Pope Francis on Monday met with victims of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan, a day after railing against the destructive power of nuclear weapons in the atomic bomb-hit cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The gathering in Tokyo was set because the pope wanted to meet with those who suffered from what he calls the “triple disaster” involving the quake, tsunami and the meltdown of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
In the first papal visit to Japan in 38 years, conducted under the theme of Protect All Life, the pope had wanted to visit disaster-hit areas but could not because of his full schedule, according to people close to him.
Three victims were to recount to him their experiences — a high school student who fled to Tokyo from the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture, the head of a kindergarten in Iwate Prefecture who lost a student in the tsunami, and a Buddhist priest who survived the disasters.
The event came ahead of separate meetings with Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scheduled for later in the day in the Japanese capital.
The pope will also hold a Mass at Tokyo Dome, a 55,000-seat stadium, later Monday, a day after calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
In a meeting with bishops at the Vatican’s Embassy in Tokyo on Saturday, the pope mentioned victims of the March 2011 disasters and those of recent calamities, including Typhoon Hagibis, which left a trail of destruction in central, eastern and northeastern Japan last month.
“It is our duty to help people who suffer,” said the 82-year-old Argentine, who is on a four-day trip through Japan that wraps up Tuesday.
The pope will later pay a private visit to Emperor Naruhito at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Although this will be the first encounter between the two leaders, this is not the first between the emperor and a pontiff.
Before becoming crown prince, the emperor met Pope John Paul II in 1984 while on a visit to the Vatican during his student days in Britain.
In a Monday evening meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, Abe and the pope will exchange views on issues related to North Korea, Japanese government officials said.
The two are expected to call for the full denuclearization of North Korea, while Abe is likely to seek the pope’s cooperation in addressing Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.