TOHOKU, Japan-When Shougi and Etsu Taki evacuated their home after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck northern Japan on March 11, they grabbed enough supplies to last through dinner: a biscuit, an orange, a knife, and a bottle of water.
Since the massive quake hadn't seriously damaged their coastal home in Kamaishi, the retired couple thought they'd return by nightfall. When they stepped outside, Mr. Taki says they thought differently: "People were screaming: 'A tsunami is coming!'"
The couple clambered up a steep hill on foot, resisting a fate like Lot's wife by refusing to look back. Taki says they heard the horrifying torrent of seawater barreling through town before they finally saw the tsunami from their hilltop perch: "It was like a great, black wall."
Scores of residents in Kamaishi-and dozens of other coastal towns-didn't survive the wall of water: The quake and tsunami left more than 19,000 dead or missing across northeastern Japan in the worst disaster to strike the country since World War II.
The overwhelming calamity-that included a tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant spewing deadly levels of radiation-displaced nearly a half million residents. When Taki reached his home nearly three weeks after the disaster, he says: "Everything was gone. There were just piles of wood."
Now six months after the disaster, Taki and his wife-like thousands of others-are trying to chart their future. In August they sat in folding chairs on a gravel lot in a temporary housing community a few miles north of Kamaishi's obliterated port. An electronic scoreboard flanks the tight rows of 120 prefabricated units situated on a plowed-over baseball field. It's one of hundreds of sites the Japanese government has built to hold more than 50,000 temporary units for tsunami victims across the northeastern region, known as Tohoku. Survivors may live in them for two years.
Taki, like many residents in temporary units, wonders if two years will be long enough. While the Japanese government has made Herculean progress in moving huge amounts of the 27 million tons of debris across the three hardest-hit prefectures, one effort remains largely untouched more than six months after the disaster: reconstruction.
Indeed, handfuls of storefronts along the streets running closest to Kamaishi's port sit gutted, vacant, with bare framing exposed. At the devastated port, it's difficult to imagine what once stood along the water's edge: Mountainous piles of carefully crushed debris sit next to plot after plot of empty slabs-with no signs of rebuilding.
Though a steel factory has restarted production, the biggest attraction in town is a bizarre monument to the tsunami's power: a 4,724-ton, blue and red freighter wrenched onto shore by the water's force. Local residents drive around the colossal ship's bow-wedged into the wharf's wall-and onlookers tromp through the chaos, snapping shots of the ship named Asia Symphony.
A few miles away, tsunami victims like Taki feel far less noticed. With national-and international-attention more riveted on radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant, and the political turmoil following the ouster of Prime Minister Naoto Kan in August, the daily plight of these families often recedes to the background.
Their dilemma is complex: Many residents in temporary housing don't know if they'll be able to rebuild on land swamped by the tsunami. Though the Japanese government has approved some $78 billion for reconstruction efforts across the region, government officials haven't determined which swaths of land remain habitable. Since most homeowners didn't have tsunami insurance, they likely won't recoup most of their losses, even if they have permission to rebuild.
Taki and his wife have another dilemma: Like many in the Tohoku region, the couple is growing elderly. Re-entering the workforce isn't realistic, and the couple isn't sure how much their children will be able to help. Many wonder: How even in two years will they start over?
From a quiet plot of land near his prefab home, Taki is quick to say he's grateful for the government's help, but he also echoes the sentiment of many tsunami survivors: "We feel forgotten."
But for those visiting tsunami zones, the sights are unforgettable. In the once bustling port of Ishinomaki, steaming piles of crushed rubble reach several stories high.
In Miyagi Prefecture alone, government officials estimate the tsunami's destruction created the equivalent of 23 years of waste in one day. That debris includes the remains of miles of homes swallowed by the giant wave. Farther inland, miles of homes remain on slabs, but ravaged by the tsunami's waters.
In Rikuzentakata, the only buildings remaining include an empty hotel and the gutted shell of City Hall. On a barrier island next to the port, a lone pine tree stands straight and tall, an eerie reminder of what was lost: It's the only tree remaining on a stretch of seashore that held 70,000 red and black pines before the tsunami devoured the forest.
But the town's worst destruction was the human toll: The tsunami killed 2,300 residents-nearly one-tenth of its population.
Still, even the hardest-hit towns show modest signs of life: A few miles from the lone pine tree in Rikuzentakata on a recent summer afternoon, a handful of Japanese residents in white polo shirts played swift games of badminton on lighted courts next to a pile of rubble. It's a sign that residents want to recover a normal life, even if no one is sure what "normal" will mean.
While government officials grapple with the macro-tasks of recovering from one of the world's costliest disasters, churches and aid organizations are focusing on the micro-tasks of helping individuals and families cope with problems the government can't fix.
