip here in 1981.
In short, some of the same problems that afflict the Church in the U.S. and elsewhere also often rear their ugly heads here. But there are others from which, I’m happy to say, we’ve been spared.
Catholicism has never been a “mainstream” religion here in Japan, which presents unique challenges — but also unique opportunities — that may not be found in the U.S. or other lands where higher percentages of people identify as Catholic.
Here, in no particular order of prevalence or importance, is a rundown of the good (+), the bad (–), and the neither-nor ( ) that I have experienced as a Catholic in Japan.
(-) Few Latin Masses
There are only a handful of Latin Masses celebrated in the entire country — and from what I’ve been able to find out, none at all outside Tokyo. Here where I live in Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost main island, forget it. I bet it’s been decades since a Mass was celebrated in Latin here in Japan’s Great White North.
I attended a Latin Mass for the first time in my life a little over a year ago, and I would love to do so regularly, but I can’t. My wife, a Japanese convert to the Faith, has never attended one. It would be great for her to experience it, but it would mean a 500-mile trip to Tokyo for us.
(+) Public expressions of faith usually aren’t a big deal
I teach at a public university, and I can say “Merry Christmas” to the students with abandon — no frowns or finger-wagging lectures about how acknowledging Christ’s birth at this time of the year is not “inclusive” or that it’s “pushing religion on people.” There’s a better than 98% chance that anyone to whom you say “Merry Christmas” in Japan isn’t Christian, but it won’t bother him.
Also, I keep a small standing crucifix on my desk in my office on campus. It’s not easily seen by everyone who enters because my small fridge on a nearby table partially blocks its view, but some colleagues and students know it’s there. Nobody’s ever said a word about how I should not have such an obviously religious image in my office at a public university.
In class, when students and I are discussing upcoming weekend plans or the previous weekend’s doings, I don’t hesitate to tell them about my Mass attendance — whereas in a college class back in the States, a student or two might be “triggered” by an instructor daring to mention religion. It’s not a big deal here in Japan.
Very few Japanese people (less than 1 percent) are Catholic, but the Church here is largely left alone; there’s little to no Christophobia, nor is there a Japanese equivalent to the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the States. In fact, with its contributions to Japanese society especially in areas such as education and health care, the Catholic Church may even be more respected in Japan than in other countries, even ones with a historically much deeper Catholic tradition.
(-) Low Rates of Mass Attendance
A deep and disturbing problem in so many places around the world, the infrequency with which large numbers of Catholics attend Mass regularly is an issue here in Japan as well.
The parish to which my wife and I belong has over 300 registered members, but overall attendance at the two Masses offered each weekend is typically less than half that. That’s better than the low attendance figures in the States, at least statistically, but it’s still not nearly good enough.
As in Western countries, the typical church in Japan is packed on Christmas and Easter, but at least a certain percentage of the faithful seem to see Sunday Mass attendance as an elective rather than an obligation. This needs to be addressed pretty much everywhere in the world, and Japan is no exception.
(+) The Our Father Is Prayed Reverently during Mass
Anyone looking to escape the absolute madness of holding hands during the Our Father in Mass would be happy as a clam in Japan. I have been living here since 1996 (apart from two relatively short breaks), and I have never seen that done here, not even once.
Perhaps that’s not a deliberate objection to Lord’s Prayer hand-holding by Japanese Catholics, but rather just an indirect consequence of the fact that public displays of affection — or any physical contact in public, really — are rare in Japan. Whatever the reason, nobody over here holds hands during the Our Father or any other portion of the Mass. Deo gratias.
The same goes for the ridiculous and maddening act of the laity taking the Orans posture during the Lord’s Prayer. The Orans is, by Vatican directive, reserved for the priest only — not even a deacon is supposed to do it. Being spared that silly sight is one of my favorite things about being Catholic in Japan.
Not that there aren’t other types of liturgical abuses in Japan, but at least the striking of a priest pose by laypeople (often dressed as if they’re going to a picnic or cleaning the garage, which is another issue altogether) during the holiest prayer in the Mass isn’t one of them.
