'Magokoro' meets Caritas: Catholic relief efforts in the Fukushima nuclear disaster zone

Community at the Magokoro Salon in Minamisoma: standing, Caritas Minamisoma staff members Sr. Masako Egawa, and Masayuki Yamada; seated, from left, Sumii Sato, Kori Mine and Nagomi Matsuura. (David DeCosse)
This article appears in the Letters from Japan feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: For the fall 2016 semester, David DeCosse was invited visiting professor at Sophia University, the Jesuit university in Tokyo. He is on the staff of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He will be blogging about his experience abroad via the blog "Letters from Japan."


The acclaimed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami divided the challenge of responding to the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, into two categories. About the first challenge — the supply of Japanese resilience to repair the immense physical damage wrought by the most powerful earthquake in the recorded history of the country; a tsunami that topped out at 133 feet; and meltdowns, explosions and the release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant — he had no doubt. But about the second challenge — the repair of "those things that cannot be so easily repaired … like morality" — he wasn't so sure. The nuclear failure had exposed the rotting ethical core of the myth of safe and efficient technological progress behind Japan's rise from the wreckage of the Second World War. The only way to begin the needed project of spiritual reconstruction, he argued, would be through attention to "such natural feelings as mourning the dead, thinking of those who suffer from the disaster, and wishing that the pains and wounds with which they were afflicted will not have been in vain."

What Murakami has said about the challenge of the spirit meshes well with the immediate and long-term pastoral aims of Caritas Minamisoma, an expanding Catholic relief effort in one of the hardest hit areas of the vast disaster zone along the eastern coast of Japan's main island. In December, Caritas Japan opened the center in Minamisoma, a coastal city of 71,000 people at the time of the earthquake (approximately 10,000 people have since left). Bishop James Koda, the director of the relief center, said its central purpose was to "share the sorrow and sufferings of the people of the area and to work with hope and joy. …The life [the people of the area] had will never come back, and these facts are not broadcast in Japan. I want people to come and listen to their voices."

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The beautiful, brutal sea: The coast at Minami-ebi in Fukushima Prefecture on Jan. 7, 2017. (David DeCosse)

The construction of the center was an expansion of earlier efforts in the city and supported by a 100 million yen donation (approximately $873,000) from Catholic Relief Services. Greg Auberry, CRS regional director for East and South Asia, said of the donation:

Although the government of Japan has led recovery efforts for those affected by the earthquake, subsequent tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, there have been gaps in service provision. Since the disaster, CRS has prioritized working with Church and ecumenical organizations to address unmet needs, especially for vulnerable elderly populations. While the government focuses on repairing a still-crippled infrastructure, CRS supports vital psycho-social support for disaster victims, and given the long term needs of the people from Minamisoma because of its proximity to Fukushima, a longer term Caritas center was needed to support for years to come the needs of those returning to the area.

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Practically speaking, the center aims to accomplish its purpose by fielding a small professional staff including two Sacred Heart sisters, a nurse, a former music teacher, and a former aid worker in Benin. The lively, warm group engages in a Pope Francis-like practice of accompaniment: Spending time befriending the thousands of people in the area living now for more than five years in temporary housing and supporting all manner of efforts to build community in this haven of displacement. The staff also works with groups like the Catholic Tokyo Volunteer Center to coordinate from 4,000 to 5,000 volunteers a year of all backgrounds — Christian, Buddhist, Shinto, anything at all — who come to the center from throughout Japan to help out with the relief effort. The local Councils of Social Welfare call in a wide variety of jobs — cleaning up a house that hasn't been lived in for years; clearing wildly overgrown brush; and more; the center sends out volunteer teams to do the work. All return for a community dinner each night, complete with pre-meal reflection and post-meal sake. Music and laughter color the night. And then men and women separate and sleep on futons on the floor in communal rooms upstairs.

The repair of physical infrastructure goes on apace throughout the entire tsunami zone. The World Bank has said that at a cost of $215 billion the Great East Japan Earthquake is the costliest disaster ever. A drive around Minamisoma reveals construction cranes, lines of dump trucks, uniformed crews toiling on new sea walls and in the many wide open spaces, and rows and rows of white bags containing soil skimmed from the surface of fields as a precaution against radioactive contamination. The emergency issues at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 16 miles to the south, have been addressed, although concerns remain especially about radiation leaking into the ocean.

In its report five years after the disaster, the World Health Organization noted that "there were no acute radiation injuries or deaths among the workers or the public due to exposure to radiation." The WHO report added of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown: "Considering the level of estimated doses, the lifetime radiation-induced cancer risks other than thyroid are small and much smaller than the lifetime baseline cancer risks." Emergency workers in the plant during the first days of the meltdown face an increased risk of thyroid cancer. While detection has found a large number of thyroid cysts and nodules in children in the area, the WHO cautioned against attributing the findings to higher risk from radiation rather than to increased screening. The food supply in the fishing and agricultural region has been given a clean bill of health by the government and many scientists. But many consumers remain hesitant to eat produce and fish from the area.

On Jan. 7, the radiation survey meter outside the Caritas Minamisoma center read .076 microSv/hour. That amount of radiation, said Professor Timothy Jorgensen of the Georgetown University Medical Center, "is an extremely low dose rate. It's even well below the annual average background dose level in the United States." On the same day a drive on the highway four kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant yielded a hand-held radiation survey meter reading of 5.1 microSv/hour. Professor Jorgensen, the author of Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation (Princeton University Press 2016), said that year-long exposure to such a level of radiation would be "almost at the annual dose limit for a radiation worker in the United States."

