As he prepares to make his first journey to the country this week, expectations are high the pontiff will make strong anti-war statements in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the United States dropped atomic bombs in the closing days of World War II.
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“When John Paul II came the first thing he said in his message was: ‘War is the work of man’,” said Daichi Miyahara, newly ordained as a priest this year at Nagasaki’s Urakami Cathedral, referring to the late pope’s 1981 visit.
”I expect that (Pope Francis) will give us the message that people should not fight but engage with each other,” Miyahara added on a recent Sunday, standing outside the hilltop church, which was destroyed in the 1945 blast and later rebuilt, to greet parishioners after a mass.
Francis has been vocal about sympathy for victims of war and appears to have a special feeling for Japan.
In late 2017, he issued a small card with a photo of a boy carrying his dead brother to a crematorium in the aftermath of the Nagasaki bomb. Inscribed on the card were the words: “The fruit of war.”
Pope Francis is due to arrive in Thailand on November 20 before heading to Japan on November 23. In video messages to the people of the two majority-Buddhist countries posted to the Vatican website ahead of the trip, the pope lauded peace and stressed the need to eliminate nuclear weapons.
He lauded Thailand for its dedication to “harmony and peaceful coexistence” and said he wants to “strengthen the bonds of friendship that we share with many Buddhist brothers and sisters”.
To the Japanese, he said: “Together with you, I pray that the destructive power of nuclear weapons will never be unleashed again in human history. The use of nuclear weapons is immoral.”
Among several events in Nagasaki, the pontiff is scheduled to make an address in a park that marks the epicentre of the explosion, while in Hiroshima he is expected to conduct an event themed on peace.
Catholicism has existed in Japan for more than 450 years and nowhere is that history more strongly felt than in Nagasaki, where the religion initially flourished to the point of the city being called “Little Rome” before being suppressed and finally re-emerging.
And while the total number of Christians from all denominations appear to account for no more than two percent of the population, Japanese seem to broadly welcome the moral authority the pope brings to calls for peace and the elimination of nuclear weapons.
“The pope`s coming here gives encouragement to Nagasaki’s atomic bomb victims,” said Masayuki Yamasaki, a non-Christian in his 70s who will sing in a choral performance during the visit and vividly recalls seeing John Paul II in the city on a snowy day in February 38 years ago.
One of those victims is 88-year-old Inosuke Hayasaki, who survived the bombing as a 14-year-old.
“The coming of the pope makes me feel truly what a peaceful country Japan has become,” the spry Hayasaki said in Nagasaki’s Peace Park, where he discusses his experiences as a bomb survivor with visitors.
The spiritual leader of the world’s estimated 1.3 billion Roman Catholics becomes only the second pontiff to visit the two Asian nations. John Paul Il also visited Thailand in 1984.
Francis is no stranger to the region, having already travelled to countries including the Philippines and South Korea, both with significant Catholic populations.
European missionaries brought the religion to both Thailand and Japan in the 16th century, but it has faced serious cultural and political challenges recruiting followers.
The Christian population in Thailand is estimated at less than one percent.
The faith, however, has also managed to play an outsize role in spurring modernisation, education and social welfare in the countries.
“Most Thais are not Christian due to the incorporation of Buddhism into `Thai-ness`, the Thai national identity – so that being Thai means being Buddhist,” Giuseppe Bolotta, an assistant professor of anthropology and an expert on the country at the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University in England, said in an email.
That and the status of the monarchy, Bolotta said, has led to the “Thai-ification” of the church in the form of compromises such as prayers in praise of the king, which have helped ensure cordial relations with the country’s Buddhist elite.
As a result, he thinks it unlikely that Francis can easily wade into controversial issues such as Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Thailand’s southern region or highlight the work of Catholic and Christian humanitarian efforts in the country.
“Nevertheless, the pope’s proverbial allergy to protocols, and his recurrent `improvisations` during public performances can result in unexpected surprises,” Bolotta said.
In Japan, the faith was initially well-received with even some feudal warlords converting.
In his seminal 1951 book, British scholar CR Boxer dubbed those early years “The Christian Century in Japan” but suspicions the foreign creed was a vanguard for Spanish conquest ultimately led authorities to try and root it out.
The most infamous crackdown was the crucifixion in 1597 of 20 Japanese and six foreign missionaries – known as the 26 Martyrs – on a hill in Nagasaki where Francis is expected to pay homage.
Official efforts were of such ferocity that the religion was largely thought to have been eradicated.
Faith in secret
But after Japan ended more than two centuries of isolation, French Catholic missionaries in Nagasaki in 1865 were astonished when local people claiming to be believers approached them and they discovered that the faith had been kept alive in secret for more than 200 years.
That history was highlighted in 2018 when a series of “Hidden Christian” sites in the Nagasaki region on the southern island of Kyushu were inscribed on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
The late Shusaku Endo, a Catholic and author of the historical novel Silence – made into the 2016 Martin Scorsese film of the same name – famously characterised Japan as a “swamp,” or a forbidding place for a new foreign faith to flourish.
Charlie Pomuceno, an Augustinian priest from the Philippines who has been in Japan for nearly nine years, acknowledges it is difficult for the church to win converts.
“You have to break the barrier,” Pomuceno said in the office of his church in a quiet Nagasaki neighbourhood. But he adds that Catholics in Japan are exceptional in their devotion. ”The faith of the Japanese is very impressive,” he said. “They really put this into practice.”
And he finds some solace in that the broader population, in his eyes, evinces Christian values even if they are not Christian in name.
“Despite that they are not Catholic by heart, but they are practising the Catholic way,” he said. `For example, they are honest, they’re very honest.”
Despite the paucity of Catholics and other Christians – protestant denominations began proselytising in the second half of the 19th century – adherents have played a prominent role in Japan’s modern history.
It has had around half a dozen Christian prime ministers and Christian figures in the arts and education have been notable.
Ikuko Suyama, a Buddhist who runs a small museum honouring St Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who was active in Nagasaki and later died while imprisoned at Auschwitz, says the days of religious persecution in Nagasaki are, thankfully, a thing of the past.
“Nowadays all kinds of barriers have been removed and everyone is tolerant,” Suyama said.
“Not just in religion but in all things everyone has come together. That’s so important and must continue forever.”