Japanese Catholics Recover

Parishioners at a Catholic church in a port city devastated by the Japanese tsunami recount their experiences.

KESENNUMA, Japan — The Japanese town of Kesennuma was virtually destroyed by the tsunami of March 11. Fifty miles from the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered the destructive wave, the port city is some 270 miles northeast of Tokyo.

The tsunami stopped just a few yards away from the town’s only Catholic church. Many members of Kesennuma’s small Catholic community were less fortunate.

After Mass on Palm Sunday, Father Takashi Aizu, the pastor, asked if anyone in the congregation needed anything. There is a large group of Philippine immigrants here, and the women spoke up: “Batteries,” said one. “Milk for a 9-month-old baby,” said another. Other requests quickly followed. “Diapers. Gas bottles for cooking. Mineral water.”

Tagalog (the main language spoken in the Philippines) chatter and the laughter of small children filled the small church. Akio Oyama, a 76-year-old kimono shop owner, carefully wrote down every request.

Oyama lives in a shelter with his wife, who attended Mass with him. “She got a big shock from the destruction,” he explained, worried, “and her health is not so good.”

The two were at work at their shop when the tsunami swept through town. “We had not expected that the tsunami would come so soon and be so big.” The two had no time to escape. “We went to the second floor, but soon the water arrived there, too. The road looked like a wild river.” It didn’t stop after the first wave. “The tsunami came again and again.”

Thankfully, their building was fairly new, strongly built and consisted of three floors. “We spent the night on the third floor. It was really cold and dark.”

From the building next door and across the street, they could hear the voices of neighbors. “‘Mr. Oyama, are you okay?’ they shouted. I was absolutely sure we would be okay. I had faith in God,” he said. He called out encouragements to his neighbors all night. “They were overcome with fear,” he explained.

Parents and Children Reunited

The next morning, Oyama and his frail wife somehow managed to climb over mountains of debris and reach the nearby church. Perched high on a mountainside, it had survived. And so did Father Aizu, he learned.

“That was good; that was good,” he said, with deeply felt gratefulness evident in his voice.

“I was in Ofunato,” said Father Aizu. He ministers at a church in this nearby town as well. Like the church in Kesennuma, it has a popular kindergarten. Of the 87 kids at the school, only 13 were still at the kindergarten when the tsunami hit. “The teachers and children went into the pool on the second floor of the school and huddled together. They sang ‘God is always with me.’ The faith of the teachers was impressive.”

A firefighter warned them that they would become isolated at the kindergarten, so the small group gathered some blankets and walked to the nearby hospital after leaving a notice at the school of their whereabouts. Here, parents of three children found them. “The parents could barely reach the kindergarten after the tsunami. When they found us, they were so happy and just kept on hugging their children.”

Father Aizu was surprised about how much a simple touch meant to the children. “Holding the hands of the children was really important. It completely put them at ease. They trust you fully.”

The hospital, however, was not a safe haven for long. “Wounded people were coming in, and we had to move again,” said Father Aizu. “We had one car for 10 children, so we moved them to another place in two trips.” It took a long time before all parents and children were reunited.

The teachers themselves were deeply worried about their own families, too. “Many teachers lived near the sea. Thankfully, we later found out that all their families and homes were safe.”

The Catholic community in the area as a whole was less fortunate. “Four died,” said the soft-spoken Father Aizu. “One was a bed-ridden elderly patient in a care home. She had no chance to escape.”

“I don’t know what God was thinking,” said Father Aizu. “That is impossible to understand. You can only accept.”

Kjeld Duits is based in Kobe, Japan.

'God Shows Tough Love'

“I feel like God has challenged me,” says Christina Konno. The 37-year-old Philippine woman married into a business family in the northeastern Japanese city of Kesennuma, which was devastated by the March 11 tsunami.

Konno and her Japanese family lost everything they owned. Their business, their homes, their cars. Still she is grateful. “It is okay I lost those things,” she said. “I am truly happy that I still have my family. They and God give me the strength to go on.” Konno and her husband escaped by car initially. But then they decided to abandon the vehicle and keep going on foot. “We ran all the way to higher ground.” They survived, while people who stayed in their cars didn’t.

It was several days before they were reunited with their three children and her parents-in-law. “My father-in-law spent two nights on the roof of a building,” she recalled. “He is in his 70s. When we saw him again, he had lost much weight and all color. It took days before his body became warm again. If he’d been rescued one day later, he’d have died.”

While some people may question their faith after experiencing the horrors she did, Konno has not, attributing all to God.

“My whole family is alive and well,” she said. “He guarded them.”

Since the tsunami, she displays a small statue of Jesus at her house. “I was always embarrassed to do so. Not anymore. I think it is okay to show that I believe in God.”

Her 9-year-old daughter, Rikako, hugs her and never leaves her side. “I think this is the road God made for me to make me aware of the importance of family,” Konno said. “Before, I worked too hard to spend enough time with them.”

Then she added pensively, “God shows tough love.”