Rich in dramatic Catholic history, Nagasaki awaits the pope

Japanese Archbishop Mitsuaki Takami, who heads Nagasaki's Catholic community of 60,000, speaks in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary that was damaged in the A-bomb attack, southern Japan. (AP)
Updated 19 November 2019

Rich in dramatic Catholic history, Nagasaki awaits the pope

  • As Francis makes the first papal visit to Japan in 38 years, he will likely look to the past by honoring the doggedness of those so-called Hidden Christians
  • In many ways, Nagasaki is the perfect backdrop for his visit to a nation that was once coveted by the West as a place of Catholic expansion

NAGASAKI, Japan: It’s fitting that Pope Francis will start his first official visit to Japan in Nagasaki, the city where Christianity first took hold in the country and where nearly 500 years later it remains steeped in blood-soaked symbolism, both religious and political.

It was here that a small group of beleaguered Catholic converts went deep underground during centuries of violent persecution. It was here that their descendants dramatically emerged from hiding in the 19th century, their faith unbroken. And it was here that a US atom bomb brought death and destruction to the cathedral that community was finally able to build.

As Francis makes the first papal visit to Japan in 38 years, he will likely look to the past by honoring the doggedness of those so-called Hidden Christians, while also laying out his vision for a future free from the threat of nuclear weapons.

In many ways, Nagasaki is the perfect backdrop for his visit to a nation that was once coveted by the West as a place of Catholic expansion but where only 0.35 percent of the 127 million people are Catholic. One of the highlights of the visit starting Nov. 23 will be his prayer at a memorial to 26 martyrs crucified in 1597 at the start of an anti-Christian persecution that lasted until about 1870.

“Our Christian ancestors were oppressed and monitored, and then suffered from the atomic attack. This all made me think, ‘What is it supposed to mean?’” Japanese Archbishop Mitsuaki Takami said. “Perhaps the followers in Nagasaki have been given a mission to convey peace.”

Takami, who heads Nagasaki’s Catholic community of 60,000, by far the biggest in Japan, is a Hidden Christian descendant who was exposed to radiation in his mother’s womb when the atom bomb fell on Aug. 9, 1945, near Urakami Cathedral. He had several relatives die in the bombing that killed 74,000, a number that includes two priests and 24 followers inside the cathedral.

Takami, who has traveled the world with a statue of the Virgin Mary that was damaged in the blast, and other activists expect the pope will send a powerful anti-nuclear message on behalf of everyone in Nagasaki.

Many bomb survivors and supporters hope it will push Japan’s government, which is protected by the US nuclear umbrella, to sign the UN nuclear-ban treaty. Japan has refused to sign, saying it seeks to bridge the gap between nuclear and non-nuclear states.

Francis has gone further than other popes on the nuclear matter, saying that not only the use, but the mere possession of nuclear weapons is “to be firmly condemned.”

Francis will likely repeat his appeal for a total ban on nuclear weapons when he visits Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where 140,000 were killed by another US atomic bomb.

He will meet with survivors of those bombs, as well as those affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed a March 2011 tsunami and earthquake in northern Japan.

“Your country knows well the suffering caused by war,” Francis said in a video message to the Japanese on the eve of his trip. “Along with you, I pray that the destructive power of nuclear weapons never is let loose again on human history. The use of nuclear weapons is immoral.”

Takami, 73, grew up hearing stories from his relatives of the suffering that many in Nagasaki endured after the bombing and is reminded of his determination for peace every time he visits Urakami Cathedral.

“Any weapon is ghastly, but nuclear weapons are hundreds of times more so,” Takami said, adding they should be abolished. “World leaders should be ashamed of talking from a safe and distant place about nuclear weapons, calling them a deterrent even though they can kill hundreds of thousands, even millions of people.”

Many in Nagasaki are happy that the pope is coming first to their city, which is often eclipsed by the events in Hiroshima.

“I hope he will use his trip to Nagasaki to send a powerful message of the need to ban nuclear weapons,” said Chizuko Maruo, the daughter of an atomic bombing survivor who will attend the pope’s Sunday Mass at a city baseball stadium.

