Caritas volunteers preparing food for the survivors of Japan's tsunami and earthquake. Credit: Caritas Japan

Bishop Isao Kikuchi, President of Caritas Japan, was elected President of Caritas Asia only two days before the devastating 11 March earthquake and tsunami in Japan. He tells Stefan Teplan from Caritas Germany about the Caritas response to the disaster and about his hopes and ambitions for Caritas Asia.

How did has the recent disaster affected you personally and in your work with Caritas?
First and most, the Tsunami-affected area is my home town. I was born in Miyako city where my father used to be a catechist. No family members are there now. Miyako city is one of several coastal cities which were badly damaged by the tsunami. People knew that the area was tsunami-prone and they were well prepared. But the wave was much more than what scientists had been predicting for many years. The experience really taught me that we are nothing against the power of Mother Nature. We are just powerless creatures held in the palm of the Creator. As for Caritas Japan, Japan is well known among Asian countries as a rich country and, therefore, the Government is ever-ready to respond to disasters. But this time, it has been completely different. The Government was overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and unable to respond as they should have been doing. So this disaster needs us to take more concrete action in the field. This is quite challenging to Caritas Japan, which is a small organisation.

In your blog you recently mentioned the problems which NGOs in general, and Caritas in particular, are facing to respond to the disaster in Japan. Can you explain in detail why Caritas Japan is having difficulties to reach the most affected areas?
The concept of NGOs is quite foreign in Japanese society and still new. Even for the idea of being a volunteer acquired its recognition in wider society only in 1995 when a massive earthquake struck Kobe. Though the Japanese foreign ministry has a lot of experience of working with several international NGOs, including Caritas, in developing countries, it still considers NGOs as an alternative political power against authority. Therefore, the government is not so interested in working with NGOs but they prefer to use them under supervision and direction. So in general in Japan, disaster relief is the responsibility of the public sector while private sector and civil society would be given permission to be employed under the supervision of the authorities after sometime.
The Japanese Government does not declare an emergency for disasters, therefore, laws and regulations of ordinary times are in force. For example, NGOs would not receive a permit to travel along closed roads to reach the affected area, whereas the police, military and other government agencies receive police permits. We received a call from police saying that they might grant us the permit only ten days after the disaster struck. There are exceptions, of course, especially for internationally famous organisations such as the Red Cross or Médecins Sans Frontières, but not for Caritas yet. Also the government is hesitant to cooperate with religious organisations such as Caritas Japan because of the Constitutional clause of the separation of religion and government.

What can/should be done to overcome these obstacles?
Several NGOs in Japan formed an association to continue to have dialogue with the Government so that they do recognise our potential. As for Caritas Japan, since the Catholic Church in Japan is a tiny minority and we do not have a consolidated organisation for Caritas as such, it is very difficult to take visible action all the time, but we have worked with other NGOs in Japan to negotiate with the Government so far.

What are the long-term goals for the rehabilitation phase of Caritas’ response to the disaster?
From our experiences in Kobe (1995) and Niigata (2004) earthquakes, it takes more than two years for people to return to normal life. The Government will provide temporary housing for victims for two years according to the present regulations. We will support their lives in temporary housing for the next two years not through material goods, which will be provided by government, but through individual visits and spiritual care. There is a tremendous number of people who lost their loved ones or friends and are suffering from psychological problems. Caritas and the Catholic Church would be able to offer them support. The Government will be in charge of providing material reliefs. We will be in charge of providing spiritual care.

Caritas member organisations have expressed solidarity and support to Caritas Japan in the rehabilitation process. What message would you like to give them and which kind of international collaboration will be most needed and most fruitful?
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all of you, our friends in the Caritas confederation, and through you, to all the good people who showed their willingness to support Japan during the time of this disaster with prayers, messages and donations. A tremendous number of e-mails we received in our office in Tokyo reminded us that we are not living in solitude but in solidarity. As St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “All of you are Christ’s body, and each one is a part of it.” We really feel that we are all united as a part of one body, Jesus Christ.
As for international collaboration, I would like to ask you to come to visit the affected area and meet people once they begin to start to go back to their normal lives and let them know that they are remembered by friends all over the world. Probably the government will try to be in charge of the reconstruction efforts of cities and towns and NGOs may not have much role to play in that efforts. However, we will try to be engaged in the spiritual and psychological side of rehabilitation for which we may need your support.

As President of Caritas Asia, what are your main goals and the biggest challenges you are going to tackle?
The majority of countries in Asia are aid receiving countries but Caritas Asia would like to provide a platform for Asian people to cooperate and support each other and also become providers of development by ourselves. In Asia, the Catholic Church is a minority in many countries and a number of Caritas organisations are still in the developing stage. I would like to help these young Caritas so that they could become a main actor in Caritas activities in Asia in near future.

What would you say is the most essential feature that distinguishes Caritas from other NGOs?
What we are providing is not only material advancement but we are trying to make each person fully capable to respond to the call from God, which is their own unique vocation. Keeping each person’s unique vocations from God in our mind is one of the important features of Caritas activities. Then we are always with people. We are there before the disaster, during the disaster and after the disaster. We are not just a visitor but we are always a part of local community and that is one of the unique characteristics of Caritas.

In your blog on the catastrophe in Japan you said that not only aid but also prayer is needed. What are the spiritual aspects of Caritas aid to you?
Our strength is that we are based on Catholic teaching that is why we are able to provide both material advancement and spiritual advancement at the same time. We are not working only for the purpose of development or rehabilitation alone but we do work because we want to grow together with other people. Caritas has been able to bring hope for the future to many people because we do have hope in faith within ourselves.

Confronted with big disasters as the one which has struck Japan, there are people who tend to lose their faith in a merciful God. As a bishop, what would you answer them?
Natural disasters on such a scale really give us time to ponder who we are. Though we do not know why such a misery has to be brought into our lives and it might be impossible to find answers, we know for sure that recovery from the disaster gives us a lot of opportunity to ponder and understand the meaning of our lives, find the importance of human relationships and the richness of helping each other. Many of these important elements of human life have been missing from modern advanced society. So even if we do not understand the reason behind the disaster, at least we are given chances to rediscover these important elements in our lives.

Faced with the incidents in Fukushima, some politicians are reconsidering the risks of nuclear power. Is there a revaluation like this in Japan and especially among churchmen?
The Justice and Peace Commission has been talking about the risk for quite some time. However, there are divided arguments even among Catholics in Japan, weather one is pro or con. It is now becoming quite a sensitive issue and some people are trying to connect this issue to quite a nationalistic ideology, even among Catholics. After so many years with nuclear power plants in Japan, modern society has been constructed as a one set of systems with such power supply. Therefore speaking out against nuclear energy is like being opposed to present the lifestyle of Japan. And making an amendment to the life-style of the majority of people is not easy. But the present crisis may give us an opportunity to step into this difficult field to begin a discussion over our life-style.