(In Tokyo, Maria Chiara Biagioni and Patrizia Caiffa) – A word of hope and a firm call to respect for every human life. In every instance, even when it is weak. A message of peace and a plea to political leaders to always choose the path of dialogue. A clear “no” to the use of nuclear weapons, and a renewed call for the conversion of nuclear power plants into renewable energy plants. These are the key points of the journey that Pope Francis will undertake here in Japan for just three days, from 23 to 26 November. The Archbishop of Tokyo and President of Caritas Japan, Msgr. Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi, goes through them, in the headquarters of the Archbishopric opposite St Mary’s Cathedral, where the meeting with 3,000 youths will take place. Msgr. Kikuchi is young and dynamic, he spent 8 years as a parish priest in Ghana, and speaks English perfectly. He answers all our questions without hesitation, even those with major political implications. Among Japanese Catholics (the yearbook of the Japanese Bishops’ Conference reports 440,893 faithful across 777 parishes throughout the country), there is much expectation also because 38 years have passed since John Paul II’s visit to Japan. A rich program of meetings and important events awaits Pope Francis in this land. Although there are only a few days left before the arrival of the pontiff, the attention of public opinion and the media here is focused on the ceremonies of enthronement of the beloved emperor Naruhito, supreme spiritual leader of Shintoism, which have been going on for weeks.
What is the Pope’s most anticipated message?
Respect human life and have hope for the future.
Here, people and the media are very keen on the message of peace and for the abolition of nuclear weapons that the Pope will deliver in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Tokyo, I believe the theme of the protection of human life will resonate greatly. We are waiting for words of encouragement from the Pope for the youth, so that they can find hope for the future. I am thinking of those who decide to commit suicide and of the elderly who live alone, in neglect. They often die without anyone there to take care of them. I am thinking of the children, even very young ones, who have to take public transport every day to go to school alone. In Japan we have cases of children being abused and battered by adults. Some die, and some take their own lives. Life is threatened, and the value of human life is at stake. We also see this in the way people treat those with disabilities. Three years ago, 19 disabled people were killed in a nursing home in the town of Yokohama. The young woman who killed them said they had to die because they don’t contribute to anything in society and the government spends too much money on looking after them. In her opinion they did not deserve to live.
In Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Pope and religious leaders will deliver a message of peace. However, a process of militarization of the country is currently underway, with the attempt to repeal Article 9 of the pacifist Constitution. Are you worried?
Until now, Japan has kept Article 9 of the Constitution, which is very important. But politicians are trying to get their hands on this part of the constitutional text because there are increasing tensions in the area between Japan and South Korea, and between Japan and North Korea. It is difficult to untangle the causes of this tension; our political leaders want to militarise the country, and to do so they must abolish Article 9. Japan does have weapons, but their use is allowed only for self-defence. They would like to extend the use of weapons to do battle. It’s a very serious problem.
As bishops, we are asking the Government to refrain from any aggressive attitude and to always choose the path of dialogue with other countries.
What happened to the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s lesson? Have they been forgotten?
Thirty-eight years ago John Paul II delivered a powerful message, and the Japanese people welcomed it and understood it very well, especially when the Pope said that war is the work of man. It is the destruction of human life. It is death. But when John Paul II came here, we had politicians who had lived through the Second World War, and they understood what it meant. Now, the new generations don’t know what war is, they’ve never experienced it.
What can Pope Francis say to this new generation?
Above all, I think it is important to tell political leaders that dialogue is the priority, that it is always preferable to confrontation, and that it is the responsibility of politics not to build walls, but bridges. The hope is that the Pope will re-propose the culture of dialogue and encounter here in Japan as well.
Does the government listen to the Catholic Church, even though it is a very small minority, only 0.4% of the population?
It seems so. Even if we are a minority, we are listened to because the Catholic Church is an international reality and Pope Francis is a personality recognised globally, so they consider what we have to say.
Do you think that the Pope’s visit will have a significant domestic impact?
Absolutely. Japan is an archipelago, so we tend to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. International politics is often limited to observing others. In coming to Japan, the Holy Father inevitably attracts worldwide attention. Very
probably the Pope will have a critical view of modernity, which is usually not challenged here in Japan. We are more focused on ourselves than on the rest of the world.
