75 Years after the War: A Peace Message from the Catholic Bishops of Japan – Protect all life – Peace is the path of hope

To our Brother and Sister Catholics of Japan and All People of Good Will:

On the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan issued the message “Resolution for Peace” in light of the situation at home and abroad.1 To mark the 60th anniversary, the bishops’ message was “The Road To Peace Based On Nonviolence – Now Is The Time To Be Prophetic.”2 Then for the 70th anniversary, the message was “Blessed are the peacemakers – Now especially, peace must not depend upon weapons.”3

This year, which opened just after Pope Francis’ visit to Japan in 2019, is the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the Second World War, and the founding of the United Nations. The world is now in an uncertain situation where we face a new Cold War, an unstable situation in East Asia, the nuclear threat, and the global environmental crisis.

We bishops planned to join the Peace Pilgrimage today on Okinawa Memorial Day but have been forced to cancel our participation due to the new coronavirus pandemic. However, our hearts are always with the people of Okinawa. With the Konpaku no To (Tower of Souls) in the Okinawa Battlefield National Monument that memorializes those who died in the war as the starting point for our reflections, we wish to share our thoughts on peace and present a guide for future action.

Pondering the Tower of Souls

In the final year of the war, Okinawa was considered a “sacrificial stone” to delay a decisive battle on Japan’s main islands by even a day, and thus a disastrous battle involving the residents was fought there. In this Battle of Okinawa, which is said to be the most horrific in history, the troops of both the United States and Japan did their utmost to achieve their aims on this small island. After the fierce battle, also known as the Typhoon of Steel, the remains of victims were scattered all over. They were gathered by the surviving residents into a memorial that became a place of prayer.

This Tower of Souls has a special meaning among Okinawa’s many monuments. It was originally a mound formed from the collection of remains by the residents themselves. It eventually came to be considered the origin of the memorials for the war victims, the starting point for the desire of the nameless ordinary people for an end to war and a place of renewed commitment to end war.

At the exit of the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum is inscribed “Musubi no Kotoba” (the final word) which includes the following: “It is certainly human beings who cause war, but are we not also the ones who can put a stop to it? .… This is our unshakeable conviction, learned at great price.”

The keen cry of the people of Okinawa against war, military bases, and military build-up comes from the experience of the Battle of Okinawa and underlies their conviction that “War is so brutal there can be nothing more shameful.”4 However, despite this appeal by the people of Okinawa, the treatment of Okinawa as a “sacrificial stone” has continued and even today after 75 years its right to self-determination is ignored.

Today in response to the appeal of Okinawans who hate all war and value life, and offering prayers for all war victims as we reflect on the Tower of Souls, let us renew our determination to seek and take action for peace.

The heart of the Okinawan song “Nuchido Takara” (life is a treasure) which affirms that nothing is more valuable than human life resonates with the theme of Pope Francis’ visit to Japan, Protect All Life: “Our world, teeming with life and beauty, is above all a precious gift of the Creator.”5 “Genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others” (Laudato Si’, 70).6 Therefore, no one should start war, no matter what the rationale may be. We Christians resonate with the cries of Okinawans and the words of Pope Francis, appealing for the abandoning of war and permanent peace. Peace with all is God’s wish.7

The Catholic Church’s stance for non-violent peace

Thirty-nine years ago in February 1981, Pope John Paul II, proclaimed this powerful message in Hiroshima: “War is the work of man. War is the destruction of human life. War is death. … To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future. … Let us promise our fellow human beings that we will work untiringly for disarmament and the banishing of all nuclear weapons.”

In response to this appeal, the following year the Japanese bishops instituted an annual “Ten Days for Peace” (August 6-15) to reflect about and pray for peace and began to speak forthrightly on issues of peace and human rights.

The decision of the Japanese bishops resonates with the message Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message. The pope expressed his support of “active non-violence” and said, “may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms.”

In August of the same year, the pope revised paragraph 2267 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church to confirm opposition to the death penalty because, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

On September 20, 2017, the Vatican joined two other nations in being the first countries to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and in November hosted an international conference on “Prospects for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament.” At that conference, Pope Francis said regarding nuclear weapons, “The threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned. … Essential in this regard is the witness given by the Hibakusha, the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, together with other victims of nuclear arms testing. May their prophetic voice serve as a warning, above all for coming generations!”

