The annual Kyodan Missionary Conference was held July 14-16 at Shidodaira Hot Springs Hotel near the city of Hanamaki in southern Iwate Prefecture in the Tohoku (northeastern) region of Japan. Traditionally held in late March, the conference this year was held over a three-day weekend in July to see if the timing was better for participants. Being only about 16 months after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the devastating tsunami that immediately followed, it was a time for many who had only seen images on television screens to see for themselves the aftermath of this combined natural and man-made disaster. It was likewise a time to show our solidarity with the people who are struggling to put their lives back together in the face of the overwhelming challenges facing the communities along the coast.
Early Sunday morning, we boarded a bus for a 90-minute drive to the coastal city of Kamaishi, first to attend the worship service of the local Kyodan church and then to drive along the coast. Shinsei Kamaishi Church is located about half a mile inland, but even there, the water level from the tsunami rose to about eight feet inside the church, completely destroying all that was on the ground floor. The inside walls of the church are still just a framework of pillars and studs, but the congregation expressed a resurrection hope for the future. Appropriately, the name “Shinsei” means “New Life,” and while this was intended in the spiritual sense or the word, it is also now symbolic of the physical rebuilding going on. We were inspired by the stories and resolve. One particularly memorable story was that of a neighbor trying to escape the oncoming torrent, only to be swept into the church by the rushing waters. As the swirling current filled up the ground floor, the man was washed up against the balcony railing, where he was able to grab hold and pull himself over onto the second-floor balcony overlooking the sanctuary. He and several other survivors have now become part of the church family, as the church reaches out to serve the local people and communicate to them the gospel message of God’s love and salvation.
After lunch, we went to a neighborhood community center closer to the shoreline that had served as an evacuation center. Being a large concrete structure with high ceilings and a second floor, it was thought to be safe from any tsunami generated by the earthquake. Dozens of people climbed to the second story to wait out the crisis, but the 30-foot tsunami was far higher than expected, and as it rose above the top of the building, it washed away everyone there to their deaths. Almost all of the other buildings in the area were completely destroyed, but this building survived and serves today as a memorial to all of those who lost their lives. As we stood among the ruins, we remembered the victims in prayer and sang a hymn in their memory.
While the March 2011 disaster was a “natural disaster” in regards to the earthquake and tsunami, it was also very much a “man-made disaster,” as human error made it far worse. This is particularly true, of course, of the nuclear meltdown and the radiation it produced, but it is also true from the standpoint of failing to recognize that a tsunami of this magnitude could occur and thus being unprepared. A similarly powerful earthquake is expected to generate a tsunami of similar size off the coast of western Japan sometime in the near future (according to geologists). As the population density is greater there than in the Tohoku region, one concern is how well the people will be able to protect themselves. The people of Tohoku were fortunate that the quake happened during the day, as the toll would have been far greater if the tsunami had hit in the blackness of night with the electric grid down due to the earthquake. We can only pray that if such a disaster is to strike again, it will likewise happen during daylight hours. Nevertheless, we know that God is in control, and that nothing will happen that he cannot use for his purposes and our good.
Please continue to remember the people of Tohoku in your prayers.
—Timothy Boyle, missionary
Kwansei Gakuin, Nishinomiya