by Engy Magdy, Special to The Tablet
TOKYO — The Catholic Church – both as a community of believers and the institution at large – faces many challenges in the world today. Amid waves of violence, atheistic attitudes, climate change and sexual abuse scandals, the Church is called to address various needs and engage in different kinds of work.
And in Asia, where there are serious threats in terms of nuclear weapons, and natural disasters, the Church has a big role to play.
Tokyo Archbishop Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi, S.V.D., who recently turned 60, spoke about many of these challenges in an interview with The Tablet.
Among the life experiences that form his vision of the Church and the world are the years he spent ministering in West Africa. Shortly after his ordination in 1986, then-Father Kikuchi was missioned to Ghana. The country was suffering from severe poverty and poor living conditions, but he described his time ministering in the missions there as “wonderful.”
He returned to his native Japan in the 1990s and was appointed Bishop of Niigata in 2004, and was then named the new Archbishop of Tokyo in 2017. He serves as a member of the representative council of Caritas International and is the current president for both Caritas Japan and Caritas Asia.
Pope Francis recently announced his plans to visit Japan. What are the expectations of the Japanese Catholic episcopate for the 2019 papal trip?
We are very happy because we invited him to visit Japan. We know that he wanted to come since … [the time] when he was working as a Jesuit in Argentina. He even sent his students to Japan. So we are very happy that he always shows his interest in visiting us.
At the same time, I don’t know what kind of message he will bring to Japan because we need many spiritual inputs to Japanese society.
The majority of the people here are not interested in any religion. Many people think that they don’t need God. We need a strong message and strong, spiritual input that we hope the Holy Father will bring.
Another thing that he is always talking about is the abolition of nuclear weapons. We want him to make a strong statement, like in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Catholic Church in Japan works hard in many areas, especially after the tsunami in 2011 as it hit many parishes, so the people still need spiritual encouragement to find the hope for the future.
So we hope he will have the chance to visit some areas to pray for the people and to encourage the survivors.
In your opinion, what are the main challenges that the Catholic Church in Japan faces?
We [Catholics] are still a very small minority, less than 1 percent of the population. The Tokyo Diocese is the biggest among the 16 dioceses in Japan, however, it has only 100,000 Japanese Catholics so it’s very small compared to the [overall] population. So we have a lot to do.
But the one thing that is prominent, the young people are not so much interested in any kind of religious activities. They are very … busy to survive. So it’s very difficult even to talk about God. It’s not easy to talk about God, the Bible and Savior even if the Bible is one of the best sellers in Japan.
Do you think that technology plays a role in this situation?
Probably, yes. Nowadays amid all these kinds of technology, you can find immediate answers about anything you don’t know, [you] just Google it. So people tend to the easy answer they want to know ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but when it comes to religion, like Christianity, you have to go through the pains and sufferings and other things like Jesus Christ Himself went through, and after the suffering, you realize the truth. You have to go through the pains and struggles to find the reasons, the answers, the truth and that takes time.
In an address to the representatives of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan a year before his trip to that country, Pope John Paul II said: “The themes you are discussing together, each from the standpoint of his own religion, are the relationship between man and nature and the relationship between religion and culture. I am deeply convinced that these are themes of great importance for the future of our world.”
You are known for your promotion of ecology, and in particular, Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’.” How do you think the care for our common home – and “Laudato Si’” in particular – could promote relationships between Catholics and members of Japan’s traditional religions?
In the traditional religions in Japan, people believe that every nature element – trees, mountains and anything green – has a spirit, so they respect and protect nature. If you harm the flowers or anything else, it will come back to you, so you have to protect them. That is the traditional thinking among Japanese Buddhism, Shintoism, and it’s the same as what Pope Francis pointed out in “Laudato Si’.”
You have been a staunch promoter of the peace process in the Korean Peninsula. How would you evaluate the present conditions of the Japanese-North Korean relations? How is the Catholic Church in Japan trying to promote a peaceful resolution of the tensions between Japan and North Korea?
I have been president of Caritas Japan for years and presently, I’m the president of Caritas Asia. Caritas Japan used to go to North Korea and had connections with some of the members in North Korea. Many years ago, when I started my work, my colleagues had been to North Korea several times to deliver materials and assistance and other things together with other Caritas organizations. I think we had a good relationship with them and they also had a good understanding of our activities as a Catholic Church, but the political system is quite impossible to understand, sometimes we don’t know with whom we should negotiate.
In South Korea, we have the Bishops’ Conference and we always have communication. South Korea bishops are very serious about dialogue with their counterparts in north. We appreciate at this moment what is happening. There is a very important step being taking right now, which is the dialogue between [North Korean president] Mr. Kim and the president of South Korea [Moon Jae-in].
