In Japan, Pope Francis speaks out against the destruction caused by nuclear weapons

Pope Francis in JapanPope Francis speaks during a meeting with government authorities, civic leaders and members of the diplomatic corps at the Kantei in Tokyo Nov. 25, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“We need to work together to foster awareness that if one member of our family suffers, we all suffer,” Pope Francis said on his third day in Japan when he met 10 victims of “the triple disaster,” that is the magnitude-9 earthquake that triggered a tsunami and led to the meltdown at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on March 11, 2011. In the disaster 18,000 died and hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their homes.

He greeted them in the Belle Salle Hanzomon, a conference center in Tokyo, on Monday morning, Nov. 25, at a meeting organized by the Catholic Church’s Caritas organization. It was attended by some 800 people and enriched by Japanese music and song.

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After entering the hall and greeting the victims, Pope Francis listened attentively to three of them: Toshiko Kato, the head of a Catholic kindergarten who told of her experiences when the earthquake struck; Tokuun Tanaka, a Buddhist monk, who spoke of the sufferings in his neighborhood from the tsunami; and Matsuki Kamoshita, who was 8 years old when the nuclear accident happened and now called for the authorities to tell the truth to the people about the radiation and its effects in his home area.

The pope said their testimonies “represent everyone who suffered so greatly as a result of the triple disaster that affected not only the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima but the whole of Japan and its inhabitants.” He thanked them “for expressing in your words and by your presence the sorrow and pain but also the hope of a better future, experienced by so many.”

Then, responding to Ms. Kamoshita’s request to pray with them, he led them in silent prayer for the thousands “who lost their lives, for their families and for those who are still missing.” Pope Francis recalled that Ms. Kamoshita said some who are living in the affected areas “now feel forgotten by others and many must face ongoing problems from contaminated land and forests and the long-term effects of radiation.”

He appealed to “all persons of good will” to continue to provide much-needed assistance to them and said, “without basic resources such as food, clothing and shelter, it is not possible to live a worthy life and have the bare minimum needed to succeed in rebuilding.”

He emphasized the need for “solidarity and support of a community” and said “no one ‘rebuilds’ by himself or herself; nobody can start over alone. We have to find a friendly and fraternal hand, capable of helping to raise not just a city but also our horizon and our hope.”

Later that day, Pope Francis visited Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito and had a 30-minute private conversation with him at the Imperial Palace. It was the emperor’s first meeting with a head of state since he was proclaimed the country’s 126th emperor on Oct. 22. But they already knew each other because, as Crown Prince, Naruhito visited the pope at the Vatican on May 12, 2016.

Pope Francis: “We have to find a friendly and fraternal hand, capable of helping to raise not just a city but also our horizon and our hope.”

Francis referred to that important meeting when he addressed the authorities of this country of 126 million people and the diplomatic corps at Kantei, the residence of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that same evening. “I am grateful in a special way to Emperor Naruhito for having received me this morning,” he said. “I offer him my good wishes, and I invoke God’s blessing on the Imperial Family and all the Japanese people at the beginning of the new era inaugurated by his reign.”

A spokesman for the Imperial Palace told journalists after the pope had left that Francis told the emperor that when he was 9 years old he remembered his parents crying when they heard about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and he said that left a very deep impression on him.

At the Caritas event earlier that day, Francis said that “eight years after the triple disaster, Japan has shown how a people can unite in solidarity, patience, perseverance and resilience.” He said the path to a full recovery “may still be long, but it can always be undertaken if it counts on the spirit of people capable of mobilizing in order to help one another.”

Responding to Mr. Tanaka’s question as to “how we can respond to other major issues we face: wars, refugees, food, economic disparities and environmental challenges,” Pope Francis said, “It is a serious mistake to think that nowadays these issues can be dealt with in isolation, without viewing them as part of a much larger network” because in the end they are all “interconnected.”

The nuclear accident raised great fear and many questions among the Japanese people, so much so that in 2011 the country’s bishops called for the closure of all the nuclear power plants in the country. The government does not agree with the bishops, and although it closed all of the plants immediately after the disaster, it has now reopened a number of them.

The nuclear accident raised great fear and many questions among the Japanese people, so much so that in 2011 the country’s bishops called for the closure of all the nuclear power plants in the country.

The question is a delicate one, both politically and economically, and touches on issues regarding the life and health of people and care of the environment. Pope Francis is well aware of this; he raised them in various ways in his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” and today he drew again on that text in his response.

He made clear that the governmental authorities have a major responsibility when he said, “Important decisions will have to be made about the use of natural resources and future energy sources in particular.” But, he added, “the most important thing, I believe, is to progress in building a culture capable of combating indifference,” which he said is one of the great ills of the age.

Pope Francis told them: “We need to work together to foster awareness that if one member of our family suffers, we all suffer. Real interconnectedness will not come about unless we cultivate the wisdom of togetherness, the only wisdom capable of facing problems and solutions in a global way. We are part of one another.”

Then referring specifically to the accident at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Fukushima and its aftermath, Francis said, “In addition to scientific or medical concerns, there is also the immense challenge of restoring the fabric of society” because “until social bonds in local communities are re-established and people can once more enjoy safe and stable lives, the Fukushima accident will not be fully resolved.” He said this also involves responding to “the concern about the continuing use of nuclear power.”

