Ministering to Japan's immigrant Catholic population

by Joshua J. McElwee

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TOKYO -- Fr. Olmes Milani has been in Japan for eight years. Almost two of those years, he says, were spent studying the Japanese language "full-time."

And for another two, he was spending much of his time after work with language books, trying to become more fluent. Yet, says Milani, a native of Brazil, "I am still learning something I don't know everyday."

Milani, a Scalabrinian priest, says his struggle is just one example of the many facing Japan's estimated 2.2 million immigrants. A staff member at the Tokyo archdiocese's Catholic Tokyo International Center, Milani says "communication continues to be the biggest problem" for immigrants here.

The center, which was created in 1990 to provide assistance to immigrants in the Tokyo region, provides numerous services to foreigners in the area, including orientation meetings at churches for newly arrived immigrants, translators to accompany immigrants to doctor's and lawyer's visits, and weekly bags of food for those who can't afford to feed their families.

Eight staff members work in the office full time, four part time, and there's a volunteer staff of about twenty regulars, who help visit detained immigrants in local detention centers and prepare the bags of food.

The focus of the office, Milani says, is to serve immigrants in three ways: Through human rights, religious, and social needs, sometimes all at once. As an example, he mentions how priests in Japan, who sometimes have to travel hours by train to minister the sacraments to the country's small, dispersed Catholic population, have to go "with eyes open to see the human needs" of immigrant parishioners, who make up 57 percent of the Japanse church, and may not be getting services they need.

Check back for more coverage of the Catholic Tokyo International Center by NCR in the future. This coverage comes as part of a weeks-long reporting trip to Japan, which will culminate in coverage of the annual commemorations of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. Check back for more.

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