TOKYO — Archbishop Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo spoke with CNA about the challenge for Japanese Catholic churches to keep Catholics engaged, in the face of ongoing population decline and growing religious apathy from Japanese youth.
“Population decline due to the low birth rate and the aging population is not just a problem for the Church but a problem for the entire Japanese society,” he said.
The archbishop's remarks came shortly before Pope Francis is due to visit Japan Nov. 23-26.
The “birthrate crisis,” as the Japanese call it, is indeed considered one of the most dangerous threats facing Japan’s short-term future.
Each successive generation since the economic bubble has dropped in population, with many Japanese going unmarried or remaining childless. Even among young parents who do conceive, the average amount of children is between one and two.
Families with three children are not very common, and families with more than three are extremely rare.
This ongoing collapse in the national population has negatively affected all sectors of Japanese society. Young men and women now face a future in a country with an economy expected to drastically worsen. Elderly generations are finding it difficult to survive on the government’s retirement budget, as the gap between the number of elderly retirees and the number of working citizens gradually shrinks.
“For example, when we look at the situation in convenience stores, many of those who work there are either elderly Japanese people or young foreigners,” Archbishop Kikuchi told CNA.
Until recently, foreign convenience store clerks had been a rarity in Japan. Now, close to 60,000 foreigners are employed at convenience stores throughout the country. Many are students seeking part-time work while living abroad.
“The same scenario is reflected in the Church today, and since it is no different from the situation of the Japanese society, I do not feel that it is in a dangerous level as it is,” Archbishop Kikuchi said.
“Rather, since the Church is a small community, accounting only to less than 1% of the population, I see it as an opportunity for the Good News to be preached everywhere, a potential to yet expand evangelization activities.”
According to the most recent available data, approximately 35% of Japanese claim Buddhism as their religion, while around 3%-4% claim strict adherence to Shinto or associated folk religions. Only 1%-2% of Japanese claim Christianity as their religion, and only around half of Japanese Christians are Catholic.
“I acknowledge, however, that the Catholic faith not being passed on by the parents to their children is a big problem. This is due primarily to the collapse of the traditional Japanese family system in the context of our present society.”
The Japanese sense of the “traditional family system” to which the archbishop refers is straightforward: a hardworking father who puts bread on the table; a mother dedicated to keeping the wallet, house and kids in check; the children, who spend time between the home, school and community groups such as sports teams; and the grandparents, typically parents of the mother, who help raise the children and maintain the house as best they can.
This style of family living has also been called a “multigenerational household” and is becoming increasingly rare in Japan, especially in major metropolitan areas such as Tokyo.
“The collapse is caused by the situation in the workplace that goes along with the changing Japanese economic situation (non-regular employment, overtime, working parents),” said Archbishop Kikuchi.
“And the excessive activities in the education of children," the archbishop added, noting that extracurricular activities are held on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, and students are often tied up for extra hours in "cram schools" due to the deterioration of the quality of education.
Japan’s ruthless work culture is hardly unknown. The image of the exhausted salaryman working unpaid overtime deep into the night is a symbol that is recognizably Japanese in countries around the world and one of the most enduring stereotypes of the Japanese people.
In recent generations, women have also more frequently entered the workforce, willingly or sometimes without a choice, due to the economic pressures of raising children.
Less well known, however, are the strict expectations put on middle-school and high-school students to join and participate in after-school groups with their peers. More than just the competitive sports teams, clubs for music, art and dance prove to be highly demanding of children’s time.
Just as their parents are burdened with work expectations, children often spend more time out of the house than in it.
“From abroad, we even hear voices pointing out that school and community events held on Saturdays and Sundays are silently persecuting religion,” said the archbishop.
Many athletic groups demand members to practice on Saturday and Sunday, the time when most families should be going to Mass.
“In addition, such a collapse in the traditional Japanese family system has caused marriages to break down, with single mothers raising their children in poverty,” said the archbishop.
“Under such circumstances, it has become difficult to find time to bring children to church on Sundays, and likewise difficult to find time to share the faith at home.”
While club participation isn’t mandatory, it is expected. Failing to join a sports team or interest-based group can severely handicap a student socially.
And while couples are financially rewarded for creating larger families, the government has been unable to give young Japanese a sufficient push to make them comfortable with the traditional idea of family-making.
Free kindergarten and childcare have recently been established after a recent bill passed: The legislation was offered as a way to encourage more children, taking the burden of early care off of the mother and father.
But monthly stipends and free nursery school are not enough to pull the tide of Japanese population decline in the other direction.
“Merely admonishing people to bring back the traditional home is not a solution,” the archbishop said. “The problem concerns not only the Church, but must be tackled by the entire society. Should this situation continue on, I am afraid not only the home but also the local community will collapse and disappear from the whole Japanese society.”