“The martyrs’ witness to faith shows people in modern Japan faith’s importance and offers them the courage to bear witness to it…”
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 Archbishop of Nagasaki, Joseph Takami Mitsuaki, who also is President of the Bishops’ Conference of Japan, made this statement.
The Archbishop of Nagasaki is following the trip very closely and as President of the Bishops’ Conference, addressed the Pope last night before Francis spoke to Japanese bishops in the Apostolic Nunciature after his arrival from Thailand. He will be intricately involved in the Pope’s visit to Nagasaki today, before the Pontiff’s next stop, in the same day, to Hiroshima.
Here is our wide-ranging, exclusive interview:
ZENIT: Your Excellency, the motto of Pope Francis’ Apostolic visit to Japan is “Protect All Life”. In your opinion, to what is this motto addressed and why is it necessary?
Archbishop Joseph Takami Mitsuaki: In general, I think Japanese people have a high respect for life. However, in modern Japanese society various problems are occurring. These include abortion, suicide, the death penalty system, domestic abuse, bullying at school and in the workplace, murder committed for selfish motives and environmental destruction.
In Japan, in 1948 a law known as the Eugenic Protection Law came into existence legalizing abortion, and in 1996 this law was revised and became the Maternity Protection Law. According to this law, if a pregnancy is before 21 weeks and 6 days then abortion is legally permitted when performed by a licensed doctor. In Japan, there were around 1.17 million abortions in 1955, around 600,000 in 1980, around 340,000 in the year 2000, and around 160,000 in 2017.
Regarding suicide, for many years there were about 30,000 suicides annually in Japan, but recently there has been a downward trend. However, it is said that suicides among young people in their teens and twenties are increasing.
In Japan, approximately 60% are in favor of continuing the death penalty, while a mere 9% are in favor of its abolishment.
The amount of domestic violence and abuse in Japan is also not negligible. There are cases where children have died as a result of parental abuse, though it is said that there are a higher number of cases of husbands acting violently towards their wives.
I think it is necessary for people to understand the dignity of life.
ZENIT: There is great anticipation for the Pope’s visits to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the only cities where nuclear weapons have been used. What does a visit of the Pope mean to those places, how are the effects of the bombings still felt and how is faith witnessed to in Nagasaki?
Archbishop Joseph Takami Mitsuaki: Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only cities where atomic bombs have been used during a war. To stress, from the ground where the atomic bombs fell, that these acts must never be repeated a second time, while highlighting the brutality of nuclear weapons and the physical and mental anguish they bring as well as the value of peace, is of deep significance.
There are still many atomic bomb survivors alive today, who in Japanese are known as hibakusha.
After a period of persecution lasting 250 years, local Catholics spent 30 years building a large church called Urakami Church, despite their extreme poverty. 20 years after its completion, however, this church was completed destroyed by the atomic bomb. Today, Catholics in Nagasaki pray for the realization of world peace and witness to their faith by engaging in peace activities.
ZENIT: What do you expect from the Pope’s visit to Nagasaki and Hiroshima?
Archbishop Joseph Takami Mitsuaki: I hope that from Nagasaki, which became the victim of the second atomic bombing, the Pope will advocate for the importance of nuclear abolition, specifically the signing and ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and appeal in particular to those countries which possess nuclear weapons.
ZENIT: When Pope John Paul II visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1981, it was still the era of the Cold War, with the concrete risk of nuclear war. In Asia today there are many countries that possess – or are striving to obtain – nuclear weapons. What reaction do you think the words and actions of the Pope will have in those countries?
Archbishop Joseph Takami Mitsuaki: I don’t know what response there will be to the Pope’s words and actions, but I would very much like to see some kind of positive or proactive response.
ZENIT: In Japan, the local Church suffered a long persecution in past centuries. What has that experience left the Japanese Church today?
Archbishop Joseph Takami Mitsuaki: It is said that in Japan, in cases where records exist alone there were least 5,000 Catholic martyrdoms. In 1862, the 26 Martyrs of Japan were canonized, and in 1867, 205 martyrs of Japan were beatified. At that time, Japan’s long ban on Christianity was still in force. The majority of the 205 martyrs just mentioned were martyred in Nagasaki. In 1987, a further 16 martyrs of Japan – among whom were Dominican priests – were canonized. Then, on 24th November 2008, 188 martyrs of Japan were beatified inside Nagasaki Prefectural Baseball Stadium, where Pope Francis will say Mass while in Nagasaki. Among this group of martyrs were 3 Jesuit priests and 1 Augustinian priest, but the rest were lay Christians. Many families were among those martyred. In other words, these martyrs included many women and children. Finally, in 2017, the Japanese samurai Justo Takayama Ukon was beatified in Osaka as a martyr.
