Loss and healing in post-tsunami Japan

When I was in Japan early this year, I expressed a wish to visit the community on the eastern coast of Japan that my daughter Kara had featured in one of her “I-Witness” documentaries.  This was the town of Ofunato in the Iwate Prefecture, which was washed away by the tsunami that followed The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.  My wish came true last Sunday.

Invited to give the keynote lecture at a symposium on global studies held last Saturday at the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo, I mentioned my wish to my hosts, who instantly warmed up to the idea, seeing it as a gesture of solidarity. My friend, Prof. Takefumi Terada, a doctoral student at the University of the Philippines in the late 1970s and now the dean of Sophia’s Faculty of Foreign Studies, offered to accompany me.  We left on the evening fast train going north almost immediately after the formal closing of the conference.

We passed the night in Ichinoseki, a small city that serves as the gateway to the Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures in the Tohoku region. Professor Terada told me that the coastal train running north from Sendai had been washed away by the tsunami, which was why we had to proceed by car the rest of the way.  In a rented car, we headed east the following morning, crossing mountains, until we hit the coastal city of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture.  An entire ship, beached like a lifeless whale, still blocks traffic in this city. From there we went up north toward Rikuzentakata and Ofunato in Iwate.

These names are now familiar to almost everyone in Japan because it was in these places, located near the epicenter of the earthquake, where the devastation was most dramatic. The coastal route gave us an astounding view of the ocean, now calm, but which, on that fateful afternoon of 3/11, swallowed entire cities in only seven minutes.  Signs posted along the highway indicated the points where a “Post Tsunami Inundation Section” starts and ends, making it possible for the visitor to visualize how high the water level rose in several places along the coast.

Soon we reached Ofunato, where, on top of a hill overlooking the coast, a small Catholic church stood.  This is where many people sought refuge during that crucial 30-minute gap between the occurrence of the 9.0 earthquake and the coming of the deadly tide that raised the ocean to anywhere between 10 and 30 meters.

We arrived in the middle of the Sunday Mass.  The bishop of Sendai himself, Bishop Hiraga, had come to say the special Mass to mark the second anniversary of the disaster.  Assisting him was the young Japanese parish priest, Father Morita. I was told that two other priests, an Indonesian and a Filipino, have come to help the parish since the tragedy, but they were saying Mass elsewhere on this particular Sunday.

The community had been expecting us; the kindly bishop acknowledged our entrance with a simple nod.  The Mass proceeded entirely in Japanese, until it came to the Lord’s Prayer.  Then the whole congregation of about 60 people stood up, linked hands, and sang “Ama Namin” (Our Father). Filipino mothers and their young children led the singing.  I learned later that this is now the standard practice in this church.

What is special about Ofunato is that it has today one of the most active organizations of Filipinos living in Japan. The group’s name is “Pagasa” (Hope), and it was formed in the wake of the great tragedy that struck the Tohoku region exactly two years ago.  Its members are Filipino women who married into Japanese rural families. Their story is one of exceptional courage, determination, and strength in a time of overpowering grief, hardship, and weariness.  A report in the Japan Times (03/12/2013) notes:  “Of the 75,000 foreign nationals in the disaster zone at the time, 28,000 were Chinese.  Unlike the large Korean and Filipino communities that gather at churches on Sundays, Tohoku’s Chinese hadn’t established ties yet.”

The Mass was followed by a simple lunch of instant noodles served in paper cups, sticky rice wrapped in nori, and oranges.  Bishop Hiraga sat at the head of the table surrounded by the fascinating mix of Japanese and Filipino Catholics, adults and little children, and young Japanese volunteers from Caritas Japan. Father Morita was busy going around serving his parishioners, particularly the children, pouring hot water into their cups of noodles. It was an amazing meal. I found myself seated beside the physician of the community, Dr. Harutsugu Yamaura, a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman with long silver hair neatly tied into a pigtail, like a samurai.  He spoke to me in perfect English.

“We are glad you could come,” he told me.  A polyglot and a scholar who translated the gospels into the dialect of their region from the original Greek, the doctor is one of the key leaders of the community who worked hard to ensure the full integration into the parish of the “Filipino brides who have married our sons” and have given the community its children.

I glanced at the young Filipino mothers around me, and felt a surge of pride at the way they carry their sturdy presence in this traditional Japanese community. The earthquake and tsunami had brought out all the inner personal strength they possessed, which they used to pull their adopted families together in a time of great stress.  They took odd jobs here and there to augment the family income when their husbands lost their pre-tsunami jobs.

When it was time to say our goodbye, a young Japanese woman shook my hand, and said, “Ingat po” (Take care).

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