Japanese have first Catholic prime minister, and few know it

September 25, 2008

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, 24 Sept 2008/Toru HanaiJapan installed its first ever Roman Catholic prime minister this week, a milestone that has attracted media attention around the world — but hardly a word in his home country. It is doubtful whether most Japanese citizens are even aware that their flamboyant, manga-cartoon reading new leader, Taro Aso, has any particular religious beliefs.

Mainstream Japanese media have not touched on the fact that Aso is a member of a tiny religious minority — about 0.4% of the population — in a country where both Buddhism and Shinto rituals are a part of every day life for many. Aso himself rarely mentions his Catholicism, except when speaking to foreign audiences.

One of the foreign audiences that noticed was the Vatican daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, which enthused: “The nomination of a Catholic as prime minister is a turning point in Japanese politics, where religion has never had a real influence on public life, but the respect for traditions is shared by all sides. Recently, breaking with the proverbial reserve that Japanese politicians have on religious issues, the new prime minister said that his family has been Catholic for four generations.”

Christian-founded schools and universities are commonplace in Japan, and many brides dream of a white wedding in a church. But converts are few.

Paper lanterns at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, 13 July 2007/Issei KatoAso was born on the southern island of Kyushu, where Catholic missionaries gained a foothold in the 16th century, before being suppressed by a government that feared the conflicting loyalties religious faith might bring. He is the grandson of Shigeru Yoshida, prime minister during the U.S. occupation after World War Two, who is said to have converted on his deathbed, under the influence of his Catholic wife.

Though the first Catholic, Aso is the third Christian to serve as prime minister, following Tetsu Katayama and Masayoshi Ohira. Like Ohira, Aso has attended ceremonies at Yasukuni , a Shinto shrine in Tokyo that honours Japan’s war dead but is seen as by Asian critics as a symbol of the country’s past militarism.

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