by Lynn F. Monahan, photos by Sean Sprague
Jun 29, 2009 - Following a wave of Catholic workers to Japan, Maryknoll's ministry there is increasingly to migrants
In a park on the banks of the Suzuka River in central Japan, purple-robed men shoulder a large litter draped in matching colored bunting that holds a replica of the primier icon of Catholic faith in Peru, the Lord of the Miracles. The devotees sway to a dirge-like beat as the procession winds its way around the grounds under the afternoon sun.
The pageant replicates on a miniature scale the devotion to the original Lord of the Miracles in Peru, a land almost 10,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean. The 17th century depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus draws more than 100,000 worshipers to the streets of Lima for the October feast that centers on the painting, which tradition holds has survived multiple earthquakes unscathed.
Led by Maryknoll Father Joseph Hamel, the celebration in Japan attracts several hundred faithful. Yet it remains an important religious and cultural symbol to these Peruvians so far from their homeland.
"Here, they won't let you do the procession in the road, so we have to do it in the park," says Hamel, who lived in Peru for 15 years before being sent to Japan to minister to Latin Americans working in the Asian nation. "Before, they wouldn't even let them do it in the park, so in that way it's changed with religious matters."
This is the changing face of the Catholic Church in Japan, a church in which immigrants now outnumber the national Catholic population. These non-Japanese Catholics come largely from Brazil, Peru and the Philippines, where poverty has driven people to migrate wherever they can find work. For Maryknoll, the shifting demographics in Japan, a traditionally non-Christian country where converts have been few in recent years, means its mission here is increasingly a mission to migrants.
"Over 50 percent of all Catholics in Japan are migrants; they're not Japanese," says Father Francis Riha, the local superior for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in Japan.
Maryknoll's work with migrants ranges from parishes with large Latino populations in the Kyoto Diocese in central Japan to drop-in centers for Filipino migrants and seafarers on the northern island of Hokkaido. As with most Maryknoll missions, the missioners not only attend to the spiritual and sacramental needs of those they serve, but also accompany them in their daily lives and seek to alleviate their suffering, as Jesus did for the afflicted he encountered in his ministry.
"These migrant workers are all given the dirty work for very low wages, the work the Japanese won't do anymore," says Maryknoll Father Bryce Nishimura, a Japanese-American from Los Angeles, California, who serves two churches outside of Kyoto. Such jobs are often referred to in Japan as "three-K work" from the Japanese words for dirty, difficult and dangerous: kitanai, kitsui and kiken.
Besides their work, migrants to Japan frequently face other struggles: the difficult language, discrimination as foreigners in a nation that has not traditionally welcomed outsiders, and a clash of cultures--even within the parishes--between the typically reserved and quiet Japanese manner and the more outgoing, seemingly boisterous, ways of the Latinos. Having ancestral roots in Japan doesn't mitigate the difficulties very much.
"Here they only accept immigrants of Japanese descent and their families," says Father Bruno Rojas, a Peruvian diocesan priest assigned, like Hamel, to work in the Kyoto Diocese. Both Peru and Brazil have large Japanese communities. Therefore, most Latin American migrants in Japan work legally, many of them in the Japanese automobile industry.
While the immigrants readily find work, they as quickly encounter difficulties. Translators are not readily available and the newcomers often don't understand what they're signing. When applying for jobs, they are taken advantage of, says Rojas. They work long hours, and their children are left alone. For immigrant children raised mostly in Japan, the cultural differences create identity issues.
"They don't know if they're Japanese or Latino because they're with friends in the street, and at home it's a different culture," Rojas says of the children.
If immigrants go back to their Latin American homelands, they often can't readjust to the poverty and insecurity that drove them to leave in the first place.
"The majority of those who go to the United States go with the idea of staying, but here they come with the idea of returning home, but they can't manage to readapt," Rojas says. "Here, the standard of living is very high and they won't get the same level at home. The salaries aren't equal." Consequently, he says, "The majority end up staying."
According to the Japanese Immigration Bureau, more than 2 million foreign residents live in Japan, a country of 127 million people. More than half of these foreign residents are Korean and Chinese, some of whom also have Japanese ancestry or have other ties stemming from their proximity to Japan and historical contact. Of the rest, according to 2006 figures, Brazilians account for more than 300,000, followed by Filipinos at almost 200,000 and Peruvians with almost 60,000.
"The hardest thing is that the Japanese see you as just an object," says Wilfredo Ochante, 56, who emigrated from Lima in 1991, following his wife, who had Japanese ancestors. "You're one machine more. It's rare that they see you as anything else." Ochante, a catechist and musician whose family band played Peruvian music during the Lord of the Miracles procession, also laments that while he's an engineer in Peru, in Japan he's just a factory worker.
"The problem is their values are not the same as ours," says Ochante's wife, Carmen Mupay, also 56. "For them, work comes first. For us, it's family--God and family."
Nonetheless, the couple plans to stay in Japan with their now grown children, noting they've struggled to gain rights and respect where they work and that "many good professionals" helped their children in school.
Maryknoll Father James Jackson, from Newark, New Jersey, says the large Brazilian population in his Kusatsu parish, near Kyoto, is making strides. The Brazilians are well organized, and will follow the Portuguese Mass from one church to another, despite the long drive, he says. "It takes an hour to drive across our parish," he says. "The next parish is an hour away and the next after that is an hour and a half away."
