The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami washed away at least 15,846 people, according to the National Police Agency. They numbered the total collapse of houses at 128,554. Royden and Nancy Toma are on staff with Japan Cru and some of the few believers in Ishinomaki, the second largest city in the Miyagi prefecture of Japan. Their ministry currently involves rebuilding houses and ministering to the spiritual needs of Tohoku, the northeast region of Japan.
The current housing options in Tohoku are few: if a person’s house is an empty lot cleared down to cement foundation, they are either living with family or in temporary government housing. If a house is structurally sound but with a drowned first floor, the family can live upstairs. And if they are able to contact someone like Roy Toma, the house may be made livable within the next few months.
A plumber by trade, Roy and his wife, Nancy, are now dedicated to bringing both physical and spiritual aid to Japan with Cru.
Although the mortality rate related to the earthquake and tsunami were high, the average annual suicide rate of Japan is almost double that—30,000 a year. More people die by their own hand each year than the number of people lost in the tsunami.
Spiritually and culturally, Japan is a hard country to change.
Today they are standing with Taeko Ogata, watching as her faucet feebly pushes out cold water, then quits.
Ogata-san, as the Toma’s call her politely, is a survivor. She will stand at the base of her stairwell, lean forward and point upward so visitors can see the 12-foot high waterline the Pacific Ocean left behind.
She talks about her recent trip to the market. “I wanted spinach, but because I couldn’t wash it, I put it back,” she says. The dead faucet is frustrating, but it is just one more hurdle between her and the normal life she used to have. “I just turned 60,” she says. “I want to live longer.”
They move into the living room, standing in front of the butsudan, the common household shrine that honors dead ancestors. This floor is barren and freezing, but newly renovated with the help of Japan Cru, Samaritan’s Purse and other volunteer agencies. She takes them upstairs past the waterline, small piles of dishes she can’t wash, and her emergency kit: three bags stuffed with supplies.
From her windows, Ogata-san now has a regrettable view of the ocean. The waves wiped most of the surrounding houses down to foundations. “This makes my heart hurt,” whispers Yumi Tomori, a friend of the Tomas.
The Japanese often cannot fit Jesus into their spiritual or cultural framework. Pre-tsunami, the city of Ishinomaki was had no churches: now five churches are planting with new believers. Shuzo Suzuki is one of the few pastors here, who drives an hour and a half from his home in Iwate to come to Ishinomaki several times a week. He, like Roy, is in for the long haul.
Pastor Suzuki is realistic and determined about Christianity in Japan. “I guess people lose interest in Christianity as their houses are fixed,” he says. “I don’t think this season of spiritual openness will last long.”
He hung the first-ever outdoor cross for the region over his church, and its LED bluish-white light flares over an area that still does not have working streetlights.
In Tohoku, there are many streetlights and broken frames to be rebuilt. It can be overwhelming. There is too much—too many deaths, too many broken cars, too many houses where residents cannot wash their vegetables.
But a few days later, 20 people are standing in Ogata-san’s cold house. Samaritan’s Purse is commissioning it as a completed home, and Pastor Suzuki is preaching. He speaks directly to Ogata-san, with a guitar strapped around his shoulders and his back to the butsudan, explaining the love of Jesus Christ to her, again. She has heard it many times over the last year, but has never made a decision for Him.
She listens and stares around the room: it is full of believers, groups of volunteers who are committed to rebuilding this country. It is empty except for the altar, a field lamp, and a portable heater, but it has the potential of a clean slate, new space for Christ to be known.
Quickly, Japan was broken, but slowly it will start again.