Standing With the People of Japan
By Linda Unger*
April 15, 2011—Just over a month after a powerful, 9.0-magnitude earthquake, devastating tsunamis, and a nuclear crisis converged on Japan, the full impact of the disaster is still unfolding. As it does, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is standing with the people of Japan to help them bring hope, healing, and comfort to those in need.
Early next month, UMCOR will join some two dozen faith-based relief organizations in a forum in Seoul, South Korea, convened by national Christian church councils of Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
The objective of the two-day meeting is to help the National Christian Council in Japan (NCCJ) flesh out a long-term relief and reconstruction strategy and explore the establishment of an ecumenical consortium to accompany those efforts.
Already, UMCOR has sent $70,000 in early response aid to ecumenical partners, including NCCJ, United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ), Korean Christian Church of Japan (KCCJ), and Church World Service (CWS), as well as to Global Medic, expert in rapid response to disasters.
During its recent board of directors meeting, UMCOR approved a $150,000 grant to the Asian Rural Institute (ARI), a longtime UMCOR partner that trains Japanese farmers and agriculturalists from other nations in sustainable agriculture techniques.
ARI’s buildings were severely damaged in the quake, impeding the start of classes this month. UMCOR’s grant will help the institute complete enough repairs to begin classes in May.
When it does, one of the students ARI will welcome is Gontran Delgrace, an UMCOR/Global Ministries scholarship student and the survivor of another disaster, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
To date, generous United Methodists and other people of goodwill have contributed about $1.6 million to the Japan Emergency Advance , said UMCOR International Disaster Response executive, Melissa Crutchfield.
“We have every intention—and the resources—to give more to the people of Japan,” said Crutchfield, who will attend the ecumenical gathering in Seoul. The fruits of that meeting will likely have a direct bearing on the disbursement of some of the funds.
In addition, UMCOR is in contact with other partners, including a largely faith-based task force in the Philippines that is seeking to provide support to Filipino migrant workers who fled Japan in the wake of the disaster.
The task force would provide legal services, psychosocial support, and other forms of assistance to traumatized workers returning to their families in the Philippines.
In Tokyo, the Wesley Center is also assisting evacuees from areas hard hit by the triple disaster. The center, which is affiliated with United Methodist Women, has hosted numerous evacuees, including foreign workers, who lived in the devastated city of Sendai and in the area of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
UMCOR will seek to help the Wesley Center provide for the needs of the evacuees, which may include food, transportation, nonfood supplies, and the fees for re-entry visas for the foreign workers who are leaving Japan.
UMCOR is also conversing with Second Harvest Japan, a food bank that distributes food to soup kitchens, orphanages, emergency shelters, the elderly, migrant workers, the homeless, and many others.
Although Japan is no stranger to movements of the earth, the tremor that struck near the island of Honshu at about 2:45 p.m. on March 11, was the largest earthquake to hit the country since records have been kept, 140 years. It triggered a 30-foot-high tsunami that swept away everything in its path, destroying entire villages and towns.
As of April 7, more than 14,700 people were still unaccounted for, reported Reuters News Agency’s Alertnet. Nearly 13,500 people were confirmed dead and some 139,000 were living in shelters around the country.
Reuters said that more than 72,550 buildings were completely destroyed, washed away, or burned to the ground in the disaster. The government estimates that the cost in material damages could surpass $300 billion, making it, Reuters said, “by far, the world’s costliest disaster.”
The immediate and long-term effect of radiation exposure from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains a wild card, particularly after the government stated on April 11 that the nuclear crisis generated by the disaster was on a par with that of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown.
To date, nearly 1,000 aftershocks of differing magnitudes have continued to rattle Japan. Some of the strongest came a month after the earthquake and ranged in magnitude from 6.0 to 7.1.
Unlike in Haiti, UMCOR’s Crutchfield pointed out, the earthquake in Japan did not destroy the capital; the infrastructure in Tokyo is intact. “In Haiti,” she said, “the quake completely undermined the existing government and decimated Port-au-Prince.” Some 17 percent of the Haitian government workforce, including government ministers, died in that disaster.
“Even though Japan was overwhelmed by the earthquake and tsunamis, it still had a functional government and systems in place for responding to such disasters,” Crutchfield added. “Civil society in Japan is very organized and prepared for disaster response.”
That means UMCOR’s own response has to match the Japanese reality.
“UMCOR already had trusted, experienced partners on the ground in Japan,” Crutchfield said. “We can fund these ecumenical partners, who are already there and who are intimately familiar with the culture and the needs of the people and with the systems that exist to respond.”
“UMCOR is working on your behalf, through relief and church partners in Japan, to respond and provide immediate assistance and long-term rehabilitation,” said the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey and Thomas Kemper, leaders of UMCOR and Global Ministries, respectively, in a joint letter to United Methodists eager to help in Japan.
Kemper and Harvey noted the “compassion and generosity” of United Methodists and others who are supporting relief efforts with their prayers and financial gifts.
But they clarified that they are not now sending volunteer teams to Japan. “At this time, we are honoring the request of the Japanese government, who has asked that outside groups not come to Japan,” they said.
Furthermore, they underscored, “The situation in Japan is not conducive to sending volunteers at this time. It is important to allow the well established government organizations to manage the response. Should the situation change, we will mobilize United Methodist Volunteers in Mission to prepare mission teams.”
Indeed, as the earth continues to shift underneath Japan, the gift of prayer is no small one.
*Linda Unger is staff editor and senior writer for UMCOR.