Reflection on Pope Francis' forthcoming visit to Japan

  • Kevin Rafferty

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji

Pope Francis will arrive in Japan on 23 November. This will be the second time a Pope has ever visited the country. Pope St John Paul II visited in 1981. Kevin Rafferty, journalist and former professor at Osaka University who has reported from Japan for more than 40 years, reflects on this historic event.

There is lots of talk of - belatedly - trying to tackle climate change before the Earth, or at least its human inhabitants, suffocate from unbearable temperatures. Physical glaciers are melting from the Arctic to the Himalayas and Hindu Kush, to Antarctica, and threatening the lives and livelihoods of billions of people. So it may be trite to use the glacier metaphor, but still sadly true that some glaciers are not melting - those in the hearts and minds and consciences of the political leaders of the world.

Pope Francis will encounter this in Japan next month. Visitors, like the Pope, are easily enchanted by Japan's magic: it has an ancient yet living culture, under the thick neon veneer of a super-charged 21st century economic power.

Who could imagine that 75 years ago this country was facing the dust and ashes of defeat in the war. Japanese firebombed out of their homes ate grass and leaves to stay alive. On one night of 9-10 March 1945, more than 100,000 civilians were killed as American bombers rained their firepower on Tokyo.

Worse followed with the atomic bombings in the 35-degree heat of August 1945, Hiroshima at 08.15 on 06 August, and Nagasaki, in the shadow of the Catholic cathedral, at 11.02 on 09 August. Between 90,000 and 146,000 people were killed at Hiroshima, and 39,000 and 80,000 at Nagasaki; those closest to the blast melted into oblivion, literally shadows on the burning pavement, while others lingered agonisingly for days, months or years, as burns and radiation sickness took their toll.

The Archbishop of Nagasaki, Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, who is outspoken against nuclear weapons, qualifies as a hibakusha, A-bomb victim, because he was in his mother's womb in Nagasaki when the bomb was dropped.

Today, Japan is a modern developed country, one of the world's top three economies, sitting at the Group of Seven top political table. Japan was the original post-war economic miracle before China emerged from Mao Zedong's cruel isolation, and Japanese investment helped fuel China's rise. Japan managed to grow while maintaining social stability and relative equality compared with other rich countries. A friend, head of one of Japan's handful of big banks, complained that he was earning £1 million a year, whereas his friends and rivals at Wall Street banks were getting 20 times that and more. The ratio of chief executive pay to average workers is 67 in Japan, but 354 in the US. Most Japanese consider themselves "middle class".

It is a safe country. You can leave your house unlocked and not worry about intruders. Women and children go out at night without fearing that they will be mugged or murdered. If you drop something, even money, on the street, the chances are that someone will pick it up and return it.

There are flaws. Commercial greed led by construction companies that fund big politicians is gobbling the charming old neighbourhoods. Kyoto's main shopping streets offer upscale department stores squeezed by gaudy clamorous pachinko palaces, small-scale gambling for the masses. The Japanese countryside, hemmed in by mountains and sea, can be stunningly beautiful, but is often spoilt by shotcrete and ugly wires.

This country faces multiple challenges. Today's 126.8 million Japanese will decline to 97 million by 2050. The government has opened the door to 345,000 foreign workers over five years. Such numbers will be hard to assimilate, yet not enough to make up for the diminishing Japanese workforce. Already, 26 percent of Japanese are 65 or older, posing especial problems for the already heavily indebted government budget as pension and healthcare costs rise sharply.

Where Japan's economy should be inventive and responsive to changing times, it is sclerotic and set in its ways. Corporate Japan clings on to its profits rather than invest in workers or cutting-edge technology. Education, which could be a promoter of change, is overly bureaucratic, and does not encourage questioning young minds.

Women have a tough time. The World Economic Forum ranks Japan 110th out of 149 countries in terms of gender equality. From birth to the end of school, girls do as well as boys; but then the tight male preserve of Japan Inc resists women: no woman has ever headed a top Nikkei 225 quoted company, women comprise 6.5 percent of the directors of top companies, and no woman has been president of a major bank or leading university.

A bigger problem - and where Pope Francis could come in - is that Japan is losing its way in a turbulent world, both at personal and political levels.

Statistics of religious adherence say that about 80 percent of Japanese are Shintoists and 70 percent are Buddhist; figures go as high as 90 percent, or as low as 60 percent, for the two major religions. The overlap happens because Japanese go to the Shinto shrine seeking a blessing for a newborn baby or, depending on the reputation of a particular shrine, a favour, for marriage, examination success, a child, cure for an illness.

After their deaths, most Japanese go through Buddhist funeral rites and cremation; the bones that are left will be stored in a temple graveyard or, increasingly, in multi-storage lockers, blocks of flats for the dead, for which their families pay annual rent in return for prayers for their souls.

Fewer than 40 percent of Japanese today believe in an organised religion, with about 35 percent claiming to be Buddhists. Christians are less than 1 percent and Catholics are 0.3 percent. Catholic influence is higher than the bare numbers because of the contributions of hospitals and education, such as the Jesuit founded Sophia University, where Pope Francis will be giving a speech, and Sacred Heart University, whose alumnae include Empress Emerita Michiko.

