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Jonathan McCurley, ARI

Workers tear down the main building of the Asian Rural Institute, which was damaged during Japan's March 11, 2011, earthquake.

Japan’s Christians active in quake relief

When Noriko Lao left her elderly mother's home in Tokyo after a visit last March, she was unaware of the devastating earthquake that would strike her native country just a day later.

Centered some 230 miles northeast of Tokyo in the Tohoku region, the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that occurred March 11, 2011, triggered a 23-foot tsunami and led to damage in reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Nearly 20,000 people died or were missing in the wake of what some call "the triple disaster" in Japan.

In the year since, Lao, a disaster response veteran, has returned to Japan numerous times as a volunteer consultant for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

As of February this year, UMCOR had received more than $12 million in donations for Japan relief, of which $2.26 million has been allocated so far to Japanese and international partners. The Japanese church also has set up a volunteer center in Ishinomaki, which can now receive small volunteer teams from outside Japan.

Lao was ideally suited to become a liaison between UMCOR and Japanese Christians who had little experience with large-scale disaster response.

Once a member of UMCOR's U.S. domestic disaster response team, she now is the disaster action team coordinator for the Mount Baker chapter of the Red Cross in Bellingham, Wash. She also is active in United Methodist Women, serving as the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference UMW treasurer.

However, her home church in Japan is the United Church of Christ in Japan, also known as the Kyodan, an interdenominational body that is the biggest partner in the National Christian Council of Japan. "It was, in a way, very timely and convenient," she said. "I was able to connect with many people."

New construction is evident these days at the Asian Rural Institute in Japan, with help from the United Methodist Committee on Relief. A UMNS photo courtesy of Jonathan McCurley, ARI.
New construction is evident these days at the Asian Rural Institute in Japan, with help from the United Methodist Committee on Relief. A UMNS photo courtesy of Jonathan McCurley, ARI.

Bonding in faith

A May gathering of regional Christian partners in Seoul, South Korea, resulted in the creation of the Japan Ecumenical Disaster Response Office, known as JEDRO, a consortium led by the National Council of Churches of Japan.

In its mission statement, JEDRO says it "seeks to be a tangible and visible sign of hope for the people in Japan." The consortium is committed to active involvement in relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction, advocacy for "alternative, safe and environmentally-sound renewal energy" and attention to "the spiritual and psychological trauma of a devastated nation that thirsts for an ethical, responsive and compassionate government."

In the earthquake region, JEDRO supports Tohoku HELP, which has expanded from the initial work of the Sendai Christian Alliance Disaster Relief Network to an interfaith organization with active participation by Buddhist groups.

Thomas Kemper, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, visited Japan last November . He said he was impressed by Tohoku HELP's "creative response" to the crisis.

The Tohoku center, based at the Emmaus Center in Sendai, has served as a channel for donations, volunteers and information with an understanding of local needs and the ability to support churches and denominations carrying out long-term projects. The center registered 1,727 volunteers between March 15, 2011, and March 4, 2012.

One of Lao's big tasks has been showing Japanese groups the logistical steps needed to obtain disaster relief funding.

"In Japan, they have a totally different working pattern, based on trust," she explained. "I help them to write their business plan or grant request in a way that will be acceptable to the steering committee of JEDRO so they can send it on to the international community."

Thomas Kemper, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, greets a Japanese boy during a visit to the earthquake-damaged region of Japan last November. A UMNS photo by Melissa Hinnen.
Thomas Kemper, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, greets a Japanese boy during a visit to the earthquake-damaged region of Japan last November. A UMNS photo by Melissa Hinnen.

Volunteer teams in Ishinomaki

Last July, UMCOR provided two grants totaling $102,470 to the Kyodan to support the expansion of the Tohoku Disaster Relief Center in Ishinomaki through staff salary support and the purchase of furniture and office and communications equipment. The center offers coordination, support and care for both volunteer workers and the local community.

Known for fishing and tourism, Ishinomaki, about 85 miles north of the Daiichi nuclear plant, was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. More than 3,000 people died, and over 600 remain missing. The Kyodan has two churches there.

Residents of Ishinomaki were considered more open to help from outsiders, so Lao recruited two bilingual Japanese-American United Methodists to coordinate volunteers at the center during 2012.

