Bishop Taiji Katsuya's pastoral track took unexpected turn

Bishop Taiji Katsuya of Sapporo, Japan (provided photo)
This article appears in the Letters from Japan feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: For the fall 2016 semester, David DeCosse is invited visiting professor at Sophia University, the Jesuit university in Tokyo. He is on the staff of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He will be blogging about his experience abroad via the blog "Letters from Japan."


Bishop Taiji Katsuya, 61, has headed the diocese of Sapporo, Japan, since his appointment by Pope Francis in 2013. Katsuya is also chair of the Japan Catholic Council for Justice and Peace. Writer David DeCosse spoke with him at the Tokyo headquarters of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan Nov. 10. Translation from Japanese to English was provided by Shino Akiyama of the bishops' conference.

DeCosse: Please tell us about your youth.

Katsuya: I was born and raised in Hokkaido in northern Japan. I was not raised as a Christian. My mother died when I was young. My father became a Buddhist monk but he didn't have a temple or anything. But he studied hard and earned the qualification. My father would always pray to the Buddhist statue in our house. Buddhist prayers were always around my home environment and were close to me and I took that in. But I was not really influenced by a Buddhist discipline and way of life.

When I was a junior in high school, I had a very deep experience inside my heart. I learned to pray and I had a chance to enter into a Catholic world. The Catholic church in Hokkaido every year did a mailing of pamphlets to residents in the area. Our house received one but my father had thrown it into the garbage can. I came across the pamphlet in the garbage can and it inspired me and I answered and began talking with people at the church.

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That year, only three people responded to the mailing. I was one and I was interested. But there were two others, who told the church, "Stop sending these mailings to us!" Two or three years later, the church stopped the mailings because they were having such little effect.

Could you also tell us about becoming a priest and a bishop?

When I was baptized, I was 18 years old. I had already thought by then about being a priest. The priest who led the formation program said that if one could not communicate deeply and personally with a woman, then one did not have a priestly vocation. I understood that this was a different way of approaching a vocation. And so I thought, "I have to get a girlfriend!"

I've been a pastor for more than 30 years. When I was in the course of pastoral formation for the priesthood, there were two paths: One was a baccalaureate course and one was a master's course. If I chose the master's course, that would mean I would not be on the track to become a pastor. And church law says that a bishop needs an advanced degree. So without such a degree, it is impossible to become a bishop.

So that's why I decided to pursue the baccalaureate course, because it was a pastoral course and I really wanted to be a pastor. So that's why I've been a pastor for 30 years. But suddenly that all changed when Pope Francis named me a bishop!

You are the chair of the Japan Catholic Council for Justice and Peace. What are the top priorities of the council?

Our top priorities are opposition to proposed changes to the Japanese Constitution, especially to Article 9 [often known as the pacifist article of the Constitution]; environmental issues and in particular opposition to nuclear power; and opposition to the death penalty [which is legal in Japan].

The Japanese people support the death penalty. As for nuclear power, I have heard the arguments about how it may be preferable due to the challenge of climate change. But I doubt very much whether nuclear power is really better for the environment and for climate change. In the first place, Japan has many earthquakes and volcanoes that pose a threat to such plants. Remember what they said about Fukushima and its nuclear plant: Many scientists said it was safe and secure. But the terrible accident happened with the tsunami in March 2011. No nuclear plant is secure.

Actually, after what happened in Fukushima, people started thinking even more about alternative energy. And, in any case, Japan invests less money than do other nations in alternative energy. Recently, we had no nuclear plants that were operational and we had no shortages of energy. I think it's really for purely economic reasons that there is such a push now on the part of the government to revive nuclear power plants.

The Liberal Democratic Party [currently and for most of the last 70 years the ruling party in Japan] and some other politicians say that Article 9 no longer matches reality. But I think the article represents an ideal to be upheld. The article rejects war, even for the purpose of self-defense. And I think it is the mission of the political leaders and the citizens of Japan to uphold and pursue this ideal.

Japan is the only nation in the world that abandons all forms of force and war under its constitution. Other countries make some claims of nonviolence. But as a country and as a people, Japan is the only nation that has the rejection of violence and war written into its constitution.

