The first time I went to Tohoku, just under a month after the tsunami, the roads had been cleared, but there was still debris piled high at every corner. Most people were still in shock, and it was easy to read that on their faces. If they were living in houses at all, they seldom had water or electricity, and the mud was still wet on the remaining walls. Things have changed a lot in the last five months. You can still see long lines for food at lunchtime, but they’re now wound around the aisles of functioning convenience stores. The debris has been pushed out of neighborhoods into huge, mountainous garbage dumps along the sea. Everyone in the coastal area is busy with restoration work, and some houses are miraculously livable once more. Kids play in relatively clean playgrounds, even; and they shout “I love you!” in English as strangers walk by – a testament to the legacy of foreign aid workers in northern Japan.
The most impressive stories of transformation and recovery aren’t about houses or buildings, of course, but about people. So I’d like to tell a story or two about people I met in Ishinomaki in July – about the Japanese people who call the city home. These people made a huge impression on me, and they are wonderful; but they are just a few out of tens of thousands that survived the tsunami and are now working as hard as they can to put things right. There are lots of other stories to hear – if you want to go and listen to some yourself, and if you don’t mind serving with a Christian organization, then sign up to volunteer right now at http://www.b-1.jp/tohoku/en/. Trips leave from Osaka twice every week.
Aoki-san is an old man, somewhere between 70 and 80. He lost his dentures in the tsunami, so he always wears a face mask now. If you watch his eyes carefully, you can tell when he breaks into a toothless smile.
He lives in an apartment complex near the sea – you can hear the waves from there, at night when it’s quiet. The building doubtless took in a lot of water, as did everything else in the neighborhood, but Japanese schools and apartments (“mansions”) are built like concrete bunkers and generally withstood both the 9.0 earthquake and the massive ocean swell. Mr. Aoki is a leader of sorts in his community; some volunteers who know him better refer to him as the “building manager,” but I think that’s more of a social than professional title.
A few days after the waters receded, the parking lot beside Mr. Aoki’s building was chosen as a place to hold the bodies of the dead. Whenever the Japanese Self-Defense Forces uncovered corpses of tsunami victims in the area, they brought them to the lot and laid them in rows, face up so that friends and family might identify them. Ishinomaki was hit hard; it didn’t take long for the parking lot to fill.
It took longer to identify people, though. There was mud, and trash, and seaweed everywhere. It covered everything – cars, beds, windows – including the eyes and mouths of the dead. Many of the men, women, and children were so horribly disfigured by mud that they were impossible to recognize. Mr. Aoki took a rag, and a bucket of water, and walked from body to body, to wash their faces.
I can’t imagine staring into the face of death so many times. It had a profound effect on Mr. Aoki, understandably. By his own account he suffered months of utter spiritual and emotional darkness afterward. The shadows only began to lift when he heard music and laughter coming from the playground near his apartment complex. A group of volunteers (some of whom I worked with later) had spent a week cleaning the park; it was now officially usable once more, and to celebrate they were throwing a barbeque for the neighborhood. Mr. Aoki defied the darkness again; he left his room and went out to join them. He shared his story with the Be One Tohoku Aid volunteers that May afternoon, and they’ve worked closely together ever since.
When I first met Mr. Aoki in July on a Sunday, he had a new story to share. He came to the house where we were holding church service to tell us about it, and he brought a couple friends – two other older gentlemen from his building. He’d had a dream earlier in the week, he said, in which he’d seen the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus’s face was shining upon him, smiling, and radiating love. He said he now understood what it meant that Jesus had brought Be One to Ishinomaki. You can imagine the kind of stir this caused among us, volunteers with a Christian aid organization. One woman cried and asked Mr. Aoki to tell her what her God looked like. Most of us, after all, can’t claim to have seen Jesus face-to-face! My wife Jenny astutely opened a Bible and pulled out Acts 2:17 — “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” One of Mr. Aoki’s elderly companions folded down the page corner in his own new Japanese Bible.
Aoki-san is changed now; every story he tells has a positive ending. Even that his kid brother was sickened by the tsunami water turns out well: while this younger Mr. Aoki was at the hospital, his doctors discovered that he had cancer, and thus caught it when it was still treatable. A slight eccentricity of Mr. Aoki’s is that he’s always giving people little gifts. One particularly moved me: A hand-carved, wooden owl. I had pulled an almost identical artifact out of the rubble earlier in the week and indiscriminately sent it to the dump, desperately keeping myself from imagining its history. I never thought I would see it again. But here was Mr. Aoki – redeeming, as it were, this little wooden owl from the trash heaps and the fire. Not everything in Ishinomaki is lost, not even the things you expect to be.
Something incredible happened to Mr. Aoki, something simple to say but impossible to describe. It renewed his spirit at a late age and reached him even in the depths of his suffering. He stared into the face of death over and over again until – and doubtless long after – it broke his heart. Darkness did cover him for a time, but when it faded, in his dreams he came to see the face of Life, shining. My prayer is that all those who witnessed the Northeastern Japan disasters will one day have a similar story to share, that all may come to know and be comforted by the same Love that still smiles down upon the gentle Mr. Aoki.