1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Pope Francis in Japan: Catholic Church pins high hopes

November 22, 2019

Pope Francis' visit to Japan is the first papal trip to the Asian country in 38 years and Catholics here are hoping his visit will breathe new life into the community. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Thailand Ankunft Papst Franziskus in Bangkok
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/G. Borgia

The scourge of nuclear weapons, difficulties facing immigrant communities and the importance of interfaith dialogue are just some of the issues that Pope Francis is expected to address in Japan for the first papal visit to the Asian country in 38 years.  

And members of the Catholic Church here anticipate that the pope's visit will breathe new life into their community. "The Catholic community in Japan looks forward to the apostolic visit with sentiments of joy and gratitude to God," said Father Joseph Chennoth, the archbishop of Milevi who was appointed to serve as apostolic nuncio to Japan in August 2011. 

"It is a great opportunity for Pope Francis to visit Japan, where he wanted to come as a missionary during his youth," Chennoth told DW. 

"As supreme pastor of the church, he has innumerable pastoral concerns for the universal church spread across the world," he added. "Now he comes to Japan to appreciate the strong faith inherited from the martyrs and to encourage the faithful to share the gospel of joy and compassion."

Deeply symbolic visit

The pope's visit is indeed rich in symbolism. It is significant that he will open his first official visit to Japan in the city of Nagasaki, where Christianity first gained a foothold in feudal Japan nearly 500 years ago, but is today best known as the second city to have been targeted with an atomic weapon during World War II.

The pope is currently on a weeklong trip to Asia, visiting Thailand and Japan
The pope is currently on a weeklong trip to Asia, visiting Thailand and JapanImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/G. Borgia

The first Christian missionaries arrived in Kyushu, Japan's most southern main island, with Francis Xavier and the Jesuits stepping ashore in the 1540s and were initially successful in converting as many as 130,000 local people and even local "daimyo," or feudal lords.

But Emperor Ogimachi began the pushback against what was seen as a foreign influence, and Christianity was repressed from 1587 onward. Opposition to the religion evolved into an outright ban in the early 17th century. Those who refused to reject Christianity were often executed; others — the "hidden Christians" — continued to practice their faith in secret. 

Nagasaki is important to the history of Christianity in Japan because six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits and 17 followers of the church, including three boys, were crucified in the city on February 5, 1597, because they refused to recant their faith. Known as the "Martyrs of Japan," they were canonized by the Catholic Church in 1862. 

The last head of the Catholic Church to visit Japan was Pope John Paul II, who in 1981 also visited Nagasaki and met some of the descendants of the early converts who had managed to keep their faith secret. 

Christianity returned openly to Japan after Tokyo ended its policy of seclusion from the outside world in 1853, although followers of the Catholic Church still only account for around 440,000 of the 127 million Japanese people. 

The last head of the Catholic Church to visit Japan was Pope John Paul II, in the year 1981
The last head of the Catholic Church to visit Japan was Pope John Paul II, in the year 1981Image: Getty Images

Falling numbers

"The number of Japanese Catholics is declining because of diminishing birth rates, an aging population and the modern pressures of life," Father Chennoth said. "But I am sure that the pope's visit will give a new impetus to Catholics to deepen and share their faith with their fellow men by their commitment to building up a more peaceful, compassionate, humane and inclusive society."

While the number of Japanese Catholics may be in decline, the rising number of immigrants from deeply Catholic nations in other parts of Asia, such as the Philippines, means that churches here are still busy, said Father Kizito Mawayira. "This visit by the pope is deeply significant to us because it shows us again the solidarity of the church," said Father Kizito, a Ugandan who serves as pastor at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Yokohama.

"We are very much an international congregation and we have people from all over the world attending our masses — from France and India to the US, South Korea, Poland, the Congo, Croatia and many places in Southeast Asia," he said. 

Some estimates put the number of foreign-born Catholics living in Japan at 520,000, eclipsing the number of Japanese church-goers, with more places of worship now offering masses in different languages. "We also have Japanese in our congregation, of course, but mostly they are older people," Mawayira said. "For younger people, there are so many things going on with their schools and other groups at the weekend that they do not always have a chance to attend mass." 

Nuclear weapons opposition

Many Catholics are expected to flock to venues where Pope Francis will give a series of addresses, including in Hiroshima — where he is scheduled to meet with survivors of the atomic bomb that was dropped on the city in 1945 — and Tokyo.

Through his visit, the pope wants to send a strong message calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide. In a video message released by the Vatican ahead of his trip, the pope told the Japanese people: "Your country knows well the suffering caused by war. Along with you, I pray that the destructive power of nuclear weapons is never let loose again on human history. The use of nuclear weapons is immoral." 

In Japan, Pope Francis will also meet with Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his three-day visit and is expected to express regret for the loss of life associated with the recent deadly Typhoon Hagibis and the nuclear disaster of March 2011 in Fukushima, in northeastern Japan. 

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea