On March 11, 2011, Japan was struck by one of the most powerful earthquakes on record. Within mere minutes of the event, a tsunami swept away entire towns along its eastern coast, causing widespread flooding that swallowed homes, businesses, and livelihoods. More than 15,000 lives were lost while more than 500,000 were left homeless. Compassionate individuals from around the world answered the crisis with an outpouring of financial support, funding that has allowed The Salvation Army and The Salvation Army World Service Office (SAWSO) to spend the last five years helping communities rebuild and individuals regain livelihoods.

Known in Japan as Kyuu-Sei-Gun (Save World Army), The Salvation Army was on the ground in the first days after the event providing relief to impacted coastal communities, distributing food, blankets, mattresses and heaters. Local Corps (churches) throughout the region opened their doors to provide food and shelter to survivors, while hot meals and words of comfort were shared with survivors through traveling mobile kitchens of The Salvation Army.   

The commercial district of Onagawa, a fishing village in northeast Japan, was entirely swept away by the tsunami. The Salvation Army, with support from partners and SAWSO, provided boats, machinery, forklifts, and other equipment to help revive Onagawa’s primary industry and support the livelihoods of local fishermen.

In the same village, a temporary shopping center called Kibou-no-kane, meaning “Bell of Hope” was constructed by The Salvation Army with funds from SAWSO, and has been the center of enterprise for the community. Local business owners, who had initially considered moving to another community, were able to stay and resume work. To those living in Onagawa, “Bell of Hope” is more than a shopping center; it has become a beacon of community gathering and togetherness, and a means for returning to a normal way of life. Once the temporary center is no longer needed, residents intend to keep a piece of the building to display in the town center as a reminder of its importance in sustaining the city.   

Minamisanriku had a bustling commercial center that was completely destroyed by the tsunami. The Salvation Army funded the building of 50 temporary stores in the town, allowing business owners to efficiently resume their businesses while the government developed plans for long-term recovery of the commercial district. 150 jobs for construction workers, shop owners and their employees were created in the process. In addition to sustaining the local economy, the shopping center has provided a place for community recreation, socialization, and relaxation.

In the isolated city of Kesennuma, commercial fishing and related industries account for 85 percent of jobs. The tsunami destroyed large sections of the city, which was underserved at the time due to the widespread destruction throughout Japan. With SAWSO funding, The Salvation Army replaced the fishermen’s trucks and equipment so they could complete the necessary harvest work. Similar efforts were established in other hard-hit coastal towns, such as Ofunato and Minamisanriku.

In all of these affected communities, The Salvation Army has been providing outreach programs to children and elderly citizens living in temporary housing with health screenings, home visitations, social gatherings, and after-school programs.

Five years later, The Salvation Army and SAWSO continue to work alongside the Japanese to support and strengthen their communities.

Along with efforts to rebuild communities, SAWSO and The Salvation Army are ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable, including children, the intellectually disabled, and the elderly, are being cared for during the long and difficult transition to full restoration. Current projects of The Salvation Army in Japan with funding support from SAWSO include:

• Purchasing a much needed scallop machine for small-scale fishermen in Onagawa, who were among the most vulnerable after the disaster, to be operational by mid-2016.

• Offering education, skills building activities, and emotional health support to women through the Megumi (meaning “Restoring Beauty”) Project for Women in Onagawa. Women in this community encounter difficulties due to lack of income, unemployment, and a high rate of divorce. Program participants are taught sewing skills with the goal of helping them find jobs and earn income. Since this project started, participants have opened a shop to sell their goods and are expanding to the online market.

• Serving intellectually disabled children with growth and learning opportunities through the Kirara Onagawa Intellectually Disabled Support Project of The Salvation Army. These afterschool programs are offering children the opportunity to learn English as a second language. Similar programs are being offered in Minamisanriku.

• Providing afterschool programs for children in Onagawa, where few extracurricular activities are provided. Funds are supporting the renovation of classrooms, providing transportation of children to and from school, and covering administrative costs. The goal of this project is to provide students with safe places to study and play, and improved school performance and emotional outlook.

• Providing learning opportunities and emotional support for senior citizens through The Salvation Army Minamisanriku Elderly Support project. Through this service, seniors are taught ways of improving communication and engagement with other community members. The goal of this program is to offer participants means for finding hope, joy and purpose in their lives.

• Capacity building: The Salvation Army continues to build its capacity to respond to disasters. SAWSO-funded programs for improving preparedness and pre-positioning of relief supplies are being offered throughout the impacted communities with the goal of equipping every Salvation Army division with proper relief materials, training, and outreach programs.

Much has been accomplished in the past five years, and much remains to be done. SAWSO is proud to support The Salvation Army in Japan as they work together to create a brighter tomorrow for their communities in recovery. To learn more, visit www.SAWSO.org.