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Archbishop Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi

Europeans must see Church's universality more: Tokyo archbishop

Renardo Schlegelmilch
By Renardo Schlegelmilch

17 April 2024

Archbishop Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo is the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan (CBCJ) and secretary general of the Federation of Asian Bishop’s Conferences (FABC). Kikuchi, 65, is also the current president of Caritas Internationalis, a global confederation of over 160 Catholic relief, development, and social service organizations operating in about 200 countries and territories.

Kikuchi recently spoke to Germany-based Catholic radio, DOMRADIO.DE, about the Catholic Church in Japan and Asia, the ongoing Synod on Synodality, and Caritas Internationalis. The following is the translated and edited version of his interview with Renardo Schlegelmilch.

What does Catholic life look like in Japan, which is culturally unique?

The Church in Japan is a minority, with Catholics making up less than one percent of the total population. Out of one million Catholics, about half are Japanese, and another half are immigrant Catholics. Tokyo is the largest Catholic diocese, with about 96,000 native Japanese Catholics and between 50,000 and 60,000 foreigners. Catholics are spread in 15 dioceses across the country, including the archdioceses of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagasaki.

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Catholic Church in Japan survived brutal persecution, which began in Nagasaki, where our Church was founded and where we also have martyrs to mourn. In modern times, however, our situation is relatively stable, with around 500,000 Japanese Catholics.

How did the Japanese adopt the Catholic Church?

The Catholic Church in Japan has a very long history. In 1549, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier introduced the Christian faith to Japan. After that, we lived under persecution for two centuries. Only then did the country slowly open up, and Catholicism spread in Japan. Since then, we have been well respected, especially for our educational and social work. We run many schools and social institutions in the country. The Japanese are very grateful to the Catholic Church.

How does Catholic life in Japan differ from that of Europe?

Christianity has deep roots in European culture, there's no hiding that, which is why Christian values play a natural role in European countries. But Japan is very different. We are a predominantly Buddhist country, and you can see that in the culture. These two cultures are entirely different.

How do Christians and Buddhists get along in Japan?

The Buddhist majority is not interested in the Christian minority. But they don't have a problem with us either. The Buddhists have no problem with religious freedom because their own position is very strong and stable. Minorities don't play a role there.

What does everyday life look like for the Catholic communities in this situation?

I can't say exactly how many Catholics go to mass, but I can say that Christian life is concentrated on Sundays. Sunday schools, parish meetings, church services. It all takes place at the weekend. There are not many activities during the week itself.

How do you compare the development seen in Germany and Japan?  

Both are developed in terms of technology, industry, and secular values and have an aging population. The Japanese society is rapidly aging, and at the same time, the birth rate is falling. In the past, our social life mainly took place in the evening, with Bible studies and catechesis. Now that our churches are getting older and older, it is becoming more and more difficult to provide these services late in the evening because simply no one would come. This is another reason why so much happens on Sundays.

You have visited Germany to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the partnership between the archdioceses of Cologne and Tokyo. How do you evaluate this long-running relationship?

This partnership has existed for 70 years. In the first 25 years, the Cologne archdiocese offered Tokyo plenty of financial support. With that support, we built many churches, including our cathedral. On the 25th anniversary of this partnership, the bishops at the time, Cardinal Höffner and Cardinal Shirayanagi, decided to support other churches that were in greater financial need. Since then, the funds from both dioceses have been going to Myanmar. This is a small church, also in an absolute minority situation. With our joint partnership, we are therefore supporting other Christians who need this help.

What role does the Church in Japan play in this broader Asian context?

Except for the Philippines, the Catholic Church in Asian countries is an absolute minority, which is precisely why it needs our support, not only financially but also spiritually. Without this help, the church would no longer exist in many countries. In some countries -- such as India, Sri Lanka, or Pakistan --  there is a very strong majority religion, so the Catholic Church has problems and fights for its survival. It needs spiritual support.

As a church in Japan, we try to help as much as we can. We are also a minority, but we enjoy religious freedom and don't have to worry about our existence. So, we have entirely different scenarios in Asia.

What role does the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization play for the Church in your country and worldwide?

If you look at the global church at the moment, the churches in Africa and Asia are generating the vocations. We are the center of evangelization, such as in India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Large numbers of priests, seminarians and consecrated religious come from these countries. That is the valuable contribution we are currently making to the Catholic world.

How do you view the reform ideas currently coming from the European church?

For many years, the European church has been the role model for our church in Asia. Without the support of missionaries from Europe, we would not exist today. The European churches are indeed losing influence and members today, but at the same time, they are still very strong, at least compared to the influence of the Catholic Church in Asia. This is mainly due to the strong roots they have had in European societies for centuries. So, despite everything, we look to Europe as a role model. And in the end, we also support each other.

Europe should perhaps pay a little more attention to the Catholic Church's universality. The Catholic Church is not a European or American institution; it is a universal church that should embrace all peoples and cultures. This character is very important to Christians and should be a sign of hope for the future.

Can you share about the Ad limina meeting you had with the Pope?

We were in Rome for a week and met the Holy Father. We were a little worried because we had read a lot about his health problems and that he was very weak. But when we met him in person, we were surprised at how strong he was. He walked with a stick, cracked jokes, and really impressed us in conversation.

But his important message was that we shouldn't forget our sense of humor and smile despite all the problems. We must not lose hope and look to the future with optimism.

As president of Caritas Internationalis for the past year, what do you consider the reasons behind its internal conflicts, and what is the situation now?

Caritas Internationalis is the second largest NGO in the world, after the International Red Cross. That may be true, but we don't consider ourselves an NGO in the true sense of the word. We are an association of various national aid organizations from over 160 countries. So, each national Caritas organization has its own identity and goals. We only coordinate these aid organizations with each other. Some national associations have significant financial resources; others are very small and depend on financial support themselves. Our main task is to network these 160 associations and act as a familiar voice to the outside world.

When so many associations are positioned so differently, conflicts naturally arise between those who have resources and those who do not. That is the core of the conflict that boiled over two years ago. Those with greater financial leeway want to set the tone and determine the organization's direction. The more minor associations should then keep quiet and accept this. This inequality and lack of balance also impact the organization's decision-making and policies.

This is precisely what happened at Caritas Internationalis. I don't know the exact details. There is now a completely new management team. We are therefore confident about the future, as we are also in good contact with the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. We hope that we can reposition Caritas Internationalis to better meet the Holy Father's objectives.

You were a delegate at the first round of Synod on Synodality meetings last fall. What hopes do you have for the reform process?

I represented the Japanese church at the consultations last fall and also participated in the press conferences. I was repeatedly asked about women's ordination and very specific reform decisions made by the synod, but I can't really say anything about that.

I can say that the Synod is not the place to make such decisions. We can discuss it but will not decide on any changes or introduce new systems. We want to walk a common path with this synodal process and, with prayer, discernment, and discussion, to find a way forward for the Church that corresponds to the will of the Holy Spirit. This is the goal of the Synod of Synodality in general, and Christians worldwide must understand and internalize this.

This interview was first published by DOMRADIO.DE and is republished by UCA News with permission. The audio version of the interview can be accessed by clicking here.

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