However, here in Japan, it’s not easy to talk about ‘dialogue,’ because people here are very suspicious about North Korea and China’s intentions and we had a bad experience, so it’s a historical matter. It’s not easy to talk about dialogue with North Korea or make a peace. Some people see we can talk about peace after a deal is made. However we really appreciate what the president of South Korea does.
How are relations between the Catholic Church in Japan and the Patriotic Association and the underground Catholic Church in China? Do you see a role for Japan’s Catholic Church in promoting a peaceful relationship between Japan and China?
Talking about the Catholic Church in China, what we know is that there are so many divisions. However, it’s matter of leadership. So for the people, it doesn’t matter to go underground church or to the patriotic church, it’s the Catholic Church.
The problem is only about the leadership – where one bishop belongs to the patriotic church and another belongs to the underground church. Here in Japan, there are number of the Chinese priests, some belong to the patriotic [church], and others to the underground [church], but they are already working together here in Japan and there are many who studied in Rome coming from both churches. So the image that the patriotic church and the underground are fighting each other, that is not the reality, the reality is they are coexisting peacefully.
The Holy Father’s message is the same. Pope Francis is the same. The divisions were created by political agendas and from outside. There is one Catholic Church, which is quite strong and we have communications for many years already, especially about Caritas.
We invite directors of Caritas China for meetings but some are under strong control from the government. I think, at least for this time, because of the provisional deal, although we don’t know the content of the agreement. But what is important now is that the Chinese government finally recognized the Holy Father as a head of the Chinese Catholic Church.
Given the clearly different experiences of your order – the Divine Word Missionaries – in their missionary efforts in China and Africa during the 1800s, what are the lessons those experiences provide for the evangelization mission of the Catholic Church in Japan?
Through the history of these missionary activities in the 19th and 20th centuries, we started to realize the real meaning of the evangelization. In the 16th century, when the Jesuits came to Japan, we had to baptize people because without baptism you will go to hell and will not be saved. But after so many years of activity, we started to realize it [baptism] is not only to save the poor souls … but also to eradicate the poverty, give education and what we call now, human development. It’s not only good for the people, but we started to realize if we promote human development, then the conditions of human being will be better than before and that is the delight of God who created this life.
God created life, not to be suffered, but to be appreciated, satisfied and to have joy. We have to provide the chance for happiness, so that is evangelization. That’s why the Catholic Church is really serious at this moment about missionary activities; of course, we talk about baptism, but also human development.
We have many differences in opinion with the Japanese government when it comes to politics, but I personally really appreciate something like the Tokyo International Conference for Africa Development (TICAD) initiative in Africa. It’s very important that the Japanese government has the potential to provide the chance to the people to have a better life.
But that is also for political leverage?
We still have to use or ‘utilize’ the political agenda for the betterment of this world.
How has your experience as a missionary in Africa helped you in your episcopacy, first as bishop of Niigata and now, as archbishop of Tokyo?
It was wonderful experience in Ghana because there are many people who come to church. I was alone in a parish where there were more than 2,000 members, and between 100 to 200 baptisms every year.
Back in Japan, I was the bishop of Niigata. If you visit the parish, you may see only 20 people attending Sunday Mass. It’s a very small community so it’s completely different and that’s very challenging.
As president of Caritas Japan and Caritas Asia, how do you see the role of Caritas in a highly developed country like Japan, and in Asia at large?
The Caritas organization has been working for disaster relief in countries around the world. The situation is very different in developed countries like Japan where the government is strong enough to give emergency assistance. However, Caritas is always ready to move after the government in hard cases like what happened in 2011 after Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
How do you see the ecumenical dialogue among churches in the world and specifically between the Eastern Church and Vatican ?
At this moment we shouldn’t waste time in fighting each other because there are many things to do together and in different religions there are good people who have the same kind of intentions for the betterment of the world and creating peace.
Is there any such dialogue in Japan?
I’m involved right now as a board member in the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP). It was established by some different religious groups in Japan. Regularly we organize activities to talk about peace and we have a strong connection. It’s very good to involve many different religious groups and we have a lot of activities together.
Lately, the Catholic Church has faced many sexual abuse reports which Pope Francis does his best to address. How has this problem affected the Church?
It’s really sad, especially since it isn’t … [only] one or two incidents. So it really affects the entire Catholic Church and we are losing credibility, not only in the United States or Europe, but all over the world. We are responsible for all these things. But this is also an opportunity for the entire Catholic Church to think about the involvement of ordinary people. The Catholic Church shouldn’t be controlled only by religious members who are clerics, priests, cardinals and bishops but also let [lay] people be involved in decision making and correcting the wrongdoing.