Dozens of aid organizations operate projects in the Tohoku region, including Christian groups and churches. But the needs remain vast, and require a careful approach in a reserved and self-reliant culture. Effective efforts include working through local churches, asking locals what they need, and cultivating a willingness to pursue relief work in unexpected ways-from cleaning memorabilia to listening to stories. Going forward for Christian groups working in a nation where less than 2 percent of the population professes Christianity requires approaching opportunities for spiritual care in ways that are wise and winsome.
In an abandoned gravel lot in a tsunami-stricken neighborhood in Ishinomaki, Saturday morning relief efforts take an unusual shape: bingo cards. American missionary Andy Gilbert paces between low benches under a green tent enthusiastically calling out numbers through a bullhorn. More than a dozen local residents from the mostly-deserted neighborhood hunch over cards until a woman in a white hat yells: "Bingo!"
It's a lighthearted moment for a group with heavy problems. Six elderly women sitting in a cluster near the front call themselves the "tsunami widows." Each lost her husband in the disaster. Gilbert, a missionary with the Evangelical Free Church, says the weekly gatherings include lunch for the community and give isolated tsunami victims a sense of community: "They just need to feel given to."
Churches from across Japan help with the local effort called "Help Tohoku." Rich Rainsford, who works with Mission to the World (MTW) just outside of Tokyo, says volunteers have been bringing supplies, gutting houses, and fixing meals since the tsunami struck. MTW (the mission agency of the Presbyterian Church in America) hopes eventually to start a church in the area, which has few congregations.
For now, volunteers and missionaries are focused on befriending and serving local residents, says Gilbert: "So sometimes you clear street gutters because that's what a family needs."
Other times, it simply means listening. Over a steaming plate of curry and rice, local resident Suzuki Sumiko says she comes here mostly to talk with the missionaries and neighbors. Her house wasn't destroyed by the tsunami, but it slid 8 centimeters off the foundation.
Suzuki, who lives with her younger brother, says they don't have the money to fix the house, and that waiting lists for contractors to assess damages are long. But she says these gatherings have offered relief during stressful months: "I look forward to coming here-I look forward to just talking."
With few volunteer groups visible in the neighborhood on a recent summer weekend, Rainsford says the work will continue. While volunteerism-a typically tepid practice in Japan-has increased since the disaster, there are too few hands for the labor, he says: "There's much more work than volunteers."
Cal Cummings, a missionary with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), has worked in Japan for more than 30 years. From his home base in Sendai, Cummings has helped direct supplies and volunteers to the disaster areas since the quake struck.
During a break from a work project with OPC volunteers in Yamamoto in August, the missionary talked about the complicated dynamics of relief work in Japan: It's not just that the Japanese are famously self-reliant. Many also feel deeply obligated to repay any help they're offered.
That's a perplexing cultural reality for tsunami victims who have lost everything, and Cummings says it leaves some reluctant to ask for help: "Already you're burdened by the situation. And now you're obligated to someone else. What do you do? It's just a vicious cycle." Cummings says breaking that cycle requires demonstrating the gospel of Christ: "That's where grace comes in. You say: 'This is free. We give it because we want to share with you.'"
That's a moving dynamic for Tetsuo Hemmi. The 77-year-old former English teacher lives in Touna, a tsunami-stricken area near Sendai. On a recent summer afternoon, the retired worker welcomed to his water-damaged home a group of volunteers that included Japanese citizens, Koreans, and Americans.
The volunteers worked through an East Sendai church that's been helping here since a member of the congregation suffered severe tsunami damage to her home. As church members (part of the Reformed Church of Japan) cleared debris and sludge from her house, the church's pastor, Tateishi Akira, noticed many elderly residents trying to do similar work on their own.
The pastor began organizing volunteer groups in the area, and the effort grew: Other Japanese churches and other Christian groups-including the OPC, Food for the Hungry, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Samaritan's Purse-began sending supplies and volunteers to help. Since April, dozens of volunteers have worked on more than 70 homes.
At one of those homes, Tetsuo, the English teacher, eagerly talked with volunteers as they ripped out drywall and insulation below an 8-foot watermark in his house. Standing on a footstool, Tetsuo showed volunteers a small ledge on the wall where he clung by his fingers while tsunami waters filled his house.
After the waters receded he spent a cold night alone, blocked in by debris and worrying about his wife who had been visiting friends when the quake struck. His wife survived, and the couple (who have no children) began the arduous work of removing everything from their home. After weeks of working alone, volunteers through the local church arrived to help. While some volunteers tore out drywall and insulation, others sat in a nearby living room, trying to salvage household items and clean sludge from decades of personal belongings. One volunteer wiped mud from old family photos, including a fading picture of a woman in a brightly-colored kimono.
During a break, Tetsuo scurried around, handing cans of green tea to volunteers resting outside. If he had any hesitation about outsiders helping him, he didn't show it. Instead, he told the small group: "I can't find the words to say thank you. I never thought anyone would help me like this."
