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Tsunami survivor struggles to find peace

KAMAISHI, Japan (BP) — Shukuko Sasaki starts her day the same as she has every day since March 12, 2011 — remembering those who died in the tsunami.

The Japanese woman kneels in front of the family altar that takes up half of the small bedroom in her government-issued temporary housing unit. The altar is packed with fruit, candles, food, flowers, water and anything else the deceased might need in the afterlife, according to Buddhist beliefs. She moves a few items around to make room for today’s offering, some sweets, and bows her head.

The room is so quiet that you can practically hear her thoughts of love when she reaches out to caress her husband’s photograph. She breaks the silence to explain they had just shut the gate on the village’s seawall when the first wave came in “like a stealth ninja” on the afternoon of March 11.

She and her husband, along with two distant relatives, ran for higher ground but the water quickly engulfed them. The current twisted them away from each other. Some debris snagged her foot and dragged her down. Her boot slipped off and she shot up like a cork. Someone threw a rope and pulled her, the lone survivor, to safety.

Sasaki gives a bittersweet, sad smile and picks up the picture of her parents. Their bodies were found together beneath rubble in their favorite spot — the family garden.

The widow looks up at her friend, IMB missionary Tak Oue, who is watching the daily ritual. There are no tears in her eyes, just deep sorrow. She scoots over so he can pay his respects, too.

Oue never met her husband or parents, yet he and his wife Lana have heard enough stories this past year to feel as if they were all old friends. The International Mission Board worker drops to his knees beside Sasaki and prays for her and the hundreds of thousands of survivors still struggling for any semblance of normalcy after the world’s first triple disaster — a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

The catastrophe left an entire coastline destroyed, nearly 20,000 dead or missing and a nuclear crisis that triggered a global health scare. Rebuilding the now-muddy wastelands of the three most severely hit prefectures (states), Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate, is expected to take decades.

The government’s temporary housing units — small prefab houses — squeeze into any open, flat space up the narrow mountain roads. Sasaki’s sits in an elementary school’s parking lot, overlooking a clump of cleaned-up cement foundations near the water’s edge. It’s another daily reminder of what she lost. Her entire fishing village, Shirahama, was wiped out. She grabs a framed aerial picture taken a few years ago to prove that it was once a beautiful coastal town.

“We had about 130 households in our village before the tsunami. Now, there are 60 families left,” she says, placing the picture back on the altar.

When the Oues first met Sasaki, she spoke of rebuilding her home on the same site but reality has hit. The tsunami not only took friends and family but all of the fishing boats — their village’s livelihood. Even if they could get more boats, most of the younger generation was washed away, leaving behind those too old to work. Sasaki admits the chances of reviving her village are slim.

“I’m not the only one in this community with a deep pain in the heart. It has affected all of us,” she says, and then whispers, “Pray for us.”

Before the tsunami, an admission like this, indicating emotions or religious thoughts, would be out of character for those living in this region of northeast Japan that has been closed to the Gospel for hundreds of years. Less than 1 percent say they are be evangelical Christians. In the last few months, however, the Oues have seen a small crack in this wall of resistance.

“We are not seeing massive movements of people coming to Christ, but we are seeing an openness to the Gospel that’s never been here before,” the International Mission Board veteran of 42 years says. “For the first time, people are open to outsiders coming in and certainly open to Christians coming to care for them. They are inviting us into their homes and sharing their lives.

“Some are even open to us praying with them and reading the Bible,” Oue says, motioning to Sasaki’s bright yellow New Testament his wife gave to the survivor on their last visit. “This might seem small to some, but for here, it’s a start.”

The missionary pulls his Bible out and the two read a short passage talking about hope and peace. Sasaki listens intently, twisting the simple gold wedding band on her finger. She admits these are the exact things she searches for daily but seem so elusive to her. Believing that a Savior can give you these gifts for free is a new concept, one that’s hard to imagine right now.

With the anniversary of the tsunami just around the corner, she tries harder than ever to find comfort. She pulls a string of multi-colored origami paper cranes from the wall as an example of her own search.

“I decided to fold 1,000 cranes for each family member who died and take it to the [Buddhist] temple for the anniversary,” she explains. Her village will have their ceremony early on March 9, the same day as her wedding anniversary. “As I fold the cranes, I think about my husband, mother and father. Somehow, they’ll know I’m remembering them every day.”

The words get stuck in her throat as emotions well up. She wipes a tear and confesses that she feels guilty that she lived while the others standing next to her perished.

“I don’t know why I survived. A whole year has gone by, I had to do something,” she says, making a perfect crease on the small purple crane. “I hope this will bring comfort to me. I hope it brings peace to my heart.”
Pray for Sasaki and so many other survivors who are trying to find peace and comfort. Pray for IMB missionaries as they introduce the Gospel in a culture that has been resistant for hundreds of years. Susie Rain is an International Mission Board writer based in Asia. For more stories on Japan’s “Road to Recovery” and how Southern Baptists are helping, visit www.asiastories.com.

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  • Susie Rain