Foreigners in Japan: Still Knocking at the Door of the Church

Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, S.J. (CITIC Meguro)
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue:  No. 106 / February 15th, 2002

The original idea of CTIC, some twelve years ago, was that of a Socio-Pastoral Center. But, as it often happens, the urgent and the immediate take always priority over other dimensions that require reflection, long range planning and careful follow up. The Original CTIC has been doing an excellent work at helping Migrants in the urgent and pressing problems of survival, legal and immigration problems, pressing marriage conflicts and the like.

As the needs of the growing foreign communities multiplied, the urgency and importance of long range pastoral accompaniment and follow up became more and more evident and Tokyo Archdiocese decided to open a new CTIC Center in Meguro. This Center has mostly Pastoral objectives, which, naturally, can never be severed from the general human situations and needs. Thus we are working now on Training Seminars, Renewal of Sacramental and Community life, Accompaniment and Pastoral care of people in emergency situations like detention, serious or difficult illness and the like. We want to contribute to lively Pastoral programs in Parishes, coordination of this wide ministry to foreign groups, all in an ongoing dialogue with Priests and other Ministers to Migrants and their families. We are also working together with the Sister Centers of Urawa and Yokohama, who are dealing with similar issues and concerns.

The great geographic extension of Tokyo is a handicap when it comes to service to groups that are very busy and who can hardly administer their time and movements with much freedom. This has brought the Diocese to accept the opening of a new small CTIC Center in Chiba, which will service that area of the Archdiocese, where there are many foreign workers and where the priests and lay people have been offering very good service for many years. This new Center will begin to function in April of 2002.

 It does not take much time to realize how complex and unsettled the situation of foreigners in Japan is. Much has been written and said about the economic, political or social needs, problems or difficulties that foreigners meet in the country. I consider them well known and take them for granted in these lines, so that I can concentrate on the so-called “Pastoral” situation. In doing this I am trying to see beyond the emergencies into the long term personal reality of so many people who “had to leave” their family and country, their culture and home and risk everything in order to follow the dream of a new future, be it permanent or temporary.

The first and most obvious fact is the situation of being “uprooted from their own Culture.” This is much more than missing the food, the Festivals and the traditional dances they grew up with. Culture has been defined as “a pattern of shared meanings and values, embodied in a network of symbols, myths and rituals, created by a particular group as it struggles to adjust to life’s challenges and educating its members about what is considered to be the orderly, correct, and decent way to feel, think and behave.

” For the ordinary citizen, living permanently, or for long stretches of time, outside his or her own culture is equivalent to be in a situation of personal chaos, with a very deep sense of loss, of not knowing how to feel, how to behave, how to make sense to others.
For a great number of immigrants this sense of loss is made more serious because it goes together with a sense of “religious wandering away from home.” Religion has given color, depth, and horizons to many of the cultural systems from where foreigners come.

Together, culture and religion have provided people and their communities with means and sources of meaning, of healing, of belonging and personal, as well as social, integration. It is easy to understand why people who might not be very regular in going to Church at home, become very eager to join Sunday Mass in Japan. For many this can be the link to mental and spiritual sanity, the promise that they can make it without breaking down, the hope that, in spite of everything, they will be able to overcome the darkness and chaos that now surrounds them.

This need is all the more urgent because the situation of most of the foreigners looking or hoping for work in Japan is one of human and social “depreciation.” Not a few of those coming to Japan suffer a loss of social standing and a high degree of loss of self-esteem here. They will be holding jobs far below their personal qualifications, education or capabilities. They are often looked down upon and will seldom be even considered worthy to be consulted, promoted, or helped move on to better or more challenging jobs. This is a source of indescribable loneliness; it brings even lower one’s already low self-esteem; it is a source of a painful insecurity that affects their ability to perform, to relate and to even address their own children with dignity and basic human pride.

One area that we have to study further and take much more seriously than here to fore is the effect that migration has on human and moral values. We are dealing here with a massive reality of poverty, insecurity, joblessness, social and political instability, that has been throwing millions of people into inhuman situations where most of the decisions become “survival or last resort” emergencies. How this affects the heart, the thinking, the values, the very faith of those affected is an urgent subject of dialogue and study. Very early after they decide to do something about survival, they have to take one or another measure that would normally be considered deceptive (like using a false passport, using a borrowed name, lying about age), or immoral (like marrying in order to obtain a Visa, developing emotional relationships without commitment). It is always a source of wonder to meet some of these persons and encounter a purity of heart, a delicacy of compassion and solidarity, a fine tuning of spiritual sense… that we would hardly associate otherwise with some of the lies they have told or the jobs they have been doing. What is happening here? How do these facts change our stereotyped perceptions and definitions? Where and how is the Spirit of God really at work? We had heard about these examples in the past, all the way to the time of the Gospel. But we had not encountered them in such a numerous (should we say “massive”?) way. What does that say to our pastoral concerns and ministry?

