Keeping the Masks on: Worship Services during and after COVID-19 in Japan
Dunja Sharbat Dar28/11/2023
| English | Germany
Dunja Sharbat Dar, PhD candidate, Center for Religious Studies at Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Japanese Christians went digital as quickly as possible, following the example of many other religious groups all over the world. But Japanese Christians only went into a full lockdown for a few months, quickly wanting to reunite in person. Continuing streaming online even up until today, Christians started to meet up wearing masks, keeping distance, and following newly established hygiene concepts. When I was in Japan for my fieldwork in 2022 and 2023, I visited a couple of churches for my research on religious atmospheres, which allowed me to also assess their situation during COVID-19.
The number of Christians in Japan is relatively low (only about 1-2% of Japanese people are officially registered as Christians). Most Christian congregations consist of elderly people who were particularly at risk of getting infected with the new virus. So, many churches such as the Sekiguchi Catholic Church in Tokyo tried to protect their congregants by introducing registry and membership passes. Members and visitors of the church had to register for a pass with their contact information in order to enter the church at the Sunday mass.
When I first came to the Sekiguchi Catholic Church, I was asked to write down all relevant data to receive the entrance pass with my name on it. It is not unusual that you are asked to write down your name upon entering a church in Japan, a practice which many churches continue in order to count and archive the numbers of visitors each week. But the fact that I could not enter the church without a visitor’s pass made me understand how seriously the Sekiguchi Catholic Church was taking the protection of their members in 2022. In many places around the world, many restrictions had already been dropped in 2022 due to the success of vaccines. However, all of the Japanese churches I visited in 2022 (6 in total) still required wearing a mask and registering as visitor in some way or another.
Sekiguchi Catholic Church uses a big cathedral, the St. Mary’s Cathedral that also serves as the seat of the archdiocese of Tokyo. The steel construction with bare concrete walls on the inside — an internationally acclaimed architectural design by Japanese architect Tange Kenzo — can fit about 800 participants on Sundays, but during the pandemic, only a small number of people from the congregation (that counts over 2000 registered members as a whole) dared to come to the Sunday masses. The 80 to 150 people that visited the 8am and 10am masses in these times had their temperatures checked upon entering the church, used disinfectant regularly, wore FFP2 masks and took their seats far from each other on the benches in the worship hall.
During my interviews at Sekiguchi Catholic Church, the priest told me that many members hadn’t come to church for a long time because of the pandemic. They fear the risk, and so they rather watch the livestreams posted to YouTube regularly from the safety of their homes. I often wondered if these members would ever be able to feel comfortable and protected enough to attend the masses in person again. Considering that most livestreams of the church mainly focus on presenting the liturgy, the feeling of active community only transpired marginally. At the same time, one sees what’s going on more closely due to the camera setting filming the altar.
Even now in late 2023, the church regularly streams their masses. The acolytes, choir leader and many members still wear masks, the exception being the priest when performing the liturgy. Other churches like the young congregation of the Evangelical Friends Church in Tokyo have long said good-bye to masks, happily celebrating their “back to normal” services with the benefits of freely singing, eating and finally seeing each other’s faces again. But the Sekiguchi Catholic Church seems to be keeping the masks on in order to protect the others. It remains a question if and when the church might go back to celebrating the masses without the protection of masks.
 Roemer, Michael K. 2009. ‘Religious Affiliation in Contemporary Japan: Untangling the Enigma’. Review of Religious Research 50 (3): 298–320. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25593743; Roemer, Michael K. 2012. ‘Japanese Survey Data on Religious Attitudes, Beliefs, and Practices in the Twenty-First Century’. In Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Religions, edited by Inken Prohl and John K. Nelson, 23–58. Leiden: BRILL.
 Löffler, Beate. 2011. Fremd und Eigen. Christlicher Sakralbau in Japan seit 1853. Berlin: Frank & Timme, p. 191.
 See Sekiguchi Catholic Church livestreams on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/@user-tc4dk8bm9c/streams.
 The Friends Church is another case study that I visited in 2022. They still stream their Sunday services online, but made it a priority to gather and eat together in person as soon as possible in 2021.
Image: St. Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo, church building of the Sekiguchi Catholic Church. (c) Dunja Sharbat Dar