The Custody of Japan has a unique history. Since Okinawa came under the administration of the United States of America after World War II, it was effectively cut off from the rest of the Catholic Church in Japan. The Holy See sent 2 friars from the Province of St. Mary to begin missionary work there. On the island of Okinawa, they began with no Catholics and eventually, with the help of additional friars over the early years, managed to establish a small but growing Catholic Church. The first Bishop, Felix Ley, was an administrator for the territory, but after the island was returned to Japan in 1972, it was established as a diocese. Bp. Ley passed on just at that time and a local vocation friar (Peter-Baptist Ishigami) was to become its first official bishop.
Today, there are 16 friars in the Custody—3 Japanese, 6 Indians (from the Province of Karnataka) and 7 Americans. They live in 3 friaries—two on Okinawa and one about an hour from Tokyo—they serve in nine parishes (3 in Okinawa and 6 in the mainland diocese of Saitama), one also helps as an auxiliary chaplain to the large American military presence on Okinawa and numerous other services to local Catholics. Although the number of Catholics on Okinawa has grown considerably since the beginnings of the Custody, it is still estimated to be only about 6000. That number is growing slowly as many Latin Americans of Japanese origin begin to return to Japan to find work. There is also a significant Filipino population on the island.
Since we had to meet only 16 friars in the 10 days we had allotted for the visitation, John Antony and I could work at a much more leisurely pace than in Indonesia, which was welcome news. We felt justified, in fact, in joining the brothers of Okinawa for their annual fraternal gathering on the first full day of our arrival. It gave us a chance to meet them in an informal setting, and to learn about their history with the Japanese Custody. Among other activities, we visited a natural cave used as a Shinto holy place, and toured Ryukyu Village—a park that re-creates the houses and lifestyles of an Okinawan village as it was over a century ago.
On Wednesday morning, 13 August, John Antony and I traveled about 45 minutes north from Naha to Futemna to interview Brothers Paul, Dennis and Patrick. Paul, one of the Custody’s Japanese brothers, maintains the buildings and grounds; Dennis is Pastor of the parish; Patrick is in charge of the Diocese’s Hispanic ministry.
In the afternoon, we returned to the curia of the Custody in Naha. There we spoke to:
- Bishop Peter-Baptist Ishigami, retired bishop of Okinawa;
- Brother Alex, pastor of the parish;
- Brother Louis, retired, but helping as part-time chaplain for various Catholic groups;
- Brother Martin, retired, but helping as friary bursar for the Custody;
- Brother LaSalle, pastor of Yonabaru near Naha, JPE coordinator for the Custody and the Diocese, and Diocesan representative for ecumenical and interreligious dialogues.
Originally, both John Antony and I had been scheduled to fly to Tokyo and meet with the brothers on the mainland. I had to change my plans, however, in order to attend the Episcopal ordination of Brother Joseph Nacua in the Philippines. On Friday, therefore, John went to Tokyo while I stayed behind in Okinawa until my flight to Manila on Sunday. On Saturday afternoon, I was honored to join Bishop Ishigami and Brother Roland Daigle, Minister of the Custody, for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. In a tea ceremony, the very simple act of serving tea to one’s guests becomes a ritual in which every detail is given deliberate and appreciative attention. One is invited to admire the beauty of the room, of the cup and of the tea itself. The act of drinking tea becomes an invitation to learn patience and to pay deliberate attention to the world around us. It occurred to me that the tea ceremony could be a metaphor for the Capuchin presence in Japan. While the Custody is small and simple, compared to most of the Order’s jurisdictions, it has been built up patiently over the past fifty years, with deliberate attention to both enculturation and evangelization. While the Custody may never grow large enough to be a Province or have enough vocations to become self-sufficient, it is a beautiful presence nonetheless.