Francis will also greet some descendants of the Hidden Christians, who developed their own unique prayer known as the “Orasho,” or oratio, while hiding in Nagasaki’s northern islands, where some local Shinto and Buddhist residents supported them.

Francis, who is known to Japanese Catholics as Papa-sama, will also hold a Mass in Hiroshima and in Tokyo and meet with Japan’s emperor and prime minister.

Francis’ messages about life are universal and still can reach people’s hearts, especially given the state of global politics, said Kagefumi Ueno, a former Japanese ambassador to the Vatican.

“At a time when global leaders are increasingly becoming populist, the pope’s words can be a virtue of the international community and a moral authority,” he said.

As a youth Francis is said to have been fascinated by the history of the Christian experience in Nagasaki and wanted to be a missionary there.

The area around Nagasaki became the center of a rapid Catholic expansion after the 1549 arrival to Japan of St. Francis Xavier, the first Jesuit missionary. More than a quarter-million Japanese are said to have converted until the Tokugawa shogunate, fearing that Christianity was the beginning of Western domination, outlawed it 1612.

Christians were forced to renounce their beliefs on pain of death and to trample on Catholic icons. When discovered, Christians were tortured. Many were thrown into boiling hot springs or burned to death.

A small, determined Catholic minority went into hiding and practiced their faith in secret for more than 250 years. The Hidden Christians finally broke their silence in 1865 by approaching a foreign priest. But with the ban on Christianity still in place, the 3,300 Catholics were banished from Nagasaki and were not allowed to return until the ban was lifted in 1873. They built their long-dreamed-of cathedral in 1914.

Mitsuho Nakata, an artisan who makes Catholic statues near Urakami, is the great-grandson of a samurai who cut ties with his feudal lord to pursue his Catholic faith. A group of samurai ambushed and killed most of his great-grandfather’s family.

After studying at a Catholic theological school, Nakata returned to work in the family-run workshop his father started.

“My family is here only because our ancestors kept their faith despite constant fear of getting killed or tortured,” Nakata said at his workshop, surrounded by dozens of statues of the Virgin Mary and saints. “I’m so impressed by their devotion and their strong faith and that they abandoned everything they had for it.”


Over 200,000 vote in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy primaries

Updated 12 July 2020

Over 200,000 vote in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy primaries

  • Exercise being held two weeks after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the semi-autonomous territory

HONG KONG: Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers turned up over the weekend to vote in an unofficial two-day primary election held by the city’s pro-democracy camp as it gears up to field candidates for an upcoming legislative poll.
The exercise is being held two weeks after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the semi-autonomous territory in a move widely seen as chipping away at the “one country, two systems” framework under which Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997. It was passed in response to last year’s massive protests calling for greater democracy and more police accountability.
Throngs of people lined up at polling booths in the summer heat to cast their vote despite a warning by Hong Kong’s constitutional affairs minister, Eric Tsang last week that the primaries could be in breach of the new national security law, because it outlaws interference and disruption of duties by the local government.
Organizers have dismissed the comments, saying they just want to hold the government accountable by gaining a majority in the legislature.
The legislation prohibits what Beijing views as secessionist, subversive or terrorist activities or as foreign intervention in Hong Kong affairs. Under the law, police now have sweeping powers to conduct searches without warrants and order Internet service providers and platforms to remove messages deemed to be in violation of the legislation.
On Friday, police raided the office of the Public Opinion Research Institute, a co-organizer of the primary elections. The computer system was suspected of being hacked, causing a data leak, police said in a statement, and an investigation is ongoing.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, which includes multiple parties, is attempting to join forces and use the primaries as a guide to field the best candidates in the official legislative election in September. Its goal is to win a majority in the legislature, which is typically skewed toward the pro-Beijing camp.
To hold the primary elections, pro-democracy activists had raised money via crowd funding. They pledged to veto the government’s budget if they clinch a majority in the legislature. Under the Basic Law, under which Hong Kong is governed, city leader Carrie Lam must resign if an important bill such as the budget is vetoed twice.
On Saturday alone, nearly 230,000 people voted at polling booths set up across the city, exceeding organizers’ estimates of a 170,000 turnout over the weekend.