Category Archives: Crisis in Japan

A personal view of the tragedy in northern Japan

Shovels and onigiris – My first day as a volunteer

Posted by Matthew Ireton, a parishioner at the English-language parish in Tokyo

It was early in the morning when I woke to the sound of people preparing to go upstairs for the 6:30 a.m. mass.

Father Takahashi, who is a priest from Oita Prefecture, decided say Mass for Catholics at the Caritas base in Shiogama during his stay as a volunteer.  I got up, went to the bathroom to put my contact lens on, and then headed to a room that allowed for 7-8 people after setting an altar for a bible, crucifix, chalice and a ciborium.

As Father Takahashi spoke during the homily about volunteering, I was wondering what was going through everyone’s minds.  This was my first day of actual volunteering, having arrived yesterday, and while others probably reflected on their previous volunteering activities, I did not know what to think or expect.

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A volunteer shortage?

With students going back to school, will take over the heavy lifting?

The number of volunteers who have come through the Sendai Diocese Support Center has topped 715.

But now schools have resumed classes (the school year in Japan runs from April to March). The April 29-May 8 Golden Week holiday when a combination of holidays, weekends and a day or two of vacation time gave the whole country a week off is over. People are back at school and work.

One volunteer told me the company he had worked for recently closed down, so he was free to join the effort at any time. He asked to be accepted as a post-Golden Week volunteer, “I thought I’d come after Golden Week when volunteers might be scarce,” he said.

According to Fr. Daisuke Narui, executive director of Caritas, the number of people offering to join the relief effort is indeed dropping.

What can be done to carry on the work?

A volunteer distributing hot water at an evacuation center in Ishinomaki thought that some tasks like water distribution might be suitable for retirees. However, older people may find the dormitory-style living of volunteers and bedding down in sleeping bags to be a bit more than they can handle, though that, in fact, is daily life now for evacuees in school gymnasiums and other places.

The nature of the work may have to shift, at least till the next school vacation period, with less emphasis upon heavy manual labor even though that remains necessary. The mayor of Kamaishi has said that cleaning up that city will take at least three years.

Caritas already sponsors “Heart Care” counselors, specialists who serve survivors of the traumatic earthquake and tsunami.

Perhaps some beneficiaries of the volunteers’ service might be happy to break the tedium of evacuation center life and become agents as well as recipients of the relief efforts.

In any case, it looks as if the amount and the nature of relief work the Catholic Church can sponsor may have to change in the next month or two, at least until universities’ summer holiday.

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Posted by William Grimm

Kamaishi is no stranger to tsunami.

A major one in 1896 destroyed the city and washed away a 29-year-old French priest who was visiting parishioners there.

A portrait in the Kamaishi Church of Fr. Henri Rispal, killed by a tsunami in June 1896.

To protect itself from tsunami, the city built the world’s deepest breakwater, completed in March 2009. In March 2011, it showed, just as the Titanic once did, that when humans decide they can match the power of the sea, they are doomed to failure.

The Asia Symphony, 175,000-ton cargo ship that was lifted above the Kamaishi breakwater and dropped on top of it by the tsunami

Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled.
Then fell a stillness such as harks appalled
When far-gone dead return upon the world.

— Wilfred Owen, The Unreturning

Across the street from the breakwater. Red flags mark places where human bodies have been found

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‘Wooo—woo— kan, kan, kan, woo—woo—‘

From William Grimm, Maryknoll priest and publisher of
As I walked through what is left of Kirikiri, a flash of red caught my eye.
I looked more closely, and saw in the remains of a home’s foundation a toy fire truck.
I wonder if the child who used to go “Wooo—woo— kan, kan, kan, woo—woo—” while playing with it survived the tsunami that took away his home.
If he’s alive, I wonder if he misses his fire engine.
No matter how big a disaster is, it happens to one person at a time.

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May 11: Just two months from current event to history

“Why have the media forgotten us?”  William Grimm, Maryknoll priest and publisher of, tries to answer that question.

The earthquake and tsunami were two months ago today.

This morning as I was eating breakfast with the volunteers at Kamaishi, one of them, a local woman, sat across the table from me and asked if I could answer a question for her.

“Why have the media forgotten about us?” She went on to say that all the coverage seems to focus on the problems at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, even though the disaster is still a present reality in the rest of the area.

I said it was the weakness of the media that it has a short attention span. The Japan quake eclipsed the Haiti quake, the revolt in the Arab world eclipsed the Japan quake, the royal wedding in London eclipsed the Arabs and Osama bin Laden eclipsed Kate Middleton. News becomes history very quickly.

That’s the reason the Sendai Diocese Support Center and Caritas Japan have me coming up from Tokyo to report. Their hope and mine is that by continuing to put the situation before an international audience, encouragement and support won’t dry up. Fortunately, according to last week’s figures, is now the second-largest Catholic news source on the web. So, at least among Catholics the story is being told.

