The Vatican: A Japanese Perspective

Author: ZENIT


The Vatican: A Japanese Perspective

Interview With Ambassador Kagefumi Ueno


Japan and the Vatican have a lot of reasons to intensify relations in the coming years, especially regarding cooperation in Africa, says the new Japanese ambassador to the Holy See.

Ambassador Kagefumi Ueno, who began his mission at the Vatican in November, adds that "there is a lot of scope for teamwork and coordination between Japanese aid agencies and some important Catholic players in Africa."

In this interview with ZENIT, the ambassador also offers a Japanese perspective of the Vatican, and some thoughts on why Catholics only comprise 0.5% of Japan's population.

Q: Coming from Japan, what strikes you most about the Holy See?

Ueno: My impression is that the Holy See has four very distinct capacities.

First, it has a moral value or moral authority that is respected not only by Catholics but also by many authorities of non-Christian countries.

For instance, when I extended my credentials to the Holy Father, he expressed his desire for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The next day, what he said to me was reported almost everywhere around the globe.

Likewise, what he says about Darfur, Iraq, Palestine and so forth, always receives international attention.

The Pope is, in this context, a kind of "guardian" over the international situation. The international community expects him to talk about peace and justice.

When the U.S. president or Russian president speaks on some international issue, it is taken for granted that he speaks from national interests. But that is not the case when the Pope speaks. The Holy See is detached from secular interests.

Second, I regard the Holy See as an international unit like the United Nations. To some extent I deem the Pope as a kind of secretary-general of another United Nations, although with religious foundations.

Third, the Church has a global network that is locally rooted in every continent, with its operational center at the Vatican.

Fourth, they have a big communication power through Vatican Radio, L'Osservatore Romano and other media to spread their message to every corner of the world.

All in all, very unique and impressive!

For me, a man who comes from Japan, a country with a long-lasting imperial household, in fact, one of the oldest institutions in the world besides the Holy See, it is interesting to explore why and how the Holy See has succeeded in lasting for such a long time.

Q: Are their areas of cooperation that the Holy See and Japan have in common?

Ueno: Before touching upon that, I like to repeat that the most important role to be played by the Pope is to spread the message of peace.

So even personally, not just as ambassador of Japan, I expect him to talk about his views on peace and justice whenever and wherever necessary.

Besides peace and justice, the priority areas of cooperation, coordination and communication between the two are global warming and Africa.

Speaking specifically of Africa, as the second largest donor of assistance in the international community after the United States, Japan offers a lot in terms of aid to Africa.

Up until some time ago, Japanese assistance was focused only in the Asian region.

As many Asian recipients of our aid managed to develop their respective economies successfully over the last 2 or 3 decades, there is less and less urgency to direct our assistance there.

From here, Japan started "a process of dialogue on development" — called TICAD — 15 years ago between Japan, African countries, other donor countries and international agencies.

At a strategic and policy level, Japan, serving as the next chair of the group of eight summit in 2008, should do everything possible to urge the G-8 countries to substantially focus their attention to Africa in a concerted and coordinated manner.

Japan is keen to hear the Holy See's view. The policy dialogue between Japan and the Holy See is expected to intensify.

On a practical and operational level, there is a lot of scope for teamwork and coordination between Japanese aid agencies and some important Catholic players in Africa, such as Caritas International and the Community of Sant'Egidio, among others, in coming years.

I always pay respect to endeavors of Catholic aid donors who, when taken together, make up the largest organization giving assistance to sub-Saharan Africa.

It should not be overlooked, in passing, that one obvious additional advantage of Japan is that there is no historical "negative links" between Japan and Africa: Japan is very "free" in Africa, since they haven't had any experience of colonization there.

Q: What is your view on interreligious dialogue?

Ueno: I like to say that, nowadays, whenever the Catholic Church talks about interreligious dialogue, it seems to me that in reality they mean dialogue with Islam.

Of course, I fully understand that dialogue with Islam has paramount importance for Catholicism. But, dialogue with other religions such as Buddhism, Shintoism, and so forth, should be equally heeded.

Actually, in Japan, when interreligious dialogue is spoken of, the preoccupation is also on Islam, not necessarily Catholicism or Christianity.

So, I like to appeal to both sides — to the Holy See and to Japanese society in general — to think more and more about dialogue between Catholicism on one hand and Buddhism and Shintoism on the other.

In this respect, it is noteworthy that Monsignor Felix Machado, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, participated in the Religious Summit Meeting on Mount Hiei, Kyoto, earlier this month.

Q: Has Catholicism contributed in any significant way to Japanese society?

Ueno: There are two aspects that should be pointed out.

First, in Japan the Catholic Church has established many universities, schools and other welfare facilities.

Many of the graduates from these institutions occupy important positions in a variety of social segments. For instance, at my ministry, the Japanese Foreign Ministry, there are a number of graduates from those schools.

Through these institutions many Japanese are to some extent familiar with Catholic virtues.

Nevertheless, I must add that somehow not many of those educated in Catholic institutions are baptized. Actually, those who are remain a very small proportion.

I believe there are two reasons why so few become Catholic.

First, let me remind you that majority of Japanese have a mentality to perceive or find "souls" in plants, animals, mountains, waterfalls, fountains, rocks and so on, like, say, ancient Celtic people.

This Japanese cosmology, typical of a polytheistic mentality, has a sharp contrast with the monotheistic vision of Christianity.

Second, against this background, it appears to me that Christians tend to adhere to absolute values.

For instance, when they talk about justice or evil, they mean absolute justice or evil — a black-or-white approach.

In contrast with them, when Japanese talk about justice, they mean relative justice — gray-zone approach.

Thus, there are some basic and fundamental philosophical differences between the two cosmologies, which, though vaguely, accounts for a relatively low proportion of Christians in Japan.

However, we should not overlook another side of the coin — that many Japanese accept 70%-80% of the teachings of Catholicism.

For instance, they accept almost all of the Ten Commandments. There are a lot of common denominators between the two cosmologies.

I would say Christianity has had many positive effects on Japanese society.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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