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Pope in Japan. Caritas continual support to Fukushima victims: “We must not forget them!”

Eight and a half years after the earthquake, the tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which killed over 22,200 people, the collateral effects on the local population are still numerous and scarcely known. Caritas Japan is present in the area with a rehabilitation program that will last until 2021. The Pope will meet 300 survivors on 25 November in Tokyo, along with volunteers and the Director of Caritas Japan Isao Tadokoro

(from Tokyo) – The soled plea of the survivors of Fukushima’s triple tragedy is: “Don’t forget us!” Eight and a half years have already passed since March 11, 2011, tragically scarred by a magnitude-9 earthquake off the Pacific coast of the Tōhoku region, in northern Japan, a 10-meter-high wave tsunami that disabled the power supply and cooling process of Fukushima reactors causing a nuclear disaster.

Over 22.200 people were killed or went missing, with uncertain radiation effects on the local population. In the past years, 3,723 more people died as a result of diseases.

People were evacuated outside a 20-km radius from the nuclear power plant. Today that area it is a wasteland of ghost towns. Abandoned homes are invaded by mice, monkeys and other wild animals, amidst derelict land and shut down businesses. Close to the off-limits area lie heaps of jute bags containing contaminated soil and hazardous nuclear waste, all to be disposed of. Nobody knows where to. It could take 30 to 40 years to eliminate airborne radioactive releases.

42.000 still live as evacuees. At leads 42.000 residents still have no other choice than living away from their homes. While they were initially evacuated to temporary locations where they formed small communities based on mutual support, they were later moved to apartments where they still feel uncomfortable. Young people have left to find jobs elsewhere.

“The loneliness and isolation of old people is dramatic, with a surge in the number of suicides, including senior citizens”,

said Isao Tadokoro, Executive Secretary of Caritas Japan, from his office on the second floor of the seat of the Japanese Bishops’ Conference, a few blocks away from Tokyo’s Shiomi Station: a grey modern, tall building, situated near equally anonymous buildings that house offices or businesses.

Caritas is the only operational humanitarian organization left. Caritas has been actively serving these areas since the beginning, and it’s the only remaining charitable reality in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, in the diocese of Sendai. While all other humanitarian organizations have left, Caritas is still operational in coordination with 52 parishes in the diocese, home to 9,881 Catholics. Their efforts are intended for everyone without distinction. Even people living at a great distance from the Church – the majority – value their reliability and the quality of their  efforts.” We have 40 staff members present on site and 20-30,000 volunteers who have taken shifts over the years to provide assistance,” he explained. “We are committed to accompanying people.”

“We give priority to mental health since these people have experienced horrible trauma. They lost members of their family, their homes, many have fallen into depression.”

Discrimination and isolation. These tragedies were followed by discrimination and segregation of the survivors:

Children are victims of bullying because they are believed to be contaminated by radiation. Young adults don’t get married and are afraid to give birth to sick children.

The Japanese government, which ended subsidies to the survivors a year ago, recently called upon the population to return to live in the area, assuring them of its safety. “Living there is impossible, especially for the elderly. There are no hospitals, no shops and no services – Tadokoro pointed out -. Most of the population doesn’t feel safe and has no intention of returning.”

The government wants a green Fukushima. Immediately after the tragedy, all 54 nuclear power plants in Japan that produced electricity were shut down. The Japanese bishops also urged the elimination of nuclear power for civil purposes and still remain of the same opinion. In the meantime, however, 9 plants have been reopened. Japanese media are increasingly silent on the incident and public opinion believes that all problems have been resolved. But it doesn’t correspond to the truth. Even though a few days ago the Japanese government announced plans to transform the Fukushima area into a renewable energy hub, with photovoltaic and wind power.

$25 million in aid. Caritas Japan rehabilitation program, which received $25 million from Caritas centres in several countries (including Caritas Italy), covers a ten-year period. It will end in March 2021. “We will be able to complete it for the districts of Iwate and Miyagi affected by the earthquake and tsunami – added the Director of Caritas, who frequently visits those areas -. The population has decreased, but life has resumed quite normally. But the situation remains precarious in the district of Fukushima. It will take many more years.”

“We hoped that Pope Francis could visit the site, but it was decided otherwise because the risks were too high.”

The Pope will therefore meet 300 victims of the threefold disaster in Tokyo on the morning of November 25 at “Bellesalle Hanzomon”, prior to his private visit to Emperor Naruhito in the nearby Imperial Palace. Three victims will bring a short testimony. There will also be the director of Caritas and numerous volunteers.  “These people have lost everything – said Tadokoro -. Our request to the Pope is to offer them a strong message of hope. The Church has not forgotten them.”

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