Pope Francis delivers a speech during a meeting in Tokyo on Nov. 25 with victims of the 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima meltdown, noting concern in Japan over the continued use of nuclear power. (Photo: AFP)
Pope Francis has stopped short of endorsing the view of Japanese bishops that the Catholic Church should opt for a stance against the use of nuclear power.
He spoke at a Toyko event on Nov. 25 where he met victims of Japan’s so-called triple disaster in March 2011 that saw an earthquake trigger a tsunami and a leak at a Fukushima nuclear plant, resulting in atomic contamination and a widespread loss of life.
The quake and tsunami took a huge human life toll of 18,500 dead or missing and while the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant killed no more than 3,700, people who survived the triple disaster later died as the result of complications related to evacuations and radiation.
Almost half a million people either lost their homes or were forced to flee in the days after the quake; today about 50,000 remain in temporary housing.
Unable to travel to northeast Japan due to his heavy travel schedule, Pope Francis instead met in Tokyo with about 150 survivors including a high school student, a kindergarten teacher and a Buddhist priest.
The Fukushima disaster was the worst since the reactor meltdown at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986 and reminded the world of the dangers of nuclear power plants. In its wake governments around the world reviewed their commitment to a very clean, efficient but potentially deadly power source and Germany decided to shutter its nuclear power program.
Japan’s bishops began to consider total opposition to nuclear power, a position they have since embraced.
In 2016, the Japanese bishops published a call for the abolition of nuclear power generation in a message called “Abolition of Nuclear Power: An Appeal from the Catholic Church in Japan.”
On the anniversary of the Nagasaki atomic bombing in August this year, Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan, reiterated the message, adding that it was also essential to reduce inequality among people.
"Terrorism, conflicts among those with different military power, security of information, environmental issues, poverty, etc. are intertwined in a complex way, threatening the peace and security of the modern world. However, nuclear threats cannot respond effectively to such issues. Stability based on fear simply increases fear and compromises trusting relationships among nations," the archbishop said.
But while the pope mentioned and embraced the concerns of Japanese bishops, he did not specifically endorse their views as many believed he would do on this trip.
"Important decisions will have to be made about the use of natural resources, and future energy sources in particular," he told the Tokyo gathering.
"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.
“This involves, as my brother bishops in Japan have emphasized, concern about the continuing use of nuclear power. For this reason, they have called for the abolition of nuclear power plants.”
Prior to the 2011 disaster, there were 54 nuclear reactors in Japan that supplied 30 percent of the country’s electric power but following the disaster 21 reactors were decommissioned as new standards were set. 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. “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. What kind of world, what kind of legacy will we leave to those who will come after us?”
As a child of just eight years old when disaster struck in 2011, Matsui Kamoshita, his mother and brother were forced to evacuate Fukushima as his father, a teacher, stayed to help clean up.
"My brother would burrow into his futon and cry. I was bullied ... and every day was so painful I wanted to die," he told the pope at the meeting. "Eventually, my father got mentally and physically ill and stopped working. Even so, I still think we are fortunate because we were able to evacuate."
Kindergarten teacher Toshiko Kato recalled standing in the rubble where her home had been.
“I was thankful for being given life, for being alive, and for just being able to appreciate it,” she said.
"Many people from all over the world opened their hearts and I was able to find hope from seeing people come together to help one another. Life is the most important thing, and no good life is lost."
“We cannot fully convey our suffering," Kamoshita told Pope Francis, whom he hugged after speaking. "Pray with us, Holy Father, that we can appreciate each other's pain and love our neighbors. Pray that even in this cruel reality, we will be given the courage not to turn our eyes away."
After the event, Pope Francis went to the Cathedral of Holy Mary for a meeting with a multiethnic and multireligious group of young people — an invariable feature of his overseas visits.
Leonardo, the son of Filipino immigrants, said to the pope: “Please tell me, Holy Father, how should we confront the problems of discrimination and bullying that are spreading throughout the world?
"Thank you, Leonardo, for sharing the experience of bullying and discrimination,” said the pope, noting that more young people are finding the courage to speak up.
Pope Francis veered from his script, often to joke with participating children and lend them support. “Am I boring you yet?” he asked at one stage.