UCA News
William Grimm, a native of New York City, is a missioner and presbyter who since 1973 has served in Japan, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
A new prince for an old country
Published: June 07, 2006 05:43 AM
A new prince for an old country

As of Sept. 6, Japan has a new little prince who, in his short life, has already headed off a constitutional crisis. 

According to Japanese law, the imperial throne must pass through the male line. However, the imperial family has not been producing sons. The crown prince and princess have a daughter. The crown prince´s younger brother had two daughters until his wife gave birth to a boy on September 6.

So, assuming that the newborn lad grows up healthy, Japan will be spared a succession crisis for at least another generation. Until the latest pregnancy was announced, the government was floating the idea of allowing females not only to ascend the throne, but to have the succession pass to their offspring.

Conservatives were aghast. Those conservatives are rejoicing at the new prince´s birth. So, too, are the media. Much of the media fuss, of course, is due to the fact that news of this sort sells newspapers and magazines and attracts viewers.

But, in fact, how much interest or excitement is there among the Japanese people?

Sometimes, it is important to notice what people fail to say. This is especially true when reading or viewing news reports. We must keep questions in mind and see if the article or report answers them.

In the case of the newborn prince, the question is, "Who cares?"

The media have spoken of people waiting outside the hospital for the birth and of others rejoicing over it. Notably absent from the reports is any mention of how many people were waiting or who is doing the rejoicing. There are no photos of crowds. There have been no parades or mass public demonstrations of rejoicing.

In fact, most Japanese do not care.

The imperial family and system are so remote from the lives of people here that the birth of a new prince does not excite the mass of people. The birth of a panda at one of the nation´s zoos would certainly attract larger and more emotional crowds.

Of more concern is the kind of country Japan will be when the newborn prince is ready to become emperor. On the same day the yet-to-be-named prince was born, the United Nations Population Fund issued a report that projects a drop of 16 million people, or 13 percent, in Japan´s population by the year 2050, about the time the boy is likely to take the throne.

In fact, the Japanese government´s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research predicts an even sharper drop. Japan´s population will not only be smaller but older too, the institute says. It predicts that in 2050, "1 in 2.8 persons will be over 65."

What sort of challenge does this present for the Church? An immediate response to that question might refer to the need for more activities to serve the elderly: nursing homes, medical care, seniors´ clubs, meal services, etc.

However, that response overlooks the fact that there are likely to be few people, Catholic or otherwise, available to staff such programs. After all, Catholics are not immune to the effects of the aging that is already reshaping Japan.

The time for the Church in Japan to serve the elderly of 2050 is today. Can we help today´s middle-aged people develop the attitudes and spirituality that will enable them to live into an old age of peaceful dignity when there will be few people to care for them? And when younger people may resent the large amount of resources that will be directed toward the elderly?

In addition to the international political and economic effects, Japan´s aging presents a challenge for the Church throughout Asia.

Traditionally the Church has used its resources to serve the poor. Might there be a need in the not-too-distant future for the Church to respond to the needs of a nation whose poverty will be of youth rather than of money?

Japanese industry is already importing labor from other countries in order to cope with a shortage of working-age people. The Church has, of course, always imported labor in the form of missionary priests, sisters, brothers and laity.

The time is coming when the Church here will have to import a new kind of missioner, specialists in being an evangelizing presence with and for the elderly. Will the younger Churches of Asia be prepared to send people in mission to Japan in order to serve the elderly?

If the willingness is there, what sort of preparation will be needed? And what sort of planning must be done today?

Our little prince may eventually reign in a country that is barely distinguishable from an old folks´ home. How will the Church serve in that same country? 

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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