After spending more than thirty years in Japan, working in the field of interreligious dialogue, I feel extremely happy and grateful in taking part, as the only “adoptive Japanese”, in this round table addressing the issue of Japan, the Land I love and consider my second Home-Country.
My heartfelt thanks to the Community of Saint Egidio for the invitation to participate once more in this annual event, and my admiration for its faithful perseverance in carrying on for more than thirty years the “spirit of Assisi” from which this annual event was born.
Gratitude and admiration also for the subject chosen this year: Japan, Religions and the value of life, which, I think, has a great and peculiar meaning for Japan today. As a matter of fact, a vivid perception of nature and of life can be considered a peculiar characteristic of Japanese culture, which can be seen and perceived in all its various Religious Traditions. When I first arrived in Japan in 1985, I was particularly struck by this aspect of Japanese culture.
But sadly, with the passing of time, I had to take stock of how modern developments have progressively weekend this traditional attitude, with negative influence also on human relations. In the great cities, where the majority of the Japanese actually spend their life, not only contact with nature but also human relations are often threatened by a kind of consumerism that aims first of all at financial profit, leaving aside the cultural and religious values which for centuries have nourished the Japanese spirit. Connected with this trend is the upsetting phenomenon of the so called “shukyo banare”: the gradual disaffection and estrangement from religious life. We are dealing with a rather complex phenomenon at the root of which we find not so much a positive refusal of religion as such, but ignorance and indifference concerning religions and the values they propose.
More than fifty years ago, the Declaration Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican Council on the relation of the Catholic Church towards non-Christian Religions stated: «Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going? ».
Today we have to ask ourselves to what extent these questions really touch and move the heart of contemporary men and women, and to what extent religions can give credible and significant answers. All religions in fact, not only in Japan, are faced with the situation created by the so called “shukyo banare” and are called to offer to the world generously and courageously the great values which they have inherited, those values which alone give meaning and shed light on “the unsolved riddles of the human condition”. Such is the great and urgent challenge for religions today, a challenge for all and each religious tradition, called to give answers and bear witness to such values through interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
Coming back now, with a more alert awareness, to the topic of our panel, that is: Japan, Religions and the value of human life, looked at, as far as my specific contribution is concerned, from the point of view of the Catholic Church in Japan, I cannot forget the important document of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan first edited in 2001 and recently re-published in a new edition in 1917, with the significant title of «Inochi e no manazashi» (Turning our eyes to life).
In the edition of 2001, published right after the “Great Jubilee of the year 2000”, the Catholic Bishops of Japan wanted to send a message of hope to the Japanese society entering the 21st century, as we read in the introduction written by the then President of the Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Shimamoto Kaname of Nagasaki: «Japanese society is marked today by anxiety and sadness. Economic stagnation due to the collapse of the “bubble economy,” the weakening of family bonds, violence in schools, shocking crimes by children and an increasing number of suicides by middle-aged and elderly people have led many people to think that there is no answer to our longing for light and support.Yet, God made and loves people. Human life, God’s one-time gift to each of us, is sacred. That is the main reason the Catholic bishops of Japan have decided to present this message regarding life and humanity to the world […]. We hope that our reflections will give courage and hope to our sisters and brothers throughout Japan. We pray that God’s loving kindness will be poured out on all creation and especially on the people of Japan to whom we address this message».
Actually, this document - while taking in consideration the problems facing today the Japanese society: the critical situation of the family, the dramatic number of suicides, the great number of abortions and the problem of euthanasia, the growing threat to our natural habitat - it is a message of hope! The roots of this message sink deep in the ground of religious faith: faith that life comes from God, who is a tender Father and loves all His creatures; and that men and women are called to cooperate with God in taking care for creation. This message of the Catholic Bishops of Japan reminds us that we need the light of God’s word, to fully understand the sacred nature of human life, and of all life.
