Experience of, and Reflections by, Mrs. Ikuko Takano,
Head of the People of Haramachi Catholic Church
29 September 2012
Earthquake, Nuclear Power Plant Explosion, Evacuation
Minamisoma City Haramachi Catholic Church is located 24.5 km from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant of Tokyo Electric Power Co. Inc., and 5.5 km from the sea. On Friday, March 11, 2011 at 2:46 p.m., a huge earthquake of magnitude 9.0 struck the Pacific Ocean side of East Japan. The epicenter of this earthquake was a little way out to sea from Sanriku. There were evacuation orders made for 30 km, 20 km, and 10 km. On March 14, the 3rd unit of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant exploded. On the same day, I heard the sound of an explosion coming from the south, which was the 2nd unit exploding. On the 15th, there was another explosion in the 2nd unit and fire in the 4th unit. Right away were orders through the community wireless system for everyone within 30 km to stay inside. We wore long sleeves, masks, and hats for protection, and closed the windows tight. The mayor of Minamisoma city called for evacuation and got buses ready. However, at home, we could not figure out where and how to evacuate. As we sought out others, we found out that, sooner or later, all the members of our church within 30 km of Fukushima had evacuated. Above all, it was impossible to go look at the church whilst there were orders to stay inside. We just took a look at the church on the way from work thinking, “Ok, the church is still standing. We’ll think of what to do once everything settles a little.” After consulting with the board members, I evacuated.
Damage and Repair of the Church
The damage to Haramachi Church was mainly due to the earthquake. The church is an old church which has undergone many small repairs on its walls, floor, and roof. It had just celebrated its 60th anniversary. Every time there was an aftershock, the cracks in the walls of every room got worse. The construction company covered the damage on the roof with sheets of blue plastic tarp. Bishop Tetsuo Hiraga came every week from North Sendai but, because the Joban train line had stopped and Road 6 was disconnected due to areas covered in rubble, he could not come anymore. I did not know how or to whom I should consult about the future. After cleaning the rubble inside, Mrs. Kazuko Hayashi, our Vice-Head, and I decided, “let’s pray on Saturday” and the two of us prayed together in the church.
Mail did not come of course, so we could not know the plans or movements of the Sendai parish and the Dominican order. This church was in the pastoral area of the Dominican order. We continuously asked the church members in North Sendai and were able to have a parish priest come by car. Father Latour came from Sendai and Masses were held on April 10, and 17. Five or six people came. We talked about the future, how it would be difficult for Catholics to gather for a Mass while there were orders to stay indoors and furthermore, the church itself was dangerous from all the damage from the earthquake. We also held a Mass at one parishoner’s home outside the 30 km area. We could not hold an official Mass but at least we would gather on Sundays for prayer. However, both the believers and I were lost without knowing what would actually happen to Haramachi Church. The roof was broken and had a hole in it that it would leak when it rained. We did not have the money to repair it. For Easter, I went to a Mass held in Kita-Sendai Church. It took me an hour and a half to go to Sendai. The scenery on the way on Road 6 was horrible; I was at a loss for words. There were more than 100 boats and ships that had been swept by the waves and were lying sideways in the inlands. When I entered the Pacific Ocean side of Miyagi prefecture, the area was devastated. I could not find the words to express its impact on me. There were mountains of rubble resulting from body searches. The reconstruction of Minamisoma city in Fukushima prefecture was behind schedule. The radiation leak from the nuclear power plant was causing all the work to fall behind.
On April 27, the Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) had reopened, the Provincial of the Dominican order came and we had a talk with four church members about the future of Haramachi Church. We talked about how we cannot close this church because if we do, there will be no place for our believers to worship.
The government had re-designated the area from an area to stay indoors to an evacuation preparation area. We were then able to be outside freely; however, the situation was not ready for renovation. In addition, the carpenters and the tilers had all evacuated. A while later, though there were still no construction workers in the area, we were lucky to be the first to start the renovation with the emergency aid given to Sendai parish from all over the world. Also after Bishop Hiraga’s proclamation, “I will have a Japanese priest stationed at the churches in the stricken areas”, on June 1st, Father Umetsu was stationed to Haramachi church. This made us feel secure and we were all happy we have someone we could consult with.
