More than five years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami devastated much of eastern Japan in March 2011. Looking back on the past half-decade, we are sharing some stories and recollections from those we have been “walking together” with since the devastation, one by one.
Given below is a story from the seventh speaker in this series, Reverend Naoto Iwasa from the Okinawa Diocese. The Okinawa Diocese has been helping Fukushima people in many ways, including through the “One Family” program which assists child nursing in Fukushima, and through hosting children from the prefecture in our “Refresh” (retreat) programs, among other activities. Also, Rev. Iwasa has visited St. Paul’s Kindergarten, Koriyama, many times. Now the children and instructors there count on him for encouragement. Living in Fukushima, we need to have the courage to face the harsh realities here. The great, embracing warmth of Okinawa people bring us the encouragement we need.
“We are together”
Rev. Naoto Iwasa,
Director, Disaster Relief Office, Okinawa Diocese
The English below written and arranged by Heeday, based on the original Japanese
The English edited by Rev. Dr. Henry French, ELCA
I was appointed Director of the Disaster Relief Office for East Japan Earthquake Victims, established and run by the Okinawa Diocese, in 2011. Needless to say, I knew we had to do something to help those affected by the disaster. Still, for some time, I could not decide what to do; what could we ever do for them, all the way from Okinawa, a southern territory of islands far away from Tohoku, the hard-hit region? (Note: Naha, the largest city of Okinawa, and Koriyama, Fukushima, are some 1,130 miles apart.) I was deeply troubled, honestly. I had done nothing at all but I knew I had to do something. However, I simply did not know what to do. Troubled and frustrated, I was alone.
Then, at my church’s “End of WWII Battles” anniversary worship in 2014, held on the Sunday closest to the anniversary day of June 23rd, Ms. Kay Ikezumi, Secretary General of what was then the Project on Nuclear Power and Radiation (called the No Nuke Project today), visited us to join in our prayer. Every year, we in the Okinawa Diocese pray for those killed in the WWII battles of Okinawa, and we listen to a message on peace from an invited speaker.
The speaker in 2014, Ms. Ikezumi, also attended my church’s Sunday worship. After the service, she and I had an opportunity to talk for some time. She described to me what the people of Fukushima needed at the time, and what the Okinawa Diocese could do for them. She asked for some help from us to “reduce the burdens of the kindergarten’s faculty and provide opportunities for them to retreat.” Thus, we discussed the possibilities of exchanging kindergarten staffers.
On that Sunday, we had many staffers from the kindergarten at our church at worship. After listening to Ms. Ikezumi, I spoke to them about the staff exchange. They responded enthusiastically: “I’ll go there!”
The bishop of Okinawa was also there. I described to him what we were talking about, and he gave me the go-ahead. After years of frustration and trouble, we discovered what we could do in only a few hours!
When I was called to the priesthood, I experienced something like that; things developed before I knew it. It seemed out of my control; I could just tell the priesthood was what God intended for me. United with many people who kindly helped me, I was so thankful.
In the summer of the same year, I visited St. Paul’s Kindergarten, Koriyama, to make preparations for the staff exchange. In the fall that followed, we planned the first exchange. Back then, our plan to invite some Fukushima staffers to Okinawa for a retreat did not work out, though we hoped it would. Nevertheless, some staffers from our kindergarten went to St. Paul’s to help. The instructors there welcomed us warmly, and the children played together with us with big smiles on their faces. Some kids waited in line for their turns to play with me, saying, “Carry me like a princess,” “Carry me on your shoulders,” “Show me how to dance,” and other such things. I regretted that I hadn’t had more daily physical exercise! I decided to work out more before coming again. Anyway, I had great fun.
Since then, I have visited St. Paul’s and Koriyama for every instructor/staffer exchange. The kindergarten’s kids have memorized my name—as well as the dances I taught them before. When I leave for home, they say, “Please come again,” with a look of sadness on their faces. To them I say, “I will, you know. I have always kept my promises to come back here.” Then, their sadness seems to be alleviated.
From Tohoku, Okinawa is a faraway place. Traveling between the two regions takes considerable time. This means that once you have reached Tohoku, you cannot quickly go home to Okinawa should something happen. I prepare well before I hit the road, yet if something happens, I simply have to leave my church to the care of those looking after it during my absence. This is one reason why I can 100% attend to St. Paul’s Kindergarten’s children while I am with them. I can keep my eyes only on those kids of Fukushima, while I am there. The place is still seriously troubled with countless problems, and there are many issues that need to be solved. Still, I find great joy in visiting St. Paul’s.
What was then the Project on Nuclear Power and Radiation (the No Nuke Project today) gave me a wonderful idea for how to help, and our staffers in Okinawa responded very well. St. Paul’s Kindergarten kindly accepted our offer. We in the Okinawa Diocese are determined to continue this staff exchange program—“One Family.” We owe this determination to those in Fukushima who want us as part of this greater family. I was not alone and neither were Fukushima’s people. We are a family—God is with us. I think the Lord has shown us this simple truth. I intend to continue “walking together” with Fukushima, as led by our Lord, hoping to unite with more people.