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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Archbishop Kikuchi of Tokyo Appeals for Japanese Society to Recognize that Life from Conception to Death Is Invaluable (from Papal Flight)

Speaks to ZENIT About Realities in Japan

Archbishop Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi, Archbishop of Tokyo, warns some of his population risks extinction due to cultural standards and has made a strong appeal to recognize protecting life from conception to natural death.

In an exclusive interview with Zenit whose Senior Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Castellano Lubov, is on the Papal Flight for Pope Francis’ Apostolic Trip to Japan and Thailand, Nov. 19-26, the Japanese Archbishop expressed this concern. The Asian prelate is following the trip and will be present with Pope Francis at all his major events during the ‘Japan stretch’ of Francis’ eight-day, two-nation Asian tour.

In the interview, Zenit has had the opportunity to learn all about the Pope’s visit, the realities of Christians in Japan and for society at large, and some of the themes likely to be most important in the days ahead.  Here is our exclusive interview:

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ZENIT: How could you describe the atmosphere in Japan, which has been looking forward to welcoming the Pope? And what do you hope Pope Francis will leave Japan?

His Excellency Archbishop Kikuchi: Catholics, or even the entire community of Christians, are a tiny minority in Japan, thus, the Holy Father is not well known to the general public. We rarely see or hear Japanese media mention the Holy Father. Even among government officials or politicians, the importance of the Holy Father in international relations as a moral authority is not deeply understood. For many, the visit has been considered yet another trip made by one of these “famous” religious leaders. So, what the Catholic Church in Japan has been doing is to try as much as possible to disseminate information on the Holy Father, the role of the Holy See in international relations and, of course, on the Catholic Church in general. I hope the Holy Father would leave a deep impact in the hearts of many through his message of love, peace and hope so that many would find the key to choose the better way to reach hope for the future. 

ZENIT: The motto of the trip to Japan is a call to promote and protect life. To what is this motto addressed? And why is this necessary?

Archbishop Kikuchi: Today, the”Gospel of life (the term by Pope John Paul II)” is truly needed in Japanese society where human life is not respected, human beings are valued by how much they could contribute to the development of the society. And disabled people are marginalized, or sometimes even the right to live for disabled people is not protected. Today in Japan, so many people are lost in finding hope for the future, feeling isolated or marginalized. Economic boom is a tale of the past. With few exceptions, majority of the youth cannot find stable jobs even after going through number of years of higher studies. Young and old are isolated in the society because no one cares for them.  Such beautiful tradition as community support has also become tales of the past, especially in big cities where population is growing rapidly. In rural areas, population is aging and communities are facing danger of extinction. Isolation, poverty, no respect for human life and inability to find hope for the future are killing people in modern Japan. That is why we have to promote and protect life.

ZENIT: In Japan, the local Catholic Church suffered a long and cruel persecution in the past centuries. What experience has that left Japan’s Catholic Church? Also, can you tell us more about the small community of Japanese Catholics in the nation?

Archbishop Kikuchi: Recently, we are promoting veneration of martyrs during the time of persecution starting with 188 martyrs who were beatified in 2008 and Just Ukon Takayama beatified in 2017 who was a Catholic “kirishitan daimyo” and “samurai” who lived and was exiled to the Philippines in the 17th century. We want to learn from these holy martyrs not only how bravely they adhered to the faith but also how they lived as witness of the Gospel among majority of non-Christians. These are people who did not preach the gospel in words but through how they lived and interacted with others especially with people in need of help. Because of their benevolent action, such as the 53 martyrs in Yonezawa, Christians at that time, though under persecution, were well accepted by many. We want to imitate these examples of martyrs. We are also a small minority in Japanese society but we want to show others how we should live as children of God who are good through our words and actions, through our relationship with others.

ZENIT: How could one observe these good works?

Archbishop Kikuchi: For example, after the March 11, 2011 disaster in Tohoku area, Caritas Japan together with the entire Catholic community in Japan set up eight volunteer centers at the coastal area to support victims and contribute to the rehabilitation of the local communities. We still maintain 5 bases and are well appreciated by local people who, some of them, call the volunteers “Mr. Caritas” or “Ms. Caritas.” That is our Evangelization through our contribution to the society in giving helping hands to those who are facing difficulties in life and also re-create human relationships to rescue people from isolation.

ZENIT: What are some of the greatest challenges for Japanese society?

