What Temples Can Do as Evacuation Shelters During a Disaster

by Shinobu Izawa

Jimonkoryu June 2011

Many Buddhist temples were actual victims of the great earthquake and tsunami that swept the eastern coast of Tohoku on March 11, with Buddhist priests themselves also becoming refugees. Other temples right on the edge of the disaster and elsewhere in the country, however, responded immediately to the crisis. Continuing a tradition of community service, not only as designated evacuation shelters by the government, many temples opened their doors to refugees of the disaster and continued to serve them for many months afterwards. The following is a series of profiles of these temples from June 2011 provided by Jimonkoryu, a monthly journal for the Japanese Buddhist world in general and specifically for priests and temple families. Owned by Kozansha Publishers, Jimonkoryu has provided information for the practical administration of temples since 1998.

“My Duty Is to Be Someone to Welcome and Talk with”:

Jion-ji Temple in Rikuzentakada City

At the beginning of May, the 214m2 meeting hall of Jion-ji, a Rinzai Zen Myoshinji Sect temple in the hard hit city ofRikuzentakada inIwatePrefecture was giving shelter to 34 people from 9 families. Rev. Keiko Koyama, the 62 year-old, abbot gave the following account of his experiences:

“The temple is in a prosperous fishing village that cultivates waka-me seaweed and oysters. These fisher people are a bright and strong people. Even amidst such difficult conditions, they never cease to smile. All the people staying here now are temple parishioners. At times, we were providing shelter for close to 100 people. The children are precious and have taken to me calling out to me, ‘Master Koyama, Master Koyama.’”

“The temple is located a few hundred of meters from the high 6-meter sea wall. At the time of the earthquake, 30 people escaped to here and took shelter at the graveyard located on higher ground. The turbid water of the tsunami washed through the temple grounds, while the main gate was washed away and nearby private homes were inundated and destroyed. All the cars in the parking lot were washed away. The floors of the temple were flooded with 10 cms of water. So it seemed that we would not be able to fulfill our designated role as an emergency shelter.”

“Both the electricity and water were cut off. The road through the mountain was impassable, so for three days we were totally isolated. As the phone lines also didn’t work, we depended on battery-powered radio for our news source. As we had fifty futon beds used for children’s zazen meditation retreats and spare oil and kerosene stoves in reserve, we could stay warm. The local fire department got a hold of a generator from the flooded water, and we were able to pump ourselves potable water from a well. We also received rice from parishioners whose houses had not been damaged by the tsunami. We were able to cook rice from the propane gas tanks in the kitchen of the meeting hall. For three days, we had one meal per day consisting of a single rice ball. We had some snacks that we gave out all of that helped to stave off starvation. Luckily, there were not many victims from the neighborhood.”

“This temple had become designated as an emergency shelter after the experiences that were passed down of the tsunami that hit this area during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). In this way, once a year, we performed emergency drills that became useful during this whole time. The strength of the young people in the fire department was really incredible. They were able to make a large bath from vinyl sheeting and steel barrels pulled out of the wreckage of the tsunami, so that after one week, we could begin taking baths. The refugees themselves undertook management on their own of the running of the shelter. I welcomed them to the temple and spent time talking with them personally. I didn’t dare approach them like a religious leader. With each individual victim, I wanted to connect like a family member. From mid day, we would take a bath and then eat our meal together. The wives of the families would take turns preparing the meals. At the shelter located at the local gym, they slept on cardboard so some mentioned that, ‘The temple is another world. They have tatami mats and futon beds.’”

“The feeling I got from this experience was that it was incredible to see how much people helped out. Today, we are still receiving material aid from all over the country; volunteers are showing up to help; and there has not been one major problem. The one thing I am really glad we had prepared for was the electric generators. It was also fortunate that we had blankets saved for an emergency and that at a temple we have lots of candles which we used when the electricity was cut. There was so much that people who live nearby did for us. It was also fortunate that we hadn’t previously closed off the well. Still, there are forty parishioners whose whereabouts are unaccounted for; the main gate, the jizo statues, and other things at the temple have been destroyed; and we have little idea where to start and towards what direction we should head. However, until the final person is relocated into their temporary housing, I know that we want to provide for them.”

