Speaking to survivors of Japan’s 2011 “triple disaster,” when the country was hit by a devastating mega-earthquake, a tsunami and an incident at a nuclear plant, Pope Francis called for the abolition of nuclear facilities, echoing the voice of the local bishops.
Speaking about the accident at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Fukushima and its aftermath, Francis said that until local communities can again enjoy safe and stable lives, the problem won’t be resolved.
“This involves, as my brother bishops in Japan have emphasized, concern about the continuing use of nuclear power,” he said. “For this reason, they have called for the abolition of nuclear power plants.”
Francis was speaking to those who, on March 11, 2011, survived the Great East Japan Earthquake that shook the country’s eastern coastal region. As a direct result, a tsunami sent a wave of water 12 stories high rushing toward the shore.
He began his remarks, delivered in the Bellesalle Hanzomon public hall, by asking for a moment of silent prayer for the victims of the disaster. Though he couldn’t greet each of the close to 300 people present, he did exchange words with several with the help of his interpreter, an Argentine Jesuit priest who had been his student.
The position of the bishops, which Francis seemed to endorse, is stronger than the one expressed in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si. In that text, the pope did not directly call for the abolition of nuclear power, but he does mention atomic energy among various sources of environmental damage.
As of March 1, 2018, the death toll from the triple disaster was 15,895 across 12 regions of Japan. Sixty-two victims remain unidentified, and 2,539 people remain unaccounted for. Tens of thousands are still living in temporary housing.
Entire towns and villages were laid to waste. The widespread damage has been labeled as the “worst natural disaster in the country’s recorded history,” and the nation’s worst crisis since the end of World War II.
The slowness of the reconstruction process also took its toll on the health of the people: In the first four years after the disaster, more than 3,200 people, many elderly, died of illnesses exacerbated by their living conditions, while others committed suicide.
In 2016 the Japanese bishops published a comprehensive technical, ethical, and theological call for the abolition of nuclear power generation in a message called Abolition of Nuclear Power: An Appeal from the Catholic Church in Japan, which was built on a message with the same tone six months after the disaster.
In their message the bishops note that in Laudato Si’ Francis points out that technological development, including nuclear technology, gives humankind vast power, but that power is limited to those with the knowledge and economic resources to use it. Their power is increasing continuously, and there is no guarantee that they will use it wisely.
“There are various opinions about the rights or wrongs of atomic power generation,” the Japanese bishops wrote, yet there’s “no denying” the harm that it has caused. Judgments regarding atomic energy, they wrote, must be made from the point of view of protecting the dignity of all human life, present and future.
Prior to the 2011 disaster, there were 54 nuclear reactors in Japan supplying approximately 30 percent of the country’s electric power. In July 2013, the government set higher standards to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis which will lead to the decommissioning of 21 reactors, including the one in Fukushima.
However, as of June of this year, nine reactors at five plants have met the new standards and resumed operations.
“Our age is tempted to make technological progress the measure of human progress,” Francis said immediately after talking about nuclear power plants, arguing that a society that is shaped by this “technocratic paradigm” often has a reductionist view of human and social life.
“So it is important at times like this, to pause and reflect upon who we are and, perhaps more critically, who we want to be,” he said. “What kind of world, what kind of legacy will we leave to those who will come after us?”
As he has done many times before, Francis called for a vision shaped by the experience of elders and the enthusiasm of young people that fosters reverence to the gift of life and “solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the one multiethnic and multicultural human family.”
Francis’s words came during the first meeting of the last full day of his Nov. 20-26 Asia tour that took him first to Thailand and now Japan. On Sunday, he visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world’s only two cities to have been decimated by nuclear weapons. From there, he delivered a strong message, calling the use and possession of these weapons “immoral.”
There were some 300 people in attendance, and Francis was visibly emotional when he entered the room to the tune of one of Argentina’s most famous songs, Caminito, a tango originally sung by Carlos Gardel. At the end of the meeting, he greeted several of the young children who were part of the orchestra and choir.
Francis’s remarks came as a response to stories shared by three of the disaster’s survivors. One asked the pontiff how the world can respond to the major issues humanity faces today, which he said cannot be treated separately: “Wars, refugees, food, economic disparities and environmental challenges.”
