Lessons in Religious Freedom: The Catholic Minority in Modern Japan

PM Aso with Pope Benedict XVI A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center has shown that the most persecuted religion in the world today is Christianity. The case of religious freedom for Christians—most notably Catholics—in Japan, however, represents a positive model for the reconciliation of democracy with the value of religious freedom for religious minorities.

Since 1873, Catholics in modern Japan have enjoyed complete religious freedom, even though the Christian population in Japan has never surpassed one percent of the total Japanese population (with Catholics measuring in at about one half of that). Japanese Catholics have the freedom to believe as they choose, can freely express this belief in the public square, and have maintained this freedom throughout both times of peace and times of war over the last century.

Yet, Catholics have not always enjoyed the same degree of religious freedom within Japan as they do today; it is well known that Japanese Catholics experienced persecution during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Examples include the 1597 crucifixion of St. Paul Miki, S.J. and his twenty-five companions and the use of the “ana-tsurushi” torture technique that leaves people hung upside down in a pit of filth.

However, this began to change when the Shintoist leaders of the Meiji Revolution overthrew the Confucian ancien regime in 1867. Secularist leaders eventually came to power and effectively ended the persecution of Catholics by 1873; all Christians were then free to practice their faith as they wished. In fact, Japanese citizens were explicitly guaranteed the right to freedom of religion under Article 28 of the Meiji Constitution (1889-1945). Japan has since served as a model for reconciling religious minorities with democratic governance.

For example, many Catholics have gone on to hold influential positions of public trust and authority in Japan since the imposition of Article 28 of the Meiji Constitution. David Takashi Hara became Japan’s first Catholic Prime Minster in 1918. Rear Admiral Stefano Shojiro Yamamoto was an evangelical Catholic who introduced Emperor Hirohito to Pope Benedict XV during the emperor’s Grand Tour of Europe in 1921. Frank Yosuke Matsuoka, the man who led Japan’s delegation out of the League of Nations in 1933 and served as Japan’s foreign minister from 1940 to 1941, held deep Catholic affinities and formally converted to Catholicism on his deathbed in 1946.

Subsequently, there has also been a distinctly “Catholic factor” in Japanese foreign affairs. The “John Doe Associates” initiative, a 1941 backdoor diplomatic effort by American and Japanese Catholics in an attempt to avoid war, is a prime example of this. The “John Doe” of this initiative was Fr. James Drought, who was joined by Bishop James E. Walsh and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s Catholic Postmaster, General Frank C. Walker, in an effort to reach out to Matsuoka and others in the Japanese government. The effort ultimately failed, but it suggests one way by which Catholicism provided certain diplomatic avenues for Japan.

Additionally, there appears to be a disproportionate number of Catholics in Japan’s diplomatic corps, including men like Augustine Masahide Kanayama (1909-97), who  tried to bring the Second World War to a quick end through an effort known as “Operation Vessel”. Moreover, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida and Emperor Hirohito, two men strongly inclined toward Catholicism, explicitly opposed attempts by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur to promote his personal brand of Protestantism and Freemasonry during his military occupation of Japan after World War II. Yoshida would go on to become the single most important Catholic influence on politics in postwar Japan, establishing the basic structure of the postwar political system in ways analogous to what Kondrad Adenauer represented for postwar West Germany.

Even during the tumultuous years of World War II, scant evidence exists to suggest that there was any form of governmental persecution of Japanese Catholics. In fact, there is overwhelming proof that Japanese Catholics continued enjoying a complete freedom of religion during this time: Japanese citizens continued to attend Mass and receive the sacraments throughout the war, Rear Admiral Yamamoto continued speaking out publicly on behalf of his Catholic faith in efforts to avert war, and Yoshihiko Yoshimitsu, a Catholic theology professor at Sophia University, was even invited to the “Overcoming Modernity” symposium that was sponsored by the Imperial Navy in 1942.

This brief history of Catholicism in modern Japan offers insight into how important religious minorities can be for their societies. The United States would be wise to learn from this example. Recent concerns have arisen over the religious freedom of Catholics in the United States, particularly by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in relation to how the Affordable Care Act is being implemented under the Department of Health and Human Services. While many identify religious freedom for Christians as only being an issue in countries like China, Pakistan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, we must not forget the role of religious freedom in our own democracy here at home.

The role of Japanese Catholicism goes to the heart of cultural identity. It also highlights the power that the freedom of religion can exercise on human activities. If Japan, even at the height of its war with the West, could guarantee not merely the right to worship but the full public religious freedom of its Catholic citizens, then surely there are lessons here for the United States and other Western governments that, while often complacent about their traditional cultural affinities with Christianity, seem bent on violating the religious rights of their Catholic citizens today.