On Saturday, June 11th, Bishop Koda and four others from the CTVC office came to visit from Tokyo. They asked us “What do you need?” but we weren’t expecting to get any support. We answered, “We now have fewer members of the church. If possible, we would like to hold Mass together.”
Radioactive Contamination of the Church • Cutting Down of Himalayan Cedars
To get rid of radioactive contamination, the construction workers washed the church roof and walls with water. Underneath the parking lot was a temporary place to put contaminated soil. Decontamination work started by Minamisoma city and ended in early October. I was relieved that this ended early. But the level of radioactivity especially on the surface of the soil was high. This does not feel good, even though I do not live here all year day and night. Volunteers and pilgrims could not come.
Cesium was detected in the treetops and trunks of the Himalayan cedars on our property so we had to cut them down. The trees were about thirty to forty years old. Sayuri Kindergarten is inside this property, so we have to ensure the children’s safety.
Support from the Outside
The very first material support we received was on Saturday, March 26, 2011. It was just after the phone line was reconnected. The Catholics of North Sendai brought a lot of supplies such as rice, water, and canned goods. There were still orders to stay inside, and because we were not expecting any support would come to Haramachi Church from the outside, we were bewildered. At Haramachi Church then, there were only two people. We appreciated the support, especially since this was the time when food products were not yet coming in.
After this, volunteers from CTVC and churches from other areas visited Haramachi Church again and again. This was also one of our wishes coming true.
On October 9th, a memorial Mass was held jointly with Matsukicho church in Fukushima city. Around ninety people came to the small sanctuary of Haramachi Church. Soon after that came Christmas. There were more people attending the church then. At the end of the year, CTVC staff members Sister Chiaki Hatanaka from Tokyo, Sister Kyoko Ozawa from Kobe, and Mr. Shigeyuki Kanayama came to stay, to live here and work with and for the church and its people. There were many who came for the New Year’s Mass. One year after the earthquake, on March 11, a Memorial Mass was held at Haramachi. Eighty-two people came, including Bishop Koda and his assistants. One year has passed, but there is still so much to be done for revival.
On May 6th, Father Kariura from Nagoya was appointed to Haramachi Church in place of Father Umetsu. On this day, one member passed away and Father Kariura went to pray and administer the sacrament in a storm.
Transitioning from Getting Support to Giving Support
We, the members of the church, thought about what we could do for revival. We joined the CTVC volunteers at the temporary housing meeting place. At first, we were fearful of how we would be greeted. We brought homemade cakes with us and gradually everyone started to remember our faces.
We started to participate in various volunteer activities although there were only a few members who could come from Haramachi Church. Collaboration with NPO Fukushima Yasaibatake in Nihonmatsu also started.
Ever since then, we have been doing our best in these activities. One year since the earthquake, finally Haramachi Church is seeing hope in the future. This is all due to the continuous support and encouragement we have received. If we had not had this, we would not have had the strength to repair or revive anything. Through this earthquake disaster, we got to know so many people and got tied to people all around Japan. Above all, it is encouraging to have a lot of people with us during the Mass, with readings and organ music. We received responses such as, “I will serve with pleasure”. “With pleasure…” What a pleasant sound! These behaviors affected a lot of people. People who did not participate in activities before started to join us for cleaning duties, reading duties, writing postcards, writing thank you letters, etc. Some whom we have not seen for a long time got our postcards and came to visit us. Some who said, “We are evacuating and not coming back, so please do not worry about us”, have since gotten in touch with us saying, “I would like to send some money to help you with maintenance expenses”. For good or ill, the closed church has started to open to the outside.
I am very happy that many people come for pilgrimages, and that we have the opportunity to expand relationships beyond the church walls. I cannot predict how Haramachi Church will change over the next few years, but I hope and think that it will become better than before.
Translation by Aiko Kumamoto