The Vatican press bulletin recently published a series of statistics about Catholicism in Thailand and Japan in the lead-up to Pope Francis’s visits to those countries. These statistics clarify some points that were long unclear (I’ve seen estimates of the total number of Catholics in Japan ranging from 100,000 to 5 million; the Vatican pinpoints it at 536,000). They also imply some interesting things about the specific forms that Catholic religious life is taking in these countries. These implications in turn point the way towards a certain respect for inculturation and missionary work.
The first statistic that leapt out to me as I read these tables is that, of the 835 Catholic priests in Thailand, 523 are diocesan, whereas 896 of the 1,407 priests in Japan are members of religious orders. This very high concentration of religious priests in Japan is rare by world standards and speaks to the strength of monasticism in Japanese religion in general. More precisely, it speaks to the diffuse and non-organized nature of non-monastic religion in Japan. Across faiths, the Japanese public at large typically experiences religion via unsystematized, ad hoc practices like visiting shrines on New Year’s Day and keeping a small altar in the home after the death of a family member. Identification with a specific religion and exclusive practice of that religion is relatively unusual in Japan, and generally confined to monastic practice.
About 60% of the population describe themselves as nonreligious despite the near-universal practice of the above-mentioned customs. The segment of the Japanese population that is religious is vastly more committed, and thus more likely to be attracted to the monastic life.
In Thailand, meanwhile, the monastic tradition is less isolated from the general population; young Thai men often go through a stint in Buddhist monastic life as a temporary initiatory stage before being released from their vows to settle down as married laymen. (The Buddhist term for a married layman is a “householder,” as opposed to the ideal-type of a mendicant, begging monastic.) Thailand still has a high concentration of religious priests by world standards (around 37 percent), but not nearly as dramatically as in Japan (where nearly 64 percent are members of religious orders), and has a much less stark societal division between devout monastics and religiously uncommitted laypeople. Interestingly, neither country has all that many male religious who are not priests (brothers); Thailand has 123, Japan 173. This might imply a reason for the above statistics other than the one that I have just laid out, which I’ll get to later in this essay.
The second, and even more remarkable, statistic was the figure of 4,796 professed women religious among Japanese Catholics. Almost 1% of all Catholics in Japan are professed sisters or nuns; in the US the number is closer to one tenth of 1% of Catholics. In Thailand the number is 1,461. Religious practice in general skews more female in Japan than in Thailand, but the sheer scale and robustness of women’s vocations in Japan is still nothing short of astounding. Almost 60% of all Catholic pastoral workers in Japan are professed women religious.
Conversely, the extremely poor state of priestly vocations in Japan—113 seminarians in the entire country, compared to 1,077 in Thailand, which has a lower number of ordained priests and smaller Catholic population—suggests that perhaps many Catholic pastoral workers in Japan might be missionaries from abroad. This also provides an alternative explanation for why most Japanese priests are members of religious orders. Religious orders often have a missionary focus, whereas secular priests are by definition attached to a diocese and are very rarely moved to another diocese, much less to another country. Given the much higher number of women religious than male clergy and religious, it seems probable that many female vocations are homegrown.
The overall picture of Catholic life in Thailand and Japan that emerges from these statistics is one of a larger, more entrenched, disproportionately female Catholic community in Japan and a smaller and newer but more demographically balanced, younger, and growing Catholic community in Thailand. To a large extent this reflects the countries’ overall demographics; Thailand has a younger population than Japan and a broader base of religious practice. Both are small Catholic minorities in traditionally Buddhist East Asian countries, but even between two local churches with those similarities, clear differences emerge. These differences imply different inculturation and missiological strategies. In Japan, structures of religiosity seeded in the culture by Buddhism support a vital consecrated life, but a comparatively strained diocesan priesthood. Meanwhile, the structures that Buddhism seeded in Thai culture have produced less in the way of consecrated Catholic life for men and enormously less for women, but a diocesan priesthood with a much brighter future. Notably, however, in neither Thailand nor Japan is the number of Catholics per priest (446 in Thailand, 381 in Japan) nearly as high as it is either in the United States or worldwide. A study of these small East Asian Catholic minorities might teach us certain things—about mission, about vocation, about men’s and women’s roles in the Church—that are difficult to see from vantage points in countries that are heavily Christian by faith or history.
Image: Adobe Stock. YASOTHON, THAILAND – APRIL 1, 2019 : The largest wooden Christian church in Thailand and up to 100 years old, Ban Song Yaeng Church, Yasothon Province, built in Thai style.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.