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May 4: Left brain-right brain. Reality-unreality. Disneyland-destruction

William Grimm, Maryknoll priest and publisher of, continues on his quest “to try to be useful” in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
They say there are two types of people – those who divide folks into two types and those who don’t. One of the current fads is to divide between people who function mostly with the right side of their brain and those who function with the left.
Right-brain people supposedly think in images, and respond to colors and shapes. They intuit. Left-brain people focus on words and logic. While there is apparently some scientific research that underlies the differences, as usual, people who build whole theories of personality and spirituality around it are certainly using only half their brain.
But, if they want a specimen that fits their theory, I may be one of the left-brainers. I love words. In fact, I even read the captions in National Geographic magazine before I look at the photos, a fact that shocked him when I told a photographer who has done work for NG.
However, after spending last week up in the disaster area, I know that words won’t be enough. So far, the most accurate word I have found to describe what I have seen up there is “Disneyland.”
I know that sounds peculiar, but it is the word that came to mind as I stood in the wreckage of Ishinomaki. It’s not that a ruined town looks at all like the Magic Kingdom. But, they do have something in common. Both of them challenge our sense of the real and unreal.
The degree of devastation – a town reduced to soggy debris – goes beyond the ability of words to describe. But, I am not sure the problem is language. There is, at least in my case, a prior difficulty. Seeing is not believing. I cannot find the words because I cannot grasp and believe I am actually seeing what is all around me. One or both sides of my brain cannot contain the reality except in some cells reserved for dancing Donald Ducks and other things that can only be true in a make-believe sense.
So, I have given in to the suggestion that I get a camera to record what I see. Perhaps readers of this blog and the other reports I send will be able to grasp the reality through pixels. Perhaps reducing the whole reality to a few square centimeters will allow them to understand something that a 360-degree view precludes. If I can figure out how to use the machine by the time I return to the Tohoku region next week, we’ll find out.
The first challenge, of course, was to actually get a camera. I have never been a picture-taker. I once lost a camera and did not realize it for five years, until someone wanted to borrow it. On the advice of the UCA News editor, I went shopping for a particular camera with a friend who also knows about such things. The editor assured me this camera is foolproof, though it remains to be seen if it be proof against this particular fool.
The first store we went to had the camera on display with a special price – a bit over ¥43,000. Not bad. So, we asked for it. It was out of stock and the salesperson said no one knows when it will be in stock again because the factory where it is produced was heavily damaged in the earthquake. Factories that work with the fine degrees of precision that cameras require are easy victims of a shakeup.
So, we went to several other stores, all displaying the same camera at the same special price. It was out of stock at all of them and the best estimate we got on repairs to the factory was three-to-four weeks. I asked my friend if the camera cost ¥43,000 when they don’t have it, what might it cost if they do. We decided that we would try one more dealer, our fifth try. They had a few in stock for ¥49,000! One question answered, anyway.
So, now I have a camera. Perhaps I should take it to Tokyo Disneyland to learn to use it.

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Posted by William Grimm

April 28

While I was in Ishinomaki, I went with a Salesian Sister volunteering at the church that houses the Caritas volunteers working there to see a temporary burial site for victims of the tsunami.

The graves are on the grounds of a Buddhist temple about three or four blocks from the church. When we arrived, a group of Buddhist priests were chanting. It was the 49th day since the death of the people buried there, and in Japan special prayers are said on that day even in the Catholic Church.

The place was muddy and unattractive. Basically, trenches were dug, the bodies were placed in them and then they were covered with dirt. As bodies are identified and families are ready to claim them for cremation and funeral rites, the corpses are dug up. To facilitate the process, each burial is numbered with a signboard. Jumps in the numbering show where bodies have been exhumed.

As we walked around, I saw a few rows away a small cross. When we got closer, we saw that someone had tied two pieces of branch together to form a cross at grave number 245. On the cross was written, “Hallelujah! Mai Tanaka, age 23.” When we returned to the church, we found out that she was a parishioner. Apparently, her remains had been identified, but not yet removed.

Shortly after getting back to the church, a man came by. He was Brother Hidenori Takahashi, a 37-year-old Benedictine monk who was scheduled to begin seminary studies this month. His studies have been postponed for a year. He is a native of Onagawa, a fishing village just outside Ishinomaki. It used to have a population of about 10,000. Half of them died, including Brother’s mother and younger sister who were apparently washed away.

He was one of the earliest volunteers in Ishinomaki, since it enabled him to do something else while searching for his family members.

“My sister’s wrecked car was found in the hospital parking lot, 20 meters above sea level, but the tsunami was higher than that,” he said.

Brother said he has come to accept the truth that his mother and sister are lost forever.

“Even if their bodies were to wash up now, after more than a month there is no way to identify them. All I can do is entrust them to God.”

Brother mentioned that he has seen the tsunami hitting Onagawa on YouTube. Most of the footage of the tsunami itself doesn’t mention where it was taken, so I couldn’t be sure I found video from there. But, I did find a post-tsunami video taken from a car.

The first place the car stops is in front of the hospital, so perhaps one of those cars was Bro. Takahashi’s sister’s. One of the vacant areas that looks pretty clear and level was the middle school; it seems to have been scoured away, leaving only the foundation.

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