This March 11th will mark 3 years since the triple disaster in northern Japan. Last November I took a trip to the coastal area where the tsunami damage was so great. A friend and I rented a car and drove up the coast, and saw the scars left by the tsunami. Many villages/towns –where houses once stood and fishing businesses once thrived, are now gone. It brought tears to my eyes to see this beautiful coast so changed and so desolate. We also saw lots of trucks transporting soil – part of the government plan to raise the sunken land and rebuild communities.
It is easy to forget when living in other parts of Japan that life is still very difficult and insecure for people on the northern coast. There are still close to 100,000 people living in temporary housing, and also many unable to find jobs. Increased rates of depression, suicide, divorce, domestic violence are taking a toll on communities there.
There are also signs of hope. We visited social workers and other community leaders who are doing what they can to bring hope and life back to these communities.
We visited Naomi, a family friend, and a librarian at a local College. She was at school when the disaster struck. The college is on top of a hill and it served as an evacuation center, where helicopters brought people who were rescued. Naomi stayed at school helping with relief efforts for the next ten days – finally returning home only after the initial emergency efforts were over. Naomi now has a project of planting flower gardens throughout the city of Ishinomaki, to bring some color to the town.
We drove further up the coast to Kessenuma, once one of the most thriving fishing towns. This city was one of the hardest hit by the tsunami and also the fires caused by oil spills. The areas hit by the tsunami are completely flat – few buildings remain and the rubble and debris have been removed by now. The large ship that drifted inland by force of the tsunami (you may have seen photos of it in the news) had finally been removed a few days before our visit.
In Kesennuma we visited Yumiko, a young woman who at the time of the earthquake, had just returned home after several years of working in Tokyo, ready to begin life back in her hometown. Two weeks after her return, the disaster hit. She has now become a leader, helping to build a community center – The Marine Center. We visited the center – a beautiful log cabin type structure, built using local woods. The center serves a meeting hall, an activity hall for senior citizens, and also a culture center – to preserve and keep alive the culture and history of life in this coastal region.
On our walk through Ishinomaki, we met a Buddhist priest, whose temple survived the tsunami, being far enough away from the coast. However the temple had quite a bit of earthquake damage. And in the temple cemetery, many of the gravestones were knocked over and then damaged when bulldozers and other large vehicles came through during rescue efforts. The priest has restored the gravestones and placed them back as best as he could. The whole coastal area now is desolate – weeds growing in lots where houses once stood. The ocean winds are harsher now with no buildings or trees that once served as a buffer. The community has dispersed, and there is not much activity there. The temple is one place people still have reason to visit – to visit the family grave, bringing flowers, or for rituals at the temple. The area also attracts “tourists” – those who come to see for themselves, the aftermath of the disaster. There are actually guided bus tours now coming through, especially on weekends. The priest said he thinks it is good that people come. But he wished they would get off the bus and stay a while. So he had just completed a “Prayer garden” at the temple cemetery, where people of all faiths can sit and pray – to remember those who lost their lives, and offer prayers for healing, and for the future of this community.
In our busy lives, may we “stop and stay for a while” – meet people, listen to their stories, and offer prayers together for peace and healing. May the peace of God be with all communities rebuilding from disaster.
Martha Mensendiek serves at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan through the Council on Cooperative Mission. Martha is a Teacher of social welfare.