In the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012, I had opportunity to travel to Japan with Samaritan’s Purse, to rebuild homes for victims of the Tsunami of March 2011. The following are some of my thoughts that came as a result of my experience there.
The first thing that strikes you as you drive through the Watanoha district of Ishinomaki is the scope of the devastation; it quite literally takes your breath away. A medium-sized harbour city north of Sendai, where entire city blocks are simply gone, either washed away by the Tsunami of March 11, 2011, or razed because the buildings were no longer tenable.
Even worse is Minisanriku, a small fishing town just north of Ishinomaki. One word comes to mind; carnage. Surveying the destruction to this community causes your heart to rise into your throat, for you believe that you are standing in the midst of a war zone. And indeed you are, only the combatants were not sparring with missiles or tanks, but the very forces of nature itself, and the Japanese lost. A few buildings dot the landscape, huddled amidst the debris, which is still left relatively untouched after seven months. A distinctive building, what appears to be a three story apartment structure, stands at the edge of town, a blue car perched on its roof. Like the rest of the rubble in the town the vehicle remains unmolested; a dark sentinel to stand as a grim reminder of the horror that these unfortunate souls endured on that fateful day in March. In the center of the town, a skeleton of steel girders is all that survives of what was once a radio station, where brave employees continued to broadcast a warning of the approaching wave, and like dutiful soldiers refusing to abandon their posts, they sacrificed their lives in order to provide their fellow Japanese citizens with at least a chance of survival. The lone survivor of the doomed radio station managed to climb the radio antenna in order to avoid the rushing water.
As you walk through the debris, you find the stuff of everyday life; a broken tea cup, a spatula, twisted and bent, a solitary sandal, a child's rubber ducky. Items that were once serviceable, and in the case of the toy duck, even cherished. Now they riddle the landscape, and no one knows when they will ever be recovered and consigned to the growing mountains of debris that are rising around the impact area. Perhaps they'll be left in-situ; to become part of the ground around them, only to be dug up in some future archaeological excavation, then classified and placed in a museum storage area, where they will enjoy a somewhat more honourable fate than the one that would await them in the debris piles.
Driving along the highway past the Ishinomaki harbour, those mountains of debris stretch for as far as the eye can see, dwarfing the massive heavy equipment that attempts, it appears, in vain, to pile them ever higher, for more and more debris is added every day. The Tsunami produced more of it than all of the combined garbage produced by the entire nation of Japan in the last 25 years. Along with the debris, untold thousands of cars, damaged beyond repair, line both sides of the highway and along the sea wall. Stacked one upon another, they appear to be an attempt to create a rampart out of the destruction caused by the first Tsunami, in order to counter any possible future incursions by the angry sea. But judging by the devastation of March 11, it may be that nothing the Japanese endeavour to do to thwart another watery disaster would have any hope of success.
Back in Watanoha, a closer look at the destruction reveals a very personal side. Houses that were once beautiful, reflecting the esthetic flair of the Japanese people, now stand wounded and scarred. Walls that once reverberated with the laughter of children playing in the streets, or listened to the jovial conversation of two neighbors across a garden wall, now stand silent, if they still stand at all. Many have been torn down, either because they could not be restored, or because their occupants no longer draw breath, and all that remains is an empty lot, sprinkled liberally with lime. Many show the signs of the high water line, a brownish mark of varying height, where observers peer in awe, wondering how so much water could intrude so far inland, to wreak so much havoc on so many lives.
The stories are as numerous as the damage; and many speak freely of the fateful day they were invaded by the sea, while others are stoically silent, unable to speak of the horror they endured and the loved ones they lost. A father, clutching tenaciously to his pregnant daughters' hand while both were swept along in the rushing flow, only to lose his grip, and watch helplessly, desperately, as she disappeared beneath the water and forever from his sight. His wife, so grief-stricken, is now living with family outside Japan, unable to return to the place where she lost her daughter and future grandchild. Or the woman who was rescued by her neighbor through a small upstairs window, but couldn't fit, and had to have her soaking clothes cut off of her in order to gain egress through the tiny aperture. Or the grandmother who endured the earthquake, and then heard the Tsunami warning, grabbed her daughter and her grandson, and literally ran for the hills to escape the wall of water that was approaching. They managed to gain the high ground, but she lost her son-in-law, who was attempting to drive to their home from his place of employment, and was killed when he was struck by another car. Indeed, any who were in motor vehicles were trapped in the grid-lock of the thousands attempting to escape, and all perished. Only those on foot like the grandmother and her progeny, managed to survive. The grandmother's sister was not so lucky; she ran to the Junior High School where her son was attending, but didn't make it in time, and she and all those in the school perished.
No words, no photographs, no news broadcast, no "Spielbergian" epic, could hope to convey the scope, the range, or the depth of what has happened here to this nation of people. It doesn't simply tug at your heart-strings, it ravages them; and your emotions don't simply threaten to overwhelm you, they crash over your intellect just like the massive wave did to these communities on March 11th. And as you stand in the midst of all of the destruction, all of the pain, all of the loss, you gain a minuscule glimpse into the heart of God, and for a fleeting moment, you understand what He must feel as He looks down on all of the hurt and pain caused by this Tsunami disaster.
Hopelessness hangs like a pall over the landscape, as thousands have no means to rebuild their lives. Many face a bleak future, either because the chief wage-earner of the family didn't survive, or because their place of employment no longer exists. Suicide is on the rise, where thousands live in temporary housing, and where for many, the only thing they have are the clothes on their backs, and those are borrowed. Some feel the government has let them down; others simply have no desire to return to their homes, the site of such horrific memories. In spite of this, the world has moved on. No longer do the networks report on the plight of the Japanese people; the mainstream media is on to the next soundbite, the latest bit of "must know" information, such as what shoes Kim Kardashian is wearing this week. For the most part, the victims of the March 11th Tsunami are forgotten by the rest of the world.
But for some there is hope. Numerous benevolent organizations, such as Samaritan's Purse, have stepped in to assist, as much as it lies within them to do so, in this vast wasteland of so much need. Teams of volunteers move through the communities in Ishinomaki, Kesannuma, and Shichigahama, removing debris from homes, cleaning and then re-building them from the sub-floor up to the high water mark. Even before the re-construction began, Samaritan's Purse was on the ground, providing disaster relief for thousands of Tsunami victims. When the re-building began, crews of carpenters were enlisted to give back to the Japanese people what the Tsunami had taken from them, and more. Not just their homes, but their dignity and their hope. And hope in the form of the love of Jesus Christ, the kind of love that gives itself freely and sacrificially to those in need. As the ancient prophet once declared; "the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light," in the form of those who have given of themselves to share the love of Christ, so that the victims of this horrendous disaster will not only have their earthly homes restored to them, but so that through accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Savoiur, they may have an eternal home in heaven, where they can live forever in the presence of God's love and mercy.
I am one of those carpenters (although I use the term loosely; carpentry is not my vocation). I came here to Japan because I felt compelled by God to do so, to share the love of Jesus Christ with those whom I had never met, but who represented so great a need. And while there is an urgency among those of my fellow workers to move as quickly as possible in order to complete as many reconstructions in the time allotted (a noble approach to say the least), my philosophy is slightly diverse. As I work on these homes, and see the appreciation in the eyes and in the actions of the Japanese home-owners, I choose to take my time, and do the very best job that I can do. The way I see it, after the horror they've endured, and continue to endure on a daily basis, these people deserve no less than the very best that I can offer them.