Tateishi, the pastor heading relief efforts here, says he hopes to build relationships with residents like Tetsuo. During a lunch break, the 32-year-old pastor sat cross-legged at a low table eating a rice ball in the group's relief center-a heavily damaged barbershop converted to a small headquarters.
Tateishi says he'd never worked on a house until he began helping his church member after the tsunami, but he's learning fast. And though the work takes him from his study four days a week, he says it's all part of being a pastor: "I want to have a relationship with the people here."
The pastor hopes residents will eventually become interested in Christ, but he's taking conversations slowly. First, he wants to show the neighborhood that he cares about them. "Right now, I want to drink tea with them," he says. "I want to work hard for the people."
Ninety miles north in the coastal town of Kesennuma, another group of volunteers was working hard to relieve residents of a persistent problem in the badly hit port town: foul smells and swarming bugs.
More than a dozen volunteers from Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego were working with CRASH-the acronym for Christian Relief, Assistance, Support, and Hope. The grassroots network of Japanese churches and Christian volunteers (both Japanese and foreigners) delivered some of the first aid supplies to churches in the Tohoku region after the earthquake (see "Upside down," April 9).
The group continues with efforts like distributing relief supplies and helping residents clean sludge and debris from their homes. But they also offer less common relief, like helping control the heavy odors of fish and spilled oil that pervades parts of Kesennuma.
On one afternoon volunteers manned small, white pickup trucks stocked with plastic containers of chemicals known as effective microorganisms. Wearing thick gloves, mud boots, and masks, one worker walked behind the truck with a hose, spreading the chemical on roads and lots full of sludge and moldy debris. The chemicals kill bacteria, helping control odors and bugs.
After returning from a stint behind the truck, volunteer Eve Nasby said the work in areas that look like war zones was sobering: "You see things that belonged to people-a shoe, a necktie, a stuffed animal. You see the remnants of a broken life." But Nasby said she was thankful her church could help in a small, but practical way: "We're spreading the fragrance of Christ where there was once death."
Ashikaga Hidendri is glad for the help too. The Kesennuma resident worked as an environmental consultant with factories and other companies in the port area before the tsunami destroyed his business and home. CRASH hired Ashikaga, an elder at a local Baptist church, to direct the volunteer project spreading environmentally safe chemicals throughout town.
The long-time Christian remembers the horror of looking for his wife on the night of the tsunami: "The sea was burning, but I was walking through snow." When he found his wife at a nearby shelter: "We just looked at each other and we couldn't move. We just cried."
Though the tsunami destroyed his business and carried off his three-generation home, Ashikaga is grateful for work that helps his devastated city. "Now I have a chance to make this place livable again," he says. "I want to be the salt of the earth."
Back at the Kamaishi temporary housing community, Oshio Lina tries to bring relief to residents coping with their losses. The 34-year-old elementary school teacher from southern Japan spent her summer volunteering with CRASH, which operates mobile cafes in temporary housing communities, giving isolated residents a place to gather to talk.
On an August afternoon, Oshio sat at a folding table listening to Taki and others tell their stories. She attends a non-denominational church and says the needs are overwhelming. She remembers a 46-year-old man who lost his wife, parents, and 1-year-old son: "He talked like it just happened. I could feel the pain." She points to a fifth-grade girl in black glasses and a blue school uniform nibbling on an after-school cookie. The girl, who lives here with her father, told Oshio that her grandparents died in the tsunami, and added: "I can't find my mother."
I walked door-to-door with Oshio while she invited residents to come out for free coffee and hot drinks. When she brought a cup of hot chocolate to a 69-year-old resident with vision problems, the widow did something surprising: She invited us to come inside. (Japanese often don't host others, especially strangers, in their homes.)
A tiny kitchen with just enough room for a refrigerator and stove opened to another small room that comprised the rest of Fusako Iwama's home: a living area with space for a low table, a small chair, a sleeping mat, a television, and a hutch for dishes. In the middle of the hutch, two small bowls holding rice comprised her daily Buddhist offering-a common practice in Buddhist homes.
Sitting on the floor, Fusako recounted the harrowing experience of floating through town on the second floor of her flooded home. She escaped with only the clothes she was wearing. Her daughter who lives in Tokyo sends her new clothes, but she feels bad wearing them when others here have few supplies. Fusako isn't sure what she'll do in two years when temporary housing ends, but for today, she says she's thankful for company.
When Oshio explains that we're Christians and asks to pray with her, Fusako eagerly agrees, asking for prayer that her vision would improve. After a warm prayer, Fusako holds out her hand in our direction, unable to see us clearly, and quietly says: "I want to shake your hand."
It's hard to leave Fusako alone, and Oshio hopes that more Japanese volunteers will continue to come to visit residents at this site and others like it: "They want people to listen and they are looking for hope."
She points to the fifth-grade girl again: When the grieving child asked Oshio for a lucky charm to protect her from future earthquakes, Oshio told her she didn't have any charms. But she grabbed an index card and scratched out Bible verses she hoped would help, including one from Isaiah 43: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you."