Stations of the Cross:
Viewed Through the Lens of Tohoku

Nozomi Imanishi, Asian Access/Japan Missionary

  1. Jesus is condemned to death
  2. Jesus is given his cross
  3. Jesus falls the first time
  4. Jesus meets His Mother
  5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls the second time
  8. Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem
  9. Jesus falls the third time
  10. Jesus is stripped of His garments
  11. Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross
  12. Jesus dies on the cross
  13. Jesus' body is removed from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation)
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense

It happened from nowhere, on a day where nowhere begins. The sap creaked close to the surface of trees and the slow fall of flakes made their way through shafts of weak winter light.

“This is lasting longer than usual,” someone said.

Above, the glass globed lights shifted together, sounding like rain. Then the earth stilled under our feet and we waited in the sudden silence, breathing together. We didn’t know yet, that miles up the coast; a vast wave was breaking the sea in half. (Jesus condemned to death.)

It hit the island in pulses, sent nuclear power plants into meltdown, pulled open graveyards on hillside bottoms, divided families holding hands and running. It played with cars like they were beads scattered across the water. (Jesus given his cross.)

We clustered in front of the news. A helicopter spanned the ground, and water moved like a black rippling sheet across rice fields, over plastic green houses, swallowing moving vehicles, entire towns.

The reporter choked on his words, his voice stuck on repeat. “This is bad, this is bad. This is bad.” (Jesus falls the 1st time.)

A woman we haven’t met yet runs into her house, slams the door behind her. She stares at the tightly shut door. Then something begins creeping into her house, and her two children, four and two, scream. She picks them up as water floods her home. There is no second story, she braces herself against a post in the middle of her house and as the cold water inches past her waist and finally settles around her chest, she waits sixteen hours for help, holding her two children above the water line. (Jesus meets his mother.)

We lean into one another. A friend holds my shoulder as I try my grandparents’ line for the 58th time. All the lines are down or busy. She looks into my eyes. I shake my head. She says, “let’s try again in a few minutes.” I can’t answer, fear swells my throat but I nod. (Simon of Cyrene carries the cross.)

In his mid sixties, he lived alone on the fourth story of a large government subsidized apartment in Ishinomaki City, located right along the coastline. He heard the cries for help and ransacked his apartment looking for rope, anything. There was nothing. When the water retreated, he went down the steps and saw the bodies. He took out his handkerchief and did what he could do; he wiped clean the faces of the dead. (Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.)

We leave at 1am from Ginza in a caravan of three vans, and a two-ton truck. We are going up for three days; we have enough supplies to feed 700. Two weeks have passed since the tsunami first struck, the shelves in Tokyo are still bare of bread and milk.

The line is long, and it took too long to get our gas burners to work. They are being overpowered by the wind. We picked through debris to find something to use as a wind block. We find a shoji door and some sheet metal roofing. It helps a little.

As I stir the thick stew, I look out over the flooded fields. A ripple and moving fin in the field behind us catches my attention. Another ripple, more fins. Salt water fish, living in rice fields 5 kilometres from the coast. They swim around a truck upended straight up, cab side down, sharing their field.

I look back at the line. It’s longer now. No one speaks, their breath comes out in thin streams. They wait. Their faces and eyes are grey like the sky. Snow is falling. (Jesus falls, 2nd time.)

There is a large Red Cross Hospital in Ishinomaki that I went to four times the spring and summer of 2011. Once for myself and three other times for others; our feet punctured by rusted nails and glass. When I went, the halls were gleaming yellow. Quiet.

One of the nurses remembers when the halls were lined with the quick and the dead stacked each on top of one other. But they only had enough equipment for those that were judged to have a good chance of surviving. She stayed for days working straight through. All the nurses did. (Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem.)

30,000 dead and missing is the final tally. (Jesus falls the 3rd time.)

“He’s bigger than this I think,” she says.

“What about this one?” On my knees on a blue tarp spread on the ground I dig through a large pile of clothes and pull out a pair of black jeans.

The older woman frowns and shakes her head. “I think that one is too big.”

Her friend rolls her eyes, and takes the jeans from me, forcing it into the woman’s hands. “He’ll grow into it. Take it.”

The woman nods at me, “thank you.” I nod back and turn to the next person waiting. We have brought boxes of new and donated clothing to give away today.

“Do you have any women’s underwear?”

I shake my head, “only children’s underwear left.”

She sighs disappointed.

“We’ll bring more next time.” I promise.

She nods, taking with her some socks and a t-shirt. (Jesus is stripped of his garments.)

We stood on the beach, the four of us, our arms around each other. This was where the tsunami first hit the coastal town of Ishinomaki. In front of us is a frail altar made from pieces of thin lumber and rope left from the debris.

“Pray here please. Pray that all the people who died would go to heaven,” is the request made to us by a young local woman.

And so we do, through our tears and helpless disbelief. (Jesus crucified.)

We walk around with eyes like dark pools, reflecting everything around us. There are days when the stories are too heavy to carry. Our chests seize and our hands slow. We fall in the midst of carrying another bag of sea sludge, scraped from a home, and stare blankly at the sky because we can’t shut our eyes. It’s too much, and it’s not enough.

We’re not ready to look again at the earth but the next bag of sea sludge is already waiting to be carried away. Our eyes fill once more with the reflections of broken things and rot as we turn back to the task at hand. (Jesus dies on the cross.)

We are helping one woman around her home today, filling in holes that the tsunami tore into her walls. She is energetic, her movements quick and neat. She smiles easily. In between pauses I ask her if there is anyone else in her neighbourhood that she knows who could use our help. She does.

“Let me take you,” she says. We walk down the road and she takes me to large apartment complex, where one man labours alone.

On our way back to her home, she points at a house. Someone has been at work here to prepare for the tear down, not to rebuild. “My sister’s house,” she says. “She was caught in the tsunami and died.” She walks briskly on. I run to keep up, thinking maybe I have misheard.

“Your sister?” I ask.

She walks on. “That was her house.” (Jesus’ body removed.)

At the end of the day we sit side by side along a broken wall. The ever present smell of bacterial decay laces the air. We’ve pulled off gloves and masks; rinsed down our shovels and wheelbarrows. The sun sinks red and yellow into the earth.

An elderly couple with a bag of government provided food held between them walk by. “Konbanwa,” we say in greeting. The sky turns a soft and ever darkening blue. (Jesus laid in the tomb.)