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Faith and Fellowship Aid Japan's Tsunami Survivors

By Jennifer Hardy

Survivors of the March 11, 2011, tsunami and nuclear meltdown remember small, but significant things about that day: how the air smelled, the feel of a spouse's hand, the sounds of rolling water, cracking wood.

Flowers grace a memorial in Minami-Soma

Flowers grace a memorial honoring 100 people who perished in this building in Minami-Soma. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

Although the world has slowly moved on from the shock of the disaster, time stands still for villages struggling to cope with the sudden loss of family, homes and communities. And for people near the Fukushima power plant, it sometimes feels like time won't move forward for years to come.

Thanks to Caritas Japan, hundreds of volunteers are reaching out to people affected by the tsunami. These volunteers bring companionship, an ability to listen—and very good pots of tea—to people grieving a way of life.

One word permeates Caritas Japan's volunteer centers: yorisou. The word, which means "to accompany," peppers volunteers' stories, whether they're listening to elderly evacuees in transitional housing or ensuring that farmers get fair prices for produce tainted by a "grown in Fukushima" label. And it describes the decision to create an indoor playground for preschoolers, just 15 miles from the Fukushima power plant.

Catholic Relief Services has committed to the concept of yorisou with our partner, Caritas Japan. The organization has served as a focal point for the Church's ongoing disaster work, organizing volunteer hours from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Read on to learn how the Church is helping to rebuild lives—and instill hope—along the northeastern coast of Japan.

Helping Fishermen Rebuild Businesses

The small fishing villages dotting the coast of northern Japan have followed the same rhythms for centuries. Each morning, hundreds of fishing boats leave bustling harbors well before sunrise, returning with a rich catch sold straight off the boats. Although forklifts unload today's boats, and machines clean the fish, a modern fisherman's day resembles those of his ancestors. But the earthquake and tsunami brought that rhythm to a sudden, horrific halt.

Norio Sasaki, the leader of the local fishermen's association in Minami-Sanriku, recounts the sudden destruction.

"We had 900 fishermen in our association, with 1,000 boats," says Norio. "Only 56 boats remained after the tsunami. More than 80 percent of the fishermen lost their homes and 65 percent of them perished, including my top employee. The town was washed away."

Caritas Japan has been instrumental in sending volunteers to talk with people in Minami-Sanriku about their losses. And volunteers from throughout Japan are helping fishermen get back on their feet.

"I couldn't believe people would come from Tokyo to hand tie fishing nets with us," says Norio. "They have office jobs, and were so happy to come and sit with us for hours working on the nets. I could see they enjoyed being with us."

Although many boats have returned to sea, and damaged buildings have been razed, volunteers will be needed for a long time to come.

"Fifty years ago, there was a tsunami here after a big earthquake near Chile. Only a few people died, and there was small damage," Norio recalls. "That shaped our image of what a tsunami was. But on March 11, as our family members were swept away, we felt like the ocean betrayed us. Now people want to leave and never live by the sea, but there is no other way to earn a living. It will take time to trust and feel safe again."

With support from Caritas Japan, volunteers will continue to help fishermen and their families process the trauma. And they will help those who make a living from the sea remember what they love about living near the water.

Norio smiles as he says, "I am happiest on the ocean when I bring in a good catch on quiet water, when the smell of salt is strong in the air, when the net is heavy with fish."

Volunteers Give—and Receive—Comfort

In addition to bringing hope to those living in uncertainty and upheaval, the Caritas volunteer structure is helping Catholics and non-Catholics give back.

Caritas Japan volunteers chat with an elderly tsunami survivor

Caritas Japan volunteers chat with an elderly tsunami survivor at a transitional housing complex. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

Hideaki Ichihara, a special education teacher at a middle school in Tokyo, volunteers in Kamaishi City on weekends and holidays.

"There are many reasons I volunteer my time with Caritas. I can feel at home here at the parish, and Caritas staff welcomes me warmly every time," Hideaki says. "The staff values the contribution of volunteers and lets us know when we are doing well. At the end of each day, we have a sharing meeting for feedback and talking about what we did during the day. That sharing time is unique to Caritas and really helps all of the volunteers feel like we're part of a team. Our hours are not wasted. We work together—and we work strategically—to reach people who still have sadness and loss. When I come to do volunteer work, I'm encouraged and empowered."

Hideaki's training has helped him understand grief and how to help survivors deal with trauma.

