This semester, my CIP experience was a little rough, so even though this was not officially my CIP, I would like to write about my experience attending mass at the local parish, Nagaoka Catholic Church. Almost every week since I moved into my host family’s house, I would attend mass in Japanese from 11 AM-12 PM, the only mass offered on Sundays. One of the nice things about being Catholic is that the general structure and content of the mass will be the same no matter what country, or what language, it is being given in. However, every culture brings its own nuances and traditions, so I was very fortunate this semester to observe several uniquely Japanese Catholic practices over the course of these past few months.
For example, there is a part of the mass where the priest lifts up the Sacramental bread. In America during this part, one usually kneels, or in the absence of kneelers, such as in this church, one stands and inclines their head. However, in Japan, we did a deep bow towards the altar for a few seconds instead. As we all know, the degree of a bow establishes hierarchy and demonstrates respect. The particular bow used in this part of the mass hovered between a 普通礼、a polite bow, and a 最敬礼、a deeply reverent bow. Outside of religious environments, a saikeirei bow is generally only used with the emperor or when being deeply apologetic, while a futsuurei is much more commonly used in every day life with superiors. I found it interesting to notice how deeply people bowed during this part, though I generally opted for the saikeirei myself.
Another interesting tradition took place around two weeks ago, since November is Shichi-Go-San month. A young mother brought her sons to the mass to be blessed; both boys looked around seven (not a traditional boy’s year). Instead of traditional kimonos, they wore collared white shirts and loose black slacks. The priest read a special prayer for them and sprinkled them with Holy Water. I was very surprised that there was also a version of 7/5/3 celebrated in Japanese Catholicism, since I had thought it to be a traditional Shinto activity. However, as anyone who has been to a shrine this month can see, it is a tradition widely celebrated in Japan. Since the purpose of 7/5/3 is to thank God for the health and safety of the child, the tradition can obviously be adapted rather easily to different religious environments.
Lastly, I would like to talk about some of the language used between parishioners. In October, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a church outing to the Kyoto Zoo. The priest offered to drive me and two older parishioners to the Zoo. While the elderly ladies always spoke to me, and between themselves, in casual form, they would switch suddenly to desu/masu form when talking to the priest, or when talking about the priest. Even though the priest was younger than them, because of his status as a priest, they spoke more politely to him. However, the priest would generally reply in regular, male, plain form, like 「知らね」. Using polite language with priests is the way it is back home as well, but usually a priest will also use polite language in reply, not casual. It was a little jarring to see how abruptly they could switch between speaking styles, so I was able to realize just how important it is to be able to distinguish between different social situations and how important it is to use desu/masu form or keigo with people of a higher social status.
Overall, as both a practicing Catholic and as a religion major, I was very fortunate to be able to find such a warm and welcoming Catholic community that allowed me to observe and participate in their Japanese Catholic traditions.
This is really great, Sinai. I’m sorry your CIP didn’t turn out as planned, but this is a fantastic thing to read. It does make sense that you saw that version of 7/5/3 since adapting traditions is basically what Japan is made of. What an amazing read. Thank you for posting such honest things!
Hi Fury! Thank you for the comment! Yeah, I was of course expecting some overlap between Christianity and other Japanese traditions, but I was kind of just expecting more secular, cultural traditions, such as bowing. I had never expected to see an entire ceremony dedicated to a practice that originated from another religion, since I thought the boundaries of Catholicism would be a little stricter than those of Buddhism and Shinto. However, I was very pleasantly surprised to see the 7-5-3 ceremony, since I was really able to witness for myself how flexible and open Japan is at adapting traditions. If you’re interested, here’s a video I found online of a Catholic 7-5-3 ceremony–you can skip to around half way! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n583PWlHirc
Hey, Sinai! It seems like you had a lot of really interesting experiences as a part of the church’s community. I have never really considered what an overlap of Shinto and Catholic traditions would look like, so I found your description of the Catholic celebration of 7/5/3 to be a very interesting. It was a blend of two cultures I would not have expected to come together. Although, a lot of Japanese tend to consider Shinto festivals to be more a part of daily life than religious, so maybe there does not end up being much ideological conflict in the merging of events? On a side note, I also feel it would be really strange to hear a priest speak in short form.
Hi Lauren! Thanks so much for the comment! If you’re interested, I replied to Fury’s comment with a link to a 7-5-3 ceremony in a Catholic church, if you’re wondering what it actually looks like! And yeah, I completely agree–7/5/3 seems much more like a cultural tradition now that child mortality rates are pretty low. While you’re still giving thanks for your child’s health and presenting them to God–I feel like the urgency has waned a little and become more secular, so its become a ceremony that is definitely much easier to adapt. It kind of reminds me of Quinceaneras, which were originally adopted from coming of age ceremonies of the Mexican indigenous people, but are now very well integrated into Latino Catholic tradition. And yeah, the priest was so funny–hearing him speak in plain form and being very friendly, was very reassuring for me, since I wasn’t sure exactly how priests in Japan act as opposed to in America.
I’m glad you were able to have such a meaningful experience this semester. I imagine it must have been both a little confusing at first to experience a different type of mass, but maybe also helpful later on to understand better not only Japanese traditions but Catholic and American traditions too. Were there any other differences that caught your attention?
Hi Ana! Thank you so much for your comment! Actually, there was one moment that I think you would find interesting in particular! If you went on the trip for Religion class to the King Enma Shrine, there was a moment when people went in front of Enma, took a piece of incense (I think it was incense?), and raised it up in the air towards Enma before placing it down in a jar of burning ashes. There was actually a similar practice done in the church as well. There was a memorial for a man who died, and everyone lined up in front of a picture of him, took a piece of incense, raised it in the air, and then placed it in a jar of burning incense ashes. When I saw this at the King Enma shrine, I instantly noticed the connection. I assume this is a very common way to pray for the dead in Japan, because I had never seen that kind of practice in America. Though I wonder if in the context of King Enma, it is more of an offering for a wish to King Enma, rather than a funeral tradition.