We have also the innumerable issues that accompany any human community, but that become more acute and serious in the situation of insecurity, instability and stress in which foreigners find themselves. Marriage, family and education come invariably to the top of the list. If marriage is always the most serious test to human maturity and the capacity for interpersonal communication and shared growth, it is not difficult to understand why so many inter-cultural marriages of our people fail. The lack of human, cultural, social and other preparation for marriage and family life; the absence of discernment in the choice of partner, in the planning of a new family, in the organizing of the new shared life; the ignorance about Japan, its cultural traits, its system of education, its chances and its constraints, etc. are some of the factors that make of inter-cultural marriages one of the most difficult human adventures one can imagine.

The pastoral consequences of the above points and many other minor, but ever present, issues are obvious. The need of help, support, discernment, and accompaniment through this maze of problems is extraordinary and is knocking at the doors of the Church and at the hearts of every (Christian) person. Abandoning these people and communities is not only abandonment, but handing them over to “a violent market” that is very eager to have ever-new clients. I am referring here to the merchants of death, of greed or of stupidity, who would make human weakness and pain the object of their sales strategy. This extends widely from drug or alcohol, to the recruiting for gangs, and even to the misguided manipulation that lands people in religious sects or groups.

There are many challenges facing the Christian Churches, and the whole Japanese society, in these times of globalization and the accompanying migration and displacement of peoples. We can look briefly, first, to some challenges to our habitual perspectives and attitudes in the form of transitions.

The first transitions we are challenged to make is from a First, good-will, welcome of the Foreigners in our midst, with some minor changes in our Parish life, to a real and full welcome that brings forth a total reconsideration of our Parish, its structures and its activities.

This necessitates a second transitions from the present situation in which Foreigners are still treated as (reluctantly received, tolerated, accommodated, welcomed or honored) “guests,” to a situation where they will be and made to feel as full ordinary members of the Church. “Guests” are offered limited space, limited time, and a minimal menu of (not too well prepared) services; full members are entitled to full space and time, the capacity and possibility of involvement and participation in all Church activities and programs and being considered for responsible ministry.

This should be part of a transition from a respectful, but passive perception as a parallel community to a real dynamic inter-cultural interaction that would help all the represented groups feel at home and move towards a future integration.

It calls also to a transition from a benevolent, mild, almost invisible but real prejudice to a dialogue of hearts in which all of us are involved in discovering the deeper human experience and motivations of local and foreign Christians alike.

We need also a transitions from a narrow moralistic view of the situation of many foreigners who have difficulties with immigration papers, permission and other legal references, to a wider and fairer understanding of the human situation from which they come and the survival or liberation imperatives that move their limited life choices.

Maybe the wider transitions is that from a Japanese Church at the service of Japanese Christians, with an opening to some exceptions, to a Japanese Church at the service of humanity, open to and sharing with the wide world as it comes to us in the persons and lives of the people moving now to Japan.

In other words, we are challenged to make the courageous and risky transitions from an orderly “Ministerial Church,” able and organized to take care of its needs, to a “Prophetic Church” committed to live the Gospel with others and becoming, in turn, an invitation to the whole Japanese society for a new emerging human family.

The change in perspectives has to go hand in hand with new programs that will make the vision concrete and help in making the transition real and operative. Let me list some of these challenging programs:

4.1 An integrated Pastoral Program for all, Foreigners and Japanese Christians. This program has to be made in the face of real needs and responding effectively to them as well as to the whole situation. Here we think of Community Building, Life-and-Sacrament interaction and growth, faith development, life in the Spirit, social and professional discernment, etc.

4.2 A global plan, extending through three generations, on how to best serve incoming Christians from abroad, through life and emergency crises until they find a meaningful integration in Japanese Church and Society.

4.3 An ongoing reflection and Dialogue with Migrants on the bi-cultural development of their personal and religious identity and all its stages.

4.4 A meaningful integration of the Migrants and itinerants into a restructured Diocese (see as reference the letter from the Archbishop “A step forward”), with total and welcomed participation at all levels, wherever and whenever this is possible; or on a gradual process as it becomes possible.

4.5 Well planned and organic preaching (on Sunday Masses) with the help of “remedial catechesis for adults,” as helps to the Migrant community, for a mature faith life in a modern, pluralistic and free society like Japan.

4.6 Concrete programs of training in skills that range from daily life, relationships, etc. to more complex issues of culture, community building, conflict resolution, and the like.

4.7 Gradual integration (even if it takes three generations for it to happen) of all ethnic groups into a Community of believers where “the simple fact of being human” becomes the real, operative base on which to build the Church, with no other ultimate foundation than Christ.

If we come back to CTIC now we have to say that the meaning of our work in this Center is not to take over the above challenges. The challenges are for the Church as a whole and the response has to take place where the Christian communities are, in the Parishes and supra-parochial activities.

Our contribution can be at its best when we take part in the process as offering support, skills, helps, at times even coordination, cooperation and, always, service.

It will be one of our tasks to keep reflecting, together with those who have been and continue to be working actively and wisely in close friendship and cooperation with the different foreign communities, inside and outside the Catholic Church.

We do not need to be very visible because the real life and growth takes place where people are, not in the service Centers of this world. Our joy will be to be able to assist and contribute to that life; and for this we will always be happy to be helped ourselves with all kind of personal, spiritual, advisory and material support.

Migrants and Itinerants in Japan will continue to help us refresh our reading of the Gospel and keep before the eyes of our hearts the deeper issues of human life and the most genuine sources of hope and joy.

Tokyo, Jan. 2002

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