Oct 23, 2014

Recent pastoral visits in Niigata

Pastoral visit of Shirone Catholic Church on 28 September. Father Yamagashira, in the photo, is in charge of both Kameda and Shirone Catholic Churches in Niigata city. Therefore Sunday Mass in Shirone is said at 1:30 pm. And this is the community of Shirone. In the photo below, white building is a part for Church and orange building at right hand side is for Kindergarten. Because of my visitation, an organist from other parish came to play music for Mass.

Pastoral visit of Sado Catholic Church on 5 October. Sado is an island and 2 hand half hour ferry ride to reach from Niigata city. Church building is more than 100 years old built by French missionaries. Again community here is also so small and aging. There were two Masses on 5 October. 9:30am for the original parish community and 11 am for Filipino community in the island. Parish priest is Fr.Kawasaki and Fr.Lorenzo, the migrant chaplain for the diocese was visiting the Filipino community on that Sunday.

 Though an aging society with fewer number of children is the current trend in Japanese society as a whole, this problem is much more acute in rural areas such as our diocese. Quite a number of farmers have been facing difficulties to find spouses from the native Japanese community. Therefore, it has become commonplace to see foreign-born wives in farming villages in the diocese. The majority of these wives are from the Philippines and, thus, it has become a pressing necessity to find a suitable way to extend pastoral care to this new type of immigrants to our diocese. In October 2010, we could manage to dedicate a church for one of these migrant communities in the city of Shinjo in Yamagata prefecture. But we may see many more migrant Catholics in all over the diocese.
An aging society with fewer children and drastic shift of youth population to major cities means the collapse of the present local communities. Recent report from one of the governmental think tanks on population change in Japan said by the year 2040, decreasing population may force more than 890 communities to close them down. Especially, according to the report, in Akita and Yamagata, 80% of their communities will perish by year 2040. This trend of decrease of population will definitely affect Catholic communities in the diocese.
As we have more than 30 parish communities in 3 prefecture which have been suffering from population decrease, the Diocese will definitely face severe challenge to maintain present number of Catholics. What are we going to do?
According to the government statistics in 2013, the Shinto group claims 3,713,187 followers in the Niigata diocese. At the same time, Buddhist sects claim that they have 2,257,855 members.  However, these numbers cannot be accurate since the sum of members of Shintoism and Buddhism far exceeds the total population of the Niigata diocese which is 4,488,904 in three prefectures. 
As a matter of fact, most of the population does not feel that they personally belong to these traditional religions, since both are seen as a matter of custom, with Shinto considered the backbone of Japanese culture and traditions and Buddhism considered as the religion of family tradition. Particularly regarding the Buddhism, people feel compelled by custom to maintain their Family altar (Butsu-dan) which houses plates indicating deceased ancestors. Also, the first-born son has an obligation to maintain the family grave. So the majority of the population considers their practice of Buddhism as limited to funerals and to rituals connected with ancestor worship. However, especially in rural areas, people feel a much stronger connection to both the Buddhist temple and the Shinto Shrine in their area as the uniting factor for their family and the local community respectively.
Unfortunately, past 20 years, Japanese public became quite suspicious over religious activities based on several sad incidents caused by new religious movements in Japan such as AUM Shinrikyo's mass murder case in Tokyo in 1995.  Also effects of secularization are quite evident especially among youth.  Traditional rural communities are quite conservative against any new initiatives and very cautious in accepting any changes in life style brought from outside world.  This is very much so in my diocese since majority of local communities in 3 prefectures are rural farming villages.  Because of the not-welcoming atmosphere towards to outsiders of this area, most of our parishes are located in rather developed towns or cities where people are much more open to new initiatives.  Unfortunately we do not have any strong holds in rural area. 
Traditional methods to penetrate into rural area such as through social welfare activities or through development programs does not work here since these concerns have been well taken care of by local governments for many years.  Farmers have been a strong supporter of present national government run by LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) for past 60 yeas because the government has subsidized rural communities abundantly for many years.  We still can not find a suitable way to go into the reality of rural communities.
Having said this, however, I still believe in the power of dialogue. It actually does not mean that we should engage ourselves in real talking with people but it is rather showing ourselves in the local communities doing something different and good or attractive. Such as our Caritas volunteer activities in Sendai diocese after the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2014.
Dialogue with people does not necessary mean actual conversation as such. How we create relationship with local people. Through our charitable activities, we could be witness of love of God. And through our attitude to be with local people in need, we could be witness of mercy of God and that would be our new evangelization in Japan today.

