KAZUO MIYATA, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER OF THE TWENTY-SIX MARTYRS MUSEUM – I hope this papal visit can be a warning sign for the Japanese Catholics

– Marco Carvalho
in Nagasaki

A city of martyrs and martyrdom, Nagasaki still remains for many at the heart of Japanese Catholicism. The city welcomed Pope Francis on Sunday, with the Supreme Pontiff making a strong appeal for nuclear disarmament in the exact spot where the second atomic bomb fell on 9 August 1945. The Holy Father’s visit brought hope and joy to a city where Catholicism has no longer the strength it used to have, Kazuo Myiata warns. The Chief Operating Officer of the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum, in Nishizaka Hill, spoke to O Clarim about the future of the Catholic Faith in Southern Japan.

This is the second time that the Museum receives the leader of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II has been to Nishizaka Hill when he came to Nagasaki and now Pope Francis has done the same. This is a very important place for the Society of Jesus and Francis is the first Jesuit Pope. How important is this visit, not only for the Museum, but also for the Catholics of Nagasaki?

These 26 martyrs are the very first Asian martyrs. They were crucified in this same hill in 1597 and three of them were Jesuits. Basically, the 26 martyrs were a Franciscan group. They worked very hard in Kyoto, so that they could bring the Gospels to the Japanese people. Three Jesuits were listed with them and they were sent to Nagasaki. In the end, those three Jesuits were also martyred. Of these three members of the Society of Jesus, the most well known is Saint Paul Miki. He was the leader of the group and a remarkable preacher. They were some of the first Jesuit martyrs. They were, at least, the first Jesuit martyrs in Asia. In that sense, this is a very special site for the Jesuits. When Pope Francis was young he learned a lot about the martyrs of Nagasaki, to the point that his main dream was to come to Japan as a missionary…

If he had come to Japan, he wouldn’t probably be the Pope now …

He would have been a missionary man if he would have come to this country, but he was diagnosed with a lung problem. He lost the chance to become a missionary. Fifty years later, he finally had the opportunity to come to this place. It was a memorable moment not only for us, but also for Pope Francis.

Nagasaki has always been a synonym of Catholicism in Japan. This Catholic dimension has been recognized last year by UNESCO, which declared as World Heritage a group of 12 hidden Christian sites in the Nagasaki Region. How important was this visit of the Pope for the Nagasaki Catholics? Do you think it will reinforce their sense of devotion, their sense of faith?

Well, the recognition, by the UNESCO, of the importance of these sites can, indeed, bring some attention to the Catholic Church, at least in a historical perspective. It is very much my personal opinion, but it seems that the Catholics are forgetting their martyrs. A martyr is a martyr and here, in Nagasaki, we had 26 of them. The Catholic population is decreasing year-by-year and, as a matter of fact, we don’t have many Japanese pilgrims visiting the Museum. I fear that the people are forgetting the very important memory of the martyrs. I think it is wonderful that people may focus on the memory and the history of the “Hidden Christians,” but the most important thing is for people to remember Catholic history, “kirishitan” history. To remember, for instance, the strong relationship between Nagasaki and Macau. To recognize the  “Hidden Christians” history is good, but it is not enough just to remember in a historical sense. Pope Francis emphasized the very important memory of the martyrs and I hope his message will remind us that they are at the core of the Catholic faith. In my opinion, this visit of the Pope is a very big opportunity, so that people can remember the martyrs’ history, their martyrdom. I hope this papal visit can be a warning sign for the Japanese Catholics, because they are losing their faith.

As you were mentioning, the Catholic community is dwindling…

Yes. Even in Nagasaki. Now, we are about twenty  thousand. Compared with 1981, when Pope John Paul II came to this very same place, we have lost many, many people. I think that the situation is kind of helpless, in a certain sense. I am very scared of  what might happen.

Three generations of a Catholic family took part in the brief ceremony that was organized in Nishizaka Hill. Is the Christian faith still passed on in the family? Are there new generations of Catholics, here in Nagasaki and in Kyushu Island?

Well, probably the same thing is happening all over the world. Probably the same thing is happening in your country or in Macau. We don’t see many young people at the Church anymore and the same thing is happening now here. In other words, this is a time in which it is very hard to keep a strong faith. There are many, many temptations and Nagasaki is no exception. Nagasaki is a small city, far from Tokyo and surrounded by countryside, but being a Christian, and especially a Catholic, is very tough: praying is boring, joining a Mass is tedious. Our kids don’t join us anymore. One of the priests we work with at the Museum, Father Domenico Vitali, he is always emphasizing this aspect: the Church has to play the biggest role so that the faith can grow, but at the same time, the families have to do their share to attract the younger generations. The problem is that they do not set good lessons for the young kids and that is why I was saying that people are losing their faith year-by-year. This is a very crucial moment for the Catholic Church. In that sense, the papal visit is a very good opportunity for the Catholic Church in Japan. In the Peace Park, Pope Francis spoke, as I expected, about peace and here, in Nishizaka, he said something I consider very important: he told the Catholic faithful that martyrdom and sacrifice are not about death, but about living for our beliefs. That message was important, because the Catholic Church in Japan is facing a very, very difficult situation right now.

You were saying that you the Museum doesn’t receive many Japanese pilgrims. Where do the visitors come from, then?

They are mainly Koreans. In Korea, as you certainly now, the Catholic Church is still growing up. Many Koreans come here, but, to be honest, recently we started to lose some Korean visitors because of the continued conflict between South Korea and Japan. Yet, we still receive many Korean pilgrims. The Japanese Catholics that visit the Museum are but a small minority.

It is strange in a certain sense, because as you were saying these martyrs are at the core of Japanese Catholicism and they were kind of the founding fathers of the Japanese Church…

As I said before, we are witnessing a very, very difficult situation. The Church in Japan is living very, very difficult times. People tend to say that Nagasaki is at the heart of Christianity in Japan; yes, it is true, but even in Nagasaki the situation is far from enthusiastic. Did you notice the people’s reaction to Pope Francis? It was not like in other places, where people cheered him on. Here you you saw people quiet and in silence. They would never scream his name and I would have paid to see them doing that.