Pope John Paul II today brought his Asian tour to Japan, where his church is more of a curiosity than a strong religious force.

Outside the ranks of a small Christian miniority, his visit to three major cities has aroused little interest. The news media have been largely indifferent and the official welcome is planned to be a most perfunctory.

The pope arrived in a chilly rain this afternoon from Guam to become the first pontiff in history to visit Japan and, speaking in Japanese from a text, proclaimed himself a "pilgrim of peace."

Speaking in the rain in a garden at St. Mary's Cathedral, he express his "esteem and love for every man, woman and child in this archipelago."

His presence delighted the small group that braved the downpour and about 2,000 others gathered inside the cathedral who shouted "Long live the pope" as he made his way up the aisle.

Speaking to priests inside, the pope seemed intent on healing the small breach that has opened inside the church in Japan because of his visit. The number of priests have been critical of his plan to visit Emperor Hirohito, and many of them are known to object to the conservative hierachy that directs this church of fewer than 400,000 Japanese.

"May you always be united among yourselves and with your bishops," the pope intoned. "Unity within the presbyterate is not something unimportant to our priestly life and service. In fact it is an integral part of preaching the gospel."

Church officials and prominent secular leaders had not expected much public excitement over the papal visit and had only modest hopes that it would leave a lasting impact.

"Those who do not live in Tokyo, Hiroshima or Nagasaki have no interest at all," observed Shusaku Endo, Japan's renowned Catholic novelist. "There may be a little curiosity, but it will disappear when he leaves."

The attitude reflects Japan's traditional impregnability to foreign religions, except for Buddhism, which has been firmly established for 15 centuries. Christians have found the soil rocky. Only 1 percent of the 116 million Japanese are Christians and fewer than 400,000 are Roman Catholic.

Even the traditional religions -- Buddhism and Shintoism -- are treated casually and evoke little of the dogmatic fervor common to major Western faiths. It is not uncommon for a Japanese to be married in Shinto rites and buried in a Buddhist ceremony.

Except for the faithful minorities, both Catholicism and Protestantism appeal largely to faddish instincts. In an average year, about 13 percent all Japanese marriages are performed in Christian churches for the simple reason that they are fashionable. For most of them, the marriage rite is the only contact with Christianity.

Some Japanese Catholics, nevertheless, hope the pope's presence will spark a renewed interest in their church which flourished initially in the 16th century, but which has gained little in popularity since. The pope will say masses and attend rallies in Tokyo, visit the emperor and receive Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki at a Vatican Embassy reception.

The major event is a papal address at the site of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, where the pontiff is expected to issue a strong appeal for nuclear restraint to the superpowers. In Nagasaki, he will recall Catholicism's hardest hours in Japan by speaking at the site where 26 church martyrs were crucified in 1599.

Even given the small number of Christians in Japan, the indifference to the papal visit strikes some as unusual. Elsewhere in the world, the pope is a forceful media figure and political symbol whose views on important social issues arouse controversy among believers and nonbelievers alike.

But in Japan, divorce, birth control and abortion are not explosive issues and the idea of religious intervention on one side or the other is alien to most Japanese. "In 21 years here, I can count on my fingers of one hand the number of times the question of birth control has been raised with me," said one Catholic priest.

As small as it is, Japan's Catholic church is divided along the same liberal and conservative lines as in other countries where it is a potent political force, such as the Philippines, the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia.

Many Catholics in Tokyo, including some priests, consider the church hierarchy to be conservative and disinterested in broader social issues. There is a feeling that the church elders do not want to risk controversy by activism of any sort. Those who share that view are pessimistic about the papal journey, believing it will show the church in a most conservative light.

At his last stop, in Nagasaki, the pope will be visiting the church's historic stronghold. Catholicism began in that region in 1549 when the great missionary, Francis Xavier, arrived. The early church was remarkably successful in winning converts for many years and Nagasaki was known as Japan's "little Rome."

In the early 17th century, however, Japan's rulers, principally Tokugawa ieyasu, became angered at the converts' loyalty to a foreign sovereign and banned the religion. Thousands of Catholics were tortured or killed and thousands more went underground. "So long as the sun warms the earth, let no Christian be so bold as to come to Japan," declared an official edict issued in 1825.

The ban was not lifted until the latter part of the 19th century, but nearly 100 years of legal missionary work has not brought the church more converts than it had in the late 16th century.