But however far the repair of the physical environment has gone, the repair of the spirit remains a profound challenge. Trust in key institutions has crashed. In the aftermath of a government investigation, the Tokyo Electric Power Company acknowledged that the disaster at the nuclear plant was preventable and that safety measures like a higher sea wall to withstand a tsunami (the Daiichi wall was 19 feet; the tsunami at the plant was 45 feet) were rejected because of "a worry that if the company were to implement a severe-accident response plan, it would spur anxiety throughout the country and in the communities near where nuclear plants are sited, and lend momentum to the anti-nuclear movement." The government itself has come under withering criticism for lax regulation and chaotic misinformation that in the days following the earthquake directed fleeing evacuees into the drifting radiation plume, not away from it. And then there is the insidious nature of a radiation disaster which whatever the levels of physical contamination nevertheless spreads fear and fosters discrimination toward those thought to have been exposed — like the residents of Minamisoma.

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Mikiko Matsuno, founder and director of the Magokoro Salon in Minamisoma, Japan. (David DeCosse)

At the Magokoro ("true heart") Salon in Minamisoma — a regular stop for Caritas staff — these churning matters of the spirit mix with difficult feelings evoked by noteworthy markers of time. It's been more than five years in temporary housing for thousands of residents in the area, many of them elderly. Recently, the government has lifted restrictions on moving back into areas once thought to be contaminated. And in April, the government will stop paying rent for any persons displaced from areas that are no longer officially considered uninhabitable.

Mikiko Matsuno is the founder and director of the salon, a community center where all those living in nearby temporary housing can come to talk, learn, and do things like sew lovely little key chains that are then sent all over the world. Matsuno literally outdrove the tsunami, thinking a glinting prism in her rear-view mirror was a rainbow until her 14-year-old daughter Saho looked back and saw the rainbow moving. "Mommy, something is coming!" she said. "So hurry, hurry!" Matsuno and her daughter sped up the coastal road and found her 12-year-old son Naoya, and his whole school, safe on high ground as the water chased them three kilometers inland. In the meantime, her husband, Koichi, sensed trouble and took his 40-foot fishing boat straight out over the tsunami wave. "He looked back and saw the water crossing over the wall and he wondered if the house survived," Matsuno remembered. "The next time he looked back, the house was gone."

The salon is a labor of love and resilience — an effort to create community after a shattering blow. The recent government directives raise complex questions. Do I want to move back? Do I have to move back? In what will I live? And where will I live? Is it worth moving back if half my family has moved away? If we all move away, how can we keep the community of Magokoro? On a recent January day, Caritas staff members Masayuki Yamada and Sacred Heart Sr. Masako Egawa* dropped by to visit with a sewing circle of elderly women who had lost their homes — Kori Mine, Sumii Sato* and Nagomi Matsuura. Amid the laughter and warmth, anxiety welled up. "We don't want to die in these temporary houses because they are not our home," said Matsuura.

Research done by another Caritas staff member, Mari Nanbarra, a nurse at Fukushima Medical University, puts hard numbers on these mortal worries. Of the three Japanese prefectures (similar to American states) hardest hit, the numbers of direct deaths by the earthquake and tsunami are as follows: Iwate, 4,673; Miyagi, 9,541; and Fukushima, 1,613. The power of the tsunami in Miyagi was especially intense, at one point traveling 10 kilometers inland. But the numbers of indirect deaths related to the disaster — from such factors as fatigue or suicide — tell a different story with Iwate at 459; Miyagi at 920; and Fukushima at 2,025. The mix of earthquake, tsunami and radiation in places like Minamisoma within 20 to 30 kilometers of the Daiichi plant has sown an especially toxic, self-destroying challenge of the spirit.

Bishop Koda explained that while the work of Caritas Minamisoma focused on immediate practical and spiritual needs, the work of the Japanese Conference of Catholic Bishops focused on matters of structural justice. On Nov. 11, the conference issued a public letter renewing its call for Japan immediately to cease using nuclear power (after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, the government pledged to stop using nuclear power by the 2030s; in 2014, the policy was revised to allow for the continued use of nuclear power while pledging to reduce its use as much as possible). Addressing arguments that the long-term challenge of climate change requires the use of a fossil fuel-free energy source like nuclear power, the bishops said that the immediate challenge of protecting human lives and the beauty of nature had priority over even such significant long-term concerns. In the letter, they also proposed a wholesale re-thinking of the meaning of progress in Japan. "Once again, we must stop and ask ourselves," the bishops said, "what sort of human development society should aim for, and what constitutes true riches."

The road toward the end of nuclear power and a new meaning of progress in Japan certainly runs through national politics. But the motivation for taking to that road runs through cities like Minamisoma and through hearing the stories of thousands living there or long departed since the "triple disaster" of March 11, 2011. Here in the gathering of volunteers from all over Japan at the new center, in manifold maintenance jobs, and in the work of accompaniment Murakami's wish for the moral repair of the Japanese people is being realized. Magokoro and Caritas have met, stirring hope for storm-tossed hearts and the battered earth.

[David DeCosse serves the staff of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.]

*The original version of the story had these names misspelled. 


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