Sendai postcard from Seiji Imai

“The kingdom of God exists within you” – and in the place of the great Japanese earthquake disaster…

Seiji Imai, President of Sendai Yomawari Group

“God, our Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth, even now you rule history.” That was a normal salutation to God, which I said in my liturgy in Sendai-South Baptist Church on the morning of 27 March. To be honest, for a while after the earthquake I could not begin with this salutation. In a time of such terrible events, it is not easy to say something with God as the subject.

On 11 March 2011 at 14:46 clock I was on the telephone with the District Land Transport Bureau in Aomori (North Tohoku). We were consulting about a former homeless person at our shelter on the matter of scrapping his car. At that very moment I was surprised by a great earthquake. Fortunately, our shelter in Sendai is far from the coast, where the earthquake originated. After several seconds, my friend on the other end of the telephone line informed me that the earthquake had just struck there, too. That was when I realized that the southern half of the Tohoku region was closer to the epicenter. As I ran to the entrance of our shelter to open the door to escape, the old building shook violently from side to side. Everything was swinging both vertically and horizontally, as if we were sitting on a tiny boat in the middle of the raging sea. Before my eyes, cracks went through the walls of the house. It looked like a scene from a movie. Then I immediately started to fill the bathtub with water to ensure drinking water. Even at that point in time the tap water was muddy and water was spouting out from a manhole cover like a fountain.

After the main earthquake, which lasted quite a while, we hurried to ensure the safety of the residents of the house. I then instructed everyone to watch out for falling objects, and not to go outside immediately, because of aftershocks. I said, “If a strong earthquake should occur again, I cannot guarantee the security of the house.” Then I told them to seek refuge in the nearest school building. We were also very concerned about another homeless shelter in a coastal area, in which many disabled people lived. But an employee had rushed there immediately and had found that everyone was safe. At that time we knew of the tsunami, but we believed that it would not affect us. We did not know that just two kilometers away from this shelter all hell had broken loose. In the evening I chatted by Skype on my battery-charged iPhone with Ms. Aoyama in Tokyo, whom I had met last year on the way back from Germany via Siberia to Japan. I asked her to take care of my son, who had been on his way to Tokyo for the university entrance examination when the great earthquake happened. I could not make contact with him and was very worried. It was only then, as I talked with Ms. Aoyama, I learned that something very terrible had happened in the coastal area of the city of Sendai, and around the Sendai Airport.

On Ustream of my iPhone and over the hand-generated-power-radio, I at least got minimal information, even if only in fragments. Because the electricity was cut off in the whole city of Sendai, I could not immediately see images on TV of the coastal area after the great tsunami. The next morning I went to a homeless shelter near the coastal area to deliver food and gas bottles. All roads to the coast were blocked. So I had to wait several days before I could see with my own eyes the place of the terrible disaster.

When I went in an area behind the highway-dam on the side toward the sea, horrible scenes that I had never seen before were spread out before me. The eastern coastal area of the Wakabayashi district of Sendai was completely devastated. The tsunami had pounded over the pine forest and palisades and swept away houses and cars. Rubble from them was piled up under the bridge of the East Highway, which functioned as a dike and the last stronghold against the tsunami. I found sleeping bags besides the scrapped cars. Then I knew that the homeless who had lived in cars on the coast and along the dike had fallen victim to the raging tsunami. Other people who were living in cars and who were still alive were not counted in the homeless census by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW). It was the same for Internet cafe refugees. The fact that they are not counted in the census means that they are not qualified as beneficiaries of government support.

Immediately after the earthquake, as strong aftershocks continued, we were commissioned by a social welfare office in the city of Sendai, to support a person living in a car who had narrowly escaped the tsunami. Until the tsunami he had parked his car on the coast and had lived there. But fortunately for him, he could no longer endure life in the car and was in the city for consultation at the time of the earthquake. If he had not done so, he would certainly have been a tsunami victim.

As far as we know, many, many people who had lived on boats, in cars, or on the beach were wiped out by the tsunami. If we could have helped those individuals more positively before the disaster, or if MHLW had different principles allowing them to take more effective measures, those people might be alive today. It hurts us deeply in our souls when we think about what could have been. From this we can sadly say that there were various human causes besides the lack of evacuation systems and the nuclear accident in Fukushima that increased the number of victims in this disaster.

more on the efforts to feed and care for displaced and homeless locals here

Imai Sensei is a Baptist preacher who runs a homeless center in Sendai. He has been helping victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami. He is Associate Professor of Shokei Gakuin University, and President of Sendai Yomawari Group.