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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To Shiogama and Shichigahama

William Grimm, Maryknoll priest and publisher of, continues his journey through the worst-hit areas, where he will “to try to be useful.”

I started Tuesday with an early 40-minute drive to Shiogama to report on the work of the Sendai Diocesan Support Center. The improvement in the situation along the road from Sendai was amazing.
When I first traveled the road three weeks ago, cleanup was still in the early stages. Now, many of the worst-damaged buildings have been demolished. Electricity has apparently been restored to most places. Houses that were not irreparably damaged often show signs of people living on the undamaged second floor. In some of the less-damaged areas, shops are being renovated.
The broken dike, the levee washed away,
The good fields flooded and the cattle drowned,
Estranged and treacherous all the faithful ground,
And nothing left but floating disarray
Of tree and home uprooted,–was this the day
Man dropped upon his shadow without a sound
And died, having laboured well and having found
His burden heavier than a quilt of clay?
No, no. I saw him when the sun had set
In water, leaning on his single oar
Above his garden faintly glimmering yet . . .
There bulked the plough, here washed the updrifted weeds . . .
And scull across his roof and make for shore,
With twisted face and pocket full of seeds.
— from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s The Epitaph for the Race of Man
Also, the cherries are in bloom. Any time you look above the high-water line, you see blossoms. Another Japanese touch — the Caritas office always has fresh flowers.
As I said to one of the volunteers on Tuesday, “Well, this is Japan alright.” Shichigahama, the town I went to two weeks ago, is still a disaster but now it’s an organized one. The destroyed houses have been knocked down, most of the wrecked vehicles have been collected, though a fishing boat still sits on the roof of the frame of a building.
Now, there are fields of debris, and the next step, already begun, is to haul that off. In Shiogama, some shops are already being repaired. No sitting around feeling sorry for themselves here. I know a lot of people dislike the Japanese, but how can one not love and respect people who can respond so thoroughly, generously, intelligently and efficiently to overwhelming disaster?
The first noticeable thing in the area where the Caritas volunteers were working in Shiogama was the stench. There is a lot of effort going into clearing up as much of the mess as possible before the summer heat sets in. Wet, rotting building materials plus whatever else is in there along with stagnant pools of sea water will make for quite an olfactory attack.
There is an interesting mix among the volunteers. As I expected, there are a lot of students. But, the supervisor of the work crew in Shiogama is a purser for an international airline. The coordinator of the “home base” there where volunteers (some of them elderly survivors of the tsunami) prepare meals for the field volunteers and keep the parish’s hall where they spread their sleeping bags somewhat livable is an opera stage manager.

Volunteers’ access to the evacuation centers is limited. It’s felt that the people in them have enough stress without having to entertain people who want to help them. Probably a good idea.

I’m staying at the bishop’s house. Last night when I came in, Bishop Hiraga was talking with one of his priests. He invited me to join them. The bishop mentioned the problems facing fishermen in places like Shichigahama. The infrastructure for the fishing industry has been destroyed. Fishermen have lost their boats and likely their homes. But, most of them are in their 60’s or older. Who is going to make loans to people that age to rebuild their lives?

Some fishermen, as soon as they heard that a tsunami was on the way, did the one thing that would save their boats; they headed straight out to sea at full speed. In deep water, even a huge tsunami might be only a swell of a few centimeters. Those who got out to sea in time survived and saved their boats, but then returned to find their homes and villages and the people in them gone.

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April 25, Easter Monday: getting through to Sendai

William Grimm, Maryknoll priest and publisher of, describes his Easter Monday journey to Sendai, where he will “to try to be useful”.

Having celebrated the Sacred Triduum and Easter at the parish I usually pray with in Tokyo, I flew to Sendai today to begin working with the Caritas Japan disaster assistance program.

Since train service between Tokyo and Sendai only resumed today, I had made plans to take a plane to Sendai since the airport reopened last week. To tell the truth, having watched TV images of the airport being overwhelmed by the March 11 tsunami, I was curious about what I would see.

The plane (one of four commercial flights per day) was not quite full. I had a window seat, and as we approached the landing strip from over the sea, I was shocked to see how close to the ocean the airport is – right at the edge of the beach, separated by a canal.

Originally, I had heard that it would take six months to restore the facility. There were more than 5,000 smashed cars and a bunch of wrecked aircraft to be cleared away, let alone other debris and bodies. However, a U.S. Air Force unit that specializes in setting up airfields in disaster- and combat areas with extra muscle provided by Marine and Army troops managed to restore service in four weeks.

