Japan’s top Catholic charities official says the people face great challenges rebuilding their lives in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
"I really have no idea how long it may take to restore their normal life," Bishop Isao Kikuchi of Niigata, president of Caritas Japan, said in a March 29 e-mail to CNA.
The giant wave hit especially close to home for the bishop. It wiped out his seafront birthplace of Miyako City.
Sendai was the hardest hit diocese, with the tsunami wiping out entire coastal villages.
Neighboring Niigata is helping the people to pick up the pieces, Bishop Kikuchi said. Young people in particular have volunteered their services for the relief efforts.
More than 10,000 people have sought refuge in Niigata after being evacuated from a 12-mile radius of the damaged and still dangerous Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Nationally, Caritas has moved quickly to provide assistance to survivors. Bishop Kikuchi said that never before has Caritas had a more enthusiastic response to calls for donations and volunteers.
The organization had to request support from Japan’s bishops' conference to process the enormous donation response since a domestic campaign was launched just days after the twin disasters struck.
In the Diocese of Sendai, a support center staffed in part by Caritas workers is coordinating the local Church's relief efforts. Immediate aid included food and blankets, but the Church’s efforts are aimed principally at long-term rehabilitation efforts.
The center's phones “never stop ringing” with calls from willing volunteers all over Japan, said the bishop.
Caritas Japan's greatest need at the moment is experienced human resources personnel to coordinate the operation.
The economy is in shambles and farmers and fisherman are dealing with total losses. The tsunami that roared ashore after the record-breaking earthquake soaked farmland with seawater and destroyed fishermen's boats and aquafarms.
“It would be very hard for them to re-build their houses and, at the same time, re-establish their profession,” said Bishop Kikuchi.
Last week, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People launched a solidarity campaign through the Apostolate of the Sea to rehabilitate the fishing communities that were destroyed.
Even with the “enthusiastic” response to Sendai's plight, Bishop Kikuchi said there will be “long and difficult days lying ahead of them.”
Even those farmers who escaped the tsunami's wrath are now faced with the threat of radiation contamination from the damaged nuclear power plant at Fukushima.
Bishop Kicuchi said that situation is not a complete loss for the region's people.
For him, the tsunami has also provided the local Church an opportunity to strengthen its spirit of community and witness to Gospel values in assisting victims.
Catholics represent just a “tiny minority” of the general population and are generally viewed as “caretakers of European traditional culture, rather than socially and politically-active figures,” he said.
“What we can do as a tiny Church is evangelization through our social action among people seeking assistance. Not only for this disaster but there are so many people living in solitude in present Japan.”
He pointed to elderly without family support, youths isolated from the world in the comfort of their homes and migrants who fall through the cracks of public support.
“There is a lot to do for these people in present-day Japan,” the Niigata bishop said.
“The disaster,” he concluded, “reminded us of our role as Catholics in modern Japanese society. We are to evangelize through our living witnesses.”