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Japan: Progress, despite damage

 
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April 26, 2011


Volunteers from the Emmaus Center in Sendai, Japan, clear debris from around an abandoned car in Ishinomaki. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Rev. Claudia Genung-Yamamoto, NCCJ.
Volunteers from the Emmaus Center in Sendai, Japan, clear debris from
around an abandoned car in Ishinomaki. A UMNS photo courtesy of the
Rev. Claudia Genung-Yamamoto, NCCJ. View in Photo Gallery

A month after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan, the neighborhood around Eiko Church in Ishinomaki remained mired in mud.

Still, there were signs of progress in one of the coastal cities hardest hit on March 11 by the tsunami, even as occasional aftershocks shook the ground.

Running water had been restored a few days earlier. The church, part of the United Church of Christ in Japan, had just reopened its kindergarten, although some of the 50 children enrolled there had not returned. The church itself still bore watermarks from the floodwaters.

Volunteers sent by the Emmaus Center in Sendai, where Japanese Christians have organized relief efforts, were shoveling mud — thickened with pulp from a nearby paper factory — out of homes. One group tried to clear a path to remove an abandoned car stuck between two houses — one of many such cars littering the streets.

The Rev. Minoru Kobuna, pastor of Eiko Church, led a small delegation of Christians from Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan through the neighborhood. A stench of mud, trash and seawater penetrated the air, and he suggested the visitors might want to wear masks to cover their noses and mouths, as many locals did.

Christians from Japan and Asian neighbors already have sent money, prayers and support for earthquake survivors in the Tōhoku region, says the Rev. Claudia Genung-Yamamoto, a Tokyo-based United Methodist missionary who accompanied the group. Churches in Taiwan also sent much-needed bicycles, which allow volunteers to reach areas near the ocean.

Now, after the delegation’s visit during the week of April 11, members are considering next steps.

A May 5-7 conference in Seoul, South Korea, on aid to Japan will include representatives of church partners from around the world. Melissa Crutchfield, the executive in charge of international relief for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, will attend on behalf of her agency.

Survivors face uncertainty

The National Police Agency of Japan has confirmed 14,238 deaths from the March 11 disaster, mostly by drowning. More than 5,000 were injured, and 12,228 are listed as missing.

But the survivors, including some 150,000 living in evacuation sites across the country, continue to deal with uncertainty.

The fear of radiation contamination continues since Japanese authorities raised the crisis level at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to Level 7, putting it on par with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Some people cannot return to their homes. Farming, fishing and other industries have been crippled.


The Revs. Minoru Kobuna (center) and Claudia Genung-Yamamoto view damage from the earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Rev. Claudia Genung-Yamamoto, NCCJ.
The Revs. Minoru Kobuna (center) and Claudia Genung-Yamamoto view damage from the earthquake and tsunami
in Ishinomaki. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Rev. Claudia
Genung-Yamamoto, NCCJ. View in Photo Gallery

The needs of basic relief assistance — hot meals, sanitation and medical and psychosocial care — “still remain as a big issue,” said Takeshi Komino, head of emergencies for Church World Service Asia Pacific. A CWS team recently returned from another assessment tour of the earthquake region.

Because of the impact of the damage to both the infrastructure and the people, supplemental relief efforts by nongovernmental aid groups remain crucial, he said.

Trauma from the disaster can resurface quickly. “During our team's interviews, we also came across a survivor who seemed to be really outgoing at the beginning, but suddenly started to weep for the dead, indicating how she could not save them at the time of tsunami,” Komino wrote on April 23. “We are facing tens of thousands of such people who need careful attention.”

Residents are trying to do what they can, as the CWS team learned from 60-year-old Misato Taira at the disaster volunteer center in the Otomo section of Rikuzentakata, another town nearly washed away by the tsunami.

Taira, a former construction worker, helps transport relief goods by truck for one of the CWS relief partners. He and his family — mother, wife and son — are living in one of the tents set up near the houses that still stand in his neighborhood. He is not sure what the future holds for them or their two dogs, since he has heard that pets are not allowed in temporary housing locations.

Response by church partners

CWS Asia Pacific has signed a partnership agreement with the National Christian Council in Japan for emergency response, recovery and other humanitarian initiatives, and an office has been established in the council’s compound in Tokyo.

The council, along with the United Church of Christ in Japan and Korean Christian Council in Japan, already supports the church-directed relief work that has made the Emmaus Center in Sendai a hub of activity.

Every Thursday night, 70 to 80 representatives of churches in the area gather to pray and discuss activities of the newly formed Sendai Alliance of Churches for Relief Work.

“None of us are experts (on relief work), but we have gathered volunteers and have been reaching out to the community,” Rev. Jeffrey Mensendiek, a United Church of Christ missionary, told the visiting delegation of Asian church partners. Mensendiek serves as director of the youth center at Emmaus.

For example, as the cherry blossoms bloomed April 18, the center started its fifth week of hosting and coordinating volunteers from all over Japan, Mensendiek reported in his regular email update.


Workers clear debris from the damaged port at Rikuzentakata. A UMNS photo by Takeshi Komino, CWS-Asia/Pacific.
Workers clear debris from the damaged port at Rikuzentakata.
A UMNS photo by Takeshi Komino, CWS-Asia/Pacific.
View in Photo Gallery

“Each morning we have a meeting at 8:30 a.m. before sending the volunteers out on their bicycles heading for Shichigo,” he wrote. “Today, we only had 35 bicycles for about 45 people. Each day new people join us. There is tremendous energy in the air. Young people are at the center of the planning and organizing.”

For the Emmaus Center — started 60 years ago by missionaries of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and supported for 30 years by the Methodist Church — their participation is a product of the years of commitment to serving young people in Sendai, he added.

“I want our churches in the U.S. to know that the seeds we planted in faith have taken root in so many young people in this country,” Mensendiek wrote. “God is alive in each of them, whether they know it or not. And we are blessed to be a sign of hope to the world.”

Signs of hope

In Ishinomaki, another sign of hope is that worship never stopped at Eiko Church, even though one of the 21 congregants was lost in the tsunami and only three people came the first Sunday after the disaster. Gradually, people have returned to the neighborhood, cleaning up what is left of their homes.

Genung-Yamamoto said she felt “an incredible sadness” as she thought about the lives lost in towns such as Ishinomaki.

However, on Easter Sunday, she told her congregation at West Tokyo Union Church that she was inspired by the signs of hope she saw amid the devastation, including a “cross of comfort” erected at the site of a church washed away by the tsunami.

“I saw groups of Christians working together,” she said. “Theological differences are not an issue now as everyone pulls together. It is spring, and new life and new hope come. Out of the mud will come new growth.”

Donations to the UMCOR’s relief efforts for Japan can be made here.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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