Lutheran Volunteer Center Opens in SendaiTOKYO, Japan/GENEVA, 12 April 2011 (LWI) – One month after the strong earthquake that triggered a devastating tsunami off the northeastern coast of Japan, Lutheran churches there say relief delivery remains a major challenge, with many people still sheltered in places that are not easily accessible.
“There are still gaps between places in Sendai for gasoline and gas supplies. There are also gaps between emergency evacuation facilities and some places still lack enough food and living supplies. There are many people who are evacuating in mountain areas, and they have difficulties to get their needs,” Rev. Naoki Sugioka of the Kinki Evangelical Lutheran Church (KELC) reported in Tokyo following a 6-7 April visit to some of the affected areas in Miyagi Prefecture.
Sugioka, KELC president Rev. Shigeo Sueoka and vice president Rev. Terumitsu Hagenoshita had traveled to Schichigahama, Tagajo, Sendai, Minami Sanriku and Utazu in Miyagi Prefecture, a few days after three four-ton trucks delivered food and non-food relief items worth YEN 4,598,800 (USD 54,748) purchased by Lutheran churches.
The KELC pastors reported on their visit at an 11 April meeting of the Japan Lutheran Emergency Relief (JLER), the committee coordinating response by KELC, Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church (JELC), Japan Lutheran Church and West Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church.
As planned, the Lutheran churches have opened a volunteer center for their joint relief operations at JELC’s Sendai Church near the epicenter of the 11 March quake. Named the Sendai Lutheran Support Center Tonaribito, it opened its doors on 11 April, with Rev. Tsugu Koizumi of the Chiba Lutheran Church near Tokyo helping out in distributing relief materials and coordinating volunteer support from there.
The Japanese word Tonaribito means neighbor.
A first assessment by a team of Lutheran pastors who had travelled to affected areas in Miyagi Prefecture from 24 to 30 March had indicated that the “serious lack of gasoline makes it impossible to distribute food to each of the evacuation centers,” where an estimated 48,996 are still sheltered according to the Japanese government National Police Agency.
World’s AttentionWhile there are currently many volunteers offering various services including clearing the affected areas, the need for human power is tremendous. “The areas need a lot more volunteers to help,” Sugioka stressed.
A month after the disaster, “it is getting warmer, the smell and health problems are going to increase seriously, therefore we have to take immediate action now,” he added.
He noted the world’s attention was mainly focused on the nuclear plant problem, therefore decreasing focus on the needs of victims and affected places. “This is an unfortunate situation,” he said, describing the debris of washed away bridges, vehicles, boats, destroyed houses, and household goods and personal effects that litter the affected areas.
At the recent meeting, Rev. Sumiyuki Watanabe, JELC president and chairperson of JLER, said the four-church grouping had approved employment of a new full-time staff person to coordinate their response in the aftermath of the disaster.
“I will enter Miyagi [Prefecture whose capital city is Sendai] within this week and be in charge of coordinating volunteers,” said Ms Yuko Endo, previously working with the Asian Rural Institute, a Christian-run international training ground for grassroots leaders on sustainable agriculture, community development and leadership.
JLER plans to employ two more staff attached to the local Social Welfare Council in the affected areas and for coordinating shipment of relief materials.
Psycho-Social SupportMeanwhile, Rev. Masaru Kawata, chaplain of the Tokyo-based Japan Lutheran College, said, “We are considering how we can use our expertise on psycho-social support and social welfare, possibly in collaboration with the Lutheran churches.”
The program may include support for relief workers, who have to deal with their own individual loss while at the same time responding to the needs of grieving disaster victims.
Mr Hiromi Morikawa, director of the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Association, a Tokyo-based non-profit organization providing education, health and services to refugees, said his group was considering ways of supporting children who are among the victims of the disaster.
By 12 April, Japan’s National Police Agency reported the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami had reached 13,228 people, with 14,529 reported missing. More than 55,700 buildings have totally collapsed and another 154,215 are partially damaged.
“It is good that all the like-minded organizations under the Lutheran umbrella have come together to make a plan to approach the response [to the disaster],” said Mr K.G. Mathaikutty, seconded staff from The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Department for World Service (DWS) associate program in India, who is currently supporting JLER as an emergency adviser.
“Since we didn’t have prior preparation for responding to the disaster, we are just starting from scratch,” he noted.
Mathaikutty said “uncertainty prevails now,” as the JLER begins its work, but he expressed hope that they would soon “have a more clear strategy on how to proceed, what we are going to do by next week or in ten days. I hope things will be much clearer.” (837 words)
(Written for LWI by Hisashi Yukimoto)