My talk in Singapore on 24 August, 2014

Caritas Singapore Social Mission Conference,
23 August, 2014
"I want a Church which is poor and for the poor"
What do these words of Pope Francis mean for us as Christians today?

by Bishop Isao Kikuchi, SVD (President, Caritas Asia)
"Everybody seems to have forgotten us"

This phrase has echoed in my heart since I started work with Caritas Japan in 1995. Ordained a priest of the Society of the Divine Word/the Divine Word Missionaries in 1986, I received a mission assignment to Ghana, West Africa. Until my return to Japan in 1994 I worked on my own in a bush parish with 3000 parishioners, a main Church and some 20 out-stations. Need I mention there was no running water or electricity, even in the main village. Any difficulties you might conceive of as present in Africa were present in that community – poverty, a very lengthy list of diseases, lack of education, and no job opportunities for young people. But I am not here today to share my experiences from my time in Ghana – in Ghana the people were optimistic, they always had hope. Despair was not present, despite all the difficulties they faced.

In March of 1995, I found myself back in Africa, as part of a Caritas Japan volunteer team, but this time in Bukavu, in what was then called Zaire, just across the border with Rwanda. Genocidal actions in Rwanda had already begun in April 1994, and with the establishment of (a Tutsi) new government in Kigali in July of that year, Hutu people, though the majority, began flooding across the border into Zaire. So began the Rwanda refugee crisis, a crisis that saw more than 2 million flee the country. The population of the camp in Bukavu soon reached some three hundred thousand. Initially the response was in the hands of the local diocesan Caritas organization, but they were soon joined by UNHCR and Caritas Internationalis. Caritas Japan was involved from the end of 1994 through till May 1995. While I was there one of the camps where Caritas Japan was assigned was attacked by an armed group resulting in the deaths of some 30 refugees.

In August 1995 I returned to Bukavu on a fact finding tour of the camps. Because of security concerns the camps where Caritas Japan worked had been shut down, but I visited other camps in the area. At a meeting with a group of leaders in one of the camps I asked them what were their immediate needs. They mentioned the usual problems, shortage of food and medical supplies, but then one of them spoke the words I began with – “Everybody has forgotten us.” He then continued, “Father, you said you come from Japan. When you get back there, tell them we are still here in the camps. Everybody seems to have forgotten us.”
His words pierced the depths of my heart. Even with all the physical difficulties they faced, they might be able to survive if they could find hope for their future. However, what they found instead was that people all over the world had been already begun to forget them. Without hope for future, how they could endure these hardships?

April 2005, I found myself in Pondicherry, south east India. Pondicherry and the surrounding areas were hit by the tsunami that occurred, as a consequence of the massive earthquake that struck Sumatra, Indonesia, in December 2004. I visited the temporary housing of the victims where an old lady explained how the tsunami had wiped out her village. In the days and months immediately the tsunami numerous NGO’s has poured into the village, offering help and assistance to those affected. Now four months after the disaster many of the NGO’s were pulling out. The survivors’ hopes for the future began to fade. She also used the phrase I’d heard in Bukavu, “Everybody has forgotten us.”

August 2005 saw me visiting Gulu, northern Uganda. As the evening drew on I went to a Catholic school to meet some children. They were not there to study but for their own safety. These “night commuters”, as they were known, young children, many of grade school age, travelled every night to schools, hospitals and churches, places where they hoped they’d be secure and safe from anti-government armed marauders who abducted children and forced them to become child soldiers or slaves. “Night commuters” and the abduction of children has been part of life there for some twenty years, but was unreported by the media, and so unnoticed by the wider world. Once more I heard that same phrase from Caritas volunteers, “everybody has forgotten us”. More recent reports, thank God, tell of an overall improvement in the security situation so there are no longer “night commuters”, But for some twenty years, they were overlooked, forgotten.

September 2011 saw me visit Kesennuma, in the north of Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan: I was born in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, some 150kms further north, and lived there till I was 5 years old. I visited a kindergarten to hear their stories of the tsunami that struck that area on March 11th, earlier that year. One assistant head teacher told of her escape from the tsunami and ensuing fire. Six months had passed, and they already felt they were forgotten. The emergency services, the police and firefighters were now only present in reduced numbers. Most of the members of the Self-Defense forces had also been withdrawn. Many of the NGO’s were scaling down the levels of their commitment. People whose presence had been a symbol of hope, an assurance of their survival, a hint that a renewed future was possible were moving away. With their departure, in the eyes of the teacher, so also was their fragile hope for the future. And they, the teacher, her community, were being left behind.