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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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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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A trip from Tokyo to Sendai

 Minamisoma City’s seaside Haramachi Ward, in Fukushima Prefecture, now reduced to a wasteland. The sea is visible in the background. (Photo by Ikuko Takano, April 2)
 By William Grimm, a Maryknoll priest and publisher of ucanews.com, who has lived in Japan  since 1973, interrupted by short stints in the States, Cambodia and Hong Kong. He will move to Sendai  on Easter Monday “to try to be useful”.


Friday morning, April 8, at six o’clock I left Tokyo for Sendai with Isao Tadokoro, executive secretary of Caritas Japan, and his son Makoto, a graduate student. They were delivering a small van to the Caritas relief operation in the tsunami-ravaged northeast.

At about 11:30 the night before, there had been a strong aftershock of 7.1 magnitude that not only woke people in Tokyo, but also closed sections of the expressway we intended to use. So, we left town expecting that at some point we would have to switch from the highway to local roads. As we traveled, however, the radio kept announcing that sections of the highway were reopening ahead of us. By the time we finished the 5½-hour drive, the road was open as far as Sendai, though no farther.

The going was easy, since there was little traffic, much of it military vehicles. As we reached Fukushima prefecture, home of the nuclear power plant that is now the focus of people’s fears, we began to see some evidence of earthquake damage, though nothing significant. Actually, most of what we saw was a lot of newly-repaved areas, especially where the roadway connected to a bridge or overpass. Along the way, we also saw farmhouses with blue plastic tarps on their roofs, probably because the quake and aftershocks had caused leaks.

We reached the cathedral in central Sendai at midday. There was little evidence of damage in the neighborhood. A strut linking the bell tower to the church was broken and though the building is structurally sound, parts of the ceiling have fallen. The nearby Sendai Station was sheathed in the curtains that are used on construction projects. The station was damaged by the earthquake and is undergoing repairs so that train service can be resumed. The general absence of any signs of earthquake damage is proof that Japan’s strict building codes worked. In fact, the news images of the tsunami showed the wave knocking over buildings that had clearly not been damaged by the quake. That’s a comforting thought as I experience aftershocks at home in Tokyo.

My first priority upon arrival (second, actually, if you count looking for a men’s room) was to find a drug store where I could buy some medication for my hay fever. It’s pollen season in Japan and I had forgotten to pack something to control the sneezing and watery eyes that both Makoto and I were experiencing.

Fr. Charles Aime Bolduc of the Quebec Foreign Society took me shopping. He said that there has been no gas since the first big quake and he hasn’t been able to take a nice hot shower in a month. Gas service was supposed to be restored soon, but he feared the latest big aftershock may have postponed that happy day. Fortunately, I was able to get the over-the-counter medicine Makoto and I needed to stop startling folks with our sneezes.

I sat in as an observer at a meeting of the bishops of Sendai and Saitama — the dioceses where the major damage occurred — along with the bishop in charge of Caritas Japan and several other people involved in the relief efforts. They reported that so far as they know, of the Catholics in the area, 12 died, four are missing and 58 families lost their homes.

After the meeting, I talked with Fr. Daisuke Narui who is heading up the Caritas effort. He said they need someone to help with some of their media operations, especially in English, as well as someone who could translate reports to Caritas organizations in other countries. Finally, he said he also wanted someone who could travel to the various worksites and report on the relief efforts for an international audience. I volunteered to go back to Sendai right after Easter and will spend four months working with Caritas Japan, commuting back to Tokyo on weekends for Mass at the parish I help at, do laundry and relax. Since train service will resume soon, that will be fairly easy, since the bullet train between Tokyo and Sendai takes only about 100 minutes.

That night, I was given private accommodations, a sleeping bag on the floor of a walk-in storage closet. The Tadokoros slept on the office floor. I had forgotten how hard it is to roll over in a sleeping bag.