In 2015 the Jesuits produced a film about Japan as a mission country.

Although Japan remains more equal in income than other developed countries, the old certainties are under threat, and the young are especially vulnerable. "Lifetime employment", whereby graduates of elite universities got jobs for life with the government or a leading company is being eroded and replaced by contract work, meaning that new young workers can't afford to buy a house, let alone to marry or have children. Suicides have fallen from 30,000 a year, but suicides among the young, and even schoolchildren, have risen to several hundred a year.

This country seems ripe for a religious revolution, as it was when Francis Xavier landed in Kagoshima in Iapam in 1549. Tokyo Archbishop Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi is beautifully correct in his video message about the Pope's visit. It is an opportunity, and Japan is a country thirsting for the Good News.

See Archbishop Kikuchi's video, here:

Where is the Catholic Church? It is suffering with the rest of Japan. At two of the churches in Osaka where I go to Mass, two active priests are aged 90, one a Japanese, the other a French Canadian. When Father Pedro Arrupe was provincial in the 1960s, there were more than 440 Jesuits in Japan; today there are about 180, and many are old, almost ancient.

There is also a question of quality and vision. If I go to St Ignatius in Tokyo, the Jesuit church next to Sophia University, I always feel at home and often inspired. But in the Kansai region, embracing the old heartland of Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Kobe, Catholic churches - and I have been to about 20 - are dried up oases in the desert. Where there is a spark of life it comes from the laity, not the clergy. We did have a wonderful priest, Father Daniel Kuenji Kampata, a Congolese, the heart and soul of the message of Good News. He blessed every room of our new house, a joyful shower. But he dropped dead of a heart attack in his late 50s.

The Pope is not only on a pastoral mission to Catholics. He is also a head of state, rightly worried about the state of the world, and burning issues, especially climate change and nuclear weapons. He will meet the new Emperor Naruhito and Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe, but these will be courtesy meetings with no time for substance. The Oxford-educated emperor has no political role: he is not Japan's head of state, merely the "symbol of the state".

Abe strides Japan's political scene like a colossus. On November 20, he will be Japan's longest-ever serving prime minister, 2,887 days, and the prospects of many more. His ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is mulling changing the party constitution again to allow Abe to run for a fourth term as president, through which he gets the prime minister's job.

Here are the icy glaciers of minds. Japan was the birthplace of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the first international effort to get to grips with climate change. Japan's own use of coal in electricity production has increased from 10 percent in 1990 to 31 percent, and in 2030 fossil fuels will provide 56 percent of Japan's energy. The quality of public debate is lacklustre. Japan has no Greta Thunberg.

The Pope opposes capital punishment, but Japan practices it in a cruel and unusual way. Last year there were 15 executions, including Shoko Asahara and the Aum Shinrikyo murderers who released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in March 1995, killing 29 people; this year only two have been executed. Death is by hanging, but convicts often wait on death row for years and are only told on the morning of the fateful day. Families learn when they are told to collect the body. There is no expert snapping of the neck with death inside 12 seconds. Japan's hangmen are three ordinary prison guards who have had custody of the condemned person, each with a finger on a button, but only one button works to open the trap. They have no training and get 20,000 yen (£143) for their duty.

The biggest challenge for Pope Francis in Japan involves nuclear weapons. You would have thought that as the dreadful victim, Japan would be working day and night for abolition of nuclear weapons. But the Abe government has refused to join the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, which 79 countries have signed and 33 ratified.

Here it gets delicately personal, as well as intensely political and competitively geopolitical, especially in Asia where old rivalries and hurts are still open wounds. Japan is responsible for many of these because of its imperial occupation of Taiwan from 1895, Korea from 1910, Manchuria from 1931 and China itself from 1937, when Japan triggered war through the Marco Polo Bridge incident.

Japan faces tough geopolitical realities, especially the rise and rise of China. Abe has placed greatest faith in Donald Trump, and met or talked to the US president 50 times. But the president barely blinked when North Korea defiantly launched new short-range missile tests, claiming they were not a threat to the US. They are a potential threat against Japan and more than 100,000 US troops and dependents in Japan and South Korea.

Next on Abe's visiting list has been Vladimir Putin, with 27 meetings and lots of grovelling, but no sign Putin plans to release any of the four northern islands the Soviet Union seized in the dying days of the Second World War.

Relations with close neighbours are strained. Apart from being in the flightpath of North Korean missiles, Tokyo is unhappy that North Korea has not come clean about abductions of Japanese by North Korean agents between 1977 and 1983, so there is a sulky freeze, even as impoverished North Korea develops its nuclear missile capacity.

Japan and South Korea are at loggerheads after Korean supreme court rulings last year that Japanese companies must pay compensation to workers for actions during colonial rule. Moderate Japanese complain angrily that the two countries settled all the colonial issues in their 1965 deal, but Japanese do not comprehend the deep lingering hostility against colonial Japan.