"I've learned from Caritas trainings that getting feelings out through crying, yelling or any other way is very good. It's a step forward, and it's not a common thing to talk about in Japan," he says. "I remember listening to one elderly man tell the story of losing hold of his wife's hand when the waves came, and he never saw her again. He cried the whole time he talked. When he finally stopped crying, he seemed calmer. I think that man's tears helped him take a step through his loss. I'm honored I was able to be there to listen."

Supporting Farmers and Living Their Faith

Bringing business back to farmers affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster requires additional ingenuity. Today, farmers in the town of Nihonmatsu frequently test their crops for radiation, and all results have shown radiation levels similar to those in other parts of Japan. Unfortunately, their produce is marked with the label "from Fukushima prefecture."

Although their crops are safe to eat, consumers in Japan shy away from purchasing anything with ties to Fukushima. Chikako Yaginuma wants to change those attitudes.

"Farmers around town are suffering from prices that are far too low," says Chikako. "They can only get [13 cents] for [2 pounds] of shitake mushrooms. And during the recent peach harvest, they only saw [a dollar] for [11 pounds] of peaches. Before the disaster, Fukushima was known as the 'kingdom of fruit.' One Fukushima peach used to cost [$3] in stores in Tokyo. Now they rot in the markets."

Caritas Japan and the Archdiocese of Tokyo have stepped in by channeling grocery money to fairly priced and safety-certified Fukushima produce. Chikako has formed an alliance with local parishes throughout Tokyo, bringing fresh-picked produce from 25 farmers that is now sold after Mass.

"I buy the produce from the farmers earlier in the week, then take it to Tokyo to sell on Sundays," she says. "People in the parishes volunteer to handle the sales, and they talk with their friends about why it's important to help the farmers."

It's a struggle to counter people's fears and misinformation, but Chikako believes the work of her fledgling company is vital.

"I do this work for my country. Fukushima prefecture has the highest number of farmers in all of Japan, and many have lost everything. I want to see Fukushima reborn, especially as a source of food for the whole country."

Her faith, and the faith of the parishioners who purchase safe, tested Fukushima produce, has grown. "All crops are a gift from God, but the reality we face in Fukushima is due to human choices. We continue to revisit what it means to thank God for the food he provides through agriculture, and the effect our human choices have on that gift. Supporting Fukushima farmers allows us to live our faith in a real way."

Sandbox Provides Safe Haven

A pile of sand is a strange symbol of resilience. When that sand is in an indoor play space—just 15 miles from the infamous Fukushima power plant—it becomes a gateway to fun.

Indoor sandbox just 15 miles from the Fukushima power plant

Children who live near the Fukushima nuclear power plant now have a safe space to play. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

Parents of children upended by the Fukushima meltdown have a special set of concerns: a safe, radiation-free place where their children, cooped up for months in evacuation centers, can play.

"People who evacuated had to stay in big communal spaces with no privacy," says Fumiyo Kamada, the head teacher at the Sayuri preschool. "The children were not allowed to play or make any noise since there were many elderly [people] staying in those centers. When the children returned to Minami-Soma, they were still very serious. They didn't play or shout or even cry."

Finding a healthy place for children to play became a top concern for staff of the Dominican-run preschool. "Scientists say that now, so long after the disaster, being outside is not very dangerous. But these young children play in the dirt and put it in their mouths. Parents worry about the radiation in the soil," Fumiyo says. "Before the indoor play space and sandbox, the children had given up on playing outside. The city, parents and schools did not want them to play outdoors, so the children didn't even ask to go outside."

The indoor play space allows the preschool to serve other children in the neighborhood, too. It is free on the weekends—the town's other indoor options charge an hourly fee.

"Proper development at this age, between 3 and 6, requires free play," says Fumio. "This sandbox and the indoor play space lets the children play without restrictions. They prefer the sandbox to all of the other options for play."

Father Daisuke Narui, executive director of Caritas Japan, says the project would have been impossible without the help of CRS donors. "This indoor play space, and the fun it provides to students and other children affected by the meltdown at the Fukushima plant, helps the preschool to show love in a practical and meaningful way to the community."

"The indoor space means everything to the children, especially the sandbox," says Father Raymond Latour, who is president of the kindergarten. "It gives them a place where their imaginations are unlimited. They create whole worlds in the sandbox: Mount Fuji, hot springs, great highways and railways. Without the space, there is no place where their imagination is so free and vivid."

This work is funded through the generosity of private donors and the Catholic community in the United States.

Jennifer Hardy is CRS' regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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