from Raw Japan:

Jesus Christ Superstar meets kabuki

When I was 14, my best friend and I were obsessed with the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar", and we played the album until we had it memorised.

When I recently saw an ad for a "Japonesque Version" performed by Gekidan Shiki, one of Japan's best-known theatre groups, with the entire cast in the white foundation and flaring makeup lines of traditional kabuki theatre, I knew I had to go.

What I found was a powerful, if sometimes disconcerting, blend of Japan and Jerusalem.

The "Japonesque Version", Shiki founder Keita Asari's 1973 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's original, came amid a wave of localised versions around the globe.

Shiki also does a more conventional "Jerusalem Version."

"There was a New York version, so I thought I should do a kabuki version," Asari said recently, surrounded by the cast after the musical's final dress rehearsal in Tokyo.

Japanese have first Catholic prime minister, and few know it

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.”

Where does religion have its strongest foothold?

Indonesian Muslims pray at Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque during Ramadan, 5 Sept 2008/Supri SupriThe answer is Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. At least that was the conclusion of the latest Pew Research Institute survey of attitudes about religion around the world — a look at 24 countries based on thousands of interviews. Indonesia came in first with 99 percent of the population rating religion as important or very important in their lives — and it topped everyone else in the “very important” slot at 95 percent. Beyond that 80 percent of those surveyed in Indonesia say they pray five times a day every day — adhering to one of the five pillars of Islam.

Indeed Islam is well represented in the top five countries where religion is valued in life — with Tanzania, Jordan, Pakistan and Nigeria following Indonesia.

At the bottom of the chart was France, where only 10 percent saw religion as very important and 60 percent said they never pray.

On remote Japanese island, a church forgets how to baptise

Yasutaka Toriyama of Japan’s “Kakure Kirishitan” or Hidden Christians conducts Christmas Eve ritual, 16 Dec, 2007.When journalists write about churches in decline, we usually cite facts such as falling attendance and dwindling vocations to illustrate the trend. On a recent trip to the remote southern island of Ikitsuki to visit descendants of Japan’s Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians), a Reuters team discovered a surprising new indicator with a fascinating story behind it. Apart from suffering from dwindling numbers, some congregations in this unique branch of Christianity no longer know how to baptise new members.

The secrecy and suspicion of outsiders that helped the Kakure Kirishitan preserve their rituals and traditions through centuries of suppression have also contributed to the loss of those rites. Their story is explained in my feature and the video below.

Yasutaka Toriyama, 68, the gobanyaku or head of a household that traditionally holds a group’s relics such as scrolls or medals, told us the rite of baptism had been lost to his own small group because the elder who conducted it died without passing on his knowledge.

Science helps religion in stem cell debates

A microscopic view of undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells.Science and religion are sometimes portrayed as adversaries, especially by the “new atheists“, but the real picture has always been more complex. The latest breakthrough in stem cell research shows how quickly opposing sides can become allies. On Nov. 20, two research teams announced they had transformed ordinary skin cells into stem cells without destroying human embryos in the process. That meant that scientists could solve an ethical dilemma they had effectively created when they began using human embryos to produce stem cells.

Religious groups critical of embryonic stem cell research immediately hailed the breakthrough as an advance that opened the door to ethnical use of these potential wonder cells. They have now begun to use it as a welcome argument to bolster their positions in disputes on the issue. This must be happening in quite a few places, but here are two examples that show how science is helping religion in this case.

In Germany, the Roman Catholic Church has severely criticised the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party for agreeing to loosen tight restrictions on embryonic stem cell research there. The law bars German scientists from working on stem cell lines developed after January 1, 2002. Researchers say this is hampering their work and want the cut-off date to be moved up to 2007.