The airfield is clear. Along one side of the runway is a small mountain of debris. On the far side of the mountain is a “very-used car”  lot of smashed vehicles neatly lined up. Yet, on the other side of the runway, cherry trees that managed to survive the flood are in bloom. The terminal is cleaned out, but still not fully functioning. Ironically, that meant that there was no need to kill time at a baggage carousel waiting for my luggage to arrive. It was delivered to a lobby by airport staff faster than I’ve ever experienced with technology.

From the airport, it was a 40-minute bus ride to the center of Sendai where the Caritas operation is housed at the cathedral. There is apparently a shuttle train from the city to the airport. An abandoned train was sitting in the elevated station, but all the overhead power lines to run it were gone. Perhaps they had been removed intentionally in order to install new ones.

Entering the city on an expressway, I was impressed at how little damage there is beyond the reach of the tsunami. The earthquake here was one of the five strongest in history, yet there are no toppled buildings or fallen bridges. I saw one stucco-coated home that had lost a large piece of its wall covering and a few buildings that had cracks in their decorative facing.

Good engineering, strict enforcement and little or no corruption really do make a difference in an earthquake.

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April 21st: The sound of hope – reflections on volunteering for the people of Kamaishi

When the rector of the Jesuit scholasticate in Tokyo, Fr. Juan Haidar, asked me whether I was interested in volunteering for relief efforts of Caritas Japan, I initially hesitated since my command of the Japanese language was not good. Yet I felt moved to respond despite this disability and despite the risks.

We called ourselves the Tokyo 12. I found myself among this group of five men and seven women who responded to Mr. Sakagawa’s call to help in the relief efforts of Caritas Japan. We had not known each other prior to this and only had an orientation meeting on the 4th of April. Bony James, an Indian Jesuit scholastic, and I were probably the only Christians in this group.

The Tokyo 12 left for the Northern coastal town of Kamaishi on the 5th of April. Kamaishi is one of the towns that was badly hit by the tsunami. This is the same town where a huge ship rammed into the tsunami wall. The sidewalks were still full of debris—everything from old toys, to the remains of a baby shark.

For one week we cooped up in a small convent that was not so much affected by the tsunami since the convent and chapel are located on a slightly elevated area. Upon arrival, we volunteers were briefed about the types of work involved: first, to clean up nearby houses that were devastated by the tsunami; second, to help in the sorting and distribution of relief goods; third, to assist in the preparation of food for those affected by the disaster.

The clean-up operations were grueling and rather dangerous. The volunteers had to clear up debris in and around the house—thick wooden planks, car parts, water-logged plastic containers, even a heavy stairwell that the tsunami water had jostled onto the lawn. The debris was at times several meters deep, and to clear it up we volunteers dug out the wreckage with a shovel or by our own hands in order to move the rubble to a nearby lot. There was so much debris that we even had to create a makeshift pathway out of disposed tatami mats so as to be able to dump the debris further inside the lot. The dumpsite reeked of rotting seawater—decomposing things that the tsunami has forced into the city.

The danger of the task was very real. Several volunteers had even accidentally stepped on beams with exposed nails that had been rusting under the corrosive salt water. They had to look for first aid and immediately get tetanus shots. I almost met an accident myself as the heavy beam I was carrying got snagged by an overturned car.

We were one day cleaning the house of an eighty-year old woman. Hanging by the ledge of the house, we tried to empty the house of debris via a window, in order that we would eventually be able to have access to the door and be able to open it from the inside. After a number of hours, we took a break. When she found out I was Filipino, her facial expression changed. I could not completely understand what she was saying, but I felt her gratitude. She even gave us Philippine Cavendish bananas as a snack. “Also from the Philippines,” she said in Japanese.

After a long day’s work, while I was cleaning my soiled overalls, one religious sister had asked me whether I was exhausted from all the heavy labor. I replied that work was by no means easy, but I realize, that as a volunteer, at least I had an option to rest a while. After a week, I would be living comfortably in the scholasticate. For many in the town, there was no option—this ravaged town was their only home.

The other assignment that I was able to do was to be in the central repository for donations of clothing. Trucks after trucks would come bringing donations from all over Japan. The warehouse was an abandoned school. The wooden floors creaked as we moved the boxes from one hallway to the other. At times we would have fun and push the boxes towards each other as one would a hockey puck. We would dispose of old clothing and sort and classify the new clothing that we received. We sorted them into gender and sizes in order that the soldiers who would distribute the goods will be able to access the clothing faster.

A retired fireman supervised us—like the woman, he expressed pleasant surprise that I am from the Philippines, and even more surprised that I had only been in Japan for less than two weeks. During our breaks he would offer us some hot ramen and chilled barley tea and would tell stories about the tsunami and the people of Kamaishi.