“1,200 People Escaped from the Tsunami by Coming Here”:

Senju-in Temple in Kamaishi City

Rev. Eno Shibasaki, the 54 year-old abbot of Senju-in, a Nichiren denomination temple in Kamaishi city, Iwate Prefecture had to divide his precious time not only managing an evacuation shelter but also performing memorial rites for victims who died in the disaster. His account is as follows:

“This temple is thirty meters above sea level. The tsunami came right up to the front gate. On the day of the earthquake, 1,200 people escaped from the tsunami by coming here. Beginning with the Buddha Hall, we opened up every room in the temple. We got a little more than 500 people in each room, but the ones who couldn’t fit had to sleep around the temple grounds amidst the cold.”

“The road to town was blocked by debris, and cars could not get through. So for three days no public aid could get in. Our first priority was ‘to absolutely safe guard the lives of everyone’. My wife, daughter, and I concentrated on working for the victims who had experienced a huge shock. I took charge of procuring foodstuffs, so I made my way through all the debris and began looking for food. At the temple, we had stored one hundred kilograms of rice for emergencies and were able to cook it while asking for help from parishioners who had not been victimized by the tsunami. Even so, on the first day, three people had to share one rice ball; on the second day, each person got a piece of chocolate; and on the third day, one person got half a rice ball and one piece of candy. In addition, each person could only get one cup of water per day. It wasn’t until two weeks afterwards that we had enough food for everyone. As we had no fuel, we collected burnable debris from the nearby mountains and used it to cook rice and warm ourselves. We used the water saved for putting out fires for our living needs but didn’t have enough to use for toilets. Since there were many people who had gotten quite dirty, we had to decide on rules for using water.”

“Our attitude was ‘to smile’. In order not to succumb to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), we thought about how to have fun when at all possible. On the first day, we decided on a family council. When a victim wanted to talk, we tried as much to make them smile and to make a joke about things. Every morning, we held a chanting service, and I gave a simple dharma talk and tried to make it enjoyable. At first, people would only smile a little bit, but gradually they would burst out laughing. As a result, we could do our work in a lively and spirited way.”

“On the tenth day, we were able to form a residents association. After two weeks, we still had about 300 people taking shelter who were divided in five groups. Some people were able to pump water from a mountain stream, while others collected wood for fuel from the debris. In this way, we all came to work independently. My family of three shared information at nightly meetings and carefully looked after people who seemed to have special worries. My wife is a public health nurse and was the only medical professional in the area. Sometimes she had to fly off suddenly in a helicopter at the request of the national self-defense forces.”

“It has indeed been a very difficult experience, and there have been many people whose mental balance has collapsed. In this kind of situation, the important thing is that people must speak up at all costs. We have been continuing to remind them, ‘If there is anything, come talk to us.’ Because of stress, it is easy for arguments to break out, so before trouble arises, I try to get in between people and mediate by listening completely to both sides.”

“On March 17th, we established for the first time a Kamaishi City Buddhist Association. In order to overcome this great disaster, I was thinking that we need cooperative efforts that transcend sectarian identities. All sixteen temples in Kamaishi City and the town of Otsuchi are participating. At first the phone lines were not working, so we gathered at a Soto Zen temple to exchange information. From this point, we provided material goods for the evacuation shelters located in different places. We also provided other help like holding funerals at a Jodo Pure Land temple for parishioners from a Soto Zen temple that had been washed away in the tsunami. As we had all experienced the tsunami together, there was no sense of being particular followers of a particular sect.”

“As the days of difficulty continued on, we have overcome some things. However, one particular problem has been the volunteers from the outside who do not take into account the circumstances of this area. They come one after another for two to three days, but dealing with them is difficult. Then there are some who want to leave. They need to figure out what is being asked for in this region before they start their work.”

“If temples have materials on reserve for emergencies, they can overcome things, but in this situation, it wouldn’t have mattered no matter how hard one had prepared. In this way, the important thing is to be mentally prepared all the time. Some years ago, this temple called on the city to become a community emergency shelter. I came to a mutual understanding and shared intention with my wife and daughter that, ‘In such a situation, we will take in people who are in trouble.’”

