Saturday, June 08, 2013

When Words Fail

Katie Young, Shintaro Ichihara, and Nozomi Matsumura discuss the day’s plans.
As if yesterday’s visit to Shinchi were only a warm up, today our host, The Rev. Shintaro Ichihara, gathered us with two interns in the Issho ni Arukou Project: Nozomi Matsumura and Katie Young of The Episcopal Church’s Young Adult Service Corps. Their experience helped me greatly widen my understanding of the scope of Issho ni Arukou. Far more than just providing community relief efforts for natural disaster, the program has been helping support and provide community for immigrants married or moved into Japanese society and their children, ranging from English skills to tutoring to vocational development throughout the Tohoku diocese and region.

Katie and Nozomi’s guidance helped us also widen our vision of the scope of the earthquake and tsunami disaster. Nozomi furnished us with a finely detailed road atlas that showed – page after page – the reach of the tsunami devastation in each coastal city and town along the northeast coast, along with more aerial before-and-after pictures. And so the five of us drove north together from Sendai to Ishinomaki, a port city originally founded upon the rice trade. Driving along the coastline, we stopped to behold the tsunami’s intractable legacy on an urban setting. From burned out cars to the husks of houses where no next of kin can determine property disposition, the destruction of the tsunami remained prominent well beyond two years since the ocean first breached the sea wall. A hospital where many died was slowly being demolished. The shell of a huge school stood as testimony to the horror of young lives vanquished suddenly by an onslaught of cars and debris piled up and driven inland by the raging waves. There was no protection then from the ensuing conflagration as all that fuel gathered together and caught fire. Many subsequently perished from a blaze in the midst of water.

Most of central Ishinomaki was damaged or destroyed, and 3,000 people died there. The search for bodies continues to this day even as the city struggles to rebuild. All around are signs that read “Ganbarou Ishinomaki!” – Let’s work hard, Ishinomaki! – an appeal to the stubborn determination in the face of epic tragedy – a determination that forms the backbone of a people’s renowned resilience.

But what utterly silenced me was the journey a bit further north and east to the site of Okawa, a little agricultural village-suburb at the end of a lovely long valley of rice fields nestled between rolling, green mountains. On the way, we passed by miles and miles of trucks and workers rebuilding a massive levee system along the idyllic river and estuary. Okawa sits at the mouth to the ocean, right at sea level. Or I should write there it sat. All that is left of this community is the remnants of Okawa elementary school, a sarcophagus of terrifying proportions – an open entombment of memories of the 74 children and 10 teachers who perished there when indecision left the school’s children in the direct path of the raging waters at the foot of a steep mountainside. Shintaro told me just one teacher survived and has not been able to speak since. Only 30 pupils of the school lived to recount the event. Okawa has now all but disappeared into the ocean as the land mass of Ishinomaki descended during the earthquake by as much as a meter or more in some places. The school itself is like a huge relict or architectural headstone for the little town reclaimed by the sea forever and families broken irreperably by unspeakable tragedy. They still come and leave flowers and offerings and illumine the ruins by night.

It’s impossible to capture the heartfelt emptiness the shell of Okawa elementary school evokes. The scene screams for silence and challenges every possible path of explanation or comprehension. No wonder people come and go all day, reflecting on the tragedy that it represents, making pilgrimage perhaps not only to this shrine for the dead, but into the frightening depths of their own misgivings. But, then, that’s what thin places are for: to open us up to our own fears not about what might be, but what is, and come to grips with reality unfiltered by our denial or dreaming.
Outside the broken and twisted remains of the school are images of the Buddha along with a brand new memorial for the remembered dead and a statue of an angel looking skyward as a sign of hope. Okawa reminded me of the wounds of Christ: Christ on the cross, Christ in the tomb, Christ risen from the dead: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” that eucharistic enigma of contradictions at the spiritual foundation of our tradition. Okawa is the epitome of these contradictions that only silence can begin to comprehend. Wordy prayers give way to contemplation holding together the ironies of life and death, human ingenuity and insurmountable natural forces, fateful decisions made or not made by the well-intentioned, the simultaneous fallibility and heroism of leadership, the towering arrogance of the ego and humbling reality of suffering, the wide-eyed lively innocence of children in the face of certain death. . . Okawa elementary seems almost frozen in time, its wreckage capturing a moment that circumscribes our true nature in humility, that shatters our pretensions before our Creator; a thin place where our faith is not measured any more in ideas, theologies, or words, but rather only in watchful, contemplative silence. 

Dutifully cultivated flowers mark the perimeter of the school gutted by a fire that followed the tsunami’s destruction in Ishinomaki. Surrounding the school is a wasteland of debris and bare foundations. On one foundation sat an elderly man in silence next to a child’s bicycle while we were there. Whether it belonged to his deceased grandchild or was a simple memorial to the children who died there, we could’t tell nor ask.
A constantly tended Buddhist altar and memorial markers adorn the entrance to the Okawa elementary school grounds.

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