Newsletter of the District
- December 2000
Conversion of Japan
of a French book published in 1923, entitled "Talk on Japan"by
Fr Urbain-Marie Cloutier OFM a Canadian Franciscan working in the
This book review, although 77 years old, is a very interesting
document on both the state of Japan at the beginning of the 20th
century and of the difficulties encountered by missionaries arriving
in a new civilization. Please remember that this is pre-World
War II Japan. The political situation has changed much since.
However we think this text is quite interesting to understand
the Japanese Missions. The footnotes are from us.
a great apostle of the Immaculate in Japan in the 1930s
(just after this article and the book it reviews were written)
of the Far-East are not barbarians, neither are they half civilized.
They are people in full progress, modernizing themselves, rapidly
to become our competitors. The Japanese in particular are copying
all the improvements of the Western civilization, they are one of
the great powers of the globe, and they will certainly become its
masters if they can manage to discipline and dominate the Yellow
Races as they are trying to do.
refined even when in extreme poverty, the Japanese are rooted in
the pride of their race which makes them always think of themselves
as the sons of heaven, above other men, established in a superior
pretension is the source of the greatest difficulty to their acceptation
of the religion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Fr. Urban-Marie consecrates
a whole section of his book to make known the difficulties of the
conversion of the Japanese to Christianity.
60 years of apostolate (1860-1920), he notes, only 75,000 Japanese
of the 60 millions inhabitants have consented to become Catholic.
The conquests are slow, difficult, one by one. They require from
the missionary patient explanations, sometimes long debates, where
the priest must provide a vast erudition and a very firm logic.
these bright minds, the difficulties of the language are rather
serious. Delicate formulas of politeness, a extremely nuanced language,
synonyms hard to distinguish where one is polite and the other not,
all this puts the missionary in the impossibility to speak with
ease and leaves him in front of his interlocutor in a disadvantageous
people needs well written doctrinal books, conferences: the missionary
is often only able to give a rudimentary catechism, presenting a
doctrine in its bare elements, without attraction, without the strong
arguments that can make it acceptable. It appears strange to these
community of 700 members in Poland
At the national
level, it is in their interest not to convert. The country's politics
sense it. According to old beliefs, the emperor is a descendant
of the gods, he is infallible, all wise; his authority cannot be
questioned, his demands are never excessive. This attitude is well
fed by those in government who see in it a protection against the
wind of socialism, an assurance of inner peace for the Nation and
its strength against other nations.
draw a certain pride form this social peace, comparing it with pride
to the troubles hitting Western people, shaking the most powerful
nations and threatening the future of the world. They take advantage
of this to exalt their institutions and their beliefs par above
whatever comes from outside.
To accept Christianity
would be to diminish the prestige of the mikado, would be to introduce
division in his empire where all the strength comes from the unity
of commandment, lies in the submission of the subordinates to their
hierarchical superiors. It is for these administrative reasons
that we have seem recently the ruling class becoming willfully shintoist.
It doesn't have a religious faith, but since the people wants a
cult, the best is no doubt a national religion which would be another
link between the various elements of the nation, another source
of resistance against foreign invasion. Exteriorly, they are full
of consideration for foreigners, even for the missionaries, but
in reality, there is a deep suspicion and contempt.
Such is the
bloc where Christianity wants to penetrate. To these pagans enriching
themselves with our wars and who only dream of the present life,
to these sons of heavens draped in their pride of being superiors,
our poor missionaries, clad in their brown habits, poor and beggars,
go to preach self-denial, continence and charity. 
worship also introduces in the very lives of the Japanese revolutionary
habits. For us, time is divided in weeks, Sunday is the Day of
the Lord, during which one must abstain from servile work, from
commerce, from business. In Japan, it isn't like that. The week
is almost unknown. “The official days of rest are the 1st
and the 15th of the month. And even on these days, many people
work. Thus the partition of the month in weeks has very little
importance in Japan.” (p.221) Catholic workers, Catholic businessmen
find themselves in a difficult situation for the simple reason that
they want to observe the Sunday rest.
often have to break with immoral and dishonest habits that are quite
widespread. Japanese hold on to the appearance of virtue, but this
exterior etiquette frequently hides the worst disorders of paganism.
explains the hesitation and lack of will found in them when we speak
to them of converting to Catholicism. They understand and admit
that our holy religion is the safest and even the unique way to
amend man's life and to save him. However they don't have the courage
to break with their habits: the religion we put in front of them
seems to impose on them too great sacrifices: they don't dare to
go forward by the fear to disturb their conscience by the duties
to be fulfilled.
though they declare themselves to be ready to become Christians.
Some of them ask to receive baptism as soon as possible without
having to study. Others on the contrary learn their catechism with
fervor but this great zeal soon cools off. After some time their
taste is lessened, their courage diminished. They give a thousand
pretexts to excuse their inconstancy which they proudly never want
to admit. At last, when their position becomes impossible to defend,
they disappear quietly, postponing to a later date the moment of
their conversion, which in most cases, simply means quitting totally
and definitely.” (p.210)
as can be seen, are the obstacles met by the religion of Our Lord
Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, all the Catholics who visit the Far-East,
are unanimous in the opportunity of a great effort to Christianize
this country. This could actually concern the future of the whole
world. No other country seem to have on the other Asian countries
a similar influence. This people is one that studies, that only
seeks to rise and to conquer. What benefits if Christian ideas
could inspire the leaders of this Asian movement, but also what
danger, what disaster for millions of souls, what catastrophe perhaps
for the world if this movement was directed against the true God!
world, strength, riches, seem to be the only goods worthy of their
ambition. Missionaries must first destroy these dangerous impressions.
That is the reason why they attempt to evangelize the learned.
