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In Japan, Francis might be at odds with government on nuclear power, peace via National Catholic Reporter

by Joshua J. McElwee

Most attention during Pope Francis’ trip to Japan later in the month will likely focus on the significance of his visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the strong call he is expected to make for the global abolition of nuclear weapons from the only cities once devastated by atomic bombs.

But prominent local Catholics and political experts say Francis may also address a host of other issues that could make the journey politically sensitive, and even place the pope publicly at odds with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative government.

The two largest issues: the government’s plan to restart the country’s nuclear power generation capability, despite the long-lasting effects of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and Abe’s attempts to revise Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution.

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The Catholic Church in Japan, while representing less than a half of a percent of the country’s population, has been a leader in its opposition to the government, especially regarding nuclear power and the possible revision of the peace constitution.

When Abe pushed through legislation in 2015 allowing the Japanese military to participate in foreign conflicts, despite overwhelming consensus that the measures were unconstitutional, the conference’s justice and peace council wrote a public, formal “statement of protest” addressed to the prime minister.

And as some nuclear power plants were brought back online in the years following the Fukushima disaster, the bishops’ conference wrote an open message in 2016 to “inform the world of the hazards of nuclear power generation and appeal for its abolition.”

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Francis will be visiting Japan Nov. 23-26, after first spending four days in Thailand. It is his fourth visit to Asia during his six-year papacy, following visits to South Korea in 2014, Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 2015, and Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017.

Abe has been keen for Francis to visit Japan for years, first inviting the pope to the country during a June 2014 trip to the Vatican.

Francis is scheduled to undertake a large number of events over his three-day trip. After landing in Tokyo from Bangkok in the evening of Nov. 23, he will travel some 1,600 miles on Nov. 24 alone, heading to Nagasaki and Hiroshima in one day, before heading back to Tokyo that night.

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Kajiyama said he hoped Francis would call on Abe and other world leaders to support the U.N.’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which has now been signed by 79 countries, including the Holy See.

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