Kyodan Delegation Visits Stricken Area Two Days after the Quake

On March 12, the day after the recent massive earthquake, the Kyodan’s Relief Planning Committee, headed by General Secretary Naito, decided to send to the stricken area a delegation of four persons: Kyodan Moderator Ishibashi Hideo, Exective Secretary Fujimori Yuki, Exective Secretary Kato Makoto, and Morita Kyoichiro, a member of the Committee on Social Concerns. Their main purpose was to visit the affected churches to gather information about people’s safety, damage, and casualties; to deliver some relief items; and if possible, to discuss with the moderators of Ou and Tohoku district plans for dealing with the crisis situation.
Early Sunday morning, March 13, we left Saitama and Tokyo in two cars. Deciding to enter Sendai from the Japan Sea coast to avoid Fukushima nuclear power station #1, due to its serious condition, we first aimed for Niigata. We attended Sunday service at Tokamachi Church, one of the bases for relief operations after the Niigata Chuetsu-oki Earthquake, and received advice from Pastor Arai Jun. We left quickly with relief items purchased at a local supermarket, entered Sendai via Niigata and Yamagata, and arrived at 10 p.m. at Sendai-Higashi-Rokubancho Church, pastored by Tohoku District Moderator Takahashi Kazuto. Although the water and electricity were both cut off, some young men in the area on a trip had taken shelter at the church via an evacuation site. That night we moved to Tohoku District Center with District Moderator Takahashi and exchanged information with the chair of the District Commission on Mission, Kataoka Etsuya. Electricity and water were both available at the district center although not in other parts of Sendai.
On Monday, March 14, we ate bananas for breakfast and headed for Sendai Kita Church with Moderator Takahashi. We saw all kinds of lines: lines of cars for gasoline; lines of people at stores; and another line of people at a park where water was available. What every line had in common was unusual silence. The Sendai-Kita Church sanctuary was exposed to the wind because two large panes of glass at the front had been broken. Pastor Konishi Nozomi agreed to be our guide as well as our driver, and we headed for the churches in the northern part of Miyagi Prefecture.
Collapsed and destroyed buildings were not so conspicuous in this area, in spite of the earthquake. However, some collapsed houses were visible around Rikuzen-Furukawa Church, pastored by Seki Jun’ichi, maybe because the town is old or the ground is not very firm. The severely damaged building next to the church was tilted. The church member in charge during the pastor’s absence said that the church, being new, was not damaged but that the old church could not have withstood this earthquake.
Heading toward the area along the shore, we first visited Tajiri Church, pastored by Kokubo Tatsunosuke, which has a new building and rectory, so no particular damage was caused. However, the report from Wakuya Church, served by Iioka Yosuke, was that many staff of the day nursery and others were suffering or missing. Our cellular phones registered “no service” in the Wakuya area. We could move around by car, but people with no means of transportation must be very anxious.
We headed further toward the sea. We must have been good deal of inland, but I suddenly noticed that the roads were whitish and covered with dust from seawater, due to the tsunami. This made us conscious anew that we were in the disaster-stricken area, and we began to feel tense. Driving through a residential area of Ishinomaki City, we were prevented from going any further as the road was flooded with seawater. A signboard with the words “… Christ Church” had fallen from a white building surrounded by water. It was a church of other denomination.
Further down towards the coast in Ishinomaki City, Self-Defense Force vehicles, police cars, and fire engines were coming and going. Where restriction of entry was imposed on general vehicles, we parked the car outside the restricted area and walked to Ishinomaki-Eikou Church. As soon as we crossed a bridge over an embankment, an unbelievable scene appeared before my eyes: countless heaps of rubble and a large number of unusually positioned cars that had fallen on top of one another, some caught on utility poles and others crashed into houses and destroyed buildings –a state of devastation like a city that had suffered an explosion. Many people were walking by in silence, carrying baggage, looking like they did not know where to head. Sometimes, a voice between a scream and a shout of joy was heard. I cannot say that these persons were safe, but they surely met again alive.
There was a lot of general traffic within the regulated areas, besides emergency vehicles, and so many people were walking in the street. But it was unusually quiet. I noticed after a while that none of the moving cars, while avoiding people, ever honked. Although we saw cars running anywhere they possibly could in other stricken areas, we never heard them honk. If people walking along silently prevented cars from moving, the cars stopped and waited quietly for them. It seemed to be an unspoken rule that nobody had made and would have been impossible in daily life in an urban district.