On my last day, while we were busy sorting socks, the retired fireman pulled us volunteers aside, he said it was two-forty five. The tsunami warning would sound in remembrance of the tragedy. It had been a month since the tsunami had destroyed Kamaishi. It was quite an emotional moment for all as we remembered why we were doing such a repetitive and mechanical task.

The atmosphere in Kamaishi despite the certain and slow clearing of debris, is still quite tense. One Thursday evening, at around 11:00, a strong earthquake struck the region. The power went out, and people started rushing outside their homes. Our team leader, Rintaro Takesue, did a head count and we proceeded to an elevated plateau overlooking the sea. The neighborhood made sure everyone was there. Many people were scrambling to  go up–a ninety year old man had difficulty walking uphill, and someone was pushing up a wheelchair of an old woman, children in tow.

A firetruck beamed a light towards the black ocean as we listened to the radio for updates as to when the tsunami would strike. The faces of people were full of anxiety. Under the dark skies, some volunteers broke down, and cried. I called up the scholasticate in Tokyo to inform anyone in the Philippine province of the Society of Jesus that I was safe.

The following day, the power was still out, and people were still uneasy. The convent house, however, just received its share of donations from Caritas Japan and opened the house for anyone in the neighborhood who needed anything.

In order to release my tension, I arranged the food donations as a supermarket would on a display shelf which earned me the nickname “Mitsukoshi”, a popular department store chain in Japan. It was such a joy when I saw a young girl of around 5 years of age, pointing to a candy display I strategically placed on a lower shelf. She asked permission from her mother to get some sweets and placed it in their bag.

My father had once told me that after a typhoon he, as a child, would anticipate hearing the sound of a broom’s bristles brushing against the wet pavement. He said that he had always associated the sound with hope. It is a sound that tells him that people have begun to pick up the pieces after such devastation. It tells him that people have decided to hope again and move on.

I suppose the exhaustion from all the hard labor did not matter as much as seeing people placing their hopes on the future. As I was helping out with the cleaning the houses and the movement of donations,   I would hear frightful stories of the disaster. Not speaking so much Japanese, I truly wanted to utter words of consolation but I couldn’t. Yet I believe they understood me. That I too, like them and with them, am placing my hopes.

This are just some of the many stories of moving on that are now woven into the lives of the Tokyo 12 volunteers. During our Kamaishi stay, many of the volunteers had asked me questions about the faith, and questions about life. Although we may not fully be able to make sense of such a tragedy, we sense that somehow through our being there we have been instruments of hope. Perhaps although coming from different faiths, we as volunteers, as we place hope in such a time of uncertainty, we perhaps unknowingly and imperfectly somehow reflect and resound God’s greater hope.

(1 Corinthians 13:12) Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.

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Thursday 14 April

Yesterday morning I gave my first English course since 11 March. Usually we use a spare room for the classes. After losing an hour trying to find a place where we could hold the course, going from one public building to another (media center, support center, etc.), we finally had the class at the home of my student.

Most buildings are still closed for repairs.

During the afternoon, a friend tried to get me a job as a replacement teacher in a language school where he is teaching. I did not get a job but we had an interesting talk. He told me that the director of the school was quite shocked by the fact that so many foreigners had left hurriedly without even taking time to arrange their affairs, e.g. inform their employers, cut off the telephone, water, electricity, etc. I think that it’s quite a common feeling in Japan.

Today Yukiko left the apartment for the first time since our return. The tremors had really upset her and she did not dare to go out alone. Seeing people in the streets, she felt much better.

I also went back to the church to find out how the transport for Shiogama was being organised. They told me it was better to take the bus (500 yen – $6 – each way). I could not help myself from telling them quite forcefully that I was very surprised to see that volunteering was reserved for those who had the means. I was told that the association looked after the accommodation but not the transport. Apart from the fact that I was disappointed not to be able to participate as much as I wanted in the volunteer activities, I found it difficult to understand the clear lack of organisation.

Why was there no coordination between the volunteer organisations like Caritas and the public transport bodies e.g. bus or train to facilitate the transport of the volunteers? It just seemed so evident to me that I was astounded by the lack of coordination.

We began to prepare our packing boxes today. Going to my laboratory I took a few photos.

The first (above) shows the landslide that I witnessed during the earthquake on March 11.

The others show the state of the road near my laboratory.

– Jean-Joseph

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Tuesday, 12 April

My first day as a volunteer turned out to be a real expedition. This morning I left to take the 7.14 train following the directions provided by the local Caritas team.

