Uprooted by Tsunami, Church's Flock Regroups

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Correction Appended

IWAKI, Japan -- After the rumbling and the devastating waves had ceased, the members of a little church a stone's throw away from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant discovered that a new set of troubles was just beginning.

For two years since an earthquake set off a tsunami that caused the disaster at the nuclear plant, the church's 150 parishioners have had little respite, first fleeing radiation from the plant, then seeking a more permanent place to reassemble as prospects dimmed for a return home.

Many dislocated communities in Japan have been grappling with recovery efforts, and the uprooted draw strength and resilience from a variety of sources. But small victories nourish hopes and fortify flagging spirits on the road back to normality.

On Sunday, the Fukushima First Baptist Church took such a step with its first service in a new chapel it built from supporters' donations in Iwaki, a wind-swept city about 30 miles south of the plant. Some elderly parishioners did not make it, though. And others remain scattered across Japan, unwilling to return because of their children or their jobs, or because they still need the support of distant relatives.

"There were times when we felt like we lost everything that we hold dear, and we asked: 'God, why?' " Masashi Sato, the church's junior pastor, said Sunday as about 50 members bowed their heads in prayer.

Two years since the destruction along Japan's northeast coast, some communities in Fukushima are just starting to come to terms with a sobering realization: their old homes are probably lost forever, and they must start anew elsewhere.

In the wider Fukushima region, much of life is back to normal. But the return of former residents to the most heavily contaminated areas around the plant is likely to take decades, the government has acknowledged, as will the decommissioning of the ravaged plant itself.

In once-emptied areas where evacuations orders have now been lifted, re-population has been uneven. Cities, towns and even families remain divided between those who choose to return, and those who stay away. Over the past two years, Fukushima's population has fallen by more than 60,000, according to local censuses, though the pace of the population decline has now slowed.

The Baptist church, in Okuma, its original location in Fukushima Prefecture, is also still missing many of its members. But the opening of its new chapel this month, at least, ends a two-year journey that members say tested the faith of even the most faithful.

Founded by American missionaries who arrived in Japan from Minnesota in the early years after World War II, the church predates the nuclear plants that transformed a poor village on Fukushima's hardscrabble coast into one of the region's most prosperous towns.

The church grew swiftly, parishioners say, and swifter still after the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, started work on the Daiichi plant, drawing young workers to the area. The congregation of 150 was a sizable number in a country dominated by Buddhist and native Shinto traditions. The Christian presence is tiny; just under 3 million in a country of 127 million, according to government estimates, or about 2.3 percent of the population. With dwindling congregations in Japan, many churches struggle to survive.

Keiji Nakada, now 60, was a worker who traveled from Tochigi to help Tepco build the plant. He joined the church at 20, married there and settled in Okuma. He and his wife had four children, and he became active in the Sunday school.

Mr. Nakada's wife died years ago, and then less than a year after he retired from Tepco, the magnitude 9 quake jolted his home.

Early the next morning, all residents of Okuma were ordered to evacuate. He said he left home thinking he would be back in a matter of hours, but he has not returned since, except on short day trips to retrieve a few of his belongings.

"I had no words," Mr. Nakada said. "I'd lost the plant I helped to build, the church I belonged to and my home."

That same morning, Tomoko Sasaki, now 92, waited six hours in the cold for Japan's Self-Defense Force to bus her out of Okuma to a nearby gymnasium. She had taken refuge in the church overnight, and for three chaotic weeks she traveled with about 60 parish members, including Mr. Nakada, to two other evacuation sites before a camp site west of Tokyo offered to take them all in.

Ms. Sasaki, who entered an elder care center in Tokyo this year, said she would not have survived the evacuation on her own.

When she was baptized 65 years ago -- she was the Fukushima church's first convert -- she got funny looks from neighbors. Only a few years earlier, she said, she had pledged allegiance to the emperor as Japan's deity. "There are still so few Christians in Japan, but I suppose that also means we look out for each other," Ms. Sasaki said by telephone from Tokyo.

But morale often ran low. In May 2011, relief workers pulled the body of a missing parishioner from the mangled debris that still lined the coast. Two more elderly church members died in hospitals. The 60 evacuees from the church, now in west Tokyo, held three funerals in two weeks.

Still, the church also gained new members: a family of seven who decided to evacuate along with the church asked to be baptized the same month.

A year later, in June 2012, Mr. Nakada married a fellow church member, Keiko Mizoguchi, 51, whose husband had died a month after the disaster. Mr. Nakada and Ms. Mizoguchi, who both stayed in Fukushima, had been driving down every month to visit the temporary church in west Tokyo.

"It's easy to lose your way in Japan," said Mr. Sato, the pastor. "The disaster, in fact, has made us all stronger."

Correction: March 11, 2013, Monday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Masashi Sato, the church's junior pastor, as Saito.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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