Cover Story

Deep waters

"Deep waters" Continued...

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

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."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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