A statement released by Catholic leaders in Japan to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II expressed their wariness over what they view as the nation’s attempts to rewrite history and play a significantly larger defense role in the world.
“We are gravely concerned about the current administration’s move,” Takeo Okada, archbishop of Tokyo and head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan said of the statement. “We want to light a flame for a path that people should head to, which is the mission of all religious leaders.”
When the bishops’ conference issued statements to mark the 50th and 60th anniversaries, the Catholic leaders renewed their commitment to peace. But this year’s document was different from the previous two in terms of its strong language and the timing of the release.
Although it did not directly refer to the Abe administration, the statement was critical of moves to deny Japan’s wartime actions and the government’s push to allow the Self-Defense Forces to use force overseas despite the war-renouncing Constitution.
The 16 prelates of the bishops’ conference also issued the 2015 statement in February instead of August, when initially planned, and when the nation marks the war’s end.
The changes mirror the Japanese Catholic leaders’ mounting alarm with the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and are based on “deep remorse” over its record before and during World War II. Like many other religious organizations in Japan, the Catholic clergy collaborated with the military government’s war efforts. One priest reportedly said, “Japan took up guns and stood up based on God’s will.”
Dated Feb. 25, the statement read: “Seventy years after the war, memory of it is fading along with memories of Japanese colonial rule and aggression with its accompanying crimes against humanity. Now, there are calls to rewrite the history of that time, denying what really happened.
“The present government is attempting to enact laws to protect state secrets, allow for the right of collective self-defense and change Article 9 of the Constitution to allow the use of military force overseas.”
Kazuo Koda, a bishop from the archdiocese of Tokyo who was involved in drafting the document, said he and other priests were initially reluctant to argue specific policy measures.
“But we became convinced that we must speak out with clarity that these are wrong,” he said.
Koda also explained the document’s early release.
“We grew alarmed by the dizzying pace of developments in the political world,” the bishop said. “So we decided that we should publish it as soon as possible.”
When a Japanese delegation of Catholic leaders traveled to the Holy See in Rome on a regular visit in March, Okada and other members briefed Cardinal Pietro Parolin on the message and the philosophy of the war-renouncing Article 9. Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, reportedly encouraged the group to lobby the Japanese government to start a dialogue.
But the document set off criticism on the Internet.
“People from religious circles should not intervene in politics,” said one post.
“Judging from the message, (the Catholic clergy) looks like nothing but leftist activists,” said another.
The document also touched on Okinawa Prefecture, home to 74 percent of all U.S. military bases in Japan, and took issue with the construction of a new base to replace an existing one in the prefecture amid fierce protests.
“Domestically, the situation in Okinawa presents a particularly serious problem,” the document read. “Compared to the rest of the country, the number of military bases there is especially high. New base construction is under way, contrary to the wishes of the citizens of the prefecture. This demonstrates an attitude that puts priority on armaments while ignoring people and efforts to build peace.”
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan is not the only religious body critical of a sea change in Japan’s defense policy, which has occurred since Abe took office.
Many religious groups have expressed opposition to or concerns over the Abe Cabinet’s decision last July to enable Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense by changing the decades-old interpretation of the Constitution.
Although Japan’s Christians represent only between 1 to 2 percent of the population, the bishops’ conference statement appears to carry weight as it comes under the Vatican with 1.2 billion followers across the world.
The Holy See has been paying close attention to global confrontations and conflicts between states and ethnic groups.
It occasionally serves as a bridge between parties at loggerheads.
In the latest example, Pope Francis played a significant role behind the historic reconciliation earlier this year between the United States and Cuba.
The Vatican’s efforts to become relevant to the modern age stems from lessons learned from World War I and II, as well as its failure to save Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
A movement grew as a result within the Roman Catholic Church against its tendency to turn in on itself.
The movement led to the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, in which thousands of bishops across the world met to discuss how to reinvent the Catholic Church to accommodate the needs of the contemporary world.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan’s message for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II is available at (http://www.cbcj.catholic.jp/eng/edoc/150225.htm).