The Growing Closeness of Japan and the Holy See (Part 1)

Interview With Ambassador Kagefumi Ueno

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By Miriam Diez i Bosch

ROME, JUNE 23, 2009 ( The Holy See and Japan established diplomatic relations in 1942. Some 67 years then passed with no Vatican dignitary making an official visit to the Asian nation. But in March, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti changed that. And the Japanese ambassador to the Holy See affirms his visit shortened the “sense of distance” between the two states.

ZENIT spoke with Kagefumi Ueno about the visit from Archbishop Mamberti, secretary for Vatican relations with states, and about another big event for the Church in Japan: the beatification of 188 martyrs last November.

Part 2 of the interview, on a Buddhist view of economics, will be published Wednesday.

ZENIT: We celebrated the beatification of 188 Japanese martyrs in Nagasaki last November. Did it seem a strange ceremony for the Japanese culture?
Ueno: I personally witnessed in Nagasaki that the ceremony of the beatification of the 188 Japanese martyrs who were executed four centuries ago took place very solemnly and honorably, [and the ceremony] was deemed successful by the majority of Japanese Catholics.

Besides that, in terms of the response by Japanese society at large, my impression is that it by and large the news and reports of the beatification were received warmly and calmly. To be more precise, I would like to point out the following four positive phenomena that are worthy to note:
First, major local religious groups such as Buddhist and Shinto denominations, which by far constitute the majority of Japanese society, sent representatives to the ceremony to pay tribute, as did Japanese non-Catholic Christians such as Protestant and Episcopal churches. To paraphrase, all the major religious groups of Japan showed their solidarity with the Japanese Catholic Church.
Secondly, last year’s beatification was given considerable publicity by national and local media — newspaper and TV. In this way, in every corner of the country, Japanese citizens came to be aware of the historical occurrences, and of course as well in Nagasaki, where 15% of Japanese Catholics reside.  
On top of that, in 11 provinces where the martyrs were executed, local papers gave special reports on their stories, thereby arousing people’s attention to the local history of four centuries ago.
As a consequence of the above, many Japanese were given an opportunity to consider the meanings of religiosity and human dignity, as well as the significance of dedication to others, through reflection on the tragedy of four centuries ago.
Fourth, it should not be overlooked that many Catholics came to Nagasaki from a number of neighboring Asian countries. I was impressed, in particular, by the following remarks given by a participant from India:
“The ceremony eloquently demonstrated that the (Catholic) Church does not just belong to Europe, but to the world. The way the Japanese martyrs adhered to their faith gave us power, encouragement and hope.”
ZENIT: What do you think of the G-8 summit to be held soon in Italy on poverty and climate change?
Ueno: At the G-8 summit in July, two issues will emerge as particularly important, to which Japan and other G-8 nations should give a specific focus. One will be the impact of the economic crisis on Africa. The other will be climate change. I briefly touch on the present endeavors extended by Japan in this respect:
First, as African countries are experiencing severe and negative impacts as a result of the sharp decline in the world economy, it should be stressed that Japan shares with the Holy See the view that the poorest countries in Africa should never be made victim of the present crisis, for which they are not responsible.
Second, in this context, Japan hosted the 4th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD IV) last year and announced various initiatives, including doubling Japan’s official development assistance for Africa by 2012 and providing support for doubling private investment to Africa. Japan will faithfully fulfill these commitments.
Third, Japan co-hosted the first meeting of a TICAD follow-up mechanism in Botswana in March, where we discussed the impact of the economic crisis on Africa and how we could overcome it. Later on at the London summit of G-20 nations in April, Japan did its best to present the African concerns expressed at Botswana.
ZENIT: And climate change is also a concern.
Ueno: Last year, as the chair of the G-8 summit, Japan demonstrated its leadership in shaping an agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emission at least by half by 2050.
This year is the year when we G-8 nations decide on concrete actions. The international community should share the understanding that the problem will never be solved unless all countries share the burden equitably in keeping with their respective responsibilities.
ZENIT: After nearly 70 years, a Vatican official has visited Japan.
Ueno: In mid March — from the 15th to the 20th — Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign secretary, made a 6-day visit to Japan as an official guest of Japanese Foreign Ministry. I participated in almost the whole official program in Japan. By the way, the archbishop is the first Vatican top diplomat to make an official visit there in the 67 year-history of bilateral relations, which were established in 1942.
First, [let me] briefly touch upon the foreign minister meeting that took place on March 17 in Tokyo between Archbishop Mamberti and Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, which was a highlight of the archbishop’s stay in Japan. During the 150-minute dialogue, the two ministers covered a wide spectrum of topics, ranging from the world economic crisis and its impact on poor countries, notably those in Africa, to regional situations such as North Korea, China and the Middle East, to bilateral relations.  
On North Korea, in response to the concerns expressed by Nakasone on the possible launching of a ballistic missile together with hostage problems, Archbishop Mamberti replied that he sympathized with Japan on these issues, appreciating the efforts of relevant countries to bring relaxation to the region, and expressing the desire that hostages be returned at the earliest possible opportunity. I found that the bilateral policy dialogue was rich, condensed and profound, i.e. a success.  
Second, Archbishop Mamberti’s two-day visit to Nagasaki was another success in that, firstly, at the atomic bomb memorial, he conveyed messages of sympathy and peace toward citizens of the region and, secondly, with messages from the Pope, he impressed and moved many local Catholics who warmly welcomed him. At a meeting with the governor of the Nagasaki prefecture and the mayor of the City of Nagasaki, who referred to their desire that historical churches there be recognized as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, the archbishop responded by expressing his accord with their interest. After he went on to Tokyo, he had a cordial meeting with representatives of the Japanese Catholic Church.
Third, Archbishop Mamberti had moments to be introduced to Japanese culture and religiosity at the Urasenke Tea Chapter’s tea house as well as at the Meiji Shrine of Shintoism. At the shrine, Chief Priest Reverend Nakajima heartily welcomed him, speaking of the dialogues he has carried out with Catholic priests for the last decades.
All in all, I am more than sure that the successful visit of Archbishop Mamberti to Japan assisted in shortening a sense of distance existing between the two countries.

[Part 2 of this interview will be published Wednesday.]
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