I boarded the 7.14 train but the station announcements started to raise doubts in my mind. The train that I was on was heading towards Fukushima and absolutely not to Shiogama, which was my planned destination.

So I checked at the ticket counter where they reimbursed my ticket telling me that I needed to take a bus as all the trains to Matsushima (Shiogama is between Sendai and Matsushima) had been cancelled after Thursday’s earthquake.

I phoned the church at Shiogama where they told me to take the 10 a.m bus from the eastern exit. There they told me that the bus would leave from the western side. Finally I found the bus stop – there were only three buses per day. So I decided to go to the local church where a young Japanese priest proposed to take me and another volunteer who had just arrived from Tokyo by car.

After a racing drive, we arrived at the Shiogama church. On the way, I could see buildings ripped apart, furniture scattered everywhere, as well as parking areas filled with damaged vehicles sometimes piled on top of each other.

Talking to the priest, I learnt that they had been surprised by the number of offers to come as volunteers with 300 signed up as of today who have come from all over Japan including Okinawa.

At the church, they gave me a Caritas t-shirt and I filled in a form – it’s almost a disease in Japan, it’s difficult to do anything with having to fill in a form! A person from the church took us to the support centre. It was more than 20 minutes on foot in the middle of which he asked us if we remembered the way as we would have to find our own way back!

At the centre, things were under way as follows. First, I filled out a form (surprise!). Then they gave me a green vest with the words “City of Shiogama, volunteer” (in Japanese obviously). Dressed in the vest, we went to sit with the other volunteers while we waited for the other leaders to come and explain our work. For my colleague (who absolutely wanted to stay with me for fear of getting lost), we were sent to the hospital.

Nothing glorious today. I spent the time filing in the archive room.

After the earthquake, the patient files were scattered across the room. We were interrupted by a minor tremor. The TV and the radio always make an announcement several seconds before the arrival of a particularly strong tremor.

There were three young people from Shiogama working with us: two high school students and a young worker. I did not dare ask them what had happened to their own families.

At 3 p.m. they told us to stop our work and to return to the support centre. After handing back our vests, I saw that my colleague was panicking so I proposed that we return to the church together. Once back at the church, I met a Japanese Religious sister who had learnt French in Canada. Apparently, she did not pick up the accent.

They took us to the Tagajo station where I was able to take a bus for Sendai. The ticket was twice as expensive as the train.

During the day, I also learnt that the Japanese government has finally recognized that Fukushima is a Level 7 disaster. I may be wrong but I think that the main problem comes from the plutonium scattered around the nuclear reactor (particularly in the sea). Its extremely long half-life is a concern but since plutonium is not easily dispersed, the problem, although extremely serious, essentially involves the area around the reactor.

After arriving back in Sendai, I went to the church where they asked me for feedback. I gave them my report:

An efficiency problem owing to the fact that the volunteers arrive without receiving any real follow up;

There are no trains available and the volunteers are arriving at Sendai each day. I am surprised that the church does not organise car pooling to avoid multiple trips by the volunteers.

For the future, I offered a number of suggestions based on my work today.

First, gather the files from one group that have been sorted in a specific area of the room dedicated to that purpose. This would avoid the need to recheck the list of files that have already been sorted. Secondly, arrange someone to verify the complete list in order to organise the shelves.

Today I received a report of the aftershocks over the last two days. Yesterday there were 79, including 42 at Fukushima. Today as of 3.30pm, there were 49 including 24 at Fukushima.

Tomorrow, I will give my first English course since the 11 March (for a student who is re-starting his course).

On the way back to Sendai, I took some photos from the bus. The quality is not great.

The first photo shows a damaged truck and scattered objects.

The second is a parking area with some wrecked vehicles.

The third is perhaps the most interesting showing a derelict truck teetering on the top of a pile of debris.

The others show more wrecks in a park including a demolished car sitting right on top of a truck, the most striking photo.


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Monday, April 11

It’s been already a month since the catastrophe. The Earth itself commemorated it with two strong aftershocks, followed by multiple small shakes during the evening. They were the strongest since Thursday.

At 2:46 pm today, a minute of silence has been observed all over Japan.

At the canteen, I see that opening hours have been extended by 30 minutes each week. Water was available for free, but the meal choices are still reduced.

Today, while going to the lab, I decided to use the same route I travelled during the catastrophe. This way is closed officially but I wanted to see it again after a month. I had a look at the effects of the landslide that I witnessed that day. I am planing to take pictures of it.

Concerning my income, I still haven’t found a position as a language teacher, but I have got a quick interview today in a school that is waiting to see if demands picks up enough for them to re-open the French class. I have also been contacted by NOVA, a Japanese company providing a whole range of language courses..


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