The Holy Mission

On a recent trip to Japan, the Pope was treated like a superstar. When he celebrated Mass at the biggest venue in Tokyo, the event was covered live on national television and he received extensive attention for his anti-nuclear comments in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. While Japan is not a Christian country, Duncan Bartlett believes it shares important values with the leader of the Roman Catholic Church

Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister, Taro Aso, has another very personal name which relates to his deep Christian faith. He is also known as Fransisco, after St Francis of Assisi.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio also adopted the name Francis when, in 2013, he became Pope and leader of the Roman Catholic Church.The pair met at the office of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in November last year. In a welcoming speech, Mr Abe acknowledged that Pope Francis has expressed an interest in being a missionary in Japan since he was young. The mass media enthusiastically carried the Pontiff’s words and images to a huge audience during his trip – a form of evangelism which is particularly striking, given that the majority of Japanese people have no Christian faith and tend to follow Buddhism or Shintoism.

Media star

Media interest in the Pope’s visit made a refreshing change from the usual political squabbles and discussions about corruption, which Japan’s leaders would like to push into the background. Like a good priest’s sermon, Mr Abe’s speech was designed to direct people’s attention to higher matters. It suggested that in terms of ethics, Japan and the Vatican aim for similar goals. And it implied that Christians such as Mr Aso are helping to set the national moral agenda.

The press showed little appreciation of the subtle distinctions between the spiritual and secular. This was mainly a visual story and the highlight for TV was when Pope Francis celebrated Mass at Japan’s largest venue, the Tokyo Dome, attended by 50,000 people. The Pope’s official translator, Father Renzo De Luca, told Vatican News he was amazed at how much coverage Pope Francis’ visit generated.

‘So many people are really interested,’ he said. ‘They are following what the Pope says and where the Pope goes. People are wondering what Pope Francis has to say to a non-Catholic country like Japan and also what he’s going to say about peace, atomic energy and nuclear disarmament, topics that are very crucial in Japan.’

Nuclear sin

Inevitably, the nuclear issue was high on the agenda when the Pope visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pope Francis said in Nagasaki: ‘Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation.’ He suggested that the nuclear arms race wastes resources which could instead improve people’s lives and protect the environment.

‘In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered and the fortunes made through the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance and sale of ever more destructive weapons are an affront crying out to heaven,’ he said.
Prime Minister Abe had appropriate words in response. ‘As the only country to have experienced the horror of nuclear devastation in war, Japan is a country with a mission of leading the international community’s efforts to bring about a world free of nuclear weapons.’

Mr Abe added: ‘For seventy plus years since the war, we in Japan have single-mindedly and unwaveringly pursued peace and freedom. At the same time, however, when we enjoy peace, we recognise that there are people being persecuted. There are people imprisoned without cause, waiting for release.’

Prophetic resonance

That may have prompted the Pope to think about the issue of religious freedom in other parts of Asia, especially the Uighurs in China. Many of them report that their ethnicity and faith are important factors in their treatment by the Han Chinese.

This issue has provoked much anguish in both in Muslim and Christian countries. The Vatican has limited influence over China’s approach to Muslims but it has tried to support Christians in Asia, including those in Taiwan, the breakaway island state which follows a pluralistic approach to religion, as well as politics. As things stand, the Vatican is the only country in Europe to recognise Taiwan diplomatically.

In terms of ethics, Japan and the Vatican aim for similar goals

Rome and Beijing

However, there is much speculation that the Vatican could do a deal with China, which would lead it to relinquish its special relationship with Taiwan, in order to become an official church on the mainland.

John L. Allen Jr, editor of the religious website Crux, writes that ‘it seems reasonably obvious that one day, sooner rather than later, they’ll downgrade the Papal mission in Taipei in favour of diplomatic recognition by Beijing’.

Mr Allen, who has written eleven books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs, says: ‘Rome wants the ability to help shape the international agenda that comes from full diplomatic relations with one of the world’s economic and military superpowers and a nation whose population represents almost one-fifth of humanity.’

He also suggests that the Vatican wants greater religious freedom in China,‘not only for the small Catholic minority there but for other religious sub-groups as well, including Uighur Muslims in the northwestern part of the country’.

Interfaith aims

For the Pope and other people of faith, religious freedom for both Muslims and Christians is crucially important. This puts them on course for conflict with China, which is officially an atheist state. This point must have been on the mind of Mr Abe when he warned of those‘imprisoned without cause waiting for release’.

That phrase carries extra resonance for Christians, who remember the passage in the Bible when Christ quotes from the Prophet Isaiah, saying he had come ‘to preach deliverance to the captives’.

Pope Francis does not see eye-to-eye with the Japanese government over certain contentious issues, such as the death penalty, but he acknowledged with gratitude the freedom enjoyed by religious people, including Deputy Prime Minister ‘Fransisco’ Aso.

He was offered reassurance that in Japan, all forms of faith are protected. And for Prime Minister Abe, the Pope’s visit provided a precious opportunity to remind the world that Japan treats spiritual matters with the same deep respect as the world’s most sophisticated democracies.


Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and the author of the weekly blog Japan Story. He formerly worked in Tokyo for the BBC

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