Encounters with God in Japan

Fr Donal Doyle SJ


Fr Donal Doyle SJ has lived and worked in Japan for over 50 years. He is a recipient of this year’s Business and Education Presidential Distinguished Services Awards that recognise remarkable people who have served Ireland with distinction whilst living abroad. Fr Doyle established an Irish Studies Programme at Jesuit Sophia University which encourages students to visit Ireland and has made valuable connections in business, administration and the arts as a result.

Other 2015 recipients included Dr Miriam Duggan and the actor Gabriel Byrne. Fr Michael J Kelly SJ was also honoured with the award in 2012.

Fr Doyle explains his faith in the culture of encounter that has underlaid his mission in Japan for over half a century.

Why Japan?

Whenever I meet someone in Japan I am always asked: “How long have you been in Japan?” When I tell them, their next question is: “Why did you come to Japan?” I always answer this latter question in the same way: “To meet you!”

For a Japanese, an encounter with another person for the first time has a kind of mysterious element to it. The word in Japanese for ‘encounter’ is Deai. I like that word, because I feel that God has led me to Japan through providential encounters.

Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ, once Vice Provincial of Japan, spoke about the delicate sensitivity of the Japanese and their natural goodness and courtesy. He said that they were a gentle people who placed great importance on the feelings of others and were good listeners. He pointed out that they felt close to nature, and that they were not embarrassed by silence. He wrote that the Japanese had curious minds and would not be won over by reason alone, but also by cariño, using the Spanish word for ‘affection and warmth’.

Xavier had called the Japanese: “the best people we have ever discovered.” When I reflected on my first ‘encounter’ with Xavier in Belvedere College, Dublin and then on my experience of many other nationalities while studying in Aix-en-Provence, France, and the fact that I could get on well with them, the Japanese international province began to take on a special meaning. I prayed and discerned for a long time before leaving for Japan in 1958.

Faith refining in a non-faith environment

In 1977, I was moved to Tokyo and asked to be Rector of the Theologate and taught part-time in Sophia University. These were young adults, and I enjoyed the challenge. Very few of them have any ‘religious belief’. Yet they are good people who care for others, who are polite and courteous and kind in their daily life. I found that in dealing with them I was becoming more aware of the presence of God in each one even though they themselves were not aware of God’s presence in themselves.

I think most Japanese think there is ‘something/some mysterious power out there’, but they are not too interested in finding out. I notice that when you tell a person that ‘they are never alone and that God dwells in them’, this gives them consolation. I have found that my own faith is being refined all the time by living in this non-religious, non-faith environment.

The individual Japanese is a wonderful person, but Japanese society can be very non-spontaneous and formal, particularly in human relations and in their extraordinary work ethic.

Many difficulties and great spiritual consolations

In a letter Xavier sent from India in 1552, he exhorts his companions in Rome to send many companions to Japan: “where they will encounter both many difficulties and great spiritual consolations.” How true those words of Xavier are!

Looking back on these 50 years in Japan, I thank the Lord for the wonderful Novice Master I was blessed with, Fr. Donal O’Sullivan, the Jesuit who opened my mind and my heart to the wider world and set me on the road to spiritual discernment. I thank the Irish Province for the support and encouragement it has shown me from the beginning.

I thank my parents and family who with great love and understanding have always shared in my missionary life in Japan. I thank the Japanese Province, which is so international and Japanese at the same time, for accepting me as their brother.

I thank the Japanese people for everything that I am today.

Author: Fr Donal Doyle SJ, 11th December 2015

 *This article is taken from a longer version of the same name, available here.