Four years on: how the Church in Japan responded to a devastating earthquake and tsunami

10 March 2015

Once upon a time, three little owls sat at my desk.

The story of where they came from has a sad beginning, but a joyful end.

In the beginning is the triple disaster that hit eastern Japan on March 11, 2011.  That day, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of the country’s largest island, Honshu, setting off a massive tsunami and triggering a nuclear disaster on a scale not seen since Chernobyl in 1986.

Immediately after the disaster, the Anglican Church in Japan, Nippon Sei Ko Kai (NSKK), mobilized a response to provide food and other necessities to people who had lost their homes or been evacuated.

A year later, areas that had been impacted by the tsunami had begun to recover.  Debris had been cleared, fields were being replanted and homes rebuilt.  But in the areas around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, such recovery has been impossible.  The ground is still too contaminated with radiation for people to return to their homes and businesses. 

On the day of the disaster, people from around the power plant evacuated to the north, along the coast, and to the west, into the mountains.  At the time, the primary concern was to get somewhere safe, away from the radiation, and the Japanese government built temporary shelters to house those who had to leave their homes.  Because the shelters were small, two 10’ x 10’ rooms with a small kitchen and bathroom, families sometimes had to split up, and the housing assignments were by lottery, so it wasn’t possible to choose one’s neighbors.  But it was all supposed to be temporary, and people coped as best they could.

However, it was soon discovered that due to the direction of the wind on the day of the tsunami, radioactive particles had been blown into the mountains, contaminating the land and water where people were seeking shelter.  It came as a shock to those who had thought they had done the right thing and gotten to safety, and many people left the mountains to go elsewhere.  Some stayed, though, particularly the elderly for whom the evacuation had been very traumatic, and who wanted to remain close to their homes.

Now come the owls fluttering into the story.  They were given to me by Keiko Murai and Akane Shinoda, two women from the Women’s Association of the NSKK who came to last year’s United Nations Commission on the Status of Women events.  The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations host a number of parallel events, welcoming delegates from all over the Anglican Communion and inviting them to the Episcopal Church Center.  It’s a great opportunity to get to meet representatives from our international partners, and when I saw Keiko and Akane on the guest list I knew I wanted to meet them.

Keiko and Akane were generous with their time, unfolding for me the story of the March 11 disasters and the impact on communities along the coast and around the Fukushima plant.  They highlighted the prolonged effect of the disaster’s trauma on mental and emotional health, particularly for children and elderly people.  For older people, living in the temporary shelters, displaced from their homes and isolated from their families had actually begun to affect their physical health – the longer they didn’t go outside and gather to talk with others, the more they felt like they couldn’t.

Reaching out, church groups from nearby areas started visiting the clusters of temporary houses as part of the NSKK’s “Issho Ni Aruko (Let Us Walk Together)” response program, bringing cookies and cakes, holding concerts and gatherings and spending time in fellowship.  Keiko told me how groups of elderly women started to get together to do crafts as a way to keep each other company and stay busy and active, gathering in the common room of one of the temporary houses to fold origami or – to my delight – to stitch together tiny stuffed owls from remnants of fabric.

I think Keiko and Akane noticed my excitement about the owls, and I asked if maybe I could have a picture of them to see what they looked like.  They said okay, and I gave my email address so they could email it to me.  I thanked them for their time, and we said warm farewells.  I so admired their kindness, courage and energy to trek into the mountains where others feared to go, for the sake of bringing friendship and community to people living in isolation.

I certainly did not expect them to show up the next day with three tiny owls, wrapped up perfectly with shiny twist-ties, handmade and flown in from Japan.  I was overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness of this gift, made even more special knowing what the owls represented – community, health, solidarity, protection from loneliness.

So once upon a time, three little owls sat at my desk.  But now there is just one.  I sent one to my sister in Montana, and one to our other sister who lives in Bethlehem, in the Holy Land.  Keiko and Akane showed me the tag on the back of each owl with a prayer written on it, that the families who were separated during the evacuation might be able to live together again someday. 

Even though I’m separated from my sisters by circumstance and not disaster, I know I’ll think of them whenever I look at my owl.  I’ll remember to pray for those who long to be reunited with their loved ones and experience the sense of security and wholeness that disaster can strip away.  And I’ll remember to pray for my new friends, Keiko and Akane, whose work is truly helping to heal a hurting world.

Watch the Video Blog of Keiko Murai from Nippon Sei Ko Kai (the Anglican Communion in Japan) on how the Church cares for those evacuated from Fukushima after the nuclear accident on March 11, 2011:

In the picture: Keiko Murai and Akane Shinoda visiting The Episcopal Church Center