“At present, there are about sixty people still taking shelter here. They are living in different areas in the temple reception hall and in an attached temple. I feel that we will help them until the last person has found a new place to live. The whereabouts of about one-third of our parishioners are still not known. The Kamaishi Buddhist Association has received the ashes of one hundred unknown persons. I feel that from now our temple would like to do as much as it can, one thing at a time.”

Maintaining the Dignity of People in Such a Severe Situation:

Kofuku-ji Temple in Kesennuma City

Yuko Suda is the 56 year-old wife of the abbot of Kofuku-ji, a Soto Zen temple in the hard hit area of Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture. She offers the following account:

“At the beginning of May, we had 5 families of 32 people taking shelter in the large 107m2 room located in the back of the temple. At first, we took in around 100 people. None of them were parishioners. We didn’t have a way to divide off the room, so somehow every family bunched together. The children all cordially arranged pillows and they all slept together. It was really precious.”

“The temple is a ten minute drive from the ocean. While it is not an evacuation shelter designated by the city, the teachers and children of a nearby primary school took shelter here when the 1st floor of the school was inundated by the tsunami. The parents soon followed them, and the temple turned into a shelter. They were distributed zafuton seat cushions and blankets for sleeping in this large room. There was no electricity, but there was propane gas, so somehow from the beginning we could serve warm rice and miso soup.”

“Rev. Genpo Suda, the abbot, was very busy performing memorial services for the people who had died in the disaster, so I had to take the lead in getting help to run the shelter. One difficulty was that there wasn’t enough fuel. Although it was cold, we could only use the stoves for a certain number of hours per day, so we worried that peoples’ health would deteriorate. I also thought about a good balance for their food and did what I could to provide side dishes and main dishes to the rice and miso soup we gave them. It was really a great help to receive meat and fish from people we connected with from all over the country.”

“In the kitchen, the mothers helped out; the men did cleaning up; and the elderly did what they could to help—all this without having to determine roles in a specific way. Everyone, including the children, did what they could do independently, and we could create a basic life style. At mealtime, the bedding in all the rooms was cleared away and tables set up. Everyone was able to sit up properly, and the children took turns every day to call out, ‘Please sit up straight and put your hands on your knees.’ They then bowed with palms together and said grace. Amidst such difficulty, I think we never forgot to respect each other’s humanity.”

“On people’s birthdays, we had to be modest, but in the evening we would have a celebration. We couldn’t provide a cake, but we would offer extra food for a fine meal. Yesterday, we received some beef that we grilled and with yogurt offered up a toast. We held a celebration for the children’s school entrance and graduation. It is indeed necessary to have a good time amidst such difficulty.”

“Through the support we have received from so many people, we have made a complete daily life. Yet we have been continuously worried about whether the food we were providing for the children has enough protein in it. In such a disaster, the thing that really helped was a gas rice cooker and propane gas tanks. I think that it would have been good if we had been better prepared beyond the gas, biscuits, blankets, and such that we had already prepared in storage. Flashlights would be another requisite.”

“I try to remind myself that we need to all live together in a friendly way. Amidst flashbacks to the tsunami and being in a situation where we could not foresee when people would move into temporary housing, I think everyone dealt with their anxiety pretty well. However, whenever possible, people should talk together peacefully, and then everyone can support one another. In the end, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the many people all over the country for their warm words of encouragement, their aid and support, and the way we could form strong person-to-person bonds.”

Offering a Study and Training Residence to Evacuees:

Joen-ji Temple in Tokyo

Joen-ji, a Nichiren denomination temple in the downtown Shinjuku district of Tokyo, offered to evacuees its eight floor Founder’s Hall with two additional underground floors. Rev. Isshin Oikawa, the 44 year-old caretaker says, “It’s important to give support in the disaster areas, but I was thinking, ‘Can’t we do something long term here in Tokyo?’” The Founder’s Hall has been used as a residence for practicing monks and students from abroad. The offer has included nine rooms from the 5th to 8th floors. Two rooms are well suited for 4-5 member families with two rooms plus living, dining, and kitchen. The other rooms are 9m2-12m2 in size. As rent, fuel, and lighting charges are free, preparations were made for bedding and cooking utensils on a rotating basis. The term for using these facilities is for one year until March of 2012, but Rev. Oikawa says, “In an attempt to respond to changes in the situation, there’s a possibility to renew the term. We really want to help make these people in trouble feel secure.”