For some immigrants the Church is also a way to be with their own people, Jackson says. "Apparently not all of them are Catholic, but they come because it's the Brazilian culture, the atmosphere," he says.
While most of the Latinos and Filipinos are Catholic, few actually come to church regularly, Nishimura says. "What does impress them is the festivals," he says. "The Japanese Mass is rather staid. The Brazilian Masses are particularly lively because of the African influence of the former slaves and the music."
Jackson has studied Spanish and Nishimura Portuguese to minister to their parishioners.
Father Robert Nehrig, a Maryknoller from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, works with Filipinos as pastor of the church in Tsu, a port city well south of Kyoto. He sees a connection between the situation of foreign workers and that of the Church itself in Japan. Conformity is a value in Japan, he says. "To become a Christian, you have to do something that everybody else isn't," Nehrig says. For that reason, the Church in Japan remains small even though its roots go back 500 years. Today, only about half a million Japanese are Catholics, making up less than 0.5 percent of the population, though with the inclusion of migrants, the Catholic population rises to more than 1 million.
Maryknoll Father William Grimm, former editor of Japan's weekly Catholic newspaper, Katorikku Shimbun, says most Japanese bishops have responded in some way to the needs of migrants, especially in dioceses with a majority of non-Japanese Catholics, such as Saitama, Yokohama and Nagoya, as well as Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka.
The bishop of Saitama, Marcellino Daiji Tani, has been the most outspoken on the rights and needs of migrants and heads the bishops' committee on migrants, Grimm says. In Kyoto, where Maryknoll has long had a presence, Bishop Paul Yoshinao Otsuka is one of several bishops who have learned to administer confirmation and other sacraments in foreign languages.
"In parishes, the response to immigrants has generally been welcoming," says Grimm. "This may be due to the fact that Japanese Catholics are used to foreign priests and religious being part of their Church." Japanese Catholics are also a minority in their own culture and have sympathy for other minorities in the country, he says.
Many parishes have made space for immigrant parishioners, he says, and with the economic downturn, some parishes are organizing food collections and job fairs for unemployed newcomers.
Maryknoll's mission to migrants in Japan, however, isn't necessarily a ministry to the impoverished. Several of the priests noted that many migrants earn enough to get by in Japan and many, if not most, send money home to relatives. Yet they remain marginalized in the society, have no job security and are often at a loss to navigate the social service or legal systems.
"As a Filipino missionary, I feel my role is to be a bridge between cultures," says Maryknoll Sister Margaret Lacson, who is originally from the Philippines and was one of the founders of the Kalakasan Migrant Women’s Empowerment Center in Kawasaki, outside Tokyo. The center focuses on helping migrant women and their children, especially those who are victims of domestic abuse.
"We saw that it took many years for women to recover from the experience of domestic violence," she says. "Moreover, their children were also psychologically affected and were oftentimes bullied in school because they were 'half'--half Japanese and half Filipino. From the beginning, the aim of our center was the healing of the mothers as well as the healing of the children. The mothers must gain back their self-respect and dignity as human beings; the children must learn to love the part of themselves that is Filipino."
Maryknoll Sister Elizabeth Kato says many of the Filipino women who come to Japan and work as waitresses marry Japanese men. Unfortunately, she says, many of these marriages do not work out.
"Often in those types of marriages, the husband becomes abusive, verbally, physically and sexually," says Kato, who works with Lacson and also at the Philippine Migrant Workers Center in the Maryknoll center house in Tokyo, where the emphasis is not just on women but on developing leaders among the Filipino community, helping migrants with legal issues and nurturing their Catholic faith in an overwhelmingly non-Christian society.
"Here in the office we deal with all sorts of issues: unpaid wages, whatever problem Filipino migrants have," says Kato of the migrant workers center at the Maryknoll house.
Untangling legal issues around migrants often involves multiple layers of translating just to go to court. Marian Tanizaki, a Filipina who works full time for the center, says she translates from Tagalog, the first language of many migrants from the Philippines, to English and then a Japanese interpreter translates to Japanese.
Among the difficult matters the center is handling are the cases of two "stateless" children, whose Japanese fathers have refused to register them as citizens. Just being born in Japan does not guarantee citizenship.
Maryknoll Father Regis Ging, who is an adviser to the workers center, says for many Filipino-Japanese children their mother's culture and religion are submerged to mainstream Japanese culture. Ging tries to help Filipino mothers raise their children Catholic by offering bicultural baptismal programs.
In the north of Japan on the island of Hokkaido, Maryknoll Father James Mylet, director of a pastorally oriented welcome house in the city of Sapporo, reaches out to Filipino women who are married to Japanese men.
"We have fewer foreigners than other parts of Japan, but they're more isolated," says Mylet, who is from Seattle. Known as Japan's snow country, Hokkaido doesn't appeal to many Filipinos because of the cold winters, and as a result there's little parish outreach to those who do work there. The welcome house, which is staffed by two Filipino lay missioners, provides the women with a place to gather, find peer counseling and self-help programs, and where children can learn about their faith, he says.
Maryknoll's mission to Japan, which began as an effort to help the small established Church flourish in a non-Christian culture, has also become a ministry to help the Church in Japan integrate this new wave of Catholics.
"The Japanese Church is getting older and older," Ging says. "These people are needed to revitalize the Church."