If you were to ask me what the single biggest barrier is for Japanese people converting to Christianity, I would say, “It’s perceived as un-Japanese.”
In Japan, where nationality and religion are intimately intertwined, to be un-Japanese is basically heresy, in the sense of that word when it actually carried weight in Western culture. I mean it gets you “excommunicated” from Japanese society.
The Catholic Church, of course, is universal: bound to no single nationality or culture. It is capable of absorbing and re-purposing pagan festivals, for example, and there is flexibility in terms of language, aesthetics, and spiritual styles. Just look at the differences between the Eastern and Western Catholic churches. While they believe precisely the same things, their ways of expressing those things are quite different.
So from the Church’s point of view, should the Japanese ever have a collective change of heart and convert to Catholicism en masse, it would not be the death of Japanese culture. For starters, there are already icons of the Madonna and Child in kimono.
But what would Japanese culture look like if the whole of it were brought in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church? Would the Japanese even recognize it as their own?
Recently, I got a glimpse of the answer to that question when I read the book A Song for Nagasaki by Fr. Paul Glynn. This evocative masterpiece tells the life story of Takashi Nagai, a Japanese radiologist and cancer patient who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and went on to inspire the country and the world with his books that found joy, hope and meaning amidst terrific suffering. Nagai had a fierce love for things Japanese and often expressed himself in beautiful tanka and haiku poems.
Oh yeah, and he was also a devout Catholic.
Reading the book, I experienced no jarring sense of discord. Nagai was a seeker of truth and beauty, and he found those things in both traditional Japanese culture and in the Catholic Church. Not in a syncretic hodge-podge kind of a way, but in a surprisingly natural way. The beautiful virtues of the Japanese fit with the teachings of the Church like two halves of a locket. Buddhist mantras were adapted simply by inserting the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in place of Buddha. And there is certainly no commandment against traditional Japanese practices such as composing a poem on one’s death bed.
At once lyrical and profound, I found that Dr. Nagai’s synthesis of Japanese culture and Catholic teaching fulfilled a longing within me that perhaps I didn’t even realize I had. I can’t help but wonder if there are others out there who would feel the same way.