Joen-ji originally planned to only accept people who had proof as disaster victims and had been introduced by a local government from the disaster areas, but they eventually decided not to require such special conditions. They did prepare a written pledge to be filled out and signed when taking up residence in one of the apartments. Rev. Oikawa said, “In this situation, it’s quite difficult to get proof as disaster victims, and we thought we wanted to stand by them by making any hurdles low. As we are a temple, we are prepared to have cases of people who might be deceitful about this situation.” At the beginning of May, a woman from Fukushima took up residence in one apartment, and they also received an inquiry from a pregnant woman. Rev. Oikawa says, “What we don’t want to communicate to the people in the disaster areas is the need to prove their intention to us. They have their own worries and difficult battles. Just raising their hand for help is difficult enough.”

At first, they opened inquires and consultation within Tokyo, but it came clear that they couldn’t connect well with victims this way. So on April 17th, they began spreading information through the Internet and Twitter and distributing flyers through temples in the disaster areas. They also made contacts with the Association of Tokyo Midwives’ “Going Back Home from Tokyo Project”. This project gives support to pregnant and nursing women from the disaster areas who had taken shelter inTokyo to safely return to their home areas before or after delivery. Rev. Oikawa says, “I understand that there are many people from the countryside who think, ‘Tokyo is a frightening place’. They fear that if they stay at the facilities of a religious organization that they will be converted. But in the future there is the possibility that Tokyo will also become a disaster area. In a reciprocal way then, we have much to learn from these disaster victims. So we want to continue working with them as much as we can.”

A Shelter for Those from the Nuclear Disaster Area:

Tozen-ji Temple in Matsudo City

“Everyone helped out, one family at a time. In this way, people have been able to purify their minds through developing such good will towards others. It’s actually been really great that we became an evacuation shelter.” These are the words of Rev. Etsuro Suzuki, the 52-year-old abbot of Tozen-ji, a Jodo Pure Land temple located in Matsudo city on the edge of Tokyo in Chiba Prefecture. Five days after the earthquake hit, on March 16th, this temple took in for a month 26 people from 9 households from the cities of Minami-Soma and Iwaki in the nuclear exclusion zones of Fukushima Prefecture. Speaking about the inner workings of running an evacuation shelter, Rev. Suzuki explains, “From everyday life, we could create bonds with these people from rural communities.” So how did they do this?

At the time the earthquake hit, about 50 people in the neighborhood fled to the temple. 7 people who remained fearful of the aftershocks spent the night, and they offered them food. However, Rev. Suzuki says that, “Although this temple is a designated evacuation shelter and there were evacuees staying here, no confirmation came from the local government, so I scolded them for their irresponsibility.” When the mayor called to apologize, he said, “I would like to cooperate as much as possible with the temple’s mission of rescuing people.”

The government eventually decided that Matsudo would accept refugees from the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone. Evacuation shelters in Matsudo then began their cooperation, and city officials immediately began preparations. Tozen-ji offered the use of a large 55m2 room in the back of the temple for one month until April 18th. As it was financially difficult for the temple to offer a daily supply of one bottle of tea and some rice for each person plus bedding, other temples were brought in to share the burden. Rev. Suzuki remarks, “When the temple became an evacuation shelter, it also became part of the government administrative system for refugees.” If people got sick and had other problems, they had to be able to get them consultation, so they asked some doctors and nurses to come and make rounds at the temple.

On March 16th, the refugees arrived. Rev. Suzuki notes, “They seemed pretty anxious. I told them, ‘We will be preparing for your dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow here at the temple. After that, we will ask you to fend for yourselves. Every morning the temple has a basic service and chanting at 6:30, which you are free to attend if you like. It’s fine to sleep as much as you like.’” The next day, everyone attended the morning service. They chanted Amida Buddha’s name (nenbutsu) in the custom of ten times and recited the grace at the morning meal. Rev. Suzuki comments, “A young priest was concerned about what impression the very Buddhist style would have on the refugees. But I felt that they wanted something more than just a place to stay. They seemed to want emotional support as well. So we thought we should give them the flavor of what it’s like to live in a temple.”

