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Brass Rubbings

No Longer Foreigners

On the Church in Japan.


I was in Tokyo for my birthday this year, a Wednesday afternoon, sixty-five years down the line from the coronation of John XXIII, and the doors to the Old Cathedral of Saint Joseph were open on a lovely late Spring afternoon. The cathedral, established by the Paris Foreign Missions Society in 1874, stands back from the street in the Tsukiji neighborhood, the Edo canal district of old. An unlocked sanctuary was a welcome surprise to this Catholic from Baltimore, the premier see of the United States, where the doors to most Roman churches are shut tight except for Mass. I sat on the left, a few rows back from a statue of the Blessed Mother, and took out my rosary. The kneelers were bare wood. Cushions hung from hooks on the back of the facing pew, but I wasn’t sure if they were for kneeling or sitting. I’d like to say that I kneel while circling the mysteries—they were the Glorious on this day, from Christ’s Resurrection to his mother’s Coronation—but that would be a lie.

I sat on the cushion and began, continuing a five-month, on-and-off Novena for the healing of a young relative from multiple cancers. Since a pilgrimage to Louisiana earlier this year, I have sought the intercession of a twelve-year-old girl, Charlene Richard, currently up for sainthood, who died from leukemia in 1959. After praying at Charlene’s grave, I asked a lay Catholic whom I admire if it was okay to seek intercession from someone not yet recognized as a saint. “I wouldn’t hesitate,” he said. And I didn’t.

For most of my way around the beads, I was the only one in the spare, wooden church that seats about one hundred fifty people, replaced as the cathedral of Tokyo in 1920 by Saint Mary’s in the Sekiguchi neighborhood. Nearing the end of the devotion—grant, we beseech you, that we who meditate upon these mysteries . . .—I sensed someone sitting in the back. I met him in the “history room,” an alcove displaying bricks from the original, Gothic church destroyed in 1923 by the Great Kanto Earthquake. The church was rebuilt in 1927. There were also artifacts dating from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, when Christianity was kindan in Japan. Along with a vintage notice board proscribing Christianity once placed in Japanese towns is a replica of a fumi-e, a plaque with an image of Christ that citizens were forced to stomp to prove they had not converted to the kirishitan sect. Most striking was a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary—known here as “Maria Kannon”—camouflaged as a Buddhist deity; the Mother of God disguised to protect Catholics who had gone underground—kakure kirishitan—from persecution. Shinto, the Japanese indigenous religion, involves the worship of ancestors, spirits of the natural world, and sacred powers found in people, places, and things; some eighty percent of Japanese participate in Shinto rites. On par with Shinto in terms of the number of adherents is Buddhism. And far, far behind is the Roman Church, with one-third of one percent of the population identifying as Catholic.

And so when I saw this middle-age man in the back of the church, I thought that my chance had come to learn about such things one-on-one instead of from books. I approached him and introduced myself. His name was Katsura Matsuo, and though we couldn’t communicate very well, I hoped to get from him a sense of Japanese Catholicism. The only exchange possible was a brief back-and-forth via Google Translate. “We met by chance,” he said. “I work nearby at the Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple. I’m not a monk. I help with various administrative tasks.” I wasn’t able to determine why he was there.

Through the open doors, under billowing clouds sailing across blue skies, came the voices of public grade school children singing, more than a hundred kids in uniform banging sticks in unison while competing in field day exercises. The rhythm of their chants echoed the cadence of my silent prayers on the beads. I bid Matsuo sayōnara with a bow and left the sanctuary in search of someone who spoke English.

The history of Catholicism in Japan intrigues me in the same way that anything that is forbidden does. My son, on my trip with other members of our family, knew that I would be visiting the country’s churches, and instructed me to read “Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum.” The story is by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whom my son described as a Japanese Edgar Allan Poe, and who began writing about Christians in Japan about ten years before his death. (At thirty-five, he swallowed a handful of Veronal, apparently while reading the Bible, and never woke up.) “Dr. Ogata Ryosai” was published in 1917, and it takes place in the seventeenth century, during the Tokugawa shogunate, when Christianity was prohibited, foreigners were banned, and citizens who refused to renounce Christ were executed. A Catholic widow named Shino is desperate for the village doctor to save her gravely ill nine-year-old daughter, Sato. The physician, Dr. Ryosai, refuses to treat the girl until her mother disavows Christianity. He attributes the distraught woman’s belief to “some error in judgment.” It’s one thing to become a martyr for one’s faith, as some four hundred did (twenty-six by crucifixion in 1597) during the prohibition. But who among us would have the stomach to uphold that faith if the price were the life of their child?

The anguished Shino finally agrees, taking a crucifix (described as being “shaped like one of our impalement racks”) from her kimono and treading on it three times. Good enough for the doctor. They go to Shino’s house, where the girl is fervently praying to the Savior her mother has just forsworn. But they’re one teardrop too late. Sato succumbs to fever and her mother goes mad. The next day, a red-haired Portuguese missionary and several fellow Jesuits arrive with “alien” incense and incantations. Shino “quiets down from her derangement,” and Sato begins breathing again, an oddity the doctor declares without precedent except in a few cases of alcohol poisoning. Mother and daughter go off to live with the Jesuits. Once they are gone, neighbors are instructed by the chief priest of the local Buddhist temple to burn the family’s house to the ground.

I thought of all of this after Matsuo and I parted, he to his desk job at the grand Jodo Shinsu temple and I to the church offices. I knocked on the door, and a volunteer who spoke only Japanese led me to a South American volunteer who told me that the pastor would be back soon. In the time it took to eat a mediocre cheeseburger at a strip mall around the corner, Father Leo Schumacher and his New Zealander’s command of English returned. Father Leo, sixty-two, a thirty-year veteran of the Missionary Society of Saint Columban, is one of about twelve hundred Catholic priests in Japan spread over nine hundred fifty or so parishes. After he had pointed out a statue of Saint Peter at the doors to the church damaged by the 1923 earthquake (“Look,” he joked, pointing to a broken key in Peter’s hand, “he can’t open the gates anymore”), we sat beneath a courtyard tree. He was patient with my questions and candid in his answers. Asked how the call to religious life found him, he said, “I don’t know . . . I really don’t know.” He described himself as neither a liberal nor a conservative cleric, simply “pastoral.”

A half-dozen years ago, Father Leo accepted the Tokyo assignment without knowing much of the language, embracing the humility that comes with ministering a faith so small in number “that in some sense the Church here is a powerless church. We’re under the radar.” He added, however, that “our size and minority status no more make us irrelevant than it made the churches of Ephesus or Corinth. As a small church we hear Paul’s words as if they are directed straight to us.” Which they are. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, Father Leo said, referring to his message to non-Catholics who seek him out: “You are no longer foreigners and strangers but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of His household.”

“Because I work with so many converts,” Father Leo added, “many of them adults, they are hearing these words for the first time.”

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Rafael Alvarez has published a dozen books—both fiction and nonfiction—all about Baltimore. In September, Cornell University Press released his biography of a violent junkie turned do-gooder called Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery. This essay appeared in the Assumption 2022 issue of The Lamp.