TOKYO — “I have grown old this past year,” said Father Takashi Aizu. Many members of his small Catholic congregation in Kesennuma, Japan, a town northeast of Sendai, lost everything when a devastating tsunami hit last year.
Yet, to the energetic priest, the tsunami was not a total disaster. “It was a terrible experience, but it has brought us the warmth of many people. It made me see things in people that usually remain hidden. That has given me a lot of strength.”
The tsunami has also pumped fresh blood into his church. Dozens of Filipino women with young children have joined since the quake. “That there were so many Filipinos living around here — we only discovered when they came to us for help after their homes were swept away,” he said.
One year later he is still surprised.
“Many Filipinos live in northeastern Japan,” acknowledges Auxiliary Bishop James Kazuo Koda of Tokyo. “But the Catholic Church didn’t know this. We learned about them when the Filipino Embassy arranged buses to move their citizens from Fukushima. The Tokyo Church helped with this. That’s when we first found out.”
The horror of the tsunami made many Filipinos in the disaster area turn to their Catholic faith. They started to congregate at churches for moral and material support. Even now, with things greatly settled down, many continue to come.
Very few young Japanese join the Church in Japan. Especially in rural areas, members are mostly in their 60s and 70s. This huge influx of Filipino women with their children has caused a much-needed rejuvenation.
Surprisingly, all churches in the disaster area survived the violent wall of water, with little to no damage. “The tsunami hit a stretch of coast of about 700 kilometers,” on March 11, 2011, said Bishop Koda, while pointing at a map of eastern Japan. “This area is lightly populated and has just a few small churches. Most of these were built at high locations to prevent damage from tsunamis.” The century-old foresight has clearly paid off.
Like Father Aizu, the bishop has had a hectic year. Immediately after the tsunami hit Japan, the local Church marshaled its resources.
“We expected that a lot of volunteers from all over Japan would visit the disaster area,” Bishop Koda said. “Naturally, they would have no place to stay. Because our churches were still standing, we decided on March 16 that they could be used as volunteer bases.”
In the beginning, the Church distributed food and water, but, soon, church volunteers started offering services like helping clean out houses that had survived the tsunami. “That is something that still continues today,” said Bishop Koda.
When tsunami survivors moved into temporary housing late last year, a new problem arose: Separated from their communities and with no work, many people became isolated. “Especially elderly and single people have nobody to talk to,” said Bishop Koda, “so we’ve opened small café-like spaces where people can meet and talk with our volunteers.”
The enormous scale of the disaster has forced the Church to focus its resources. “The disaster area was huge, and the Church is small,” the bishop said, “so we were limited in what we could do.”
The Church has especially focused on job recovery. From the start, Caritas Japan has pitched in to help build a temporary shopping center in Kesennuma, said Bishop Koda.
“Another project we have is rebuilding oyster cultivation,” he added. “All oyster farms have been destroyed in the area. Rebuilding them requires ‘seed’ oysters. There weren’t enough of them in Japan, so Caritas Korea donated large numbers.”
Church volunteers are also helping some fishermen whose nets were washed away in the deluge. Bishop Koda said new nets were donated and adapted by volunteers to the needs of the fishermen.
“That’s very hard work, done by hand,” said Bishop Koda. “Our volunteers who help with that show much tenacity and patience.”
The bishop expressed his gratitude for the flood of financial donations, so money has not been a problem. However, manpower has not been sufficient to address the ongoing challenges.
“We have received donations from Catholic churches all over the world, so we have no shortage of funds,” he said. “In total, we have sent out 3,700 volunteers, but their number has greatly decreased. Now there are only about 30 to 40 active volunteers.”
“The people we assist are elderly and have lost everything,” Bishop Koda added. “They have no work, no home, no community. These people really have no hope anymore. So instead of offering material help, we want to offer support to give them hope again.”
Akemi Tsuji, who works for Catholic Tokyo Volunteer Center, an organization specifically set up for this disaster, says that one of her most moving experiences consisted of such moral support.
“We went to a church nearby the Fukushima nuclear power plant,” she recalled. “Most church members were evacuated, so only about six or seven were left. We asked them what their needs were and expected they’d ask for material things. But, instead, they asked us to join in Mass. Praying together — that was really a big thing to them.”
Register correspondent Kjeld Duits writes from Tokyo, Japan.