Rev. Suzuki ran about collecting food, calling on parishioners and people in the neighborhood to help by bringing vegetables and other foods to the temple. Toilet paper, disposable diapers, and other necessary materials were brought by, and even a local beautician offered haircuts for free. Rev. Suzuki worked as the head of a community organizing association and played a big role in actively connecting people in the local community. In order to help out the refugees with their daily life, he posted a neighborhood map showing where they could find the public bath, laundromats, parks, and so forth. One could get a glimpse of his planning looking at the whiteboard he put up, on which were written the days, times, and contents of various volunteer services offered in the community, such as massage, calligraphy classes, tutors, and so forth.

Trying to keep in mind not to take too much control, the temple did not so much ask the refugees to do things but rather left it up to their own management. Rev. Suzuki says, “We felt it was important that everyone develop their independence. The refugees and volunteers cooperated together doing many things from answering the telephone to locking up at night. Thanks to them I encountered absolutely no problems in my own temple administration work.”

Through reports of their work in the media, they were able to receive support from all over the country. They collected more than three million yen in donations, which means they received 100,000 yen per person. Rev. Suzuki notes, “It made us happy to be told, ‘Your administrative work was warm and courteous.’ Although there were also parishioners who had a difficult life in the midst of this situation, some offered 100,000 yen to support a single refugee.” For people who could not find a place to live within the one-month time limit, the temple acted as a conduit to parishioners who were offering apartments to use.

Rev. Suzuki says the temple should continue to be an active evacuation shelter noting, “We have big rooms and a kitchen. As long as we have a public bath nearby, then we can fulfill our role as an evacuation shelter. The number of people we took in was just right. Since we only had 30 people, everyone could become friends, and each family did their best not to become a bother. From this point, we as a temple want to continue to help them for a while.”

“Please Come Together with Your Pet”:

Ankoku-ji Temple in Koshigaya City

There were many temples that actively volunteered to take in refugees from Tohoku, but one temple made a special appeal as “a free evacuation shelter that accepts pets.” This appeal was made by Rev. Yuishin Machida, the 55-year-old abbot of Ankoku-ji, aJodoPureLandtemple inKoshigayaCity, just north ofTokyoinSaitamaPrefecture. He explains that, “While human life may be the number one priority, the life of a pet is also important. The abandoning of pets in the evacuation areas must have caused a lot of emotional pain for the refugees.”

Some days after the earthquake, a fax was sent from the Jodo denomination headquarters saying, “We want to call on temples to take in refugees.” Rev. Machida thought about another temple he runs called Jigen-ji, about a five minute walk away where there are now empty quarters in which nuns used to previously live. Rev. Machida quickly consulted the head of the parishioners association, got his permission, and then got the acknowledgment of the neighboring people. On March 20, he notified the city that they could take in refugees, while requesting for refugees that wanted to bring their pets with them. At many evacuation shelters, pets are not allowed, and there are many stories of pets being left behind at the owner’s house that are painful to hear.

A local carpenter who is a parishioner was asked, “Can you make a donation (fuse/dana)?”, and he built a 4.5m2 extension for pets on to the evacuation shelter. The center itself was a living area of 37m2, a dining and kitchen space half that size, and a toilet. Refugees were able to use the bath at the temple’s parishioner’s meeting hall. Food, bedding, and other basic needs were provided free through donations. There was also a doghouse installed in the garden. For those people without transportation means, the cooperation of a shipping company used by the temple during funerals was enlisted to pick up and drop off the pets. Rev. Machida notes that, “Since a priest did not live on the grounds of this place, there were no constraints.”

However, after informing the city, there came no word for a month. The city administration provided information if there was a specific inquiry from any refugees, but the situation turned out that the government could not coordinate the refugees with specific evacuation shelters. So Rev. Machida independently started his own “Maneki Neko (beckoning cat) Blog” to inform people of his center. He says, “Through the power of the internet, we could really make this happen. People who hadn’t seen or heard of us began to help out.”