Well aware of the complexity of the subject, and of the unavoidable limitations of their reflections, the Bishops thus conclude their message: «This marks the first time, we bishops of Japan have prepared a message not only for Catholics, but for all of Japanese society. Those who read it may find points that dissatisfy them and about which they have complaints. […] We are convinced that our vocation as bishops requires us to issue a call for people to understand a human posture toward life based on the light of God». The second edition of the document - published after the dramatic events of the beginning of this century: the increase of terrorism in the world, and, in Japan, the great earthquake of 2011 which caused the meltdown of the Fukushima atomic center, and the earthquake of Kumamoto in 2012 – dwells more at length on some more recent threats to life: nuclear armaments, genetic manipulations, and the death penalty. In the light of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter “Laudato si’”, it gives ample consideration to the ecological problem, pollution of nature and the safeguard of our “common home”, the earth. Finally, the Bishops ask that the loving and merciful way God looks at his creatures become also our way to look at them! Another initiative of the Catholic Church in Japan to deal with the safeguard of life has been the organization of annual symposia by the Subcommittee of the Bishops’ Conference in charge of interreligious dialogue inviting representatives of the various religious traditions of Japan: Shintoism and Buddhism, and also of the new religions like Tenrikyo and Risshokoseikai, to reflect together, in an interreligious context, on the various problems connected with the protection of life.
I wish to mention here especially the symposium held in 2013 on the dramatic problem of suicides, the one held in 2014 on the social problems posed by the gradual extension of life expectancy and the consequent growing number of people of advanced age, and the one held in 2017 on the problems faced by young people today. I cannot even summarize here the wealth of contributions given by the various religious traditions in these interreligious exchanges. I just wish to point out the reasons which prompted the Catholic Church to promote such initiatives. These ‘reasons’ reflect the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.
First of all, the deep conviction, rooted in the Christian faith, that all forms of life are a gift from God, are created by Him and loved by Him; and that human life constitutes the apex and, so to say, the crown of all creation.
Secondly, the central mystery of Christian faith, that is the “incarnation” of God, or God becoming “flesh” in Jesus Christ, taking human life to an unsurmountable level of dignity and sacredness.
Finally, the Christian faith that human life does not end with death but is destined to the resurrection of the body and eternal life with God Himself.
The Catholic Church in Japan jealously guards these convictions, rooted in her faith in Christ, and wishes to share them with all people, as the glad news of God’s revelation, as a joyful regard on life, as a religious commitment to the defense of life in all its forms.
It is this Christian faith that also inspires the Catholic Church in Japan to take a stand on concrete issues being debated today in Japan that deal with the value of human life, issues that have a strong social dimension, and therefore, also inevitably a political repercussion, like, for example:
1. The safeguard of creation, or the “care for our common house, the earth” as Pope Francis calls it in his encyclical letter “Laudato si’ “ (2015) to which the Catholic Church in Japan has given special attention during the year 2017.
2. The reverence and respect for life, from its very beginning to its natural end, in countertrend with the legalization of abortion and the acceptance of sophisticated forms of the so called “anrakushi“ which at times approach euthanasia or mercy-killing. This fundamental attitude has taken concrete forms with the institution of the so called “akachan-posto” (cradles for unwanted children) like in the case of Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto, and hospices for terminally ill patients, like in the case of the Mikokoro Byoin (Hospital of the Sacred Heart) again in Kumamoto.
3. The participation of the Catholic Church in Japan in the campaign carried on by several organizations (among which special mention must be made of the Community of Saint Egidio) for the abolition of the death penalty in the Country.
4. The active involvement in the interreligious organization to safeguard article 9 of the Constitution, by which Japan has rejected the solution of international conflicts by means of war and, in a special way, the adoption of atomic weapons.
To conclude, I wish to emphasize once more the fact that in our secularized world, weakened by the so called “shukyo-banare”, that is the phenomenon of indifference and disaffection towards the religions, paradoxically, these very religions, and the great values they guard and transmit, are the necessary and indispensable support to safeguard and promote the values of life, especially human life, its ultimate meaning and its sacredness.
This is why, the commitment to the safeguard and the promotion of life is or must be a high priority also in interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Each one and all of us, deeply rooted in his or her own religious conviction, also in Japan, must unite and join forces to defend life, especially human life, from all threats. And let me conclude with a very beautiful Japanese expression, that can hardly be translated in English: “Ikiru to wa, ikasarete iru koto desu”, that is, literally translated: “to live is to be made to live”! Life is a most precious gift that we receive, which therefore, by its very nature, points to a religious dimension; a precious gift that we are all called to protect and defend together.