As far as life right now in Tokyo … it is mostly normal, but people are still quite scared. Bottled water is hard to find, and rolling blackouts continue (the entire city is trying to save energy with the loss of the
power plant). We continue to get smaller quakes … for example, today in the middle of the 11am service (right in the middle of the sermon) we had a 5.1 quake. Then, in our 4pm contemporary service we had another one … 5.4 (again, right in the middle of the sermon). Earthquakes are normal here, but after the big one back on March 11, everyone is on edge. This is especially true for families with little children, as radiation fears continue. The US Embassy is giving out iodine pills for American citizens (I got mine last week). Many people are asking questions about faith and the big “why?” question. It’s good to really examine life in this “liminal space” that we are all in right now, even if it is frightening.
— Excerpt from an email written to Erin Dunigan by Matt Hardin, a PC(USA) minister serving as associate pastor at the Tokyo Union Church:
“Under normal circumstances we wouldn’t be considering responding in Japan” said Randy Ackley of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s (PDA) in a Webinar he hosted March 29 to discuss the unfolding crisis in Japan.
Not only is Japan one of the world’s richest and most developed countries, but also one of those best prepared for disaster.
But, given the scope of the devastation from the massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11 and the resulting radiological threat from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, these are hardly normal circumstances.
More than 260,000 evacuees endure cold weather at shelters in 16 prefectures, including Tokyo, according to the PDA assessment. More than 24,000 people are either dead or missing.
Almost immediately, PDA sent a $100,000 grant from One Great Hour of Sharing funds to Church World Service, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) partner in the region, to provide food and water to 250,000 people in over 100 evacuation sites. Half a million blankets have been distributed. Gifts of the Heart hygiene kits, assembled before the disaster, were sent to the region almost immediately.
PDA is not ‘supposed’ to be working in Japan. Japan is not supposed to need help. But today, the scope of need in Japan remains immense.
An e-mail from Anne, an American teaching English in Japan’s Sendai province, captures this strange contrast:
I am very blessed to have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend’s home. We share supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, and share stories. It is warm, friendly, and beautiful.
During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water running in their home, they put out [a] sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and buckets.
Under normal circumstances, those who have navigation screens in their cars do not also have to stand in line for water. Amid these strange contrasts, when electricity does come back on for a bit, they are able to send out a group e-mail, to tell their piece of the story.
“Is this really happening in my country of Japan?” asked Takeshi Komino, Asia/Pacific emergency response director for Church World Service Asia, who rarely spends much work-related time in his native country. This has been his first time responding to an emergency in Japan as a CWS staff member.
“As the extent of the damage became clearer, I learned that this is actually four disasters happening at once,” Komino said. They included not only the earthquake, which triggered the tsunami, which led to the partial meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, but all of it happening amid harsh winter conditions.
Komino said his government’s response was inadequate.
“The government of Japan is eager to maintain the image that their response is properly executed, but people I met in my assessment visit tell me otherwise,” he said in a prepared statement. It is not that the government is not acting, but with the threat at the nuclear plant and the half-million people living at evacuation sites, the needs are overwhelming.
“They simply don’t have government human resources to serve the most vulnerable, those who can’t even get to these evacuation sites,” Komino said.
Who will serve them?
Rev. Jim Ferry, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Garner, N.C., has been monitoring the situation in Japan via forwarded e-mails. From 1972 to 1983, Ferry and his wife lived and ministered in Japan, teaching at Shikoku Gakuin Christian University and living in Tokyo, then Kyoto.
Ferry has found himself unexpectedly moved by the situation in Japan, and frustrated with his inability to ‘do something’ about it.
“I’ve been talking to folks [in Japan], letting them know that we are praying for them, that they are in our church newsletter and on our prayer list, but it is kind of frustrating, not knowing what to do,” he said. He does what he can to facilitate communication between those who are suffering and those who seek to help.
Rev. Yoko Sojima, a pastor in Northern Japan, is one of those whom Ferry has tried to support. Sojima lost her home, and she and some of her congregation have been living in a shelter. She asked Ferry not for help for herself but for a teacher friend in the community of Kesennuma.
Kesennuma was built on a swamp hundreds of years ago. What was not wiped out by the tsunami was destroyed by fire.
“Yoko does not have much herself, but she asked for school supplies on behalf of her friend,” said Ferry. “To me that is typical of what is going on right now in Japan, a pulling together and standing together to do the best that they can.”
Ferry gathered school supplies and sent them off, not knowing whether they would make it to Sojima in the midst of continuing chaos.
“The other thing that concerns me,” he said, “is that the world moves on, and the Japan story seems to be moving to the back pages.”
Once the initial and immediate needs have been met, a long-term recovery effort must begin. What happens to those in Japan who are left to rebuild, Ferry wonders, when something new takes the international stage, as it inevitably will?
One institution that has suffered significant damage is the Asian Rural Institute, an international training center for grassroots leaders from rural areas across Southeast Asia. The ARI, one of the PC(USA)’s partner organizations in Japan, has trained over 1,130 leaders from over 51 countries to serve the poor, hungry, and marginalized in their communities.
Jim Ferry wonders if, when the time comes, helping rebuild the ARI might be one way to ‘do something’ to help not only those who are in need in Japan but also marginalized people throughout Southeast Asia.
“I still have a deep love for the people of Japan,” Ferry said. “My children were born there. My first years in ministry were there.”
As he tries to forward information, make connections and gather support, he keeps asking the underlying question: What can I do, here, to serve them?
Komino realizes that some may ask why they should help one of the world’s richest nations.
“My answer is, these people who are staying in extremely difficult conditions at the evacuation sites, they really do need everyone’s help,” he said.
The needed help includes being there when the Japanese rebuild their communities. There is a role for the government, but there is also a role for volunteers and for ordinary people. The scope of the disaster calls for the depth of the response.
“Governments can make systems and policies and repair major infrastructure, but it’s people who make communities,” said Komino.
To help with the ongoing relief efforts in Japan:
» Consider giving or increasing your gift to One Great Hour of Sharing through your local congregation
» Make a donation online: http://gamc.pcusa.org/give/DR000117/
» Visit http://gamc.pcusa.org/ministries/pda/japan/for more information
» Assemble Gifts of the Heart hygiene and baby kits.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance photographer, writer, and Web site developer who is also ordained as a designated tentmaking evangelist.