Ishinomaki-Eikou Church, pastored by Kofuna Minoru, barely escaped being flooded with seawater above the floorboards, maybe because its base is somewhat high. We had left the relief items in a car, so I helped myself to a dolly that happened to be at the side of the church and returned to the car to fetch them. Many streets were thinly covered with mud, believed to have been carried from the sea. It was hard to keep pushing the dolly with its load, but I sometimes felt like I was being stared at by the people sitting there in silence and people carrying their belongings to the limit on their bikes. But they were all very quiet.
We borrowed a car from Kofuna, and visited Ishinomaki-Yamashirocho Church. We did not see either Suzuki Jun’ichi or his wife Pae Sun-Hee and could not find out where they were, but felt relieved when neighbors said they had certainly been safe at the time of the earthquake. Leaving a small amount of food and water at their door, we went up the hill of Hiyori-yama Park where we could view the whole city.
Looking toward the sea, we found Ishinomaki completely eroded by the tsunami, with smoke rising up from place to place. Although we have never surveyed the city before, we instinctively knew that it had been entirely transformed. A helicopter was flying up and down, probably to look for those who were missing. We could only gaze and gaze, wondering whether or not there were still any survivors somewhere in this destroyed city. (Later, on March 20, nine days after the earthquake, an 80-year-old woman and her 16-year-old grandson were found alive just a few hundred meters far from where we had stood.)
Descending Hiyori-yama hill, we saw some familiar people coming up. They were the Suzuki couple. We enjoyed the unexpected reunion, prayed together, left the hill, and went back to Ishinomaki-Eikou Church. There we were asked to take a young man, who was staying at a church member’s place, back to his home in Sendai. He had encountered the tsunami while he was driving his company’s car back to Sendai. Narrowly escaping onto the roof of a three-storied factory, he endured a freezing, snowy night there. After the water receded, he was rescued from the roof and tried to find his way home, avoiding the routes that were still under seawater. On the way, while helping people carry their luggage or deal with corpses, he came across the church member and stayed at his place.
We drove to Sendai with the young man who survived the tsunami and stopped at two churches on the way. It was already dark when we reached Shiogama-Higashi Church, where we left the last two plastic tanks of water for Pastor Tsumura Masaru. Sendai-Higashi Church opened its sanctuary as a refuge for its members and neighbors. As these people prepared their temporary beds of two benches attached together, we wondered what they were thinking. How many people were feeling helpless that night? With convoluted thoughts passing through our minds, we returned to the car. The young man succeeded in getting in touch with his company by way cellular phone, and said that he would be welcomed by his fellow workers.
Actually, on arriving at the company, he was met by the excited cries and embraces of the delighted people.
The next day, on March 15, we visited some churches in the southern part of Iwate Prefecture, but we could not visit many because of an emergency meeting scheduled at Ichinoseki Church and Iwate is so wide. Heading for Ofunato in the south, we dropped by Senmaya Church, served by pastors Mikawa Yutaka and Yaginuma Sayoko. Along the way, among the low hills from Ichinoseki to Sanriku Coast, vending machines were unexpectedly working normally and shops were open. In those areas, ordinary daily life seemed to continue.
Proceeding awhile, however, we saw a terrible view in front of us. It might have been another village among the mountains, but it had been completely destroyed by the tsunami. The railroad bridge had floated away, and the rails were distorted like candy or had disappeared altogether. We were approaching the city of Rikuzentakata, which was off limits at the time, we entered the city of Ofunato. The church sanctuary and the parsonage of Pastor Tajima Hidenori are both located on a hill near the port and are brand-new, having just been completed a year ago. According to administrative board members there as caretakers, two church members are missing, both of whom are city residents.
Near the port we found that two- or three-storied houses were upside down, and that considering the height of the pile of debris, the tsunami had been more than ten meters high. Rescue parties from many foreign countries were actively searching and rescuing, and foreign television crews were filming their activities. It was a vision of intensity and animation, but nevertheless, strangely silent and calm. There was no sound and no words spoken at all.
Coming back to Ichinoseki, the emergency tripartite meeting of Ou District Moderator Ohara Muneo, Tohoku District Moderator Takahashi Kazuto, and Kyodan Moderator Ishibashi Hideo began with prayer. Outside, the snow was beginning to fall. (Tr. SM & AY)
–Fujimori Yuki, executive secretary