“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,” he said. “Important decisions will have to be made about the use of natural resources, and future energy sources in particular.”
In his opinion, “the most important thing” is to progress in building “a culture capable of combating indifference.”
“One of our greatest ills has to do with a culture of indifference,” Francis said. “We need to work together to foster awareness that if one member of our family suffers, we all suffer.”
As the pope noted in his remarks, many of those who survived the triple disaster are still suffering the aftershocks, from contaminated land and forests to the long-term effects of radiation. Though forgotten by many, he said, they still need assistance.
“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,” Francis said. “If we do nothing, the result will be zero. But whenever you take one step, you move one step forward.”
Later Monday, Francis was scheduled to meet with Japan’s youth, and he will also visit the Japanese emperor and government officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government wants to increase investments in nuclear energy.
Pope talks bullying, spiritual poverty with Japanese youth
Answering questions posed to him by young people in Tokyo’s Cathedral of Holy Mary later Monday, Francis spoke against the “epidemic” of bullying; combating “spiritual poverty; and the “innate goodness and worth” of young people.
Regarding bullying, Francis said that for fighting it, school norms and the intervention of adults is not enough. Instead, young people must come together to address this “tragedy” by saying “no”.
Child suicide is on the rise in Japan, with 250 children in elementary, middle and high schools committing suicide in 2017, the highest number since 1986. Experts believe school pressures and bullying are the likely triggers.
Though the pope didn’t use the word suicide on Monday, he did on Saturday, when he addressed the local bishops, saying that many in the Japanese society are marked by loneliness, despair and isolation, with increasing “suicide rates, bullying and various kinds of neediness” that create “new forms of alienation and spiritual disorientation.”
Here, suicide is the largest cause of death among young people, and the Japanese suicide rate is the sixth highest in the world.
“Fear is always the enemy of goodness, because it is the enemy of love and peace,” he told the youth on Monday. “The great religions teach tolerance, harmony and mercy, not fear, division and conflict. Jesus constantly told his followers not to be afraid. Why? Because if we love God and our brothers and sisters, this love casts out fear.”
Looking at Jesus’ life, he said, is a cause of consolation for many, as he himself “knew what it was to be despised and rejected - even to the point of being crucified.”
“He knew too what it was to be a stranger, a migrant, someone who was ‘different’,” he said. “In a sense, Jesus was the ultimate ‘outsider’, an outsider who was full of life to give.”
Regarding spiritual poverty, he said quoting Mother Teresa of Kolkata, that “loneliness and the feeling of being unloved is the most terrible form of poverty.”
This is ever truer in a world where society is frenetic and focused on being competitive and productive, he said, leaving little space for God, being “highly developed on the outside,” but with an impoverished interior life.
“Everything bores them; they no longer dream, laugh or play,” he said. “They have no sense of wonder or surprise. They are like zombies; their hearts have stopped beating because of their inability to celebrate life with others. How many people throughout our world are materially rich, but live as slaves to unparalleled loneliness!”
Combating spiritual poverty, Francis told young people, demands a change of priorities, and it means recognizing that the most important things are not those that can be bought, but with the people we share our lives.
Much like breathing is necessary to stay alive physically, he said, there is also a need to “breathe spiritually,” with an inward movement that is prayer, and an outward one, which is reaching out to others in acts of love and service.
Lastly, Francis said that young people can be helped to discover their worth not by looking at the mirror or by taking a selfie, as it’s impossible to take a self-picture of the soul.
“To be happy, we need to ask others to help us, to have the photo taken by someone else,” he said. “We need to go out of ourselves towards others, especially those most in need. In a special way, I ask you to extend the hand of friendship to those who come here, often after great sufferings, seeking refuge in your country.”
The Catholic Church in Japan has played a key role helping foreign-born Catholics deal with a wide range of challenges, from normalizing their status as migrants and refugees to denouncing slave-like working conditions many foreigners are subjected to in Japan.
Some estimate that of the country’s small Catholic community- which represents 0.3 percent of a total population of 126 million- half are foreigners.