Japan: Land of the Setting Sun?


Japanese bishops report that Catholics in dying Japan are indifferent to Church teachings on marriage and family.

It is a strange paradox.

Japan has one of the strongest economies in the world. The Japanese people are better fed and educated than ever before. Per capita incomes have never been higher and life spans have never been longer. At the same time, however, birth rates have fallen to anemic levels and the population is growing older by the year. Even The Economist, not given to hyperbole, notes that “Japan is ageing faster than any country in history.”

Japanese women are currently averaging only 1.39 children, well below the 2.1 that demographers say is needed to maintain a stable population. But it has been 50 years– a half-century—since the Japanese birth rate was that high. And it has been falling ever since.  

Japan already has the oldest population in the world and, with relatively few immigrants, there appears to be no way out of the looming democide. The elderly will die, and there will be fewer people and far fewer workers in the Home Islands in the years to come. It is no exaggeration to say that the Japanese will largely disappear from the earth in a few generations unless something is done.

One would hope that Japanese Catholics would be an exception to this dismal picture. After all, they promise to be open to children in their marriage vows, they read a Bible which refers to children as blessings, and they are encouraged to be fruitful by no less a figure than their pope.

Their bishops report that this is not the case, however.  

Writing in response to the questionnaire circulated by the Vatican in preparation for the Synod of Bishops, the Japanese bishops noted that the Christian conception of marriage based on natural law “is not generally understood nor is it accepted.”

Part of the reason for this is that, as the bishops report, “76% of marriages of Catholics are with non-Catholic spouses.” Unlike mixed marriages elsewhere, the non-Catholic spouse in Japan is likely to be unbaptized as well, and to have little appreciation for, or understanding of, a Christian worldview when it comes to life and family.    

Add to this the fact that Japanese society is aggressively secular, and that both abortion and contraception are vigorously promoted in sex education classes in the schools. The bishops admit that their flock is “more influenced by societal norms” than by Church teachings, “especially where birth control is concerned.”

The report doesn’t say how many children the average Catholic couple has. But my impression, from past discussions with Japanese bishops and missionary priests, is that Japanese Catholics, especially those in mixed marriages, have about the same number of children as society at large.  

Despite the efforts of dedicated missionaries such as St. Francis Xavier over the centuries, there are still only about 440,000 Japanese Catholics, who constitute about one-third of one percent of the population. Japan as a whole has been notoriously resistant to conversion and, as the bishops note, “opportunities to influence society with Gospel values and teachings are severely limited.”

If there is hope, it is to be found in Japan’s swelling immigrant population, many of whom come from Catholic countries like the Philippines and Brazil. Masses in English are now offered in the major cities for these newcomers, who now number in the hundreds of thousands. They also tend to be better educated in their faith and more fervent in their practice than local Catholics.

The increasingly frantic efforts of the government to raise the birth rate offer another possibility. Both the leaders and laity of the Church ought to be making the case that its efforts to encourage young couples to be more open to having children dovetails with the government’s efforts in the same direction.

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