Saturday morning at 5:30, the Tadokoros and I headed out to see for ourselves the destruction caused by the tsunami. As we drove toward the sea, we began to see the effects. Cars and trucks were scattered along the road, looking like the aftermath of some kid’s tantrum. For some strange reason, I was struck by the fact that many of the tires were flat. Perhaps the tumbling in the water, the collisions with buildings and other vehicles or being dragged sideways along the road caused the flats. Not that a flat tire makes much difference if the car is totally wrecked. We passed a fishing boat that was “parked” on the side of the road. It was facing the wrong way (something for which I once got a ticket here), but otherwise looked as if someone had practiced parallel parking with a boat as big as a trailer truck. Houses near the farthest reach of the wave were already being cleaned out, with tatami mats, broken furniture and such neatly stacked at the curb for pickup. As we got closer to the shore, though, the damage was greater.

Our objective was the town of Shichigahama about 20 minutes from Sendai and a sister city of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Maybe “was” a sister city would be more accurate. Except for a few houses on bluffs around the town, the place is gone. It was so desolate that there weren’t even crows or seagulls around. The only people we saw was a group manning pumps to drain seawater from a low-lying part of town. My eyes watered, and it wasn’t just from pollen.

Until the day before our arrival, a relief team from Turkey had worked in the town. As a result, the streets were cleared. But, all else was wrecked. In Japan, power poles are made of steel-reinforced concrete. Many were bent over, and some were actually snapped in two. On the seawall meant to protect the town, the sign giving instructions of what to do if the tsunami warning siren blows was still there. No one ever dreamed or nightmared that a tsunami higher than the walls would ever hit.

One of the few wrecks that was recognizable as a house was twisted off its foundations and though the front wall stood, the rest of the house was smashed into it so that the whole house was only a few meters wide. In front of it, sitting on a piece of foundation was a radio-controlled toy car, white with red trim. It was too clean to have been deposited there by the wave. Someone must have put it there as an impromptu memorial to what — or who — once was.

From there, we went to the neighboring city, Shiogama, home of the Canadian priest who died in the disaster. It is a bigger town than Shichigahama, with several cement factories on the shore. A broken water main prevented our going through much of the town. And, besides, I had to get back to Sendai to catch a 9:00 bus to Tokyo. The Tadokoros were planning to take an afternoon bus.

So, I plan to move up to Sendai on Easter Monday and will try to be useful. I hear that Japanese and American military teams have gotten the airport in shape to resume flights this week. Having watched the videos of the wave hitting the airport, I’m impressed that they could get it functioning again so quickly. Grateful, too, that with the airport fixed and the trains soon to resume service I need not take six-hour bus trips. Fr. Narui also said that though he doesn’t know yet where I will stay when I go back, there will probably be a bed rather than a sleeping bag for me.

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Friday, April 8

Last night, the biggest aftershock since March 11 surprised us around 11:30 pm. Our PCs were literally jumping on the table and then electricity was cut until the morning. Radio broadcasts told people close to the sea to find refuge in high places.

I had lunch with a friend who stayed in Sendai with his family. He told me a story about a friend of his sister-in-law that I want to share.  On March 11 he was working on a construction site at the border between the prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima. During the earthquake, he had been thrown off the scafolding, and was left dangling by his security cable. Just after the earthquake, he and his colleagues gathered downstairs in front of the building. In front of them, they saw a wall of water coming towards them. Half of them ran for it but the others climbed back up to the top of the building.

Only those who climbed the building survived.

As there was no other form of transport available, the man walked back home (60 km) along Miyagi’s seashore: among the ruins he saw arms and legs poking out.

My friend, who has spent more time in Japan than me, explained to me that many Japanese living close to the sea are used to small tsunamis, and they have the reflex to find refuge on the 4th floor of buildings. That’s usually enough, but that day it wasn’t.

In the evening, I went to the church: I’ll help cleaning up the seashore on Tuesday.

I also got the answer from Paris 6: the statement about my PhD report is positive.

I still have the papers part to fulfill in order to get the French diploma.

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