(-) “Personality Priests”
Not every priest over here is like this — in fact, most aren’t — but a bit too often for at least my taste, I’ve attended Mass here where the priest seems to think he has to make it funny, lively, or otherwise entertaining. Yuck.
This gross type of liturgical abuse is especially prone to happening when there’s a visiting priest from another city or town — a frequent practice here in the Diocese of Sapporo, a geographically huge diocese where many parishes are spread far and wide. So when visiting priests come to town from what could be hundreds of miles away, at times they feel as if they somehow have to endear themselves to their new “audience.”
And so, Show Time begins. Whenever I hear that an out-of-town priest is coming to our parish, I always brace for the worst. Sometimes, thankfully, all turns out well. At least a bit too often, it doesn’t.
There’s one out-of-town priest who comes here to Hakodate once or twice a year. My wife and I are always glad to have him here because he always celebrates Mass reverently. I wish they all did.
(-) “Social Justice” and “Feel-Good” Homilies, with Doctrinal/Moral Truths Ignored
I wrote about this here in OnePeterFive fairly recently. A lack of preaching on the hard doctrinal and moral truths of the Faith — particularly on the issues of Heaven and Hell, of salvation and damnation — is just as glaring here as it seems to be in so many other places worldwide.
Likewise, anyone coming to Japan and attending Mass thinking the priest might, just might speak on something other than the latest social-justice fad — like the environment or issues involving migrants and refugees — would likely be sorely disappointed.
Whether the priest is native to Japan or a missionary from abroad (we have many of the latter here), chances are high that his homily will contain substantively vapid virtue-signaling or a pile of verbal sweetness intended to make us all feel good.
A homily challenging us to improve our prayer lives, to intensify our supernatural faith, to fully align our lives with Catholic teaching, to regularly confess our sins, or to work out our eternal salvation in fear and trembling? Don’t plan a trip to Japan expecting to find it.
(-) Pro-Life Advocacy Is Virtually Nonexistent
While there aren’t as many abortions in Japan as there used to be, it isn’t a matter of cold statistics; the deliberate killing of even one unborn baby is an intrinsic evil by Catholic definition. But it’s fully legal in Japan, not to mention widely accepted by a large percentage of the population.
And what are the Japanese bishops doing about it? Not very much, as I mentioned in this 1P5 piece last month.
Why not? Perhaps issues like the environment and migrants and refugees have simply taken too much of the hierarchy’s attention here. Or perhaps it’s because abortion is not the hot-button political issue here that it is in the States. Neither is an excuse; every country’s bishops’ conference and dioceses should have a highly active pro-life presence. Japan’s don’t.
(+) No Huge Sex Abuse Scandals (Far as We Know, Anyway)
In April this year, the Japanese bishops’ conference announced an internal probe, involving all 16 of the country’s dioceses, into alleged sex abuse by priests. But with only five reported cases in the last two decades, this seems more of a “let’s check just in case” effort than anything else, sparked by horrifying news of sexual predation by priests overseas.
The most notorious case of sex abuse involving the Catholic Church in Japan, specifically the sexual abuse of students at a Christian Brothers school in Tokyo, goes all the way back to the 1960s. As far as is known, there’s no reason to believe that priests in active ministry in Japan are sexually preying on young people, at least not to any widespread degree.
While it’s disgusting for Catholics to hear of any priest or religious committing such evil acts against any young people anywhere in the world, at least here in Japan we don’t have to read or hear about it going on close to home.
(-) Too Much “Lay Participation” in Mass, and Laity Basically Running Parishes
Pastors in Japan, or at least here in the Diocese of Sapporo, never seem to stay in one parish for very long — in my experience, they are moved around every handful of years or so. (That seems to be cultural; Japanese companies, local and regional governments, and other entities seem to shuffle and transfer people around frequently, for no apparent reason.)
This means that pastors tend to come and go frequently — but the lay parishioners typically remain the same. And that seems to foster an atmosphere in which the laity, especially the “old-timers” who’ve been part of a “leadership clique” in a given parish for years or even decades, basically run the show.
This leads, at least seemingly, to decisions being made by committee — which doesn’t well serve the idea that the pastor is supposed to be the leader of the local flock, in matters temporal as well as spiritual.
