Prayers for Japan

The calamities in Japan have stunned the world. Recovery will not be easy, but the Japanese have proved themselves resilient and industrious in the last 65 years. Coming back after the destruction of World War II to having now one of the world’s highest standards of living and its third-largest economy is no small feat. 

Satisfying have been reports of assistance from many other countries, including the United States. The earthquake was not a day in the past when President Barack Obama offered help. 

This pledge was no suddenly new outreach. American good will toward Japan began almost simultaneously with the end of World War II. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, began the war for this country. For almost four years, the United States and Japan were locked in a duel to the death. 

The United States prevailed, and it prevailed earlier than expected because it launched two nuclear bomb attacks on Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945. 

In victory, this country was generous and wise. President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the commander of American occupation forces, while often at odds, were together in determination not to punish the Japanese, but rather to assist them to become a prosperous, tranquil society that would eagerly ally itself with the United States. 

They allowed the ancient, highly symbolic Japanese monarchy to continue, although under significant modifications so that Japan after the war would be democratic, as it is today. Massive American aid hastened the rebuilding of industries. Today, as a result, Japan and the United States are firm friends.  

The Japanese emperor at the time, Hirohito (1901-1989), was an interesting figure. Historians still debate how much the emperor had to do with Japan’s aggressive actions in the 1930s and 1940s.  

In any case, Emperor Hirohito was the most widely traveled Japanese monarch in history. As Japan’s head of state, he represented Shinto, and he never denied that he descended from the goddess of the sun, but he knew world religions, and he had a high regard for Catholicism. (A priest, a missionary for many years in Japan, who had contacts with Hirohito, once told me that he believed that the emperor even considered converting to the Church. Of course, this conversion never occurred, but Hirohito’s uncle did become a Catholic.) 

When Pope John Paul II visited Japan 30 years ago, the emperor paid him — and the Church — unprecedented respect. 

Although less than 1 percent of the Japanese population is Catholic, much interest surrounded the pope’s visit. Reporters followed him, and much of the trip was televised live. Part of the papal itinerary included a visit to the emperor.  

Protocol historically was strict. Always visitors walked a long way through splendid rooms in Tokyo’s imperial palace, finally coming into the emperor’s presence to be received. The emperor never, ever went to anyone. The most powerful people in the world went to him, with just one exception. 

Cameras caught Pope John Paul II’s limousine as it slowly entered the grounds of the palace and proceeded to the entrance. This was the exception. There, at the palace’s great ceremonial doorway, the emperor himself was standing on the threshold! Never before in history had a Japanese monarch paid such extraordinary respect to any visitor. 

It was said that Hirohito’s gesture in this regard caused the Japanese to talk for weeks. Who was this visitor, this “pope”? What did he represent? Apparently, the emperor thought that Pope John Paul II represented something magnificent. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.