With China, Japan is in a constant state of tension. This is stretched tauter as Beijing creates artificial islands in the China seas as bases for a vast maritime empire and uses supposedly civilian fishing vessels to probe Japan's reactions. When Japan does something that China dislikes, Beijing claims that it has "hurt the feelings" of China's 1.4 billion people.

Abe is plotting to fulfil his lifetime ambition - to amend Japan's "no-war" constitution. More than half of Japanese are happy with the constitution, but Abe is determined. He is driven by homage to his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, brutal economic manager in Manchuria, minister and signer of Japan's declaration of war, class A war criminal, released by the American occupiers because they saw him as a useful bulwark against rising post-war leftists, then prime minister, who railed against but failed to amend what he claimed was an American imposed constitution. Abe literally learned his politics at grandfather Kishi's knee.

Critics claim that immediate constitutional changes will be more symbolic than real - since Japan's so-called Self Defence Forces are more than a match for most regular armies, superior technologically to China, though not in terms of manpower and firepower.

It's a slippery slope. With few regional friends and unreliable allies like Trump, leading politicians and intellectuals say that Japan cannot rely on sheltering under America's nuclear umbrella, and must upgrade its forces and be ready to fight for itself, including with nuclear weapons. Given its command of the raw materials, technology and funds, Japan could take less than year to convert its nuclear power into weapons.

This would be a road to madness in an Asia with so many fractious relations and old sores and scores to settle. War cannot solve anything, especially in the crowded Asian space. But who will deliver the message?

In spite of the popular support for the post-war constitution, politics is dominated not merely by Abe's LDP, but by the ultranationalist Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference - "for the glory of the nation"), whose members hold more than half the cabinet posts and dominate LDP parliamentary ranks. Many Nippon Kaigi members believe that well-attested Japanese wartime atrocities, such as the Rape of Nanking and abuse of Korean and other Asian "comfort women" are fake news.

Japan has few public memorials to the war. There are the vast concrete peace parks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the victims of the nuclear horror, including Hiroshima's chilling exhibition of what it was like to be at the centre of the nuclear holocaust.

And there is Yasukuni Shrine in the heart of Tokyo, effectively a memorial to Japan's war mongering. It lists the names and details of 2,466,532 people and their pets who fought and died for Japan from 1868. Its character changed in 1978 when the chief priest in a secret nighttime ceremony enshrined convicted Class A war criminals who had plotted and fought Japan's imperial atrocities in Korea, China and Asia-Pacific. Emperor Hirohito (posthumously Showa) was displeased and never went to Yasukuni again, nor have his successors.

But a clamour of LDP politicians pay their respects twice a year at Yasukuni. Abe used to go, but as prime minister he has restrained himself for fear of protest; instead, without fail, he sends a ritual offering.

The opposition is fragmented. Non-LDP members of the Diet (parliament) are not so much an opposition as an ever-changing kaleidoscope of bodies colliding, forming parties, and instantly rushing apart. Their best hope is to have enough of a constellation at election time to deny the LDP the two thirds majority in parliament that Abe needs to amend the constitution, plus the support of a referendum.

Archbishop Kikuchi in his video says that the Pope is not superman. Quite right, but packing Nagasaki and Hiroshima into the same day - as the Pope is doing - would challenge any young fit superman. In broadcasting the Pope's message, it is madness. However important we think he is, the Pope will get one chance a day to capture the headlines, and will still be vulnerable to accidents, a small child, an elderly person, who might steal the story and hide the message.

When Francis arrives, Japan's leaves will be turning to brilliant yellow and red before dying, a metaphor for human life, almost as stunning as the blooming, then fading sakura (cherry blossoms) in spring. Yet the Pope will come and then go faster than the sakura, too fleeting for fulfilling his pastoral duties to Catholics, and far too short for him to make a meaningful contribution on any of the issues that he holds dear where Japan is an important player.

Japan could delight and excite Pope Francis - just as he could surprise Japan. He should find time to visit the places near Nagasaki where 300,000 Kakure Kirishitans (hidden Christians) kept the faith alive through 240 years of persecution without any priests, or Bibles. They disguised prayers as Buddhist chants and made Maria Kannon, statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, holding a baby.

He could go to Kyoto, not to play pachinko or visit the tourist traps, but to Genko An, a 650 year old temple, with its rectangular and circular windows side by side: the rectangular is the window of confusion, whose four corners represent the sufferings of life, birth, old age, disease and death; the circular one is the window of enlightenment, the Zen concept of the universe and an enlightened life beyond the pain of mortality. Through the two windows the Pope can see the spectacularly changing leaves. If he looks at the ceiling, he will see bloody foot and handprints, a memorial of a battle of 1600, and reminder of the pain and evil of war.

Share the Good News with the people. Is it too late to add time for the Pope to reach out to Japan and Japan to reach out to the Pope?

KR has covered reported on Asia for 50 years, on Japan for 40 years, and was a professor at Osaka University.

Tags: Japan, Pope Francis, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, Hibakusha

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