Digging for Hope: Japan Journal

Associate Director Brandon Gilvin visited Japan in June as part of an ecumenical delegation monitoring our relief efforts in the country. This update includes a report and reflection on the relief efforts he encountered on that trip.

The smell was overwhelming. We had just gotten out of the van in Rikuzentaka, a fishing village on the coast of the Iwate prefecture in Japan, and everything around us smelled intensely fishy, reeking of saltwater and death. 

The tsunami had decimated Rikuzentaka, killing more than 8,000 people, and displacing or otherwise affecting more than 30,000 others. 60% of the area’s medical doctors were affected, further weakening a damaged response infrastructure. 

The rural areas affected by the tsunami, generally poorer with a much older population than Japan’s metropolitan areas, face serious challenges in rebuilding their local economies, which often were dependent on the production of factories destroyed in the wake of destructive water.

But as waves struck these factories, it was not only the local economies that were left damaged and vulnerable. Waves crushed a seafood production plant in Rikuzentaka, covering nearby streets with dead fish, waste, and oil. Because the tsunami struck in the winter, the waste was merely one detail among many of a complicated, large-scale clean-up effort: but the weeks wore on and summer approached, rotting fish drew bugs, and a district of Rikuzentaka that once housed the livelihoods of so many became a serious threat to public health.

Through our partnership with Church World Service, Week of Compassion is supporting the Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development (NICCO), which, in addition to providing psychosocial services and other care for survivors, is leading efforts to clean and disinfect the areas where Rikuzentaka’s fish processing plant once stood.

For an afternoon, we joined a NICCO-sponsored team responsible for clean-up, which included an entomologist who studied and cataloged insects infesting the rubble from the tsunami, helping other teams to determine the most effective approaches for clean-up and disinfection.

We then visited the station where the rubble was transported and disinfected, before being taken away to be properly disposed of.

In the weeks that have followed my return from Japan, I’ve told as many people as I can about this aspect of NICCO’s work. For one, I was fascinated by how intricate the process was, how attuned to detail the NICCO staff was, and how, while an essential part of the recovery process, public health issues like disinfecting insect-infested rubble are rarely the sorts of things that we focus our attention, energy, or media strategies on.

But such issues are part of a comprehensive strategy that takes long-term recovery seriously, and it is for this reason that I am thankful for partners such as Church World Service, who focus on long-term recovery, invest in sustainable futures for vulnerable communities, and seek out partners with local knowledge, invaluable skills, and the trust of their communities. 

As I made my way back to our van, stalking my way through the muck of ocean and factory waste, I found myself feeling as grateful as I was disgusted. The generosity of all of you—those who pray and give and along with the people of Japan—enables us to reach out in Courageous Compassion, to find hope amidst heartache, and to develop solutions that serve so many people left vulnerable in the wake of disasters. In the weeks that have followed, as I have watched your generosity serve the vulnerable in other places -- Joplin, MO; Kenya and Somalia; Birmingham, AL -- my gratitude has not waned. It has only grown stronger.

Thank you for making a difference. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Church World Service has provided a report on this recent trip on their website.  Please check it out as well.  

For more information about the economic issues faced by rural communities in Japan following the tsunami, please check out this article.

For more video of Brandon’s trip to Japan, drop by his YouTube Channel, which you can find here.

Responses Made the Week of 7/18-7/22/11

Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance
Oklahoma, wind damage
Somalia, drought relief
Ethiopia, drought relief
Liberia/Ivory Coast, humanitarian crisis
Malawi, flood relief
South Sudan, emergency preparedness
Pakistan, flood emergency

Long-Term Recovery and Rehabilitation
East Africa, water and sanitation

This Week's Responses

Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance
East Africa, drought relief
Kenya, drought relief
South Sudan, humanitarian assistance