Bob Fujimura, a member of University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle, started in Feb. 15 as coordinator. In a March 1 blog entry, he wrote that he was impressed by the amount of debris already removed in Ishinomaki. "However, there are still many condemned houses that had to be removed. Many of those houses that were judged to be saved need extensive repair; these were still untouched due to the shortage of carpenters. Perhaps those carpenters and construction workers of the houses in the U.S. could come here to work."

The Rev. Taka Ishii, a retired clergy member of the United Methodist New York Annual Conference who was born in Tokyo, will succeed Fujimura on June 1 for a six-month stay.

To volunteer in Japan

Volunteer teams interested in working in Japan should contact Heather Wilson, the United Methodist Volunteer in Mission coordinator for the denomination's U.S. Western Jurisdiction. Her email is umvimwj@Hotmail.com and the office phone is 818-333-6730. Information also can be found at www.umvimwj.blogspot.com.

Ishii noted that many first floors in buildings and homes were damaged by the tsunami in Ishinomaki. "A lot of volunteers go there to clean," he said. "The government has done a good job of removing all the big debris. But, if the house can be used, they have to clean their own. That's where a lot of work is required."

Heather Wilson, Western Jurisdiction Volunteer-in-Mission coordinator, is handling the placement of U.S. teams in Ishinomaki. Because the use of outside work teams is unusual in Japan, she is trying to be sensitive to cultural differences. "It's been a process of trying to be very respectful of what the people of Japan and the center want," Wilson said. "They have asked that we keep our teams that go very small, (up) to five people."

A team from Japanese United Methodist Church in Sacramento, Calif., was in Japan Feb. 26-March 9, and two more teams are scheduled. Wilson is encouraging interested volunteer teams to contact her. "Those numbers will grow," she predicted. "The doors just opened, really, for teams to come in."

Relief projects

To date, large UMCOR grants for Japan relief include a total of $330,000 to Church World Service for its cooperative work through a number of Japanese partners and $200,000 to JEDRO for Geiger counters and advocacy efforts regarding responsible nuclear power.

GlobalMedic received two $99,500 grants last month to help rebuild livelihoods by installing four tarpaulin shelters for fishermen in Kyubun-hama Miyagi Prefecture and another seven shelters for local communities in the same prefecture.

Other key UMCOR partners in Japan include the Tokyo Wesley Center and Wesley Foundation, through the Board of Global Ministries and the board's Women's Division; the Korean Church in Japan; the Japan International Christian University Foundation; International Blue Crescent; the Rev. Claudia Genung Yamamoto, a United Methodist missionary, and the Rev. Jeffrey Mensendiek, a United Church of Christ (U.S.) missionary at the Emmaus Center in Sendai.

A view from Ishinomaki, Japan, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Japanese Christians have established a volunteer center in the city. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of Takeshi Komino, Church World Service.
A view from Ishinomaki, Japan, after the 2011 earthquake
and tsunami. Japanese Christians have established a
volunteer center in the city. A UMNS web-only photo
courtesy of Takeshi Komino, Church World Service.

The largest UMCOR allocations, totaling $1.35 million, have gone to the Asian Rural Institute, which has received no government assistance for its earthquake damage. "The whole campus has been restructured a bit," reported Jonathan McCurley, a United Methodist missionary assigned to the training ground for international grassroots leaders.

The institute's damaged two-story main building was torn down, and a one-story, environmentally friendly replacement is projected to be finished by June. Other building plans include a new dining hall and separate chapel. Offices were moved to part of a new farm shop storage area.

The farm shop's foundation was poured before the earthquake, McCurley explained, and radiation from the damaged nuclear plant settled into the concrete. "Now we're working to remove the radiation that was stuck in the concrete so we wouldn't be continually inhaling that," he said.

Because the institute is close to the southern border of the Fukushima prefecture, where the damaged nuclear plant lies, radiation remains a concern. "In our area, the government says it's not a problem; it's not dangerous at all," McCurley said. "But a lot of people are very concerned that's not necessarily true."

While the recovery is slow, McCurley believes the relief work by Japanese Christians has had an impact. In his area, he finds more people willing to go to church and discuss questions about God.

"Spiritually, a lot of people have had questions," he said. "People we've been working with have begun baptism classes or have been baptized."

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.