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Reflections on a Visit to Yamamoto, Japan
June 19, 2015

Recently I had the sobering experience to participate in a field trip visiting the coastal area of Japan where on March 11, 2011 the largest recorded earthquake to impact Japan took place as the “Great East Japan Earthquake”.  As a result of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake with its ensuing tsunami over 18,000 lives were lost and 229,000 citizens of the beautiful eastern seashore of Japan became homeless.

Four years have passed since that fateful day. Much work to restore the lives of those impacted by the disaster has taken place, and even today major restoration efforts are in progress to recover from the devastation wreaked to land as well as to the lives of innocent victims.

The Northern Asia-Pacific Division (NSD) based in Korea together with the Southern Asia-Pacific Division (SSD) based in the Philippines and the Southern Asia Division (SUD) based in India share the coordination for the church’s outreach at times of disaster through the church’s Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). The ADRA Asia Regional Office located in Bangkok, Thailand effectively and economically coordinates the work of ADRA for the three Asian world divisions of the church.

Leaders from the three divisions gathered together in Japan not only to see first-hand the work of ADRA from the earthquake of 2011, but also to consider the role the church can play through this important ministry for disasters occurring even in the present. While meeting in Japan, Nepal suffered its second major earthquake in a two week span of time. ADRA is present playing a key role in the recovery efforts for that nation.

Traveling from Tokyo by “bullet train” our group arrived in Sendai where we were met and taken by bus to the Yamamoto, one of the hardest hit communities. We met with the mayor of the town in the “city hall” which today consists of prefabricated modular units but with plans to have a permanent structure constructed within two years. With customary hospitality our group was offered not only drink but also fresh, delicious strawberries. Before the Tsunami wave wiped out its farms, the area was famous for its strawberries. Today hot houses are being constructed to renew this form of agriculture.

Mayor Saito expressed gratitude for the work of ADRA in assisting with disaster relief in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. A message he shared was that at a time when the community was still reeling from the impact of the disaster, ADRA represented a helping hand bringing a sense of hope and courage that recovery would be possible. Jonathan Duffy, the President and Executive Director for ADRA International based at the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, expressed in sensitive terms the desire of the SDA church to minister to people in need. I was reminded that our greatest sermon in settings such as Japan, where less than one per cent of the population is Christian, may be in what we do more than in what we say.

From City Hall we traveled to the seashore area where today one sees open land with little indication of destruction. The cleanup effort has been massive leaving little evidence for what took place. A new elevated railway line is being constructed where before the tracks were on the ground. For over 100 kilometers a new seawall has been constructed not to fully block a tsunami from reaching inland but to slow its progress lessening damage and providing more time for those in its path to escape to higher ground should an earthquake take place in the future.

We visited the “Orange House”, a mobile prefab structure on wheels which was provided by ADRA to serve as a community center in one of the areas where few homes still stand. A group of elderly women meet once or twice a week to socialize and share the experience they are going through as they continue to live in an area where many lives were lost and where the younger generation have moved away to find futures in other communities.

A poignant Japanese folk song titled “Hometown” was shared in which there is reference to returning to one’s hometown. The woman who visits areas affected by the tsunami providing musical therapy shared that there are some communities where she is not allowed to use this well-known song given the fact that the individuals know that they will never return to their hometown. It’s too painful to sing for a past which will never occur again. I’m reminded that we sing with hope for our hometown being prepared in heaven today.

The Nakahama Elementary School stands alone with no other buildings in sightas a memorial to the power of the earthquake and resulting tsunami but also serving as a reminder that even in times of destruction one can still find survival and hope.

Mayor Saito met our group at the school telling us that before the disaster his personal home was located in a community surrounding the school on what today is open land.

He took us into the building which has been largely left alone demonstrating nature’s power. Destruction can be seen everywhere even with full trees that lodged inside of the first floor. He described how the water level reached to the ceiling of the second floor or more than 10 meters. From the second floor he led us up a narrow flight of stairs to the roof of the school where 90 individuals including 52 elementary students were saved in a rooftop storage area.

When the alert was sent that there would be a tsunami following the earthquake they had experienced, the principal of the school ordered his students to go to the roof rather than attempting to escape to higher ground. Had they not followed his instructions more lives would have been lost to the wave(s). Teachers and people from the surrounding homes joined the elementary students who were not allowed to watch the destruction taking place around their refuge on the roof.

After the second wave reached the ceiling of the second floor, the principal watched as a third wave higher than the previous waves moved towards the school. He was convinced that he and those with him on the roof would lose their lives; however, as the third wave came over the shoreline, the second wave receded from the land. The effect of the two waves colliding resulted in weakening the third wave.

Those who had escaped the tsunami had no idea that the group on the roof of the school had been spared until military helicopters spotted them the following day. I could only imagine the feeling of parents thinking their children were lost only to find that they had survived a day later.

Today from the roof of the school about the only living thing one will see is a large tree with a few living branches standing on the open ground with banners or messages attached to long ropes from people of Japan expressing their feelings for the victims of the disaster.

We had returned to our hotel in Tachikawa where the Japan Union Conference maintains its office. On the morning following our visit to the tsunami zone I was in my hotel reading the morning news on the web with stories of Nepal’s second major earthquake. I suddenly had the sensation that the walls and window curtains of the hotel were moving. It wasn’t long before I read on the web that a 6.8 magnitude earthquake had struck just off the coast of Japan near where we had been the previous afternoon.

While this time there was no damage reported nor was there a tsunami, nevertheless, I was reminded of how fragile this world is. I was also reminded of how each of us should be prepared to meet the unexpected at a moment’s notice.

When disaster strikes,Seventh-day Adventist Christians have the privilege of being a part in bringing hope to those whose lives have been impacted whether by natural disaster or by conflict in a sinful world. ADRA provides a means for the church to touch the lives of literally millions at times of uncertainty and great need.  On a yearly basis (normally in May) church members throughout NSD are invited to give an offering in the name of “disaster and famine relief” to assist in the church’s outreach including the ADRA organization. Direct appeals to assist at the time disasters occur may also be made as the church attempts to make a difference in the lives of victims.

We have been called as Christians to always be ready to meet the realities of living in a sinful world, but also to be a people of hope reaching out to those in need. ADRA is one means to accomplish this mission.

Visit on May 12, 2015

By Ken Osborn, NSD Treasurer