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Interview with Fr. Harry O’Carroll

Full text of the interview with Columban priest Fr Harry O’Carroll in Japan
(May/June Issue Knocklyon News)

How did you arrive in Japan?

I’m a Columban missionary priest and I was sent to Japan in 1970. It was a bit of a shock as I would never have chosen Japan because of the difficult language and the still more difficult task of evangelizing here. Thank God I had no say in the appointment because now I am so grateful to God for bringing me to a beautiful Country and a wonderful people. I am the pastor of a small community of just over 400 Catholics about 30 minutes from Fukuoka City, the main city on the Island of Kyushu. This is the most westerly of the 4 main Islands of Japan. I’m just a 2 hour drive from Nagasaki.

When I arrived here over 40 years ago there were almost 100 Columbans working in 4 Dioceses. Now we are down to about 16 and still working in the same areas. The Columbans grew out of the Diocesan Priesthood in Ireland so most Columbans around the World are active in parish work. A number of men have specialized in justice and peace issues, the family apostolate, catechetics and interreligious dialogue. Over the years the majority of us have been engaged in starting or maintaining Eucharistic Communities that are agents of evangelization (Parishes). There are less than half a million Japanese Catholics and maybe another few hundred thousand non-Japanese mainly from South America and the Philippines. That is a very small group in a population of 125 million. So you see that we have no clout, no power, no prestige, nothing but the Gospel. Every year there is a small trickle of people being baptized but the reality is that there are no more Catholics in the Country today than there were at the time of St Francis Xavier 400 years ago. So ‘success’ in Japan is not measured in terms of baptisms. Maybe it can only be measured in terms of fidelity. Throughout the length and breath of this land small communities are gathering to celebrate the Eucharist. They believe for people who do not believe and pray for people who do not pray. They are the leaven in the dough of Japan.

But one would have to say from looking at the beauty of this land and its people that God’s Holy Spirit was here a long time before St Francis Xavier landed. There is much to admire in their spirit of sacrifice, their sense of solidarity, their great patience, gentleness, work ethic, honesty and generosity. Most would consider themselves Buddhist and/or Shinto. Most houses would have an altar where the ancestors are honored and prayed to. But I think that for many it is more a cultural thing and visits to the temple or shrine are confined to weddings, funerals, Children’s Day blessings and festivals. On the other hand for the Christian the Faith is an ‘every-day-all- day’ affair with our Lord. Perhaps one of the things that non Christians admire most is the great sense of hope that they experience when they attend a Christian Funeral. And of course that’s the bottom line! That’s the good news!

What has been the effect of the recent tragedy on Japan?

There is no doubt that the recent earthquake in the North-Eastern part of Japan is the greatest disaster to hit here since the war. They say that looking at photos or watching the T.V. cannot compare to the horror experienced on actually visiting the devastated area. Even so, I found it shocking, upsetting and depressing. I could only think of the many photographs of Nagasaki and Hiroshima flattened by the atomic bombs. What had been vibrant towns and fishing villages were swept clean. Nothing left over ground except the foundations of houses. No life! A waste land! The quake was huge but of course it was the tsunami that did the most damage. As of today the figures read:
Death Toll 14,517
Missing 11,432
Injured 5,314

Easy to see that tsunamis aren’t into taking prisoners! 92.5% of the victims of this quake were drowned. 65% were over 60 year of age. Many will never turn up as they were swept out to sea. And many of those who survived have been unable to look for their missing loved ones because of the fear of radiation.

After the quake the teachers at a kindergarten got their charges safely outdoors and into orderly rows in the playground as practiced so often in the drills. They were probably quite pleased that things had gone so well according to plan! But then the water was upon them and swept them all away. Many people drowned in their cars stuck in traffic jams. The power and size of the tsunami can be imagined by the sight of a mercedes benz sitting perfectly parked atop a three story apartment building, by the sight of a ferry equally well docked on the roof of a two story building and by the fact that it raced 49 kilometers up a river valley carrying all before it.

The Industry Minister called this area devastated by the quake the manufacturing hub of the country. The damage was so great that the national industrial production plunged 15.3% because of severe supply chain disruptions and power shortages. The effects were felt worldwide as this area exports vast amounts of electronic goods. The car industry was particularly hard hit. Domestic production at Toyota and Honda factories fell by 63% and by 25% at six other automakers.

Has there been much of an impact on your area?

