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Japan: The Tsunami, God and Man

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

“The tsunami was a punishment from Heaven.” Who said this? A European representative of the Catholic Church or a foot-in-mouth Asian politician? Both actually!
A few days after the disaster that killed more than ten thousand people, Italian vice-president of the National Research Council (CNR) Roberto De Mattei and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara left the Italian and the Japanese blogosphere astounded when they declared that the catastrophe occurred as a manifestation of God’s will.

Tsunami devastation in Sendai's Wakabayashi district, Japan, 14 March, 2011. By Flickr user robertodevido (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Tsunami devastation in Sendai's Wakabayashi district, Japan, 14 March, 2011. By Flickr user robertodevido (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Hosting a radio program broadcast on Radio Maria, the Vatican’s radio channel, professor De Mattei commented on the earthquake and tsunami quoting (in the present tense) words that an Archbishop of a small town in southern Italy said at the beginning of the 20th century.

[...] osserva l'arcivescovo di Rossano calabro, le catastrofi sono talora esigenza della giustizia di dio, della quale sono giusti castighi.
E un giorno [...] ci accorgeremo che per molte di quelle vittime che oggi compiangiamo il terremoto è stato un battesimo di sofferenza che ha purificato la loro anima da tutte le macchie anche le più lievi, e grazie a questa morte tragica, la loro anima è volata al cielo dio ha voluto risparmiarle un triste avvenire.

As the Archbishop of Rossano Calabro observes, catastrophes are sometimes a proof of God’s justice, of which they are the fair punishments.
And one day, […] we will realize that for many victims of the earthquake we are mourning today, it was a baptism of suffering that purified their soul from every stain, even the lightest, and thanks to this tragic death their souls have flown to Heaven because God wanted to save them from a sad future.

On the other side of the world from the Vatican, in Japan, a similarly ‘sensitive’ Tokyo Governor. Ishihara, renowned for his often racist and homophobic gaffes, said [ja] that the disaster was necessary to restore the Japanese spirit. He later apologized for his remarks.

我欲に縛られて政治もポピュリズムでやっている。それを(津波で)一気に押し流す必要がある。積年たまった日本人の心のあかを [...] 被災者の方々はかわいそうですよ

Japanese politics is tainted with egoism and populism. We need to use the tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time. [...] Although I feel sorry for the disaster victims.

Dismayed by such cynical words pronounced both by an authority in the Italian scientific world and an authority in the Japanese political scene, bloggers from both countries reacted.

An online petition to demand National Research Council’s vice-president resignation began circulating.

Chiediamo al Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche le dimissioni del Prof. Roberto de Mattei, vicepresidente del CNR per l'evidente incompatibilità con l'incarico conferitogli e le sue affermazioni che lo pongono al di fuori del pensiero razionale e esperienza e comprensione del mondo mediata dal metodo scientifico.

We demand of the National Research Council (CNR), professor and CNR vice-president Roberto de Mattei’s resignation for the obvious incompatibility between his position and his statements. These put him beyond the rational reasoning, experience and comprehension of the world as mandated by scientific methodology.

Blogger Giovanni Boaga, in favor of the petition, said prof. De Mattei can personally believe whatever he wants but should be conscious of the responsibilities related to his public role.

La preoccupazione è grande e chi di noi, nonostante tutti i tentativi demolitori messi in campo dall’attuale classe dirigente, guarda alla cultura scientifica come al solo strumento efficace di navigazione e orientamento nel difficile mare di questi problemi, si aspetta che dagli esponenti di punta della ricerca italiana venga una ventata di razionalità e intelligenza che spinga la barca delle nostre traballanti convinzioni nella direzione giusta.

Many of us are worried these days and, despite all the attempts by our current leaders
to demolish our scientific culture as an effective tool to navigate and orient ourselves in the difficult sea of these problems, we expect from the most important representatives of the Italian scientific world a breath of rationality and intelligence that guides the boat of our thoughts and beliefs in the right direction.

Si rimane, quindi, letteralmente senza fiato nell’ascoltare le parole del vicepresidente del CNR Roberto De Mattei che, ai microfoni di Radio Maria, ha commentato le terribili notizie che arrivano dal Giappone. Con voce calma propria di chi sembra riflettere prima di parlare, apparentemente consapevole del ruolo centrale che il Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, la più grande struttura pubblica con compiti scientifici nel nostro paese, ha nella società italiana, De Mattei ha ritenuto di non dover affrontare le questioni scientifico-tecnologiche legate alla tragedia giapponese. Ha preferito non parlare delle soluzioni che la comunità al lavoro sotto la sua direzione è in grado di fornire per assicurare all’Italia un approvvigionamento energetico con rischi limitati e ai cittadini di questo paese gli strumenti per non rimanere vittime delle conseguenze di un terremoto. Certo De Mattei non parlava dai microfoni di Radio3 Scienza, ma poteva essere l’occasione, comunque, d’informare un pubblico sempre piuttosto digiuno di questioni scientifiche.