This laity-centered mindset bleeds over into what goes on in Mass. At every Mass at our parish. A layperson partially dressed up almost like a priest stands off to the side of the altar, telling everyone — including even the priest — when to stand up and sit down. (He, or she, would probably tell us when to kneel, too, except that all but the first two pews have been stripped of their kneelers. I was told this was done to make it easier to clean the floors. Good grief.)
Oftentimes, Masses at our church include an extra prayer that’s not part of the regular rubrics. That’s bad enough; what makes it worse is that they’re often led by a layperson — someone part of the clique that, again, essentially runs the parish.
It’s not just here; at the parish where my wife and I used to live before moving to Hakodate, I offered to host an English-chat coffee hour one weeknight a week. I was told the pastor would probably be okay with it but that he’d need to get the parish council’s approval.
Silly me; I thought the pastor was the ultimate decision-maker, but apparently he wasn’t much more than a figurehead. I’ve belonged to four different parishes during my time in Japan, and the situation seems to have existed in all of them.
(-) Introducing, then Applauding for, Out-of-Town Visitors During Mass
This is especially irritating. I’ve seen it particularly often here in Hakodate, which at various times of the year is popular among tourists both from abroad and from elsewhere in Japan.
Upon entering the church before Mass, the out-of-towners typically first encounter one of the “greeters” (it’s a Catholic church, not a Walmart, so why are they there?), who will immediately identify them as out-of-towners. The greeter will get their names and where they’re from, and then pass the info on to whichever member of the lay clique takes the floor from the priest that day in between the Prayer after Communion and the Dismissal.
It’s at this point that the lay clique member will introduce the out-of-towners by name, ask them to stand up, and have everyone applaud for them. (My wife and I, needless to say, I hope, never take part.) Depending on how many out-of-towners are there, this could go on for several minutes — several agonizing, sappy, get-me-out-of-here minutes.
I have been the out-of-towner myself a few times, typically when I attend Mass while on a weekend trip with the traveling hockey team I play for. It happened most recently this past February. I told the priest (who was serving as his own “greeter”) that I did not want to be introduced or applauded during Mass.
I did have a nice chat with him and some of the other parishioners — but after Mass, which is supposed to be only for worshiping God.
I don’t ever recall such silliness in Mass happening in the States during my childhood, adolescence, or any time prior to my move to Japan. Does it ever happen now? I hope not. But sadly, it does in Japan — not at every Mass, mind you, but even once is once too many.
( ) There Are Few — Very Few — Catholics Here
This is on one hand a negative, because it would be nice to see more people in Japan formally accept Christ and become part of His One True Church. As I wrote in this 1P5 piece last year, “the Japanese as a group, if baptized, would be among the best Christians in the world,” given this society’s high level of “kindness, patience, humility, modesty, and industriousness.” These qualities and Catholicism would make a nice fit. Alas, few people here have boarded the Barque.
But the harvest is plentiful. As I mentioned above, Christophobia seems far less prevalent here than in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West — our Faith seems well respected here, despite not being followed by most. So, at least potentially, the door is always open to helping someone find Christ. Being in a place like Japan presents many opportunities to carry out what Christ calls us to do in Matthew 28:19–20.
As for Catholics in Japan — whether “cradle Catholics” or, like my wife, adult converts, or Japanese or expats like me — it’s actually a blessing of sorts to be in a country where our faith is very much a minority religion. It’s not very “mainstream” here, which for me has actually made it more of a driving force in my life. That is perhaps one very big reason why, after having fallen away from the practice of Catholicism in my 20s, it was here in Japan that I reverted to the Faith. It would be wrong and selfish of me to keep the Faith to myself — and I pray for the strength to do whatever I can to share it with others. Living in Japan presents me with so much opportunity to do so.
Ken Foye is an American Catholic living abroad, teaching English writing, reading, presentation, discussion, and conversation classes at a four-year university in northern Japan. He is an Oblate of St. Benedict and is married to a Japanese convert to Catholicism. Among his academic research interests is the inclusion of faith and religion discussions in the English language classroom.