I think that Pope Francis can help to open up minds on issues such as climate change, migrants and poverty, and can make us reflect on how modernity has changed society.
There’s also the message about nuclear weapons. Will we see a comprehensive ban sooner or later?
The Japanese government has repeatedly spoken of a nuclear weapons ban, but it has not joined the Durban Treaty on nuclear disarmament, reason being that the Japanese are very attached to the United States, and the U.S. has obviously said no to abolition. It is difficult to achieve a total ban. Official sources in the government deny the existence of nuclear weapons in Japan but we don’t know whether that’s true. We know that there are US military bases throughout Japan. National security is involved.
We all know the lessons of the past but political leaders do not have the courage to take the real step of banning nuclear weapons.
I am sure that Pope Francis will say that
putting together a nuclear arsenal is a shame. It is immoral.
The message is mainly addressed to the United States and Russia. The Japanese bishops have also made an appeal against the use of nuclear power.
At the moment in Fukushima the authorities are preparing a plan for conversion to renewable energy. What do you think?
There are more than 50 nuclear power plants throughout the country. We saw what happened in Fukushima when the earthquake and tsunami hit. The territory of Japan is particularly prone to earthquakes. We can’t afford these kinds of technology, technologies that we can’t control. The government and industry have always said that there are no problems, that everything is under control, that nothing can happen. But we have seen what happened. So we believe that at least until now,
it is not possible to sustain this type of technology in Japan without risking terrible disasters, for the population and for the environment.
Now work is underway in Fukushima to dismantle the reactor, but no one knows how long that will take. Some say 40 years. It is therefore a responsibility for future generations to give up nuclear power. With regard to the reconversion plan for the Fukushima territory, the government is determined and committed. But the business community is not happy about that because nuclear energy is making them a lot of money and so they are doing everything they can to maintain the technology.
Why won’t the Pope go to Fukushima?
I also wanted to take him to Fukushima. There was a big discussion on this issue, because if we had brought him there, there was the risk that the Pope could be used by the government to say that the Fukushima region is safe. It would have been like saying: “see, if the Pope can go to Fukushima, there are no problems”. There was therefore the risk of it being used for propaganda.
The truth is, there are parts of Fukushima that people can’t return to. Areas that are absolutely not habitable.
Have you ever been there? Do you think the area is safe?
In Minami-soma we have a Caritas base where volunteers operate. You can see the ruins of houses left uninhabited, destroyed by the earthquake of 2011. Nothing has been done. It’s like entering a ghost town. It’s terrible. Some people want to return but others don’t. The community is divided. The fact is that most of the population is old and sick. They need treatment and in that area there are no hospitals, there is nothing left. Even among scientists, there are different opinions on safety. Some say that there are no problems. Others, on the other hand, believe that it is dangerous. So we don’t know who to believe. I don’t think it’s safe.
You are also president of Caritas Japan. What do oyou expect from the presence of the Pope?
The presence of the Catholic Church through Caritas volunteers is a sign of hope for the future. After the disaster, NGOs, the army and the government came to work on the site. There was a great effort but then, one by one, they left. Eight years after the disaster only the Caritas volounteers remain and people learned to appreciate the presence of the Catholic Church. Now the head of the Catholic Church is arriving, and his presence will illuminate the work of a Church that has never forgotten or abandoned the people in difficulty.
One could say that the Church has been a sign of God for this land.
The Catholic Church is a minority. The prime minister is trying to carry out a process of nationalisation of the country by trying to make Shintoism the official religion. Are you worried?
The Shinto tradition underlies Japanese culture and it is very difficult to distinguish between religion and culture. People are not consciously committed to religion but they follow Shinto traditions. The Emperor’s religious role is also closely tied to the system. According to the Constitution, the Emperor is the symbol of the nation, but the nation must be neutral towards all religions. It is very difficult to separate the two because Naruhito is Emperor and Supreme Leader of Shintoism. According to the Constitution, as a Church we have freedom of faith, of worship, and of association. We are also exempt from paying property taxes. So we are officially recognized. But if we attack or criticize the system that revolves around the figure of the Emperor we are immediately and harshly criticized by public opinion. So we are obliged to maintain a delicate balance. However, we have a good relationship with the imperial family. There are many Catholics who work in the offices of the imperial palace. I believe that the Pope’s visit will bring the Japanese closer to the Catholic Church.