So I don't think Article 9 is outdated but instead I think it represents the most advanced form of thinking for where the world now should be going. I'll be speaking with Pope Francis about this when I meet with him in December in Rome.

I understand you attended the Pax Christi conference on nonviolence held at the Vatican last April. What were your impressions from the conference?

There's a lot of research that's been done on maintaining peace with many very interesting results. There are many who say that force is necessary as a response to any attack.

However, history has shown that real peace is never lastingly achieved through the use of force. True peace will be delivered not by a balance of power achieved through military force, but only by the respect of human rights.

I was very struck at the meeting by research that analyzed resistance movements between 1900 and 2006, which showed that the success rates for lasting peace of nonviolent resistance movements were double that of resistance movements that used military force.

The views of the Japan Catholic Council for Justice and Peace are surely not popular with the Liberal Democratic Party and perhaps with many others — including Catholics — in Japan. How do you respond to such opposition?

This is a very important point. Many Catholics and others in Japan have an allergy to mixing religion and such political matters. If I say or direct anything about any particular political issue, many Japanese Catholics shut it out and don't want to hear.

I also think that for myself as a bishop it is not appropriate to address such issues in the same way as do many other ideological groups involved in politics. But the Japanese bishops think it is important to spread the message based on the Gospel or in terms of values, not in terms of politics considered in itself. I think that's what important and that is what our mission is.

For instance, there is a major problem about military bases on Okinawa. In addressing that problem, I don't want to give my personal opinions on United States-Japan security matters. But the issue in Okinawa is very important because it involves human rights. As a bishop, I care and think and focus on the people of Okinawa's feelings because it is against their will that U.S. military bases have been built there for a long time. That is the problem.

We're speaking two days after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Do you have any concerns about Trump's election?

About the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I see Trump is against it. I am from Hokkaido and it's an agricultural region. So most of the people there are also against TPP.

Trump also says that the Japanese people will have to pay more money to maintain U.S. military bases for the protection of Japan. But he doesn't understand how huge the amount of money already is that the Japanese government — and the Japanese people — pays to the United States for this.

Yesterday, I saw an interview with Trump but he did not say clearly that he will take the U.S. military out of Japan and bring them back to the United States. On the other hand, the people in Okinawa are delighted because they think, finally, that the U.S. military presence might be reduced.

Could you please comment on the church's work in Japan with migrant laborers?

We really don't use the word migrant; we use the word "laborers" or "workers." We have many people from overseas and we give them training. But, in reality, they work at the very lowest jobs and they cannot change their jobs. And it's even getting worse.

And so we say it's a kind of slave labor. We use those people, the government uses them, the government welcomes them because of what in effect is a slavery system.

Last May, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, the site of the atomic bombing by American forces near the end of the Second World War. There was speculation that he might apologize for the bombing. Were you disappointed that he did not?

Yes, I wish he had. I expected it.

I know that many Americans think that bombing Hiroshima was justified because it helped to end the war sooner. But underneath that mushroom cloud were so many thousands of dead people and so much suffering. And I think that reality of suffering inside the city needs to be understood much better when we think about justice and the end of the war.

I don't agree with the statement that justice was done when so many people suffered under the bombing.

Could you also please comment on the issue of Japan and apology for its actions in the Second World War? This issue continues to be a sore point for many Asian nations that endured Japanese aggression and occupation at that time.

Yes, that's a big problem. As a nation state, Japan then used its force to commit crimes. But within Japan now, the argument always goes toward talking about the state — and not about the nation — and I think that becomes a way to avoid the issue.

But I think we have to focus on the Japanese as a nation or as a people who contributed to the suffering of other countries. When the discussion is only on the level of the state, it usually turns to issues of evidence and then says that if there isn't evidence, then there's no need to apologize.

Moreover, these kind of state-level apologies weren't well-received by other countries because they were not full-hearted apologies. And there are always people in the government who make the counterargument and say that states have no need to apologize. And always there has been a repeat of that debate, again and again.

But this is not the point. I want to put this on a different level, a human level. And we the people have to apologize in the sense that we are all human beings, not in the name only of national sovereignty but because we are all human beings and because we did wrong things as human beings. And why can't you apologize based on that?

[David DeCosse serves the staff of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.]


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