An animal hospital that had volunteered to help with decontamination efforts in the nuclear radiation zones and “elderly people who couldn’t see the Internet but posted notices at evacuation centers” were some of the kinds of help that turned up. They eventually took in four families. Through good fortune, they found free apartments that allowed pets, and by the beginning of May, the shelter was empty again. Rev. Machida notes, “There are people with pets that are living and sleeping in their cars. Now that the weather is getting hot, it’s going to be very difficult. There must be some people facing this difficulty among the parishioners of temples in Tohoku. If you consider this, why haven’t we received any contact? We would like to do what we can for this disaster that was a once in a thousand years event.”

Opening up Log Cabins on Temple Grounds:

Chofukuju-ji Temple in Chiba Prefecture

“As I am old, I would have been a burden on others if I had gone to the disaster areas, so I thought about what I could do instead.” These are the words of Rev. Choshin Imai, the 73-year-old abbot of Chofukuju-ji, a Tendai denomination temple in Chonan town in the rural Chosei region of Chiba Prefecture. Soon after hearing about the nuclear incident in Fukushima, he announced to the village that he would like to accept refugees at the temple. The temple had built log cabins used for the tennis training camps at the tennis courts on the temple property. The houses are of varying size for the use of two to eleven people and are fully equipped with kitchen, bath, toilet, and bedding. Each house is suited for independent living, so there are no restrictions for families with noisy young children. The facilities can hold a total of up to 50 people. Further, as the town has many dairy-farming households, Rev. Imai contacted them and requested them to accept forty head of cattle from the refugees’ own dairy farms in Fukushima. However, after two months had passed, there had been no applications by refugees to take up residence at these facilities.

Rev. Imai comments that, “It seems no applications came because our location is remote and takes time to get used to living.” Still, he has this wish: “Even though were are in the countryside and it is not a convenient location, I have received voices of support from our parishioners. As we have fields for farming, we do not have problems securing food. Our village has extended an invitation to accept people from Fukushima, but we would also be happy to accept people from Miyagi as well as Iwate, so please feel free to contact us directly. We would like to extend our wholehearted support. The people of Japan are aiding all people from the disaster areas. Let us rebuild our lives by uniting our strength.”

A Victim Support Matching Site:

Shinmonryu Myoken-ji Temple in Hakodate City

An offer of a second floor residence for refugees was made by Rev. Gyoki Oka, the 44 year-old abbot of Shinmonryu Myoken-ji, a Hokke denomination temple inHakodateCityinHokkaido. After registering on an Internet matching site, he then appealed for donations to support this offer. Rev. Oka is originally from Hachinohe City in Aomori Prefecture in Tohoku and had many friends in the disaster areas. He notes, “Looking at the land that was washed away, which has a form I am so familiar with, I thought I wanted to engage in whatever long term, not temporary, aid I could. However, even though I made an offer to our city to accept victims, I didn’t feel they took it with much enthusiasm. I found it irritating that the homepage of the city only discloses information about ‘some public housing units’ available.” There have been reports from many temples of the problem of those with the will to accept victims but with a lack of positive action from the local government.

At the end of March, Rev. Oka learned about a think tank called the Dai-ichi Research Institute that operated an “earthquake homestay” homepage. It collected information and matched people offering free houses or rooms with victims who wanted to leave the emergency shelters and live independently. As of mid May, there have been 1,450 residences offered and 270 requests made for residence. There have been 85 groups consisting of 272 people who have already taken up residence. This has not only been done through offering information on the Internet but by doing matching through going into the disaster areas.

Rev. Oka’s own home is two houses down from the temple and is conveniently located in the city of Hakodate. The offer is for the second floor of his residence with a 15m2 Japanese style room and a 21.5m2 dining and kitchen area. The entrance is shared with Rev. Oka and his family, but as it was built as a two-generation residence, the kitchen and toilets are separate. He with his wife and two children already live there, but are very much ready to accept a refugee family. Rev. Oka says, “We would like to welcome people with families that have some kind of disability. It pains me to hear that at the evacuation shelters, people feel crowded by the space both mentally and physically. We have readied some home appliances, bedding, and other things, so it’s no problem to just come as you are.”

Translated by Jonathan Watts

The order of temples presented in this article has been changed from the original Japanese version by the editor.


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