Across the Nagasaki Archdiocese there are a particularly high number of “martyrdom commemorations”, which are held annually in locations where Christians died for their faith and during which a Mass is said. These provide an opportunity for people to learn about the martyrs and make pilgrimages to the places where they died. The martyrs’ witness to faith shows people in modern Japan faith’s importance and offers them the courage to bear witness to it.
ZENIT: Please tell us about the parishes in your Archdiocese. On a typical Sunday, what would a visitor to one of these parishes see and how is the life of a typical parish?
Archbishop Joseph Takami Mitsuaki: In the Nagasaki Archdiocese, the average rate of attendance at Sunday Mass is around 30%. The number of visitors to churches belonging to the Archdiocese is increasing, particularly after 7 were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2018. Many of these visitors are moved at the sight of local Catholics devoutly praying. In the past, I think it was normal for people return home after Sunday Mass. However, beginning in 2001 the archdiocesan curia was reformed and pastoral councils at the level of parish, forane and archdiocese were established in the hope that these, as faith communities, would grow and develop. In 2015, on the 150th anniversary of the “Discovery of Christians”, the first ever archdiocesan synod was held, where it was agreed to begin working towards the training of catechists, the establishment of “small Christian communities” (SSC) and the foundation of a charitable organization called “Nagasaki Misericordia”.
ZENIT: What is it like to be a Catholic Archbishop in a country where Catholics are in such a minority? Is there any hostility or indifference towards Catholics, and are there occasions where you have felt judged or discriminated against owing to your faith?
Archbishop Joseph Takami Mitsuaki: I have never experienced any discrimination from people who aren’t Christian. Rather, here in Nagasaki I serve as an advisor to an interreligious organization where, for the sake of peaceful coexistence, representatives from different religions come together to promote friendly relations. In addition, since I joined a local organization seeking to protect Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, I have received gracious acknowledgement from people engaged in peace activities that we as Catholics are also trying to do something to promote peace.
Some people in Japan, including in Nagasaki, regard Christianity as a foreign religion, and it seems that a higher number of Japanese than one might expect view monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism as religions that cause problems. Sometimes, when a Catholic marries a non-Christian, the latter or the latter’s family will refuse to agree to a church wedding or do not wish any children resulting from that union to be baptized. In such cases, it is possible that some kind of prejudice towards Christianity exists in the background.
ZENIT: What do Japanese people in general know about Catholicism and do people still remember the visit of Pope John Paul II to Japan in 1981?
Archbishop Joseph Takami Mitsuaki: I think most Japanese people aren’t aware of what kind of religion Catholicism is. However, I think many people learn at school that the first person to introduce Christianity to Japan was Francis Xavier and that there is a distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Many people vividly remember the visit of Pope John Paul II to Nagasaki in 1981, especially the Mass the Holy Father said in the snow. I also think that the “Appeal for Peace” which he gave in Hiroshima continues even today to touch the hearts of many Japanese people.
ZENIT: What message do you hope the Pope leaves Japanese society?
Archbishop Joseph Takami Mitsuaki: I hope that the Pope will leave us messages regarding the dignity of life, the importance of helping people who are suffering and distressed as opposed to the pursuit of financial gain or a luxurious lifestyle, the question of how – specifically – we can work towards conserving the environment and the question of how we can promote peace.
ZENIT: What does the Holy Father’s two-nation visit to Thailand and Japan mean for the whole of Asia?
Archbishop Joseph Takami Mitsuaki: It is said that the Philippines is the only Christian country in Asia. Christians are in a minority in all Asian countries. I don’t know anything about the reasons for the papal visit to Thailand, but perhaps the Pope is visiting Thailand and Japan because the number of Christians is low in these countries, and he wishes us to reflect upon the importance of the existence and role of the Church in Asia.
Simon Hull assisted with translation from Japanese