As for “nuclear deterrence theory,” the pope continued, “The teaching of John XXIII remains ever valid. In pointing to the goal of an integral disarmament, he stated: ‘Unless this process of disarmament be thoroughgoing and complete, and reach men’s very souls, it is impossible to stop the arms race, or to reduce armaments, or – and this is the main thing – ultimately to abolish them entirely.’” (Pacem in Terris, April 11, 1963)

The Pope’s Peace Message in Japan

Last November, Pope Francis visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima “as a pilgrim of peace, to stand in silent prayer, to recall the innocent victims of such violence, and to bear in my heart the prayers and yearnings of the men and women of our time.”8 The pope appealed to the world on behalf of the aging atomic bomb survivors who seek peace more than anyone else, “the young, who long for peace, who work for peace and who sacrifice themselves for peace,” “the poor who are always the most helpless victims of hatred and conflict,” “the voiceless, who witness with concern and anguish the growing tensions of our own time,”9 and voices against the arms race, no matter how small.10 Without blaming anyone, the pope faced the ultimate moral issue of peace, and gave a strong message about armaments and nuclear weapons. “The arms race wastes precious resources. … The money that is squandered and the fortunes made through the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance and sale of ever more destructive weapons, are an affront crying out to heaven.”11 Later in Hiroshima he said, “the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral.”12

The pope’s call is intended for all people. “A world of peace, free from nuclear weapons … To make this ideal a reality calls for involvement on the part of all: individuals, religious communities and civil society, countries that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not, the military and private sectors, and international organizations. Our response to the threat of nuclear weapons must be joint and concerted.” “For her part, the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to promoting peace between peoples and nations. This is a duty to which the Church feels bound before God and every man and woman in our world. We must never grow weary of working to support the principal international legal instruments of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, including the Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.”13

Responding to the pope’s call, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan issued a letter last December in its president’s name to Prime Minister Abe, urging the signing and ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace also supported Pope Francis’ remarks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and issued a statement urging their government “to exercise global leadership for mutual, verifiable nuclear disarmament.”14 The bishops of Canada15 and Germany16 issued statements last year in support of the Vatican’s policy of abolishing nuclear weapons, and in response to the pope’s recent stance have expressed a change in attitudes regarding nuclear deterrence.

Peace, a journey of hope

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean war. The tragedy of one people at war among themselves is not unrelated to Japan’s 35-year rule in Korea. The Korean War remains a source of trouble, and East Asia, including Japan, was dragged into the Cold War and its conflicts between the interests of the great powers, and so progress on peace remains uncertain. How we contribute to peacebuilding in East Asia will reveal whether we, the Church in Japan, can follow the words of Pope Francis. To do so, we renew our determination to face the past unflinchingly and continue to take responsibility for the future.

In this year’s World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis says that the journey to peace is “a journey of hope in the face of obstacles and trial.” “It is a patient effort to seek truth and justice, to honor the memory of victims and to open the way, step by step, to a shared hope stronger than the desire for vengeance.” And so, “Hope is thus the virtue that inspires us and keeps us moving forward, even when obstacles seem insurmountable.” Along with the virtue of hope, “We need to pursue a genuine fraternity based on our common origin from God and exercised in dialogue and mutual trust. The desire for peace lies deep within the human heart.” As St. Paul tells us, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15).

We ask God to unite the hearts and minds of people who gather in churches and communities in areas of conflict and those at peace. May the will and hope for peace we received from Pope Francis’ visit to Japan be enriched by the resurrection life of Jesus Christ and the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan

June 23, 2020

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Endnotes:

  1. CBCJ Message, 1995: Resolution for Peace – On the 50th Anniversary of the End of the War, (https://www.cbcj.catholic.jp/199link5/02/25/5053/).
  2. CBCJ Message, 2005: Peace Message After 60 Years From the End of War World II – The Road To Peace Based On Nonviolence – Now Is The Time To Be Prophetic, (https://www.cbcj.catholic.jp/2005/08/06/5119/).
  3. CBCJ Message, 2015: 70 Years after the War: Blessed are the peacemakers – Now especially, peace must not depend upon weapons, (https://www.cbcj.catholic.jp/2015/02/25/5182/).
  4. Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, Musubi no Kotoba.
  5. Pope Francis, Sermon at Tokyo Dome, November 25, 2019.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Cf. Hebrews 12:14, Romans 12:18.
  8. Pope Francis, Speech at the Meeting for Peace at the Peace Memorial, Hiroshima, November 24, 2019.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Pope Francis, Address on Nuclear Weapons at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park, Nagasaki, November 24, 2019.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Pope Francis: Speech at Meeting for Peace.
  13. Pope Francis: Address on Nuclear Weapons.
  14. Bp. David J. Malloy, Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, November 25, 2019: Statement from U.S. Bishops’ Chairman of International Justice and Peace Committee on Nuclear Weapons, Washington.
  15. Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2019: Statement on Nuclear Weapons, Ottawa.
  16. The German Commission for Justice and Peace, June 2019: Outlawing Nuclear Weapons as the Start of Nuclear Disarmament, Berlin.
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