Archbishop Kikuchi: In July 2016, the killing of 19 disabled people at the Tsukui Yamayurien revealed that respect for human life is missing from our society. A young man who killed the 19 claimed that those disabled people have nothing to contribute to the society and, therefore, should be terminated. Adding to this atrocity, we found out that quite many people show their approval to his action and expressed their appreciation to the crime through Internet. That was shocking to me who has been talking about the importance of protection of human life. Human life is facing great danger in Japanese society. Human life has to be protected from its beginning to the end. And this message is completely missing from the present Japanese society.

ZENIT: Can you share some examples of how one could observe this danger in Japan? 

Archbishop Kikuchi: We also should not forget the imminent danger of human life in our society. Since 1998 till today, more than 20,000, sometimes more than 30,000, commit suicide in Japan. In this modern and advanced country, full of material goods, people are cornered to take their own lives. Today, we have quite a number of residents coming from other countries. Some of them are filling the shortage of manpower in this aging society with few kids. Many have decided to live in Japan for long term. Therefore, they are no more guests here but part and parcel of our community. However, we hear that many of them have difficulties to integrate into the Japanese society and are isolated. Some of them even experience maltreatment by their employer. Refugees are generally not welcomed both by government and the general public. Japanese government is understood by many that they are reluctant to grant refugee status to those who reached Japan for safety. All these issues or realities could be classified as life-threatening issues. Human life is facing great challenge on this country and protection of human life should be given priority.

ZENIT: What do the Japanese people generally know, about Catholicism and the Pope?

Archbishop Kikuchi: People do not know much about the Holy Father as he does not draw attention of Japanese media as such. Catholic is well known because of the existence of Catholic educational institutes starting from Kindergarten to Universities. There are numerous numbers of such institutions all over Japan. So many had the opportunity to meet with Christ at least during school time.

ZENIT: There is much anticipation for the Pope’s stops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only places where so far nuclear weapons have been used. What does it mean a visit of the Pope to those places? And what do you expect from the Pope’s visit to those places?

Archbishop Kikuchi: Sending out messages of peace from the actual cities hit by atomic bombs would have a deep impact over people all over the world and over the general public in Japan. I think that the government of Japan is also wanting someone like the Holy Father with a strong moral voice to take a clear position against the nuclear weapons and speak out from there. So, visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Holy Father has significant meaning for the visit of Japan. I hope the message of the Holy Father would inspire both Japanese government and the general public to once more make serious commitment to Non-proliferation and complete abolition of nuclear weapons when international tensions among neighboring countries are reaching alarming level.

ZENIT: This journey to Japan will be one of the longest done by the Pope up to now, with the purpose to meet a very small Catholic community. What is the significance of this travel, also in the wake of his predecessor John Paul II’s visit?

Archbishop Kikuchi: I do believe that the Holy Father is coming to Japan to show us how we should do Evangelization in Japan. As the successor of Peter, the Holy Father is trying to fulfill his prior mission which is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So, he is coming to us to remind us of the mission as Christian and himself will show how we should do it through his words and actions during his stay in Japan.

ZENIT: Pope Francis /Jorge Mario Bergoglio has always had an affinity for your country. How is his personal attachment to your country significant, and what does this visit mean to all of Asia?

Archbishop Kikuchi: Of course, there are so many Mission Territories in other areas of the world but Christians are a tiny minority in most of the countries in Asia. We are all struggling not for our own survival but for being witness of the Gospel. We do appreciate the Holy Father’s love for Asia and especially his love for Japan. That is great encouragement for all of us in Asia.

In Asia, we have been trying to dialogue with culture, religion and people, especially with the poor, and this triple dialogue is definitely needed in our mission efforts. So, we would be happy to welcome the Holy Father who pays respect to other cultures and religions and who shows deep compassion to people in need.

ZENIT: Thank you very much, Archbishop Kikuchi.

About Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is a Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in four languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, at times from the papal flight, and has done television and radio commentary, including for Vatican Radio and BBC. She is a contributor to National Catholic Register, UK Catholic Herald, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside the Vatican, and other Catholic news outlets. She has also collaborated with the Vatican in various projects, including an internship at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and is a collaborator with NBC Universal, NBC News, Euronews, and EWTN. For 'The Other Francis': http://www.gracewing.co.uk/page219.html or https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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