The tragedy of war, the devastation caused by the use of nuclear weapons, environmental disasters, land contamination. The history of Japan speaks volumes: it’s an admonition to peace for humanity and a call for the protection of the planet. When John Paul II visited this country in 1981, in Hiroshima he said: “War is the work of man. War is the destruction of human life. War is death.” Msgr. Paul Yoshinao Otsuka, bishop of Kyoto and General Coordinator of the apostolic visit, guided us throughout the program of Pope Francis’ journey into this land, from 23 to 26 November. He welcomed us into a modern skyscraper in the heart of Tokyo’s business centre, where an agency is handling communication on behalf of the Catholic Church. While posters and flags are yet to be displayed in the streets of the city, a huge billboard welcomes Pope Francis in the heart of the Catholic quarter, where St. Mary’s Cathedral is situated with its modern, prominent bell tower. Inside, the usual gadgets that accompany the Pope’s visit are already on display: t-shirts, mugs, pens, hats, bags and even a life-size representation of Pope Francis. The Pauline nuns welcome the visitors with joy while a group of volunteers are inspecting the church with a map in hand. This is where the meeting with young people will take place on Monday 25 November. 800 people are expected to attend. Three young people will share their testimonies and ask the Holy Father some questions. “Pope Francis wished that youths of other religions also participate because – said the bishop of Kyoto – his desire for this visit is to meet not only Christians but all of Japan.”
Nagasaki and Hiroshima. “The Japanese people will never forget. It’s impossible to know the exact number of victims,” said the bishop of Kyoto. “It was utter destruction. Nagasaki was a Christian city. Today, the head of the Holy Virgin statue, the only part spared from the impact of the bomb, is preserved inside the cathedral. It has since become the symbol of its heavenly protection. The Pope in Japan will embrace this dark chapter in history , that it may serve as an admonition to peace for the future. In this spirit he will pay homage to the memorial at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park in Nagasaki. It will be a simple, non-religious ceremony, with a prayer for the victims and a statement on nuclear weapons. The Hiroshima Memorial Park will be the venue of a ” Meeting for Peace” which will be attended, inter alia, by leaders of all religions (Buddhists, Shintoists, representatives of Christian Churches, Jews and Muslims). There will be a silent moment of prayer. In Japan it’s called ” Mokutò”: a “secular” minute of reflection and meditation in which everyone – believers of different faiths and non-believers – can come together.
Twenty-two survivors of the nuclear bombings have been invited to participate: they are all over 90 and are members of the Hibakushya Association. Two of them will give a personal testimony.
The Pope and the Morioka youths. The Hiroshima Memorial Park was built right near the site of the nuclear explosion on August 6, 1945. People from all over the world come here to learn the lessons of history. Bishop Otsuka told us that the Memorial will be closed on Sunday 24 November owing to the papal visit. Because of this, the students of a high school in Morioka had to cancel a trip they had planned for this same day as early as two years ago. Reportedly the Pope was very sorry when he learned about this and asked the local bishops to include Morioka’s 250 students among the guests:
“I handed over the Pope’s letter of invitation to the school”, says Msgr. Otsuka, and “the news was also in the local newspaper.”
The Fukushima disaster and NO to nuclear energy. There is a great sense of anticipation in Japan over the Pope’s meeting with the survivors of the triple disaster of 2011 – the earthquake, the tsunami and the incident at the Fukushima power plant – scheduled for 25 November in Tokyo. According to figures from Caritas Japan, 19,689 people were killed, with 2,563 missing. In addition, 3,723 people have died in the last 8 years due to poor living conditions as displaced persons. The fear of returning to the places of origin hit by the disaster, concerns about land contamination, and the shock. Depression, loss of hope, loneliness led many to commit suicide. It remains an open wound. The meeting with the Pope is expected to be attended by 300 victims. 3 witnesses will speak about their experience. These are stories – the bishop said without anticipating any detail – of people who lost everything. He added:
“they expect words of consolation and on the use of nuclear energy from the Pope.”
Shortly after the tragedy, the Japanese bishops had requested the government to decommission nuclear power plants and explore new renewable energy sources. “Nuclear energy is far too dangerous”, said Bishop Otsuka. “Given the disasters experienced by our country, its use is morally unacceptable. We hope that the visit of Pope Francis will encourage the process of conversion into renewable energy not only in the Fukushima area but in the whole country.”
Land of martyrs and persecutions. Pope Francis had a very strong desire to visit Japan. This is where the Jesuits first brought Christianity. It’s the land where Christians were persecuted and martyred. The Pope will also pay homage to this painful page in history at Nagasaki, at the Monument of the Martyrs at Nishizaka Hill. This monument is dedicated to Paul Miki and to twenty-six Catholics executed in 1597, when two centuries of harsh Christian persecution began in Japan. It is now a devotion and pilgrimage destination. The bishop explained: “The blood of these martyrs is the origin of our faith, the seed of Christianity that later blossomed in this land.”
A journey open to all. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first to invite Bergoglio to Japan as early as 2013, immediately after his election to the Papal see. He made this invitation several times until Pope Francis one day said to a group of Japanese people visiting Rome: “I will be visiting Japan.” It will therefore be a state visit and as such the Pope will first meet the Emperor Naruhito at the Imperial Palace and then with Prime Minister Abe at Kantei. “The meeting with the Emperor is an encounter with the heart and soul of this nation” said the bishop of Kyoto. “The Japanese people love the Emperor, they feel his closeness especially in the most difficult moments, they consider him the symbol of this land. In Kantei, after meeting the Prime Minister, the Holy Father will meet the diplomatic corps, representatives of the cultural world and public authorities.
It shows that the Pope will be here not only for Christians but for all Japanese people.”