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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Sacred Culture and Secular Religion: Catholic Missionary Work in Japan


Whenever Christian missionaries proselytize, they always discuss the interaction between culture and religion in the society they are attempting to convert. What they often do not realize is the role of modernity in producing both these categories, reorganizing how missionaries relate not only to potential converts, but also to how they understand their own theology. This study follows the genealogy of religion and secularism in their development in Japan. It also traces the development and introduction of the concepts of culture and religion as two distinct spheres in the Roman Catholic Church. These historical changes lay the foundation for how Catholic missionaries classify something as either cultural, religious, or both, and how that classification affects their willingness to change practices or teachings according to “culture” or preserve them for the sake of “religion.” This research also includes ethnography about an Opus Dei center, a Catholic institution, in Japan with how they go about their missionary activities. The ethnography reveals that preference of historical Catholic practice over adapting to what is considered more Japanese forms of practice is not about asserting a dominance of the West over the East, but about the maintenance of legitimacy to a sacred tradition, which theoretically spans space and time. Furthermore, despite Catholicism’s association with the West, Opus Dei’s focus on virtue through cultivation of pious habits rejects the dichotomy between religion and culture, making both a matter of practice instead of abstract thought.

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