The Identity of Christian Education in Japan

Fr. Dr. Robert Kisala
Nanzan University
November 14, 2022

Christians are a very small minority in Japan, comprising less than 1 percent of the total population. Most people in Japan think of themselves as non-religious, with typically only one-third of the population identifying themselves as belonging to any particular religious group. Most people, however, do actively participate in what would normally be considered religious practices, such as memorial services for the dead and New Year visits to shrines and temples, with the latter attracting more than 90 percent of the population every year, at least in the pre-covid era. I would describe the situation as one where religion and certain basic religious beliefs continue to have a significant influence on society, on a level that is not often brought to consciousness.

Nanzan University traces its foundation back to the establishment of the Nanzan Foreign Language College in 1946. Precisely in the midst of the destruction and chaos following World War II, the foreign language college sought to train young people who could play a significant role on the international stage. This tradition continued after the Foreign Language College became a university three years late, in 1949, with an emphasis on foreign language and intercultural learning that continues to be part of the identity of the university to the present day.

In addition, when the university was established, Hominis Dignitati, For Human Dignity, was chosen as its educational motto. The concept of human dignity was attracting much attention in the post-war period, being identified in the preface to the United Nations Charter as one of the pillars, along with human rights, of world peace; similarly enshrined in the first clause of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its preservation was specifically mentioned as the primary duty of every state in the postwar German Basic Federal Law. No doubt, this postwar emphasis on human dignity contributed to its being adopted as the educational motto of the new university, but I think it is also clear that the concept of human dignity was meant to be used as an expedient way to present the Christian worldview that was the foundation of the educational and research activities at the university.

The emphasis on interculturality that is traced back to the Foreign Language College and the choice of human dignity as the educational motto of the university proved to be an effective way to present what could be called the core of the Christian message in an overwhelmingly non-Christian, secular society.

The research activities at the university reflect these aspects of Nanzan’s identity, as well as adding one more important element to the mix. There are three research institutes at the university. The Nanzan Anthropological Institute was founded practically at the same time as the university, reflecting one of the characteristics of the Catholic religious order that established the university, the Society of the Divine Word, or SVD. From its foundation in the late 19th century, the order emphasized the study of cultures, and Wilhelm Schmidt, a well-known Catholic anthropologist and a member of the SVD, founded the Anthropos Institute, which continues to be active worldwide today, as a means for missionaries to present the fruits of their fieldwork in various cultures throughout the world as well as to train future missionaries to be attentive to and appreciative of cultures. Schmidt was also directly involved in the establishment of the Anthropological Institute at Nanzan.

The Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture was founded in the 1980s, to promote research of Asian, particularly East Asian, religions as well as interreligious dialogue. The institute was instrumental in organizing exchanges between Buddhist and Christian monks, as well as holding joint symposia with similar institutes in Japan founded by the various religious groups: Buddhist, Shinto, as well as some of the new religious movements.

The Nanzan Institute for Social Ethics was also established in the 1980s, to promote research into current social problems, as well as to identify and support practical efforts to alleviate these problems. Members of the institute have been involved in ecological issues, human rights, peacemaking activities, and, more recently, sustainability.

The first and the last of these, the Nanzan Anthropological Institute and the Nanzan Institute for Social Ethics, reflect the two aspects of Nanzan’s identity that I identified previously, interculturality and the promotion of human dignity. In addition, the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, adds the promotion of dialogue, which Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have described as being a common search for a better grasp of truth. Therefore, from our experience with these three institutes, I would like to identify an appreciation of diversity—cultural as well as other forms of diversity—a common search for a better understanding of truth, and practical efforts to promote that truth in terms of the dignity of every human being, as characteristic of the identity of Christian education in Japan.

About the Author: Fr. Dr. Robert KISALA currently serves as the 8th President of Nanzan University. Robert Kisala, graduated from Divine Word College, earned an M.A. in Theology from the Graduate School of Theology and Ministry at the Catholic Theological Union, and then Masters and Doctoral degrees in Literature from the University of Tokyo. In 1985, Kisala was ordained as a priest and in 1995 he began teaching at Nanzan University, becoming its president in April 2020. Since his presidency, having proposed the key phrase “global concern, our contribution”, he has promoted active help for those who suffer to overcome hardships and striving towards the development of future scholarship and education at the university. He has served in a range of positions within the Society of the Divine Word in Japan and worldwide such as provincial superior, admonitor, and vice superior general.

About Nanzan University: From modest beginnings as a College of Foreign Languages in 1946, Nanzan took a small step to becoming a single Faculty of Arts and Letters in 1949 and has since grown into a fully-fledged university with a worldwide reputation for academic excellence. Today, Nanzan is among Japan’s leading catholic universities, with approximately 10,000 students, including over 300 international students. With 8 undergraduate faculties and 6 graduate schools, as well as the Center for Japanese Studies, we continue to explore internationalization that is congruent with our educational motto “For Human Dignity.”