We flew out of LAX on a red-eye flight Monday morning August 1 with our cousins, Julie and Quinn Hess, and arrived in Tokyo early Tuesday morning. From Tokyo we took a 4-hour bus ride to Sendai and then a 1-hour train ride to Furukawa, the small town north of Sendai that would serve as our home for the week. We stayed in an apartment paid for by our church and spent the week working as members of a Mormon Helping Hands service tour in surrounding areas affected by the Tsunami. We worked for 5 days and left Furukawa on a night bus on Monday night at 10:30 pm after our last day of work. We arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday morning and after some sightseeing, caught another red-eye flight out of Tokyo Just after Midnight.
That is the short version…
The long version involves such a mix of beautiful, green scenery, devastated neighborhoods, resilient faces, and humbling service opportunities that it is difficult for me to know where to start. How to describe the sensation of winding down a country road through rice fields and scattered villages only to come around a corner and be confronted with a pile of garbage three stories tall? And then another pile, and another, and another? Or a 70-foot fishing boat listing in the gravel of an empty lot a half-mile from the coast? Or car after car after crushed and mangled car stacked like Legos—unclaimed and anonymous
Or the row of townhouses bloated and empty, seeping with four months of raw sewage, silt, and the crumbling remnants of the lives that once thrived there? And across the parking lot from that row of townhouses, the impossibility of clean laundry hanging from a first floor balcony of a rebuilt apartment, and a family inside living on despite the emptiness and destruction that lies around them for blocks and blocks and blocks?
The long version centers on this row of townhouses—about ten of them, all lined up with their rear sliding doors open, hanging off their tracks, cracked and broken, the interior mess of each apartment spilling out into the alleyway. The Tsunami brought water through those back doors and filled the apartments to the first-floor ceilings. When the water receded the second-floors had been all but untouched, but the first-floors were covered in mud, grass, sticks, raw sewage, and the occasional dead fish. The furniture of each apartment had been tipped over, flipped upside down, filled with mud, and plastered with all manner of foulness.
The old man who owns the townhouses had tried to start the clean-up on his own, but his wife had fallen sick, and so he sought out the Church’s help. Our job was to gut each apartment so that professionals could come in and remodel the bottom floors. Our goal, according to Brother Asano, our service coordinator, was to take care of the big mess in order to revive the old man’s desire to carry on.
The long version would have to include Brother Asano and his dear wife. They lost their home in the Tsunami, but have spent the past four months working non-stop organizing service tours for groups like ours. Six days a week Brother Asano leads volunteers out of Furukawa and into the disaster area, working from house to house by invitation.
At times he has had dozens in his group, at others just a few. The work is slow, dirty, and tedious, but over the weeks and months since the Tsunami, they have helped many families move back into their homes. In addition, Brother Asano receives about 100 care packages a month from LDS congregations around Japan. He and his wife divide up the packages of food, clothing, and essentials, and they deliver them to needy families all over the area. They welcomed us, encouraged us, let us use their internet to keep in touch with family, and fed us the most amazing Tacoyaki (Octopus dough balls) for dinner on our last night in Furukawa.
The long version would also have to include the Junior High school in Natori where we spent two days with several other volunteer groups folding, stapling, taping, boxing, and stacking hundreds of paper lanterns that would be used for a summer festival in the middle of August. At first, we weren’t sure that lantern making would be a good use of our time, but then we learned that the members of the community usually in charge of the lantern making were killed in the Tsunami, along with 1000 other people. And we learned that each year at the festival, people write the names of their diceased loved ones on the lanterns and set them afloat down the Natori River as a memorial and guide to the dead. This year, of course, the need for lanterns in this small community has increased significantly.
And then there was the elementary school down the street from the Junior High where we stopped to use the restroom and found an entire gym full of family photo albums, pictures, wedding albums, yearbooks, snapshots, and other photographs that had been found by the Japanese military during the initial sweeps of the disaster area. All these images were sorted and stacked, or else hung by clothespins around the room. A basket of unscathed yearbooks lay beneath a string of individual photographs so scratched and warped as to make the faces barely recognizable.
Each image cleaned and scanned by a volunteer, each image a tiny relic, a miniature shrine to the displaced, the dead, and the missing. On our second day at the Junior High, Jason found a wedding album that had washed in through a second-story window and we took it over to the elementary school to add it to the collection.
And I have to mention Takumi. He’s 18. He lives with his family in Yokohama. He came on his own accord to Furukawa several weeks before we arrived and will stay several weeks after we leave. He’s been a constant face in sea of changing volunteers, has endured many days of being the only Japanese speaker in the apartment, and quietly rises from his bed in the morning to serve. Japan is full of people like him.
We mucked and shoveled and bagged and lifted and carried and swept, and then we paused to drink water beneath an unseasonably cool and cloudy sky, and then went back at it. We stopped at convenience stores to buy lunches and snacks and mingled with the local workforce that went about their day with such determined normalcy that I often felt like just another cog in a giant clock, slowly ticking backward, in a layer-by-layer undoing of the disaster that has laid itself over the coast.
The magnitude of the damage, the human and economic cost of such a natural disaster is difficult to wrap my mind around. Our service was barely a drop in the bucket of what must be done to rebuild, of what it will take a decade or more to complete, and it is this that impresses me so much about the Japanese people. The job will get done slowly, one house at a time, one neighborhood at a time, one village at a time but it will get done.
Of course, the work of rebuilding the Tohoku coast will take a steady stream of financial support and willing hands to do the dirty work. Your donation helped us contribute in our small way to the strengthening of that stream and we are ever grateful for your generosity and compassion.
If there is a country anywhere in the world with the cooperative spirit and tenacity necessary to accomplish such a reconstruction, then Japan is that country, and by that fact we are humbled and encouraged.
Thank you again for helping us making this possible.
-Joey and Jason