June 20, 2015

Adventist Leaders Visit Site of Deadly Tsunami in Japan

, treasurer, Northern Asia-Pacific Division

Recently I had the sobering experience of taking a field trip to the coastal area of Japan affected by the country’s largest recorded earthquake.

Four years have passed since the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and an ensuing tsunami killed more than 18,000 people and destroyed the homes of 229,000 on March 11, 2011. Much work has been done to restore the lives of those affected by the disaster, and even today major restoration efforts are under way.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Northern Asia-Pacific Division based in Korea together with the Southern Asia-Pacific Division based in the Philippines and the Southern Asia Division based in India share the coordination for the church’s outreach at times of disaster through the Adventist Development and Relief Agency’s Asia Regional Office located in Bangkok, Thailand.

Leaders from the three divisions gathered in Japan not only to observe ADRA’s post-earthquake efforts but also to consider the role the church can play through disaster relief. While we were meeting in Japan, Nepal suffered its second major earthquake in two weeks. ADRA also is playing a key role in Nepal’s recovery efforts.

Traveling from Tokyo by bullet train, our group arrived in Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture whose coastal areas sustained catastrophic damage in the earthquake. We then boarded a bus to Yamamoto, one of the hardest-hit communities.

We met with the mayor of the town in the City Hall, which today consists of prefabricated modular units but is to be replaced with a permanent structure within two years. With customary hospitality, our group was offered a drink and fresh, delicious strawberries. Before the tsunami wave wiped out its farms, the area was famous for its strawberries. Greenhouses are being constructed to renew this form of agriculture.

City Mayor Thanks ADRA

Mayor Toshio Saito expressed gratitude for ADRA’s work in assisting in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. He said ADRA provided a helping hand and brought a sense of hope and courage that recovery would be possible.

Jonathan Duffy, head of ADRA International, based at the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, expressed in sensitive terms the desire of the Adventist Church to minister to people in need. I was reminded that our greatest sermon in settings such as Japan, where less than 1 percent of the population is Christian, may be in what we do more than in what we say.

From City Hall we traveled to the seashore area where open land shows little indication of destruction. The cleanup effort has been massive, leaving little evidence for what took place. A new elevated railway line is being constructed where tracks once were on the ground. A new seawall stretching more than 60 miles (100 kilometers) has been constructed to slow the progress of any future tsunami, lessening damage and providing more time for those in its path to escape to higher ground.

We visited the “Orange House,” a mobile prefab structure on wheels that ADRA provided as a community center to serve an area where few homes still stand. A group of elderly women meet once or twice a week to socialize and share the experience they are going through as they continue to live in an area where many lives were lost and where the younger generation has left to find futures in other communities.

A woman who provides music therapy in disaster-struck areas shared a poignant Japanese folk song titled “Hometown” in which there is reference to returning to one’s hometown. She said there are some communities where she is not allowed to use this well-known song given the fact that people know that they will never return to their hometown. It’s too painful to sing for a past that will never occur again. I’m reminded that we sing with hope for our hometown being prepared in heaven today.

Adventist leaders from three church divisions touring Yamamoto, one of the communities hit hardest by the tsunami. (Ken Osborn)

Near-Tragedy at a School

The Nakahama Elementary School stands alone with no other buildings in sight as a memorial to the power of the earthquake and resulting tsunami, but also serving as a reminder that even in times of destruction one can still find survival and hope.

Mayor Saito met our group at the school, telling us that before the disaster his own home was located in a community surrounding the school on what today is open land. He took us into the building, which has been largely left alone, a testament to nature’s power. Destruction can be seen everywhere, even with full trees that lodged inside the first floor.

The mayor described how the water reached to the ceiling of the second floor, a height of more than 33 feet (10 meters). From the second floor he led us up a narrow flight of stairs to the roof of the school where 90 people, including 52 elementary students, were saved in a rooftop storage area.

When the alert was sent that a tsunami would follow the earthquake, the school principal ordered his students to go to the roof rather than attempt to escape to higher ground. Had they not followed his instructions, more lives would have been lost. Teachers and people from surrounding homes joined the elementary students , who were not allowed to watch the destruction taking place around their refuge on the roof.

After the second wave brought the water level to the ceiling of the second floor, the principal watched as a third wave higher than the previous waves moved toward the school. He was convinced that he and those with him on the roof would lose their lives. But as the third wave came over the shoreline, the second wave receded from the land. The collision of the two waves resulted in a weaker third wave.

Those who escaped the tsunami had no idea that the group on the school roof had been spared until military helicopters spotted them the following day. I could only imagine the feeling of parents thinking their children were lost only to find that they had survived a day later.

Today the only living thing you can see from the school roof is a large tree with a few living branches standing on the open ground. It is covered with banners and other messages of sympathy from across Japan.

We returned to our hotel in Tachikawa where the Japan Union Conference maintains its office.

What Is Our Obligation?

The next morning, I sat in the hotel reading the news about Nepal’s second major earthquake when I suddenly felt that the walls and window curtains of the hotel were moving. Soon I learned that a 6.8-magnitude earthquake had just struck off the coast of Japan where we had spent the previous afternoon.

While no damage was reported, I was reminded of the fragility of this world. I was also reminded of how each of us should be prepared to meet the unexpected at a moment’s notice.

When disaster strikes, Seventh-day Adventist Christians have the privilege of being a part in bringing hope to others. ADRA provides a means for the church to touch the lives of millions of people at times of uncertainty and great need.Every year, usually in May, church members throughout the Northern Asia-Pacific Division are invited to give an offering to ADRA in the name of “disaster and famine relief.” Direct appeals are also made when disasters strike.

We have been called as Christians to always be ready to meet the realities of living in a sinful world. But we also are called to be a people of hope, reaching out to those in need. ADRA is one means to accomplish this mission.

A version of this story appeared on the website of the Northern Asia-Pacific Division.