Fortunately I live about 1,000 miles west of the quake area so that we were not affected directly. People however are worried about the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear plant if it escalates. This is tourist country catering to Korean and Chinese visitors. The hot spring areas have seen a drop of 40% in reservations. There has been a drop of 34% in foreigners landing at Narita. In Korea people have been going around wearing masks and staying indoors when it rained. When they do visit Fukuoka they are amazed to see everyone going about their business as usual as if to say ‘what earthquake?’ But still 74% of the factories in Fukuoka have been adversely affected. Of course the Paddy’s Day parades were all cancelled and it was noticeable how little merrymaking there was when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. Our Easter party is always a joyful affair but this year it was rather subdued and many Churches had none. There is a feeling in the country that it is not proper to be enjoying ones self when part of the country is suffering. A number of people I know were putting off their eagerly awaited trips abroad for that reason. I encouraged them to go ahead with their planned trip and enjoy it as the quake had its fill of victims already.

Rumors and ignorance cause great hardship at a time like this. So it is very important for officials to give accurate information all the time. This has not been the case. Very often people did not know what to believe. Vegetables and milk from the immediate area of the Fukushima power plant were declared to be contaminated. But farmers from areas over 100 kilos away but from the same Prefecture have trouble selling their produce which are perfectly safe. People from that area who are travelling find that they are refused accommodation at hotels. Children who have been evacuated find that when they go to their new school no one will sit near them and they are bullied. Delivery companies from Fukushima have had to rent vans and trucks to make their deliveries because people are afraid of anything with a Fukushima number plate. Fishermen who managed to resurrect their boats find they are limited in where they can fish and even then their catch is suspect.

What about the nuclear reactor crisis?

The greatest worry and crisis facing the country is of course the situation at the Fukushima power plant run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). It’s a total disaster and a monument to the arrogance of the politicians and TEPCO who built this ‘Frankenstein’ in a place that experiences the lion’s share of the big earthquakes that occur worldwide. This was against the wishes of many of the local people. Political and company bigwigs and experts were there to assure them that there was nothing to worry about. Several days after the Tsunami had devastated the place the TEPCO blog (if that’s the word) was still assuring one and all that there was nothing whatsoever to worry about from a tsunami as they had done all the tests and the computers had given the o.k. Of course the computer was no bigger than the imaginations of those who fed it information. After the disaster they tried to absolve themselves by talking of ‘the unpredictable scale of the tsunami’.

The reactors did in fact withstand the quake but the cooling system was damaged and the back up measures were destroyed by the tsunami. This caused the reactors and spent fuel to overheat and release radioactive material into the atmosphere. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency reported recently that the nuclear fuel pellets are believed to have partially melted. They believe this was the cause of the hydrogen explosion that did so much damage to the structure. In an effort to keep the reactors cool huge amounts of water, initially seawater, were pumped onto the facility which continued to leak. Much of this leaked into the sea and more was pumped into the sea before fishermen and nearby countries objected. Now they have to store it but they have to pump out 25,000 tons of highly contaminated water to allow the workmen to get close enough to repair the cooling system. The total amount of contaminated water is about 70,000 tons. A total meltdown like Chernobyl is unlikely if the water is kept flowing.

It is a very difficult task for the poor workers who are the ones at the coal face trying to tame the monster. The heat is great in their protective suits and they are working in 94% to 99% humidity. Imagine what that will be like in the summer furnace and indoors! TEPCO aim to bring the crippled plant to a stable condition, known as ‘cold shutdown’, within 6 to 9 months. They hope to have things under control in about one and a half to two years. If all goes well!! And then what?

They say that the soil around the plant is highly contaminated with radioactive cesium which has a half life of about 30 years. What of the poor residents of the 20 kilometer no-go area now living in shelters? Those that found a house or apartment to move to found that they could not get any removal company willing to enter the restricted area for fear of radiation. A few days ago the top brass of TEPCO turned up at the evacuation centers to apologize to the evacuees. They got a hot reception. Much has been written about the patience of the Japanese in the face of adversity but even that has its breaking point. We are well past that point now. Governor Sato was in tears as he demanded to know when he could tell the children that they could go home. “I don’t want to hear the words ‘unpredictable scale of the tsunami’ anymore” he scolded.

The ongoing crisis at the plant is rated 7 on a scale of 1 to 7. There are 6 reactors at the plant and only one is undamaged. I think it was out of service at the time of the quake. They say radiation levels are dropping around the reactors and that is good news. There is deep distrust of the companies engaged in producing energy this way as they have consistently failed to report many accidents at the plants to the local and national Governments as they are required to do.

The Irish Embassy does a great job keeping Irish citizens informed about the situation. Every few days I get an e-mail with the latest news. They have made potassium iodide available to Irish citizens living in the prefectures around Fukushima if they request it.

