During the last year, Roy and Nancy Toma have opened their tatami rooms and van doors to more than 100 volunteers. Recently, a team of six from Cleveland worked to repair homes, balancing carefully on foot-high joists, yanking out insulation and useless drywall during the day. By night, they opened a free café to the people of Ishinomaki, the second largest city of Miyagi Prefecture in northeast Japan. Throughout their time, the team hears story after horrifying story: of a school of drowned children, of people rushing past rubble knowing bodies were underneath, of a woman who carries a golf club for protection.
During café nights, the team is focused on kokoru care, “emotional care.” Because so many suffered, few people speak or have someone to speak to within a culture that values silence, privacy, and the desire to forget and rebuild.
One woman, Junko, sits and corresponds with one of the Cleveland team members entirely through an Apple iPad and Google Translate. When asked if she would prefer to be punished for her sins or have all of the punishment she deserves taken away for free, she picked the former. “I deserve it,” she said.
The Cleveland team is surprised. To most Americans, free passage should be taken advantage of, but in Japan, honor and shame are pillars of society. Responsibility for wrongdoing is critical, and part of the reason why Japan has continuously ranked in the top five in world suicide rates for the last decade. The Tomas nod as the team recalls Junko’s conversation: this is expected, cultural, and telling of where most Japanese are spiritually.
“We have missionary friends who have been here for 20 years. They think it takes about seven years before someone can come to the Lord,” says Roy.
As with Junko, the Japanese often cannot fit Jesus into their spiritual or cultural framework, but they do understand the need for physical aid. “So many people need help for recovery,” says Miho Saito, a Japanese student who volunteers with tsunami relief during her school break. “We don’t want people to forget about Ishinomaki, or about helping.”
The volunteer team from Cleveland were 6 of more than 100 people who have met with Roy and Nancy Toma. Each team served for at least a week, staying at the Tomas’ home in Sendai and driving 1.5 hours each day into Ishinomaki.
Depending on the abilities of the team, each volunteer week can look different. Some teams focus mostly on manual labor, “mudding out” and clearing houses of useless drywall and insulation. The Cleveland team worked a few days on houses, but because many were musically talented and gifted in evangelism, their week was focused on ministering at the local café.
“This is a big opportunity to explain Christ,” says George Hadchiti, one of the Cleveland volunteers.
“They are so happy the volunteers are coming,” says Roy Toma. “It gives them hope and gives us the opportunity to say who sent us here and why He sent us.”
For more information on volunteering or forming a team to take to Japan, email email@example.com.