55. Fukushima Christmas

February 19, 2024 - Roger W. Lowther

A little update about the situation in Ishikawa since that magnitude 7.6 earthquake on January 1, 2024. What a way to start the year! I talked to some people on the ground today and got the latest news. It's still a very hard situation. The whole peninsula of Noto, that northern part of Ishikawa, only has a few roads, but they're still broken. So, it's making travel really difficult. In order to get from the southern end of the peninsula to where the need is most, it takes at least three hours. And I even heard a report that one trip took nine hours, one way, to get where they were going. Now, this is a real problem because supplies are collecting down in the major hub areas.

The main Christian relief effort is called Noto Help, and it's being based out of a good-sized church there called Uchinada Church in Kanazawa. They're making many trips almost daily, but because of the length of the travel time, all they can really do is drop the supplies off and then come straight back. It's been really hard for them to develop relationships like the churches were able to do after the 2011 earthquake. And so they're saying that really the biggest need right now is for young Christian workers to be able to relocate into those hardest hit areas for long periods of time. Then they can not only assess the needs and distribute goods, but they can build relationships with people there and become part of the community.

It's not an easy thing to ask, though. I mean, without electricity, first of all, it's really cold. And without running water? Means there's no toilets and no showers. Noto Help did mention that they've been thinking about bringing in some portable showers in order to create a base in the northern part of the peninsula, and also to make it available to people in the shelters. But the thing is, it costs like $30,000 US dollars per shower, and they really are only needed for a couple of months or so. They're really hoping that by that point the water will be running again. However, the showers could be used in future disasters like this. Japan has many disasters, so there is a need for it. So this is one of the conversations that's being had.

Anyway, they're hoping that in two months, once roads are easily passable again, there'll be a big influx of Christian volunteers and longer-term relationship building. Our church, Grace City Church Tokyo, is considering various ways it can help. In fact, we're planning to take a youth team of junior high and high school students this weekend. A cabin has been offered where the 15 of us are going to stay. Actually, our family went last week to that cabin in order to get it ready. It needed firewood in order to keep the place warm for all of us. And so we found out where the firewood could be bought and carried it in and spent a whole day doing that. After this trip next weekend, I'll be able to share a lot more about what's happening in Ishikawa.

This episode, I want to share some stories from Christmas concerts in Fukushima. Yes, that Fukushima, the second-only-to-Chernobyl-nuclear-meltdown-disaster-of-epic-proportions Fukushima. We were invited to that area to give some Christmas concerts. I went with Tsumugu Misugi, who's a composer and a violinist. Actually, I have an interview with him in the next podcast episode, so you can stay tuned for that. But first, before I tell you about these Christmas concerts, I need to tell you about the tsunami violin that Tsumugu was playing. I actually have a whole episode on it, Episode #31, which if you're interested you can find on my website.

The tsunami violin is a special violin. It was made specifically from debris from the tsunami in 2011. And the soul of the violin, the sound post which enables the violin to vibrate and make music, came from the Kiseki no Ippon Matsu, the very famous here in Japan “Miracle Pine Tree,” which was the sole survivor of 70,000 trees which lined the coast until they were knocked down by the tsunami. And then it, too, died later from salt left behind by the tsunami. The violin maker, Nakazawa Sensei, made this violin to bring hope to all of Japan. And his aim is for a thousand performers to eventually play this violin. Tsumugu was the 833rd performer. So we were able to take this violin which had so much symbolism to various locations.

First, we were able to go to the top of the Shioyasaki Lighthouse near Iwaki to play some music. I have a picture of Tsumugu playing at the top of it in the show notes for this episode. It's a very famous landmark in that area. It was really badly damaged in the earthquake, repaired, and now, once again, it's a source of light in the darkness. And it's within sight of a town called Usuiso that was completely destroyed in the tsunami. Now, listen to this. Over 20% of the population was lost in the tsunami, the highest percentage of any town in Japan. When you look at how the town was built, you can kind of see why. The main road goes along the beach, and all the homes and stores are right there on the other side of the road. You actually have to go down the road quite far to the north or to the south in order to leave the beach area and go up into the hills. And next to it, there's these cliffs, so steep that it doesn't look like there's any way to really climb up them. And so I'm told that some people just stood there by the side of the road and watched that tsunami come, facing it head-on, knowing that they didn't have time to get away, that there was nowhere to go in time. I can't imagine. Here it is 13 years later, and they're still continuing to build that area, but it's mostly just vacant lots.

That next day, we took the violin and my portable digital organ to give a concert to hundreds of people in an event called Iwaki Christmas. 30 churches from across the city of Iwaki came together for this event to bring unity across the city. After the nuclear power plant disaster, tens of thousands of refugees had to flee the area very quickly and moved into the city of Iwaki. And this huge influx of people really caused a lot of tension in the city. Roads were crowded, lots of traffic jams, and many were not happy about the money that was being given to these refugees who had to flee their homes due to the radiation. There were often news reports on how people would wake up in the morning and find their cars or places where they're staying spray-painted with the message, “Go Home,” which is especially terrible since that's the very thing that they could not do. So, 30 churches hosted this Christmas celebration in a huge wedding complex, and it was also televised for national broadcast later.