CNR vice-president Roberto de Mattei’s words left us speechless as he, at the microphones of Radio Maria, commented on the terrible news coming from Japan.
With the calm voice of a person who seems to reflect before speaking and apparently conscious of the central role that the National Research Council, – the largest public institution for scientific research in Italy – has in our society, De Mattei believed he didn’t have to deal with scientific-technological issues regarding the Japanese tragedy. He preferred not to talk about the solutions that the team of professionals under his leadership can provide Italy with the proper tools in order not to be victim of the consequences of an earthquake. Obviously De Mattei wasn’t speaking at the microphone of [the scientific program] Radio3 Scienza but nonetheless, this could have been an occasion to give some information to an audience who may know little about scientific issues.

Also a priest and university professor of theological anthropology, Marco Statzu, expressed disbelief.

in effetti le parole di De Mattei hanno fatto rivoltare anche me…

Actually De Mattei’s words turned my stomach also..

Similar comments on how natural disasters are divine warnings have been said also by personalities like American TV host Glenn Beck but many Japanese people who are strangers to the concept of divine punishment in the Christian doctrine were surprised to hear the same rhetoric coming from a politician in their own country.

Some said that Ishihara's words have been misunderstood but nonetheless he managed to anger many bloggers who said a man in his position should weight his words very carefully, especially in a period of national sorrow like this.

Ichinose, for instance, said such statement hurts those people who are struggling to survive.

天罰?
はぁ!?
おまえ何様やねん。
国民は玩具でも下僕でもないんやぞ、みんな必死に生きてんねん!!おまえらの給料と待遇に多くの罪のない国民が亡くなってるんや。
かわいそう?
はぁ!?
おまえがそれを言えるんか?
確かに心が腐ったような人間もいたかも知れへん
でも何の関係も無い、ただ幸せを手に取ろうと頑張っている人にも同じ事が言えるんか!?

Divine punishment?
Huh!?
Who the hell do you think you are?
The citizens are neither toys nor public servants. We’re all struggling to survive. So many innocent people lost their lives for you guys’ salary and benefits.
A pity?
Huh!?
Should you really be saying that?
Yea, maybe some of the people that died were cold hearted, but can you really say the same thing to the hard working people trying to reach for happiness?

Another blogger said the survivors are Japanese and working for the same Japan Ishihara criticized.

罪もない真面目な暮らしぶりであった多くの方々の尊い命が犠牲になった今回の震災、津波であった事は誰でもが容易に察しがつくところである。
このお爺さんの思考回路はどんな言い訳をしても理解出来ない。
同時に「被災者の方々、かわいそうですよ」と言ったそうだけど、その言い方も、まるで人ごとでしょう。
アンタが、そんなおごりたかぶった発言をしている間にも、自分の命を削ってまでも、日本と日本人の為に必死で闘っている人がいるんだぞ。

Anyone can understand that so many innocent hard working people lost their precious lives because of the earthquake and tsunami. This old man’s trail of thought is beyond comprehension no matter what excuses are made.
I heard he said ‘it’s a pity for the victims’, but even that expression makes it sound like someone else’s problem. Even while you’re making these patriotic comments, people are risking their lives and desperately fighting for Japan and the Japanese people.

Finally, Hideaki Matsunaga, demanded the resignation of the governor of Tokyo.

石原都知事が言いたかったことを最大限好意的に推測するとしても、ここで天罰という言葉を使う必要は全くないし、完全に不適切な発言である。この失 言一つだけでも辞職してしかるべき大失言だ。そして、このような言葉づかいしかできないというのでは、作家としても都知事としても不適格であるのみなら ず、人間としても失格である。

Even if we were to speculate what Governor Ishihara wanted to say in the most positive sense possible, there is absolutely no need to have used the words ‘divine punishment'. The statement is completely inappropriate. So inappropriate, that this statement alone is worthy of his resignation. Someone who is only able to use such wording is not just inappropriate as a writer or Governor, but is disqualified as a human being.

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

Many thanks to Rino Yamamoto who contributed to this post.
  • tony

    So the catholic church thinks this catastrophe is gods justice against hard working people,women and children.but they also say we should forgive violent criminals. the message i’m getting is good people should suffer and bad people should be forgiven That’s why the Roman church is loosing it’s credibility

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