Visit to Eastern Japan
As a special part of this year’s SOPP events, a visit to the Tohoku region was arranged for prayer leaders and youth participants who were visiting from overseas, to witness firsthand the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Mr. Jagmohan Swamidas Chandrani and Mr. Humayun A. Mughal, who live in Japan, also participated in the Tohoku visit, along with discussion facilitator Dr. Bob Stilger, Byakko Deputy Chairperson Yuka Saionji, Vice-Chairpersons Maki and Rika Saionji, the Byakko Shinko Kai board of directors, and other Byakko staff.
On May 22, after an early morning train ride from Tokyo to the northern metropolis of Sendai, participants boarded a bus for the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the hardest hit by last year’s disaster. On board the bus, they viewed a local documentary about the events of March 11 and their aftermath, which showed footage of the earthquake shaking the city of Sendai, followed by a warning of a very large tsunami. People fled inland as tsunami waters flooded towns and villages, washing away vehicles and other possessions. Many homes caught fire, as did a series of oil refineries in the city of Kessennuma. At the end, the video showed people beginning to rebuild their towns and looking ahead to the future.
In Ishinomaki, the tour was joined by a representative from Peace Boat, a Japan-based NGO that has been involved in disaster relief and support in Miyagi Prefecture. As the bus drove around the city, the guide pointed out some of the different ways the city was affected by the disaster. The fishing industry—vital to Ishinomaki’s economy—was hit particularly hard, as most of the processing plants, which were situated on the coast, are now gone. Participants took some time to walk around this once industrial part of the city, which is now vacant except for the hollow remnants of a few buildings, filled with various debris. Construction crews are in the process of raising the ground level before new building can begin. Deeply moved by what they were seeing, participants joined hands in a large circle to offer prayers in silence for a few minutes.
From there, the bus drove over the Hiyori Bridge, the highest in the city and just barely higher than the tsunami waters. It passed by an enormous mountain of collected debris and a vast lot filled with wrecked vehicles before reaching the Kadonowaki neighborhood, which suffered the worst destruction of any part of the city. This was a residential neighborhood, and the concrete foundations are all that is left of most of the homes that once stood there. Household items and building debris litter the grounds of many of the residential plots, a jarring testimony to the lives that once went on there. For the time being, rebuilding in this area is not allowed. At the edge of this neighborhood stands the large Kadonowaki Elementary School, which caught fire after the tsunami and is now a burned out concrete shell, flanked on either side by cemeteries. It is a difficult thing to see even in print and on television, and viewing it firsthand makes the reality of the situation all the more present. Participants took time, mostly by themselves, to walk around and absorb it.
After viewing these most devastated areas, participants visited Shôganji Temple, a small neighborhood temple that survived the tsunami but with serious damage. After the disaster, Mr. Nagai, the head priest of temple, planted a peace pole on the temple grounds. Participants were invited inside the temple’s main building, where they heard Mr. Nagai’s own account of what happened on March 11 and how the disaster has affected the community. While he himself was fortunate enough to evade the tsunami, he noted that those who experienced it directly are said to have aged three to five years as a result. He also pointed out that the general atmosphere in the days following March 11 was not one of struggle, but of people doing their best to help one another as they faced shortages of food and fuel. Now, he said, the city has received enough material aid, but many people have had to abandon their homes, and property values have skyrocketed due to the land shortage. He hopes that more rebuilding can begin soon.
As a Buddhist priest, Mr. Nagai has consulted with many residents of Ishinomaki who lost family members—in some cases, their entire family. Many of them have said they, too, would rather die and join their family members in the grave, but Mr. Nagai does his best to encourage them, telling them that to go on living is the only way to see the light. In this new year, he said, many people are beginning to change their mindset and are starting to look toward the future rather than dwell on what they have lost. He feels that the most important thing for people is to return to a normal life as soon as possible, although he recognizes that this will take time. Mr. Nagai also remarked that he notices people’s sense of religion and spirituality growing stronger, and that more young people are coming back to Ishinomaki to look after the graves of their families. He has a responsibility, he feels, to continue supporting the shift in consciousness that is taking place, encouraging people to keep looking forward and to maintain the religious traditions they have practiced for years, such as visiting their family grave each summer.
Before leaving, participants were invited to offer a prayer at the temple’s altar, using incense in the Japanese Buddhist tradition. One by one, participants stepped up to the altar, taking some incense and joining their hands in a quiet prayer. Afterwards, they headed back to Tokyo, taking with them a profound experience in Ishinomaki.
Later, some of the participants offered their impressions and thoughts on the day’s activities:
The Rev. Canon Charles P. Gibbs
There was a sense that somehow, out of the depth of tragedy and grief and despair, the spark of life gets rekindled. There’s a sense of purpose, even if the initial sense of purpose is caring for the graves of those you have lost. To be in the midst of that for a few hours was, to me, overpowering and an incredible gift, and especially to be doing that in this company, when we stood in silence holding hands. And when we’d finished, walking back to the bus along this asphalt walkway, surrounded by destruction, I saw this one little green shoot coming up through the asphalt, and I thought: that’s life. The people here are experiencing that in such an extreme way. It’s a blessing to be invited, or allowed, into that world, at least for the day.
I was standing on the grounds of the temple and recognizing that the peace pole being planted there is not an abstract reality. It is only out of cultivating peace—deep inner peace, and also peace within the community that comes from working for a higher purpose together—that what was clearly a tragedy of enormous proportion can be turned into the seeds of a hopeful future.
Dr. Bawa Jain
When we went to the temple, my great urge was just to pray. That was one thing that I wanted to do in coming here, was to sit and pray. And I learned from the priest that the place where I was sitting would have been under water after the tsunami. When I closed my eyes and prayed, I was envisioning that. You could see the discoloring on the stones outside the temple, which really put things in perspective.
So, it was quite a profound experience, but very calming at the same time. It’s a great inspiration to know that we human beings have an indomitable spirit to face challenges. And the Japanese are a unique example of this. Nowhere else would we hear the kind of stories that we heard—that nobody was exploiting the situation, and people were giving way to each other. Generally, in other places, people panic. This is the remarkable character of the Japanese people—I wish that the rest of the world could hear these stories again and again.
Mr. Humayun A. Mughal
It was amazing to see people of all different religions praying in the Buddhist way—it may be the first time that has happened. I am used to it, because I sometimes pray in Buddhist temples, but I didn’t expect everyone else to do it, too. But it was moving. This is the way to achieve religious harmony, or interfaith harmony—to pray together. Even if our religions are different, we can feel the same spirit.
When we were praying together in Ishinomaki, I could hear the voices of Japanese ancestor spirits thanking us for our prayers. The whole world was there today—it was a small group, but we represented places around the world. I don’t know if any group has done that before. I think this was our mission. This was a wonderful expression of harmony. We were talking about harmony, and today we manifested it.
Dr. Bob Stilger
I come away from the day sobered, thoughtful, and curious. The core of the work that’s needed is spiritual work. It’s the only way transformation happens. The great possibility is that too much of what will be done will be an attempt to rebuild the past. And it’s only when we’re able to create spaces where people are able to step more fully into themselves—and to trust themselves and trust each other—that transformation can happen. And that’s spiritual work.