Drawing on “Laudato Si’,” Francis said, “Our age is tempted to make technological progress the measure of human progress,” and this “technocratic paradigm” of progress and development “shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society and often leads to a reductionism that affects every aspect of human and social life.”

For this reason, he said, “it is important at times like this to pause and reflect upon who we are and, perhaps more critically, who we want to be. What kind of world, what kind of legacy will we leave to those who will come after us?”

Drawing on “Laudato Si’,” Francis said, “Our age is tempted to make technological progress the measure of human progress.”

He told the victims and other activists that “the wisdom and experience of elders, united to the zeal and enthusiasm of young people, can help to forge a different vision, one that fosters reverence for the gift of life and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the one multiethnic and multicultural human family.”

In his address to Japanese officials that evening, Francis returned to the subject of the bombing of Hiroshima. He delivered his speech after a private meeting with Mr. Abe, the country’s longest-serving prime minister in the post-war period. The two first met when the Japanese leader visited Francis at the Vatican in 2014.

In his welcome address to the pope, Mr. Abe recalled Francis’ desire as a young man to come to Japan and his special attentiveness to the suffering of Nagasaki. Mr. Abe went on to assure the pope that as the only country in the world to endure an atomic attack, Japan is totally committed to working for “a world free of nuclear weapons.” He said it would work to protect human rights and freedom, and “having watched” how Pope Francis walks with the poor, he said he feels even more committed than ever to pursue this path.

Speaking in Spanish, as he has done throughout his visit, Francis hailed “the friendly” and “long-standing relations” between the Holy See and Japan. He recalled the admiration felt by the first missionaries for this land, as expressed by the Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who wrote in 1579: “Whoever wishes to see what our Lord has bestowed upon man need only come to Japan to see it.”

He told the Japanese authorities that he had come “to confirm Japanese Catholics in their faith, their charitable outreach to those in need and their service to the country of which they are proud citizens.” Pope Francis told the Japanese authorities, “I have also come to implore God and to invite all persons of good will to encourage and promote every necessary means of dissuasion so that the destruction generated by atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will never take place again in human history.”

Pope Francis told the Japanese authorities that he had come “to confirm Japanese Catholics in their faith, their charitable outreach to those in need and their service to the country of which they are proud citizens.”

Noting “history teaches us that conflicts and misunderstandings between peoples and nations can find valid solutions only through dialogue, the only weapon worthy of man and capable of ensuring lasting peace,” Pope Francis said, “I am convinced of the need to deal with the nuclear question on the multilateral plane, promoting a political and institutional process capable of creating a broader international consensus and action.”

He emphasized that “a culture of encounter and dialogue, marked by wisdom, insight and breadth of vision, is essential for building a more just and fraternal world.” He said Japan understands this by the importance it gives to “promoting personal contacts in the fields of education, culture, sport and tourism, knowing that these can contribute in no small measure to the harmony, justice, solidarity and reconciliation that are the mortar of the edifice of peace.” In this context, he expressed his confidence that the Olympic and Paralympic Games that will be held in Japan next year “can serve as an impetus for a spirit of solidarity that transcends national and regional borders and seeks the good of our entire human family.”

As his audience listened in silence, Pope Francis turned to the pressing question of care for our common home. He said that “no visitor to Japan can fail to be moved by the sheer natural beauty of this country, long celebrated by its poets and artists and symbolized above all by the image of the cherry blossom.”

“Yet the very delicacy of the cherry blossom reminds us of the fragility of our common home,” he said, “subjected not only to natural disasters but also to greed, exploitation and devastation at the hands of human beings.”

He noted that as the international community “struggles to honor its commitments to [protect] creation,” it is the young people “who are increasingly speaking up and demanding courageous decisions.” Francis said, “We owe them real answers, not empty words; actions not illusions,” and insisted that “an integral approach to the protection of our common home must also consider its human ecology.”

“The delicacy of the cherry blossom reminds us of the fragility of our common home,” Pope Francis said, “subjected not only to natural disasters but also to greed, exploitation and devastation at the hands of human beings.”

Japan has the world’s third strongest economy after the United States and China and is doing much to alleviate the increasing poverty in many parts of today’s world. But even in its own country, the middle class has been greatly reduced and one in six of the population live at or below the poverty level.

In his speech, Francis emphasized that “a commitment to protection means confronting the growing gap between rich and poor in a global economic system that enables a select few to dwell in opulence while the majority of the world’s population lives in poverty.” He said that he is “aware of the concern of the Japanese government for the promotion of different programs in this regard” and encouraged it “to persevere in shaping a growing awareness of co-responsibility among the world’s nations.”

He called for the fostering of “intergenerational solidarity” and reminded everyone that, in the end, “the civility of every nation or people is measured not by its economic strength but by the attention it devotes to those in need and its capacity to be fruitful and promote life.”

Pope Francis concludes his visit to Japan tomorrow with a visit to the Jesuit-run Sophia University. There he will celebrate Mass for the Jesuit community and have breakfast with them, before visiting the university and addressing the student body.

Correction (Nov. 25, 2019): Due to an editing error, the location of the pope's address to Japanese officials was misidentified as the “imperial palace.” 

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