With Song in Heart, Japanese Struggle to Recover

By Stan Friedman

MIYAKO, JAPAN (March 13, 2012) – Pastor Iwatsuka was making his first visit to the temporary housing units and had advertised a meeting he wanted to hold with the residents and discuss their needs. As he expected, no one showed up because no one knew him.

Gary Carlson playing banjo

Then he asked Evangelical Covenant Church missionary Gary Carlson to play bluegrass music on his banjo. Suddenly, people began showing up.

“Pastor Iwatsuka is actually a bluegrass fan, and he had asked me to bring along my banjo,” a bemused Carlson recalled.

It really didn’t matter whether the people were bluegrass fans, says Carlson. “One woman told me there are three things that cause her to tear up – music, beautiful scenery, and the voices of children.”

“You have to understand that they lost everything, including all of their music,” Carlson says of the devastation that residents experienced one year ago as the result of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake – largest in the nation’s recorded history – and the resulting tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people. “They don’t have any instruments or radios or mp3 players,” Carlson says, “so they are so appreciative of whatever music they get to hear.”

Today, Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries continue to work with ministries that are assisting survivors to reclaim their futures. Iwatsuka is part of the 3.11 Iwate Church Network, the primary partner with the Covenant Church of Japan (NSKK). Click here to see additional photos.

Elders share memories of 1933 tsunami

The NSKK began working immediately with other denominations, says Carlson. “We knew that we would have money coming from Covenant World Relief and the Taiwan Covenant Church.”

Carlson says the Iwate Network has intentionally focused on doing “slower, less flashy” ministry, which has allowed them to develop relationships with government officials and people living in the temporary housing units.

Evidence of the devastation is everywhere and little reconstruction has occurred in many areas. Progress in removing rubble and starting new construction has been amazing compared to places such as Haiti, says David Husby, director of Covenant World Relief, who lived in Japan for 25 years.

More than just the country’s infrastructure was torn apart, however. “What has been clear from all of my visits is that the emotional toll, including the thousands of people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, has been enormous,” Husby says. “This kind of emotional damage cannot be quickly and easily cleaned up.”

Devastating impact of tsunami

During one trip, Iwatsuka said it was critical for those providing relief to spend time and listen to survivors, even if the stories are repeated over and over again. One man told Iwatsuka, “Thank you so much for visiting today. Every time you visit, another piece of rubble is removed from my heart.”

Hope remains. Covenant missionary Jim Peterson accompanied a team that brought a mobile café and entertainment to a temporary housing community made up of mostly senior adults from the small fishing community of Ryoki. After the program, the town leader surprised the team when he went to the front of the room and led the Japanese in a folk song as a way of expressing their appreciation.

The whole crowd joined in unison. Afterwards, several of the women explained that it is a song of celebration sung when their fishermen husbands return to port with flags flying on their boats, signaling a large catch. “As the men and women work together offloading the catch, they sing this song, trading chants and phrases back and forth in celebration of their good fortune,” Peterson wrote in a blog post earlier this year.

“They’ve lost their homes, their boats, their livelihoods, and in so many ways, their home towns. And yet they remember the song!” Peterson said. “The old song has a place in their heart, and singing it reveals a powerful image of just exactly who they are. As soon as I heard them singing it, I realized that these are not easily defeated people.”

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