What has been the response to the tragedy in Japan?

After the quake there were 240,000 people living in school gyms and classrooms. The authorities had to immediately set about finding sufficient open ground to build temporary housing. I guess a lot parks will be covered with this housing for quite some time to come. At the moment there are about 150,000 people in shelters waiting to be placed somewhere.

The clean-up is an enormous task. I have no idea how they are they going to dispose of these great mountains of collapsed houses, trees, every class of lumber, miles of plastic housing, smashed fishing boats etc? The American Army along with the Japanese Defense Force did trojan work in rescuing people, clearing roads and searching for the missing and the dead. There is no shortage of volunteers. People are great. In Japan we are now entering ‘Golden Week’. It is a time where a number of national holidays come together so everything closes down for a week or so. People look forward to this rare chance to go on a trip somewhere with family or friends. A young girl from Tokyo has cancelled her plans and is heading to the quake area to help in any way she can. ‘With so many people suffering I just felt I had to do something’ she said. There are many like her.

Discussions are well under way about compensating those who have lost everything. It is going to be particularly expensive for those who have lost their homes and livelihoods because of the radiation. They say it is going to cost billions of dollars. This is something that a country with one of the biggest national debts in the world can ill afford. The task of identifying the dead is enormous and 1,500 dentists from all over the country have been helping with this. It’s distressing work. Some have become ill from the stress. ‘The job comes with so much sorrow’ said one dentist ‘but the desire to return the victims to their families keeps me going.’ A relative of a victim who had been identified in this way said to a dentist ‘I wanted to give my loved one a peaceful place to rest. Thank you!’ Of course all the livestock in the now restricted area had to be put down and that must also have been very distressing to the owners.

Energy is obviously a problem still. I was in Tokyo for a meeting two days after the quake and a few weeks later. On both occasions a system of rolling blackouts was in operation to save energy. I presume it still is. This is going to be a big problem in the summer, especially if it is anything like last year when many people died of heat stroke.

The cherry blossoms did bloom again however and the factories are up and running again to some extent. The Schools have had their graduation ceremonies in the midst of the chaos and now have got their new scholastic year under way .They say that no matter how big the disaster it is also a time of opportunity. The reconstruction of the north-east of Japan will bring a welcome economic boom. The local governments are also planning how to go about rebuilding for the modern age with all its environmental problems not to mention protection from a tsunami of ‘unimagined scale’. We are all being encouraged to buy products from that part of Japan.?Every little bit helps. The people are generous and vast sums have been donated by the ordinary ‘Sean citizen’.

What has been the role of the Church in responding to the crisis?

Caritas Japan has opened an office in all the cities affected by the quake. Shortly after the quake we had a meeting with our Bishop to discuss what might be done. Collections of course was an obvious thing. But also it was decided to check what church properties were vacant and suitable for putting up evacuees. A questionnaire was also put around the parishes to see if any of the Christians had such accommodation available or were prepared to take someone into their homes. There have already been some positive responses to that request in this area. Then there is also prayer. I think it was Tennyson who said ‘more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of!’ About 20 minutes from here in the city of Kurume there is a wonderful Catholic general hospital. They have over a thousand beds and a nursing College attached with over 350 student nurses. They sent 60 nurses and doctors to the stricken area. Two nuns who are doctors also went off to help from the Goto Islands off Nagasaki.

This is not really much of an answer as I’m writing as I think and I am very limited in my understanding of things. We are a very small flock in Japan. Every time my sister visited here she would say that it was like visiting the church of ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. The Christians have a great sense of community and they do everything. There is an enormous pool of talent there not to mention the Holy Spirit! When the Christians are trusted and active the Church is alive.

Despite the small numbers the influence of the Church goes away beyond those numbers because it has contact with so many people through kindergartens, schools, universities, hospitals etc. This is a wonderful country but it is far from perfect. It has a lot of problems. As the prophets of old were the conscience of Israel maybe that is a big part of our role here. A voice in the wilderness declaring that every human being is a child of God, His masterpiece, His treasure, from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death and as such is precious and to be treated with respect. We are witnesses that man is not just a rational animal but a spiritual being and that man is only fully alive when he is sparking on all cylinders. I think a lot of people in Ireland also are only half alive…spiritually starving!!!

During a graduation ceremony shortly after the quake a middle school student in a short address to the assembly said ‘……This act from heaven is altogether too heavy. But we do not hold a grudge against heaven because it is our mission to bear this burden and go on living……’