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Japan ready to welcome a missionary of peace

The pope's visit to a non-Catholic country reflects his role as the conscience of international society

Kagefumi Ueno, Tokyo

Kagefumi Ueno, Tokyo

Updated: October 11, 2019 05:19 AM GMT
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Japan ready to welcome a missionary of peace

Kagefumi Ueno is a former Japanese ambassador to the Holy See. (Photo supplied)

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It was recently reported that Pope Francis will finally come to Japan in November — 38 years after the previous papal visit by John Paul II. To look at the context of his visit, two key concepts appear to be helpful — the pope's role as the conscience of international society and his attention to Asia. 

First, I would like to clarify why no pope has visited Japan for the last 38 years. That’s very simple — the Vatican gives low priority to Japan as the proportion of Catholics to the population remains less than one in 200.

Then why is the pope, the ultimate head of the whole Catholic world, coming to non-Catholic Japan? That’s because the pope is, besides being a religious leader, a diplomat par excellence who incessantly gives messages and warnings to international society on such secular issues as poverty, income inequality, immigration and refugees, and conflict resolution, which make him a mentor or the conscience of international society as well as a missionary of peace.

Let us look back at the remarks Pope Francis recently made as the international conscience, which may give us some clues as to the messages he will extend during his stay in Japan.

Poverty and income inequality are his biggest concerns. This pope from South America, who consistently advocates that the Church should stand by the poor and shift its focus toward the South, is highly critical of the North’s materialistic way of life and the wide economic disparity between the North and the South. He intensifies his admonition that rich countries should taper out the culture of greed, luxury and excessive consumption and return to modest life, extending help to the poor and the weak as well as refugees.

He has repeated his alarm at the uncontrollable violence of civil wars in, say, Syria and Yemen, and he also advocates decisive denuclearization and control over the international arms trade. As for nuclearization, he will, I assume, send a very strong message from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Pope Francis, who is very seriously concerned about the ongoing deterioration of the global environment, demands that the North should fulfil its responsibility by rectifying the habit of exorbitant consumption and waste of resources.

At his discourse on international affairs in early January to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, he sharply criticized the increasing number of political leaders who disregard multilateral bodies such as the United Nations, appealing for the re-appreciation of the role of multilateral diplomacy.

By and large, his messages seem agreeable to Japanese people, though some may sound harsh to them. In any event, as many international leaders pay respect to the pope as the conscience of international society, the messages he extends from Japan to the world will be seen to contain the essence of the meaning of his visit to Japan. 

The pope’s visit should also be seen in the context of the Vatican-Asia relationship. In Asia where traditional religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are dominant, the percentage of Catholics is very low. Against this backdrop, the Vatican, a bastion of Eurocentrism, has so far paid little attention to Asia. Thus, by and large, the Vatican-Asia relationship has remained inactive. That’s why Pope Benedict XVI, a very conservative traditionalist, never visited any Asian country during his tenure of eight years. This started to change when Francis, an advocate of shifting the Church’s focus from the North to the South (that is, Central and South America, Africa and Asia) assumed the papacy six years ago.

Pope Francis has given favorable consideration to Asia in terms of the promotion of high-ranking clergy or the shaping of papal overseas trips. And in September last year, the Vatican at last reached a historic agreement with the Chinese government over the nomination of bishops of the Chinese Catholic Church, long seen as the toughest nut to crack for both sides, paving the way for a process of institutional dialogue between the two.

The pope has made unstinting efforts over the past six years to shorten the moral distance between the Vatican and Asia. His visit to Japan will be made in such a context.

It was indeed a surprise that President Xi Jinping recognized papal authority over the Chinese Church despite his persistent insistence on the Sinicization of religion in China. This bold compromise was presumably an outcome of the highly political decision by President Xi to capitalize on the weighty presence of the pope, a symbol of the West, as a way to mitigate the impact of Washington’s diplomatic offensive.

It is, therefore, not accurate to criticize the Vatican, as some conservative Catholic clergy do, by saying that it was outwitted to make a one-sided concession in favor of China. Nonetheless, their concern about the communist government is understandable as the Xi regime imposes harsher control over religions in China, not to mention its draconian oppression of Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. It is thus important to carefully watch Beijing to see if it acts against the spirit of the agreement.

Incidentally, this Jesuit pope appears to keep the DNA inherited from Xavier and Matteo Ricci, the Jesuits who pioneered missionary work in Asia five centuries ago. In this sense, he may have a special sentiment toward the improvement of relations with China. As a young priest, Francis was keen to go to Japan to pursue missionary work. His application was, however, turned down because of his poor health. He may still have a special feeling for Japan which might have prodded him toward making his visit.

All in all, it will be exciting to observe the messages that the pope extends from Japan.       

Kagefumi Ueno is a former Japanese ambassador to the Holy See. This essay first appeared here in the Japan in Their Own Words column of the English-Speaking Union of Japan website.

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