At this event, I played the organ and Tsumugu played the violin. Actually, there was another musical instrument as well. I was asked to play the “Kiseki no Piano,” the “Miracle Piano,” which was carried from the nearby 3.11 Memorial Museum. And this piano has a story of its own. It was inundated, completely destroyed in the town of Usuiso, that town I mentioned earlier. And water is not very good for pianos, and so it was dumped out in the street along with all the other trash. But a local piano tuner saw it, rescued it, and spent years fixing it, hoping to make it play again. And he deliberately left in the body damage from the disaster—chipped wood and paint, gouges and scratches. And despite all this damage on the body and the outside, it sounds really good. And it was just a wonderful opportunity for all of us to be reminded of the miracle of Christmas, in a place where so many lives were lost, and yet there is hope. There is hope of resurrection. And we really rejoiced in that new life together through the new life of this piano. There's a picture of me playing this piano in the show notes as well.

Well, then the next day was Sunday. So on Sunday morning, we gave a concert at the new building for the Fukushima Baptist Church in the city of Iwaki. And I also gave a sermon on the Christmas message. And this church, I have a long relationship with. It actually was the very first church I worked with, with relief work after 2011. And so after that morning concert, we traveled together while eating lunch in the car to their original worship location, which is the very closest church building to the nuclear power plants, if you can believe it, less than three miles away from the broken power plants. And I have to tell you, I've never experienced anything like it. It was completely totally otherworldly going to this church. It was like entering a movie set or something. It felt like we were entering some other planet that suffered a terrible disaster centuries before.

It's hard for me to paint a picture for you, but every structure and road was completely overgrown with plants. The homes were still destroyed from the earthquake because no one has been back there to be able to fix them yet. And when we stopped at one of the buildings to take pictures, I was struck by the complete absence of human noise. It felt like we were the only people on the planet. Not a car in sight. Not a single person moving anywhere. It was really spooky. It's a wasteland that's been stopped in time.

Last year, electricity finally came back on in the area. So this is 12 years after the disaster, right? And people have been given permission to move back into the area, even though radiation levels might still be high. We're not quite sure. Many of the church staff had gone back before then with HAZMAT suits to gather some of their things, and they found the organ, the digital organ they had, fallen over. Well, they set it back up, but had no idea whether it worked or not because there was no electricity to turn it on. And so last year, when they were able to turn it back on, they're like, “Okay, we have to give a Christmas concert!”

They wanted to gather folks from all the regions in order to have this concert and have this reunion. So they spread the word, and all the folks that had relocated, like from Sendai and Minami Soma to the north, Aizu Wakamatsu to the west. Others came from the south, from Iwaki, like us. And I met one older woman who came all the way up from Tokyo just for this concert. And I remember how there were tears streaming down her cheeks as she shook my hand and shared how she had not been able to celebrate Christmas in that area since December 2010, just before the disaster, 13 years ago. And she had grown up in this area. It was her home. She told me other memories she had of being a little girl in that area and just how sad it was to see what had become of it, this ghost town.

So, I played the concert on this fallen organ. They told me the organ could make a sound, but I really was worried about whether it could actually make music. They were talking about this old digital organ that hasn't been used in a long time. I wasn't sure if I give a concert on it. And so I had them bring up my portable organ just in case. And in the concert, the pastor stood up and laughed as he told everyone that he was going to make me play that “fallen organ,” whether it worked or not, simply for the symbolism of seeing it rise again. So thankfully, I was able to give the concert on that organ. And man, it was so powerful. I wish you all could have been there. The strong sense of community and love and unity we experienced really was overwhelming. And just to imagine the whole time that we're just less than three miles from the nuclear power plants just over the hill—we could see their lights when it got dark…it wasn't far away at all—in this wasteland, giving a concert, bringing new life, and worshiping God.

On our way back to Iwaki, we were shown some of the other church sites. There were actually four sites that the church worshiped in before the disaster. And they also show me some of the homes of members who can no longer live there. In 13 years, it's amazing how overgrown all the buildings were. Some were barely visible at all through all the greenery. Driveways weren't passable. Windows were broken. Roofs had big holes in them where rain could pour in.

And you know the saddest part? Right across the street, on top of what used to be rice fields, right in the middle of these neighborhoods, there are huge collections of big black trash bags. The government is trying to clean the area by taking six centimeters of radioactive dirt and anything/everything that shows radioactivity, and they're collecting them into these bags, and putting them into these radioactive trash dumps. And the hope is, I was told, that within 30 years, they can then move this radioactive debris to other parts of Japan and rebuild the area. But everyone is scratching their heads, doubtful about who's actually going to be willing to accept this radioactive debris into their area at any time in the near future. And just having these radioactive trash dumps right there next to these homes completely destroys any hope of being able to rebuild the neighborhoods. I'll put a picture in the show notes of one of these trash dumps.

I couldn't believe how we were able to drive right up to it. It was eerie, and we're like, “Is this safe?” We're right next to what was probably many square miles of radioactive debris collected in trash bags and put in one pile, and we were standing next to it taking pictures. And there was no one sending us away. And there was nothing blocking the road to keep us out of there. It's just crazy. I felt bad, though, thinking about the workers who are collecting it all. I mean, that's their job, day after day, collecting this debris and bringing it to these dumps.

I don't know. The experience was sad, and it was happy. There were so many things to celebrate about this community, being able to worship together. And yet there's so much destruction there and so many memories. There's so much sadness that they won't be able to rebuild anytime soon. It was a powerful trip that I'll never forget—playing concerts with that “tsunami violin” and that “fallen organ” and the “miracle piano” and sharing that time with people who've lost so much. It really was one of the most meaningful Christmases I've ever had. Spending that time together and celebrating that story of Christmas, we could rejoice together that light has come into the darkness and that in our brokenness, there is hope of new life.

You can read the show notes for this episode at my website, www.rogerwlowther.com. Thank you so much for listening. As we say in Japan, ”Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”

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