In this goal, St Pius X insisted with the Jesuits to open a Catholic
university in Tokyo, which they did with energy. Germans, Americans,
French Jesuits brought their help to this difficult mission and
today, without deceiving oneself on the results obtained so far,
we can honestly have some hope for the future.
We are trying
to make the educated class of Japanese to understand the Catholic
point of view, and we are trying to make some conquests whose influence
and prestige will be strength for Catholicism. Already, Japan can
count quality converts, such as Commandant Yamamoto, a fervent and
convinced Catholic who, as official interpreter, accompanied the
son of the mikado in his recent European tour.
divine inspiration he built his convent in the hills behind Nagasaki.
Thus it escape the blast of the nuclear bomb.
What is needed
to convert Japan is a good number of educated and well provided
missionaries who will be able to impose respect to this people and
to train with great care the mind and the heart of neophytes. Above
all, what is required is a first class national clergy. The work
of seminaries is perhaps the one that preoccupies most the Apostolic
Vicars. Unfortunately, priestly recruitment is difficult. Besides
the few thousand Christians who persevere in their faith since the
16th and 17th century, Japanese have too far to go to have the energy
to assume the obligations of the Catholic priesthood. The pagan
souls need a very abundant grace to be attracted and be caught by
such an austere vocation.
We must therefore
pray hard that the Holy Ghost distributes widely His gifts on this
land watered by the blood of so many martyrs. Let us ask that the
reign of God come quickly in this country which will have such an
influence on the rest of the world. When one sees all the unscrupulous
merchants and corrupt agents of the West arriving in Japan, let
us also have the ambition to send and to support the preachers of
the Gospel and the keepers of good morals. 
Dugré, S.J. in Les Missions Franciscaines. vol.1, No.2, Québec,
April – June 1923, pp.107-108.
 This comment is made in relation to the gradual
adoption of the shintoism as Japan's nation religion at the time,
but is no longer a case in post-war Japan.
 All these difficulties must have been true, but
this reasoning cannot explain a much more dramatic success of
the missionaries in the 17th century Japan, when the underlying
conditions mentioned above (e.g., needs for erudition and logic,
difficulty with the language, etc.) presented themselves as much
to St Francis Xavier.
 Again, this comment was true at the time of the
rapid emergence of new monarchism coupled with the adoption of
the shintoism as the national religion. Shitoism may be an "old
belief", but again, it does not explain the success in the
17th century vs. the very slow evangelization in late 19th century
 The author and the reviewer probably read very much
into the spirit of the times. However, as can been seen from the
post-war Japan, this apparent strength of the shintoism was a
result of a political maneuver rather than a matter of religious
conviction. After the war, most of the people "lost"
faith in the national shintoism, but did not bother to replace
it with another religion. The statement "there is a deep
suspicion and contempt" for foreigners may seem a gross exaggeration
today; where almost the reverse is true. But it has to be understood
in the light of the persecutions against the foreign missionaries
and the new faith they brought in the kingdom.
 As regards poverty, one can recall the first journey
of St Francis Xavier to Kyoto and its apparent failure (see above)
and how he changed his tactics for the second journey. As regards
chastity, St Francis himself rebuked some of the Daimyos for the
public sins against nature existing in the kingdom.
 This was true then, but is not true anymore.
 These arguments remain very true to this day.
 It is to be noted that, up to this day, the Japanese
people are considered to have the best technology and diligence
in Asia, but are never considered leaders by any of its Asian
 The theory given here that the Japanese people had
already embraced the material world as its quasi-religion (by
learning from the Western Powers), when the evangelization resumed
in the late 19th century, is very true.
 After the time of this writing, the Japanese clergy
were mostly nationalized, but it did not change the slow speed
 With careful analysis, it seems that the first
missionaries to Japan were very successful in converting the Japanese
people because Catholicism offered to them something that the
traditional alternatives did not, such as the logical explanation
of the faith, and marriage of religion and science.
was subsequently closed to all foreigners and reopened to them
more than two centuries later, Japanese people had been made tragically
aware of their inferiority in every technical, economical and
artistic field to the Western Powers, and made a collective determination
to work as hard as they can to learn everything from the West
and try to catch up with them as soon as possible. HOWEVER, the
difference was that all these latest Western technologies and
arts were shown to the Japanese people as separate from the Catholic
religion. Therefore Japan concluded the Catholicism as superfluous
to their all-important goal (as opposed to the 15th century Japanese
who believed Catholicism to be the center of all the advancements
the West has brought to the country).
people are known to follow the wave. If the lord of the land and
all its key lieutenants believed in Catholicism, people willingly
followed. If the Japanese government determined that it was really
the Western technologies that mattered and the religion was of
no practical use, then people also concluded that this western
religion was just waste of time.
military used this nature of the Japanese populace to its advantage
when it mobilized practically all of them under the emperor, reigning
as the living god. There was a big counter-swing just after the
end of the world war, when the American democracy was the only
true answer. It was then followed by the 50s-70s of hectic industrialism,
when copying the western technology was the national passion,
which culminated in the burst of the economic bubble in the early
part of the story is, from the burst of the bubble, the Japanese
people seemed to have lost a cause, and are still looking for
one. Whatever Japan as a nation determines the next wave should
be, they will certainly work very hard to achieve it, whether
it be the American-style free capitalism, environmentalism, New
Age, or whatever other cause. Japanese people love to follow the
national trend; it is inherently very hard for a Japanese person
to take actions that result in making himself stand out from his
peers, and converting to Catholicism is surely one of them in
the modern Japan. But if (and this is a very big IF) one
day, the Japanese people decide that Catholicism is the new banner
everyone should run under, then that wave would be as strong as
was seen by the first Catholic missionaries some three and a half