Reflections from Japan

Families search for the names of loved ones on a list of missing and those confirmed dead. Photo credit: Takeshi Komino, CWS

As of March 28, 17,000 people are still missing in Japan; 11,000 have died, thousands more have been injured, and those numbers are expected to rise. There are still approximately 300,000 people living in more than 2,300 evacuation sites across Japan, though there are hundreds of thousands -- perhaps as many as 500,000 -- who remain in their homes but are dependent on the sites because there is a lack of available food, stoves, fuel and other necessary items. Week of Compassion, through Church World Service and through the United Church of Christ in Japan, is responding on a daily basis, thanks to your gifts. 

Takeshi Komino, Church World Service Asia/Pacific Emergency Response Director, shares with us his personal reflections from Japan. 

“Is this really happening in my country of Japan?” was my initial thought. Japan is considered one of the richest nations in the world with probably the best disaster risk reduction measures in the region. And this was certainly my first time responding to an emergency in Japan as a staff member of CWS. As the extent of damage became clearer, I learned that this is actually four disasters happening at once. First a 9.0 Richter scale earthquake, then 20m+ tsunami, then nuclear power plant reactor explosion, all happening in the harsh winter weather of Tohoku region, where temperatures nowadays go down below freezing point on daily basis. Can my government respond adequately? The answer, unfortunately, is no.

My recent drive from Tokyo to Miyagi Prefecture was somewhat smooth on Tohoku Motorway until where roads became bumpy and we required a special pass to go through that segment. Once I entered Tohoku region, it was snowing, freezing, and long queues were at every gas station where fuel was running out. We were lucky to be able to get a share in one of the gas stations with a 10 liter limit.

The Government of Japan is eager to maintain the image that their response is properly executed, but people I met in my assessment visit tell me otherwise. Relief items are not adequately reaching them, influenza is spreading, people are waking up in the middle of the night because of body aches due to cold air, no future plan is communicated, still their loved ones are missing; truly daily survival for these people both physically and mentally. I am personally wearing two layers of pants as well as a sweater and down jacket. Even with these, it was freezing cold and my fingers went numb.

In coordination meetings in Tokyo, some people are asking, “with Self Defense Forces being deployed and the government sending fuel tankers, aren’t the needs met?” From the affected population who are faced with daily survival at evacuation sites, such questions seem to be nonsense and pointless -- a view I now share. Then what is my government doing? To give them credit, they are tasked to deal with unprecedented challenges of restoring safety at Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Plant, deployment of Self Defense Forces to deal with 500,000 people who are living at evacuation sites (including those who are staying at evacuation sites and people who are visiting on daily basis from their houses due to lack of utilities) and construction of temporary shelters for re-evacuation. They simply don’t have government human resources to serve the most vulnerable; people who can even go to these evacuation sites. Who can serve these people then? 

Volunteers are the ones. Agencies are now mobilizing local volunteers, of which there are many, to help the affected population with cleaning evacuation sites of dirt/mud from the tsunami, classifying relief items at warehouses, carrying and distributing relief items, daily updates on needs at disaster volunteer centers, etc. They are not professional aid workers, but they can certainly offer human resources to labor intensive relief work, and with proper management structure by aid agencies, local volunteers will play a key role in this relief and recovery effort.

Some may question, “why assist Japan which is one of the richest nations in the world?” My answer is, these people who are staying in extremely difficult conditions at the evacuation sites, they really do need everyone’s help. Their basic needs must be met, and we need to be there when they re-formulate their communities. Governments can make systems and policies and repair major infrastructure, but it’s people who make communities. As the people-centered organization that we (Church World Service) are, we can formulate people-centered assistance, which is a key aspect in this relief and recovery effort.

We also encourage you to visit here for the latest update from our Global Ministries missionary, the Rev. Jeffrey Mensendiek in Sendai. Please keep him and all of our missionaries and partners—as well as all the people of Japan—in your prayers.

Along with Takeshi and Jeffrey, we thank you for your courageous compassion as we continue to reach out to our sisters and brothers in such intense need. Thank you so much for your faithful partnership.