International Ministries

Light Along the Road: Japan 3 Months Later

July 4, 2011 News
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Some people believe that the future is bleak.  If you’ve lost everything, or even just your job, it is like walking with your head down and just looking at the dirt road rather than looking at the road stretching out ahead.  Our hope in Christ is sometimes hard to verbalize to someone in these circumstances but even walking with them along the road catching hold of their arm at times is the best we can do.


This is what American Baptists have been doing through their gifts to the One Great Hour of Sharing.  We have given over $250,000 toward the disaster relief work in northeast Japan and it has had an overwhelming effect on all people who have benefited from these gifts.  With a smile on my face, I asked the General Secretary of Japan Baptist Union, Rev. Tanno, if he didn’t think that this was enough!  He responded instinctively “No, no, no,” then paused thinking the answer was offensive and added “There’s always room for more!”


It’s a new day for Japan in the area of volunteerism. People are beginning to see that even a day of unselfish hard work brings its rewards.  On the other hand, it has taken time for survivors to request the help of volunteers through the volunteer center in each town to help dig out the sludge in their homes.  Many are beginning to understand that it is not embarrassing to ask for help when one needs it.  However, companies or organizations still feel obligated to pay part of the way of the volunteer for such things as insurance and transportation.  This may work better for the Japanese since the concept is still in its infancy and softens their cultural values of not becoming a burden on others.  Volunteerism has become a status symbol in the larger metropolitan areas, “I volunteered for a day in Tohoku.”  “Oh really?  I haven’t yet.”  Since the Japanese-style is to serve and leave (so as not to be a burden!), volunteers from the USA who stick around need to be independent of their hosts in order to be appreciated.


An Arduous Task 

Clean-up continues but certain geographical areas seem to get more attention than others.  Japan has a very strong sense of respecting personal property.  Just as forgotten change in a ticket machine remains untouched all day, tangled wreckage of houses on one property sits next door to land completely cleared.  The difference is that of not wanting to touch someone else’s personal property until the owners or relatives are present to watch the removal of debris.  This applies to towns or hamlets where the officials are missing.  Nothing can be done when the “owners” are missing, until a higher authority can make some decisions.  On the other hand, many small but highly organized sections of some towns already have a plan for rebuilding that section.  Fukushima Prefecture hit by all three disasters - earthquake, tsunami and radiation, recently reported that volunteers and clean-up crews had recovered ¥40,000,000 in bills or $500,000 left scattered all over the coastline, and yen worth $50,000,000 from home safes washed up by the tsunami.  How to return these to the owners and what to do with unclaimed money was the theme of the news brief showing the police carefully washing and ironing the bills!


Restoration in Tagajo has been particularly hampered by unclaimed damaged cars.  It was estimated that 230,000 vehicles were washed out from driveways, roads and shopping center parking lots in the three affected prefectures.  In mid-April, I observed in Tagajo, a city of 35,000, lot after lot of damaged cars, and many which were butted up against a ravaged storefront.  According to a recent article, 7000 cars in the town have been identified and notices sent to the owners.  Fifty envelopes were returned as “undeliverable” and only 20% of the others responded.  Should the cars be trashed even though they are all filled with personal items?  What decisions these city governments need to make!


Yuka watched from the Tagajo hotel where she was working as her car floated past and disappeared into the underground garage, bumping into several cars and the wall before becoming filled with salt water and silt.  After things settled down and the basement was drained, she arranged for the car to be hauled away, after which she paid the mechanic for repairs done March first.  Then, the hotel laid her off because she had no transportation to work.  Her friend was not as fortunate, she told me.  She was trapped in her car as the tsunami pushed her inland.  A Self Defense Force officer rescued her.  A few weeks later she went looking for the car.  She found it with her posessions intact except for the money in her wallet.


The town of Shichigahama reports that they have no more room for the mountains of debris without dumping it on private property or national forest land.  This meticulously laid out town finds itself needing to build more mountains of debris in their beautiful parks and open spaces.  Miles of beach are strewn with garbage.  Three-day-volunteer trips have become popular lately, two days on the bus going to and from the destination and one day for volunteering.  Recently, tour bus-loads of volunteers from Tokyo, Gifu and cities in the south have been pouring onto the beaches several times a week, spending 6-8 hours gathering and separating the debris, then the bus pulls away taking the volunteers back to their homes.  The locals take the trash to the appointed “garbage mountain.”  The clean beach is ready to receive the next round of trash that the ocean deposits, and ready for the next bus load of volunteers!  Michie, wife of Pastor Yamada of Shiogama church joined in with a group one day and declared “I guess this is the only way we can eventually clean up our sea!”


Not Business As Usual 

One can imagine how much business was destroyed including hundreds of fishing cooperatives.  Steel and electronics are some that were greatly affected all over, but particularly any products from Fukushima Prefecture.  Importers overseas don’t believe the safety of industrial products in spite of certification by the government as to their safety.


Some businesses like the housing industry which were deeply affected by the economic downturn are now booming.  Every apartment, empty house, and hotel room are full.  As loans become more available, people are lining up to have new houses constructed with the waiting list extending out for years.  Car sales are skyrocketing, too.


The disaster continues to have an enormous impact on Greater Japan as businesses and individuals try to cut back on energy use, preparing for the dreaded hot summer.  With brown-outs common during a normal hot summer, this summer the problem will be worse due to the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima.  Eastern Japan in the disaster area must cut back 15% on energy.  Shokei Gakuin normally dismisses school for three to four weeks from late July, but they are committed to not falling behind by having the students continue their studies through the summer.  This seemed like a good solution until energy consumption details became available.  How to keep the students engaged in their studies in the oppressive heat without air conditioning is the subject of lengthy teachers meetings.


Many prefectures including Tokyo and Yokohama must like-wise do their part by cutting energy consumption by 15%.  If we use the air conditioning the thermostat must be set at 82F. Stores are awaiting their second allotment of fans!  Currently, we are experiencing “trial runs.”  Street lights have been dimmed and toll road signs are darkened at night, trains are dark during the day and escalators are closed down.  Trains seem to be air conditioned like normal, but with 200 fewer trains running, they are very crowded.  Some companies which rely heavily on electricity are making drastic changes.  Other companies have relocated the whole company or divisions to SW Japan where there will be no restrictions on electricity.  This has caused families to split or experience unemployment.  Other companies such as steel producers have moved their employees to the night shift when power is more available.  The government of Gifu Prefecture is unique in its idea of instituting ‘siestas.’  Between one pm and three pm all employees will return home.  Those two hours will be subtracted from their annual allotment of vacation days!  The companies that will be hit hardest by electricity cuts are ice-making companies!


While vegetables and fruits are fairly universally available, rice production will be severely hindered.  Thousands of acres of rice fields were inundated with salt water, sand and silt.  It is estimated that it will take three to four years before these fields can yield a rice crop again.  The Department of Agriculture is wasting no time in experimenting with alternative crops. Included in the new ventures is planting fields of sunflowers in the saline soil.  Maybe from now on we won’t need to salt the shells!


The road to recovery will not be easy for Japan.  Our role is greater than any of us can imagine.  Rather than treating their crisis as just another news event, we need to search the heart of God on their behalf.  Which path does God desire for them?  If we can name it, then we can begin to pray for them in that direction.  We can continue to support the churches there which struggle with fatigue and hopelessness at times.  We can pray that the Lord will return their joy.  And we can pray that the Japanese believers will be able to share with others, the hope of the Light of Jesus Christ that is always shining along their road.