For most of the world, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011 is old news. Explosions, tornadoes, hurricanes, wars, and rumors of wars have shuffled Japan's troubles further and further behind the proverbial front page. But, for many victims, the disaster that stole their homes and neighborhoods is anything but a harmless memory. This fall, a retired International Mission Board (IMB) missionary to Japan named Sherwood Moffett led a team of Texas Baptist volunteers to Japan. Working in close conjunction with local IMB missionaries, they visited several Temporary Housing Communities established and run by the Japanese government, where hundreds of families continue to wait for their homes to be rebuilt.
"These people have a pretty good setup, from a material standpoint," reported Brian Dusek from Texas Baptists, "but many of them are suffering from depression, possibly even post-traumatic stress disorder. The government worked very hard to set up temporary housing for all the victims," said Dusek, but it just wasn't possible to keep neighborhoods intact during the transition. As an unfortunate result, the pain of material loss has been compounded by the loss of old friends and neighbors. Lack of supplies, manpower, and funds for rebuilding have kept these survivors in limbo for almost three years. "Some of the older people will probably not live to see their homes restored or their communities reunited," Dusek shared.
As the rebuilding of their homes continues (slowly but surely), the needs most deeply felt in these Temporary Housing Communities are emotional, relational, and spiritual. With that in mind, Moffett and his team focused their efforts toward applying a ministry of encouragement to the wounds left by the 2011 disaster. Volunteers spent their time making crafts with survivors, and held a bingo game whose prizes included important cooking necessities such as soy sauce, sugar, and miso paste. They also treated their new Japanese friends to an interesting cultural exchange: a meal of American-style hot dogs!
One of the biggest hits of the trip was the "nail art" (manicures & pedicures) offered by the American ladies. "Although somewhat reluctant at first to indulge in what some Japanese would consider a luxury," explained Moffett, "it did not take long for the ladies to take advantage of this treat in each of the units we visited. One older lady reported to us that it was the first time in 40 years that she'd had a manicure!"
Moffett's team was also able to share the most important reason for their 6000-mile journey to Tono, Japan: Christ. Team members took time each morning to share about what they were thankful for, as well as why they had come to Japan and why the Gospel was significant to them. Local IMB missionaries also had gifts for participants, including a book of testimonies by Japanese believers, a collection of Bible verses to encourage the depressed or sad, and even the story of Jesus' life in comic book form (very popular in Japan).
All the same, Brian Dusek confessed that the trek was not all he'd hoped it would be. "I was wanting more Gospel conversations, maybe even witnessing someone's salvation, but it didn't happen." Dusek explained that salvation can be an extremely slow process among the Japanese people, whose understanding of grace and forgiveness is darkened by their deeply ingrained system of honor and shame. The cultural religions of Shinto and Buddhism, which find divinity in everything, also run violently counter to the Judeo-Christian belief in One, Sovereign God. "Christianity is just so…'out of left field' for them," said Dusek.
Nevertheless, Moffett and his team were encouraged by the friendships that were formed and deepened between their team, the permanent IMB missionaries in Japan, and the earthquake survivors. The team hopes and prays that the seeds of service planted during their time in the field will grow and bear fruit as their long-term IMB partners continue to minister to the physical, relational, and spiritual needs of this community.
Sherwood Moffett nutshelled the recent trip thusly: "A concern of the survivors is that they will be 'forgotten' by the world, and that is a real possibility. New catastrophes happen that take our attention away from northern Japan, as it has now been three years since the disaster and the physical work has been completed. What remains are the psychological effects and broken hearts of a shattered social framework. The spiritual need is great and the country is smothered by the darkness of Buddhist and Shinto traditions. A great light is needed and is being provided by Japanese Christians, missionary personnel, and teams of volunteers, but sometimes it seems the task seems overwhelming for the small numbers of workers."