The Spirit of the Land of the Rising Sun
When I accepted an invitation, of the Franciscan Mission Office of the Holy Martyrs Province of Japan to bring photos for an exhibition evoking the spirit of mission, I did not realize that my small contribution would give me the opportunity to better understand the culture and the spirituality of the Land of the Rising Sun.
Upon my arrival in Japan last October, I was delighted to meet again my friar brother and friend, Father Keita Abe, OFM. I had previously met him when I took a course in Japanese language in Osaka in 1998.
One of the best gifts I received from Fr. Abe before I left that summer, was a visit to Osaka’s Human Rights Museum. I saw an exhibit showing the suffering of the Korean people during the occupation.
When I came back to Holy Name College, I accepted an invitation from the Secular Franciscan Korean fraternity in Washington D.C., to minister to them as their spiritual assistant, a ministry that lasted 12 years.
I arrived In Tokyo just in time to participate in the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, our blessed patron and founder. A celebration took place at the Franciscan Chapel Center, the English-speaking parish of the Archdiocese of Tokyo, staffed by our Franciscan friars of Holy Name Province. I photographed the blessing of the animals, with Father Russell Becker, OFM, presiding. Dogs, cats, rabbits and even a small dog made of ceramic, gave this celebration a nice touch.The same day I witnessed the solemn profession of Brother Francis Imai, OFM, at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Denenchofu, a district of Tokyo. Following the ceremony, I met some of the missionaries who have been in the country for 40 or 50 years and still are active in their ministry.
Tokyo is a modern city beyond imagination. From the observatory atop one of the tallest buildings in Roppongi Hills, appears a jungle of concrete buildings, as far as the eye can see. An entire city is connected by modern highways and also by a very efficient train and subway system that takes people everywhere. Amazing that a country, devastated during World War II, now exports so much technology and helps many underdeveloped countries.
Despite the Nozomi train’s ability to reach 170 mph, it takes four hours to reach Hiroshima from Tokyo.
The A-Bomb Dome, the renowned symbol of the “peace city,” is perhaps the most visited place in Hiroshima. This building, designed by a Czech architect in 1915, was used as the Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall until it was partially destroyed by the bomb.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is another place worthwhile to visiting. Located at the center of Hiroshima City remains a quiet and spacious place. This triangular-shaped piece of land, bordered by two rivers, was once a busy commercial and residential downtown area. A tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum opened in 1955, offers the opportunity to learn more about the devastation caused by the atomic bomb attack through many reference materials.
In this museum many signs and symbols of peace, as well as photographs and objects give the visitor an idea of the horror of a nuclear attack—a good place to reflect on how much damage a nuclear attack would do in our present time.
The Memorial Cathedral for World Peace, built to commemorate victims of the world’s first atomic bomb, brought the day to an end.
This awesome building is renowned as one of the major Catholic cathedrals in the Orient and was visited by Pope John Paul II during his tour to Japan in February 1981.
The following day started with a visit to Miyajima, “shrine-island” in Japanese, the Itsukushima Shrine, known worldwide for “floating torii gate,” a gateway to a Shinto shrine. Two uprights and two crosspieces, symbolically mark the transition from the profane to the sacred.
My trip back to Tokyo had a short stop in Sasayama and Kyoto. This latter city offers the visitor multiple facilities of the Japanese culture.
The Kinkaku-ji Temple (The Golden Pavilion) is one of the most prominent sites of Kyoto. The building’s first purpose was to serve the retiring Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1409) as his residence. This gold-leaf-adorned building was converted into a Zen temple shortly after his death.
At night, the Kyoto tower allows visitors to view a 360-degree panorama of this ancient city. There are literally hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Kyoto.
Enryaku-ji Temple and To-ji Temple are two of the most prominent examples of the esoteric Buddhist tradition while the five great Zen Buddhism temples of Kyoto include Nanzen-ji Temple, Shokoku-ji Temple, Tenryu-ji Temple, and the Golden and Silver Pavilions. In Shinto religion, millions of gods can be found everywhere. The most important Shinto shrines in Kyoto include Kamigamo-jinja and Shimogamo-jinja.
Nagasaki also suffered the same fate as Hiroshima in 1945. The bombing of Nagasaki on August 9 was the last major act of World War II. Within days, the Japanese surrendered. The Peace Museum in Nagasaki, like the one in Hiroshima, shows images of the blinding blast and ferocious heat that indiscriminately annihilated the city’s inhabitants.
As a follower of St. Francis, I pray that such tragic experiences will never be repeated in our fragile world.
The Nagasaki Peace Park stands on a low hill to the north of the epicenter of the atomic bomb blast and attracts thousands of foreign and local visitors.
