Tagalog-speaking Indonesian priest helps Pinoys in Japan

By Ryuta Minami, Kyodo

Posted at Jan 07 2013 12:08 PM | Updated as of Jan 08 2013 01:28 AM

MORIOKA, Japan - Father Antonius Harnoko, an Indonesia missionary in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, is offering psychological and spiritual support to foreign residents in the northeastern Japan region ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Harnoko, 42, is especially helpful to Filipino residents as he speaks Tagalog and holds Masses in the language at the local churches he visits.

"Masses in Tagalog make me feel calm," says a 37-year-old Filipino woman working at a nursing-care facility in Ofunato. "I didn't expect them in Japan."

Harnoko learned Tagalog while studying in the Philippines and came to Japan in 1998 to become a Catholic priest. Working as a missionary in Tokyo and Osaka, he temporarily returned to Indonesia in December 2004 shortly before a devastating earthquake occurred in the Indian Ocean off Sumatra later in the month, claiming 220,000 lives.

Harnoko was in Java at the time and watched the catastrophe on television. "As I had to return to Japan for my church work, I could only pray to God," he recalls.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, Harnoko applied for a transfer to the damaged region from Hyogo Prefecture in western Japan and was allowed to move to Iwate in November the same year.

The regret he felt at doing nothing after the Sumatra earthquake prompted him to seek the transfer.

In the month after the transfer, Harnoko held a Mass in Tagalog at a community center in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture, for the congregation of a local church damaged by the disaster. Throughout the Mass, some Filipino participants were weeping for fear of radiation contamination from the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Filipino visitors to a church Harnoko is assigned to in Ofunato are increasing because they can express their worries to him in their native language.

On weekends, Harnoko drives his car to churches in Aomori, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures to offer Masses in Tagalog and listen to worries voiced by Filipino residents.

Foreigners in the disaster-damaged area cannot recover so easily because of cultural and linguistic barriers, Harnoko says, adding, "I will stay here for them."