Over the past couple of days I have been trying to gain preliminary exposure to a range of topics related to Catholicism in Japan, including a number of recent CBCJ documents and affiliated publications. One theme that just won’t go away is the role of “inculturation” in every aspect of Japanese Catholic praxis. It comes up time and again in references to Japanese liturgy, prayer, music, even architecture.

“Inculturation” is not a new concept, but it has a variety of meanings (some describe the entire history of the Church, others can only be validly applied to the last 500 years or so of missionary work). Inculturation as I am using it is the adaptation of local customs for use in Catholic life, sometimes alongside but at other times displacing the “traditional” practices. This concept applies mostly to the Latin Church, as the Eastern Churches are not nearly as engaged in the evangelisation of foreign lands (generally the praxis of these churches follows their people, Coptics in America etc).

I really, really don’t want to write a thesis on inculturation, because I have opinions about it which could taint the calibre of my scholarship. I also don’t want to risk running afoul of my faculty at home, who are of course great fans of “social melting pot” multiculturalism. This secular position can’t be validly applied to a sacred (ie internally Catholic) context, but it would be insane to assume that “outsiders” could possibly understand, let alone accept, that premise. Certainly I get on very well with my faculty, I consider them intelligent and reasonable people who would undoubtedly be open to explanation, but the assumption would be fatal.

Now, with all this said, my pre-departure impression is that “inculturation” is still all the rage in Japanese ecclesial circles. We in the West hear a little about how Christians in the Far East bring with them native modes of meditation and prayer, or occasionally see photographs of a church building with locally inspired architecture. However, what I am seeing goes further than simple accidents (church buildings which look like buddhist pagodas, prayers which sound like mantras) to deeper elements. I won’t give examples yet – instead, I’d be interested to hear your opinions. Whether you are in Japan or Johannesburg, what are your thoughts on inculturation in the missionary context? What are your experiences? How do you think I can approach this phenomenon in my research without allowing it to arrest the primary focus? It is clear that I can’t possibly contribute anything to the understanding of Christianity in Asia without acknowledging and processing this phenomenon, but how can I do so in a way that keeps it at arms’ length?