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Pope becomes a 'teaching ruler' throughout Japan

Japanese government adopts the Church’s linguistic term, but one taxi driver remains confused

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Support Asia's largest network of Catholic journalists and editors
Pope becomes a 'teaching ruler' throughout Japan

Pope Francis receives a flower after giving a speech at Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo on Nov. 26. The event concluded a visit to Japan marked by messages on nuclear powers and weapons. (Photo: Kim Hong-ji/AFP)

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Japan’s government finally resolved a long-standing problem with the pope’s title in the Japanese language only days ahead of the pontiff’s successful visit.

From the day Pope Francis began his Nov. 23-26 visit, the government finally changed the word used for "pope" to the one adopted by Catholics after World War II. This nomenclature applied to the symbols used in Japan’s writing system — collectively known as kanji — and has long been the topic of both confusion and controversy.

For centuries 法王 — the characters for “law” and “king” pronounced “Ho-o” — had been used universally in Japan for the pope’s title. 

After World War II, this nomenclature was changed to 教皇 (“teaching ruler” pronounced “Kyo-ko”) within the Catholic Church, and now it will be used everywhere.

As the original registration of the papal visit was with the old title, everyone assumed it was unchangeable. For example, the sign on Tokyo’s nunciature gate still has the old name.

The Japanese bishops' conference had been dithering about asking for a name change for many months ahead of Pope Francis’ visit. They got Tokyo’s apostolic nunciature involved, contacted various government ministries, asked senior priests to do translations of all the documents involved, and then approached the government to ask if a change was possible.

Yet the resolution was remarkably simple, with the Foreign Ministry responding, "We don't care what he's called, just tell us what you want,” according to people involved in the process.

The original usage was decided within the Church, as was the change, and the Japanese bishops have a committee on terminology that comes up with Japanese words for church terms as needed.

The old title has the character for "law," which is used in all sorts of situations, including government ministries. The character for "king" will eventually be used, for example, for European kings.

The new title’s character for "teaching" is used universally. The second character for “ruler” is less common but used for emperors and kings both in Japan and elsewhere.

Still, the change will take a while to filter through to regular Japanese people. A taxi driver, trying to explain a roadblock during the pope’s visit, blamed the cause as a “Roman emperor.”

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