A 9.7-meter high statue, (right photo) symbolizes the citizens of Nagasaki’s wish for peace. Seibou Kitamura, a Nagasaki native, created this statue to symbolize the divine love and mercy of Buddha. The raised right hand points to the heavens to signify the threat of atomic weapons, while the left arm, raised horizontally, represents the wish for peace. Nagasaki could become a Japanese Assisi, because of the many peace symbols one can see while walking through the park.
I dream that one day the park will have a statue of St. Francis with the legend, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” A grand gesture would include the Franciscan Order establishing a peace center there to offer workshops and seminars for implementing practical, nonviolent actions for world peace.
I was impressed by the number of Catholic churches in Nagasaki, especially the Urakami Cathedral completed in 1914 by Catholic faithful who, brick by brick, worked on it for 30 years. This cathedral was reconstructed in 1959 and remodeled and restored to original appearance in 1980. The cathedral still holds the bombed remnants of stone statues and the single bell that withstood the atomic bomb blast. The bell tolls the Angelus morning, noon and evening.
No one can leave Nagasaki without visiting the home and the museum of Dr. Takashi Nagai, who lived in this tiny house with his two children until his death at the age of 43. Dr. Nagai, a devout Catholic, named the house Nyokodo (literally, As-Yourself Hall) in honor of the teaching of Christ “to love others as you love yourself.”
A few miles away from Dr. Nagai’s house is the oldest standing Christian church in Japan. The Oura Catholic Church (Oura Tenshudo) is a small building constructed in 1864 during the last years of the Edo Period. This is the only Western building to be designated as a national treasure.
The church served the growing community of foreign merchants who took up residence in Nagasaki, when the era of Japan’s seclusion ended.
A good way to finish this trip to Nagasaki was at the place where 26 Japanese martyrs gave their lives. This place, converted into a park in 1956, shows the resilience of the citizens rising again after the atomic disaster.
In 1962, a Japanese sculptor, Yasutake Funakoshi, erected here a beautiful monument to the 26 Martyrs. Japanese Architect Kenji Imai built a shrine and museum as a perpetual memorial of the martyrs.
Back in Tokyo, in a meeting with some Catholic volunteers, I received an invitation to visit Fukushima Prefecture, where the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and meltdown took peoples’ lives and left thousands homeless.
As I boarded the train on my way to Fukushima, I wondered about the risk of radiation, although I looked forward to the experience of going to the place where the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, now decommissioned, impacted not just Japan but the world itself.
My host in Fukushima was Sister Chiaki Hatanaka, RSCJ, who picked me up at the train station and drove to Minamisoma, where Caritas Japan has established a center for volunteers. Thanks to Caritas Japan, hundreds of volunteers are reaching out to people affected by the tsunami. They bring companionship, an ability to listen to people who are still grieving.
Sr. Chiaki pointed out an electronic device that continues to measure radioactivity. Suddenly, I realized I was in a place that could affect forever my life. The trip to Minamisoma from Fukushima is only two hours, but during that time I listened to Sr. Chiaki sharing her experience ministering to the survivors of radiation, the invisible killer.
Radiation has spread sporadically. Some of the towns have been completely evacuated. In others, people seem to be living a normal life, at least that is the impression.
After seeing the destruction in Watari-gun, a town about 10 miles away from Minamisoma, where the tsunami caused extensive damage, I felt a sensation that I was embracing the leper. Yes, to me the leper was the environment, that had been completely destroyed. For a moment, I feared visiting a place where radiation was still high. I asked myself what had moved me to be there. But then I realized that I had been there for only a few days, in comparison to the people who had lost everything and still fear for their lives.
Mikiko Matzuno, 41-years-old and a mother of two, is one of the many who lost literally everything. Even two and a half years after the tragedy, it’s difficult for her to identify the location where her house had stood. Right after the earthquake, she drove to the school to help the children. “The children were fine but scared and cold, so I went back home to get some blankets. But when I came back to the school, the youngsters were gone. Then I knew they were safe.” Matzuno recalls the tragic day with tears in her eyes.
She then went back to her house and heard the tsunami alarm. At that moment, she realized it was time to seek higher ground. As she was driving, she saw a rainbow through her rear-view mirror. Then she realized it was the huge wave that was taken her house and all that the family had worked over the years.
As she drove to safety, she wondered about her husband who was at sea, and who like many other fishermen, returned only two days after the tsunami.
Now, Matzuno expresses her gratitude for life by coordinating a community center to aid other evacuees, helping them to overcome their challenges.
Like in any tragedy, the grace of God is manifested in people like Dr. Nagai and Matzuno, who in weaknes found strength.