Stories from the tsunami area at Kesennuma

Posted by in Mike's blog


This is part 2 of a 2-part post (should have been 3) about my recent visit to the tsunami area in Kesennuma, Miyagi. For some much-needed context, you should read part 1: The tsunami area at Kesennuma: Then and now.  If you just want more pictures, here’s Tsunami area: 2 years later.  

On March 11, 2001, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook the ground deep beneath the surface of the Pacific ocean less than 100km away from the city of Kesennuma. 10 minutes later, the tsunami came. While I was in Kesennuma I got a chance to chat with a few of the local people who were there, and they told me what happened in those 10 minutes…

The aftermath, as reported by Kesennuma people

A tofu shop owner was working outside at the time. His shop was in a low-lying part of the city, so he ran as fast as he could to get away from the flood waters. He didn’t even bother to take off his work apron. Many people ran, but others drove. “Motorcycle pastor” (more later on why I call him that) was in his newly built church when the ground started to shake. When the earthquake ended he walked down to the water to see if there would be a tsunami. He saw the shoreline receding, and he was well aware that receding shorelines after earthquakes mean GO NOW. He grabbed his family, hopped into his car and drove to high ground while the roads were still clear. A traffic jam formed on the road he took minutes later. One of motorcycle pastor’s friends took an alternate route to avoid that traffic jam. The people who were stuck in traffic either ran or got washed away.

Approximately 1000 people died in Kesennuma, and 100 are missing. Some were swept away by floodwaters, others got caught in debris, still others survived the initial disasters but succumbed to the fire that broke out or the frozen night(s) spent without shelter on rooftops or among the debris.

When the water eventually made its way back to the ocean, the city was a giant pile of trash. What was once stores, homes, parks, boats and factories became a jumbled mess of plastic, wood, metal and glass. It took a month to just to clear roads. After that came the long and painful task of shovelling the mess and disposing of it. The debris in Kesennuma didn’t only need to be moved…it had to be SORTED (not a lot of space for landfills in Japan). Volunteers from around the world came to help.

When the tofu shop owner returned to his store…there was no store. All that was left as evidence that he made tofu for decades was the well-used apron he was wearing when he ran. Going back into the tofu business was not an option for him. Tofu processing requires expensive machinery, and it was all lost. Motorcycle pastor’s new church was levelled, as was his home (right beside the church). When the ground was cleared only the foundation remained, and some time later his congregation met outside for worship outside on that very ground. The pastor moved into temporary housing like so many other people who no longer had a place to live.

In those temporary homes there are people in all kinds of difficult situations. Some still had a place to work but nowhere to live. Some owned homes that washed away, others had mortgages that they continue to make payments on (not all had the right kinds of insurance). Some kept their money in banks and were able to rebuild their homes and businesses, others kept their money at home and it got washed away. The temporary housing contract lasts 3 years, and next month 2 of them will have passed.

Bunkyo Gospel Centre goes to Kesennuma

On Friday, February 8th at 6:00pm our team of 5 embarked on our trip across the country. Our destination was the Kesennuma Hope Center: A ministry that evolved out of the good work that Samaritan’s purse has been doing in the area.

We drove through the night. On the way we encountered a blizzard that created some of the worst whiteout conditions I have ever seen (and I’ve spent winters in some snowy parts of Canada). We pulled over at a rest station, prayed, and the snow went away. When we stepped outside minutes later the sky was clear. A couple of kilometers from where we were the road was also clear…there was no evidence of any snowfall.

We finally arrived at 7:00am the next morning. We joined another team at the Hope Center (from Kobe) and together we put on 2 gospel concerts later that day. My job was to talk to and encourage people every chance I got. The first concert took place at the revival market (pictured in my last post), so I took the opportunity to visit a few of the shops and invite people outside to see the concert. Gospel music is somewhat popular in Japan, even outside church environments. I met the tofu shop owner there, except now he has a restaurant. He served me some of the most delicious tuna I’ve had! His uncle is the guy who created the market, I met him too. I spent most of my time talking with a lonely old lady who didn’t get many customers. She was so happy just to have somebody to talk to for a while. She had no interest in the gospel concert or hearing about why we were in Kesennuma…she just wanted to talk, and that was OK.

Live in the tsunami area!  Normally I'm not a fan of the gospel genre, but this group was phenomenal.

Live in the tsunami area! Normally I’m not a fan of the gospel genre, but this group was phenomenal.

The second concert was at a small supermarket. We saw many gravitate toward the music from their errands or their cars. One man stopped what he was doing and started to sing and dance with great joy, I couldn’t believe my eyes! I called him “motorcycle guy” because he rode up to the concert on a scooter…until I was corrected. He was the pastor of a church we were going to visit the next morning, so I called him “motorcycle pastor instead”.

On Sunday we had a church service in the morning and a church service in the afternoon, but first we (together with the Kobe team) drove partway up a mountain and hiked to a good vantage point so we could get a good view of the city and pray over it.

After the 2nd service we had a good chance to sit down and chat with the people who came. Not all were Christians, and not all were Japanese. It was an international service! In this church, “international” meant Japanese and Chinese…still no English. Thankfully we had some good bilingual friends to help us out.

It was during this time that we were able to talk for a long time with motorcycle pastor and some others. One couple began to tell us their story, but our interpreter broke down into tears because it was so moving – this couple lost everything but they found Jesus after the tsunami. The English-speaking part of our team still has no idea what they said.

What struck me the most about the conversations I had with Kesennuma people was their resilience. Life isn’t easy, but they have been moving forward. The ones who have been relying on God through their trials displayed more JOY than I see from anyone. What became clear to us while we were in Kesennuma was that God is working in that city. Hearts are moving. The people are searching… for purpose in their post-tsunami lives, for reasons why they have endured hardship, for comfort, for support, and for who knows what else.

I invite you to pray for the people in Kesennuma. Pray that they will find what they are looking for, and pray that God will continue to work in their hearts.