Japan archbishop visits devastated Sendai, issues message to Anglican Communion

March 30, 2011

Archbishop Nathaniel Uematsu of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the Anglican Church in Japan, has issued a message to the Anglican Communion following his visit to Sendai two weeks after an earthquake-triggered tsunami devastated the region, claiming more than 11,000 lives and leaving at least 16,000 people still unaccounted for.

In his message, written in Japanese and translated by staff at the Anglican Communion Office in London, Uematsu said he visited Sendai Christ Church, the cathedral in the Diocese of Tohoku, on March 27 "and saw that parts of the walls had fallen down, the walls were cracked. It looked to me as [if] the whole building was lopsided. On the floor of the cathedral there were various piles of goods sent from churches in different parts of Japan such as foodstuff, fuel and clothing."

Because of the frequent aftershocks following the magnitude-9 earthquake on March 11, members of the church council have decided that it is too dangerous to use the cathedral for worship and they are holding services in a nearby church hall instead, Uematsu explained.

"Due to the continuing aftershocks, some people go to bed fully clothed, wearing shoes. There are those who have not slept at all since the earthquake and look exhausted."

The earthquake -- estimated to be at least 700 times more powerful than the magnitude-7 temblor that hit Haiti in January 2010 -- caused Japan's main island to move about eight feet to the east, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In Sendai City, "although food is available, it is still very difficult to get hold of petrol and other fuel. So some of the parishioners who gathered for worship on the Sunday walked a long distance to get there," said Uematsu.

Diocese of Tohoku Bishop Hiromichi Kato, who is running a relief center based at diocesan headquarters in Sendai, preached during the Eucharist, encouraging the congregation "by saying that their faith would lead them to hope even through the hardship and difficulties of the present situation," Uematsu said.

For many in the congregation this was their first visit to church since the tsunami.

"Following the service parishioners shared updates from their dioceses and gave updates about those parishioners killed by the tsunami, parishioners who are still missing, those whose houses were swept away. They also talked about what relief activities were taking place in the churches and at the diocesan level," Uematsu said.

Following the service, Uematsu and Kato visited the devastated area along the coastline of Sendai City. "The devastation caused by the tsunami was simply beyond our imagination," Uematsu said. "The tsunami reached the fourth floor of building destroying everything. The wreckage of houses and the huge number of cars are simply still lying there. Police and members of the Japan Defence Regiment were still looking for corpses. There was no sign of life there. Standing in that area surrounded by nothing but wreckage, all we could do was silently look at the scene in front of us and pray."

Added to the devastation caused by the tsunami is the fear of radiation leaks from the nuclear reactor in Fukushima Prefecture. "People who live in the 30 kilometer radius of the reactor were told to evacuate. They are having a difficult life in evacuation centers in places far away from their homes," said Uematsu. "In fact, the fear of nuclear contamination is felt not only by those people who live within the 30 kilometer radius, but also by people in Tokyo, which is more than 100 kilometers away. Many people are living with uncertainty."

Episcopal Relief & Development, in a March 29 update, said it is supporting the initial response work of the NSKK in the two most severely affected dioceses: Tohoku and Kita Kanto.

In response to the needs at 10 local nursing homes in the city of Iwaki, Onahama St. Timothy Church has been working with other local churches and NGOs to secure food for 400 elderly residents. According to Shinya Yawata, international secretary of the NSKK, "The buildings [have] been damaged to different levels, but most of them have not been damaged very badly. Staff can still cook there if they can receive supplies of food. So ecumenical groups have started providing food to them as part of the church's mission work for people in the surrounding community; elderly people in particular."

At the provincial level, Uematsu is developing a response strategy to organize volunteers and direct resources. The food ministry of St. Timothy's is part of this overall relief work.

"Episcopal Relief & Development is supporting the NSKK as they continue to develop their response," said Kirsten Laursen Muth, the agency's senior director for international programs. "We and other Anglican agencies are awaiting the church's assessments regarding their needs and ongoing ways we can support their leadership."

Uematsu said that earthquake relief centers also have been set up in some of the other Anglican dioceses in Japan and they have started to collect some relief goods and to transport them to the affected area.

"Konahama St. Thomas Church is near the coast, however, fortunately it escaped damage by the tsunami. This church has been used as a central point for a number of evacuation centers in the area," he said. "It is quite far from the Fukushima nuclear reactor, but because of the worry of the radiation contamination, people are wary of deliver[ing] to that area. As a result, the evacuees are in real dire straits because they are not receiv[ing] enough food."

Uematsu said the Nippon Sei Ko Kai is planning a meeting at the provincial office in Tokyo with those involved with relief efforts in Tohoku and other dioceses to explore the most efficient ways of responding to the emergency in the future.

"Now, above all, what we really would like the church across the world to do is support us by praying," he said. "The Japanese church is a small church, but knowing that brothers and sisters in the worldwide communion are praying for victims and the church's relief activities, that gives them strength. I would also be very grateful if they would support us financially now and in the future so that we can help restore people's lives and our church communities."