Photo/IllutrationAbout 300 Catholics congregate for Mass at St. Peter’s Church in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, on Nov. 17. Most of them are Vietnamese. (Ryo Ikeda)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The Catholic population in Japan has drastically changed in the 38 years since the last papal visit to the country. But Catholic churches say the problems facing foreign nationals remain the same.

They are hoping that words from Pope Francis during his visit to Japan from Nov. 23 to Nov. 26 will finally push the country in a direction that will ease the pain and suffering of foreigners here.

Churches have long played a crucial role in bringing together foreign-born Catholics and helping them deal with a wide range of hardships, including appalling work conditions.

Today, there are more foreign Catholics in Japan than Japanese who practice the faith, according to one estimate.

The trend is mainly due to the increase in foreigners after Japan allowed more overseas people to enter under certain visas.

On Nov. 17, about 300 worshippers filled St. Peter’s Church in Kawaguchi, a city in Saitama Prefecture just north of Tokyo.

The city has seen a surge in its foreign population over the past few years.

Most of the followers who crowded St. Peter’s Church on that day were students and technical intern trainees from Vietnam.

Some had to sit outside the church building as the monthly Mass was offered in Vietnamese.

“It means a lot to me to get together for Mass and offer a prayer,” said Nguyen Thi Thanh, a 27-year-old Vietnamese who works in the construction industry.

He first came to Japan to work for three years as a technical intern trainee. After his return to Vietnam, he came back to Japan on a designated activities visa.

Thanh said he became accustomed to his job as his Japanese language skills improved. He hopes to bring his wife and newborn child to Japan if he can extend his visa.

Naoko Fukawa, a 56-year-old woman who has long been attending St. Peter’s Church, said mingling with young attendees, such as the Vietnamese followers, keeps her going.

She described the changes in membership at the church that she has seen over the decades.

“Boat people,” or refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, began attending the church about 40 years ago, she said. That was followed by a surge in the number of Catholics from the Philippines and Latin American countries.

Over the past few years, the number of young Vietnamese members has sharply increased, Fukawa said.

Overall in Japan, the Vietnamese population has increased more than eightfold over the past decade from about 40,000 to about 330,000.

Vietnam has sent the largest share of technical interns to Japan under the government program aimed at helping them acquire job skills.

“The church reflects the transformation of Japanese society,” Fukawa said.

Maria Le Thi Lang, a nun at the church, came to Japan in 1989 as a refugee from Vietnam.

The 56-year-old now serves as a lifeline for her compatriots.

She receives phone calls and e-mails almost daily from technical trainees and students seeking advice. Lang also holds regular counseling sessions to help sort out their problems by working with lawyers, doctors and labor union representatives.

Lang said that just a few days ago she received messages from Vietnamese women in their 20s working at a sewing factory.

One woman complained, “I was paid only 500 yen ($4.60) an hour for overtime.”

Another worker said, “I was forced to do farming chores after working at the factory and on my days off.”

Lang said those women are in a quandary.

“They are too exhausted and cannot come to the church on Sundays because they are not permitted to take a day off,” she said. “Even though they want to draw attention to their plight, they cannot do so because they fear being sent back to Vietnam.”

Lang said she is hoping Pope Francis’visit to Japan will shine a spotlight on the situation surrounding foreigners living in Japan and lead to changes that will make their lives easier.

The pope, 82 was born to Italian immigrants in Argentina. He has made repeated appeals for international society to accept immigrants and refugees.

“There are people in the world, just like me, who had to leave their home countries against their wishes for various reasons,” Lang said. “I would like Francis to know that we, foreigners, are helping each other so that we will be able to live as equal human beings in this society.”

In 1981, when John Paul II visited Japan, the foreign population on the country was 790,000. In 2018, it had grown to 2.73 million, according to statistics of the Justice Ministry.

Japan currently is said to have about 440,000 Japanese Catholics, many of whom are advanced in age.

In contrast, an estimated 520,000 foreign Catholics now live in Japan, according to the Tokyo-based Catholic Commission of Japan for Migrants, Refugees and People on the Move.

Churches have made various efforts to accommodate the growing population of foreign residents in Japan and help them assimilate in their host country.

For example, St. Ignatius Church in Tokyo’s Kojimachi district offers Mass in Portuguese, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Polish, in addition to Japanese, English and Spanish.

The Catholic Tokyo International Center, which was established in 1990 by the Archdiocese of Tokyo, has been involved in a wide range of activities.

The center’s work includes addressing problems facing technical intern trainees and senior residents of Japanese ancestry who have worked in Japan for many years.

Staff members of the center also visit foreigners with visa problems who have been detained at facilities under the oversight of the Immigration Services Agency of Japan.

The center extends assistance to those in need, regardless of nationality or religion. Last year, the center dealt with people from more than 20 countries.

Kozue Osako, a staff worker at the center, said Japan has a long way to go to fix the current setup for dealing with foreigners.

She said that Japan has not given proper humanitarian consideration to people seeking refugee status and the foreigners who are often detained for extended periods because of their visa problems.

Osako, 59, also noted that some employers are “abusing” technical intern trainees as well as foreign students who are studying in Japan while working part-time jobs.

She said she hopes Pope Francis will deliver a message on the problems facing foreigners in Japan during his visit.