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SENDAI, Japan-On the same day that Americans mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Japanese citizens face a somber milestone of their own: It will be six months since a massive earthquake and tsunami in March devastated the island nation's northern coastline, leaving nearly half a million people homeless, and more than 19,000 missing or dead.
Though terrorists didn't provoke Japan's March 11 disaster-including an ongoing nuclear crisis at the heavily damaged Fukushima power plant-handfuls of coastal towns still look like convulsed war zones. From a hilltop in the small fishing village of Onagawa, the destruction invokes chilling reminders of earlier horrors-frightening similarities to World War II images of obliterated cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
One of the few buildings still standing in the town's once-bustling port serves as an eerie monument to the tsunami's magnitude: Visible water damage in a top floor shows the massive wave covered the five-story building. Nearby, a three-story building lies on its side, wrenched over by the wave's force. The rest of the port sits strikingly still, with only empty slabs and heaping piles of rubble testifying to life cut short for those who couldn't escape.
Like other nearby towns, the village's geography exacerbated the tsunami's effect: Since the town sits in a cove surrounded by mountains, the massive wave couldn't spread when it hit the shore. Instead, the water pooled into the small space, multiplying the effect. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the only signs of life were a few crane operators hauling rubble and a handful of Japanese citizens laying flowers at the edge of the sea.
But despite the devastation, life six months later continues in disciplined Japanese fashion. In most heavily damaged towns, streets are clear, and workers have achieved impressive feats: Hundreds of destroyed cars that once floated through nearby Ishinomaki now sit in neat piles in local junk yards. Methodically crushed debris fills mountainous piles of rubble near the shore, complete with ventilation systems to prevent combustion. Workers will eventually sort the piles, keeping material that can be recycled.
Even a series of ongoing aftershocks has become routine: A 6.2-magnitude quake on Aug. 18 rattled windows, rumbled the earth, and whipped power lines overhead in the coastal town of Yamamoto, just south of Sendai. Local officials issued a tsunami warning over a town loudspeaker system, warning residents that a 2-foot wave could sweep across the coast. But a handful of Japanese workers in a mostly abandoned neighborhood devastated by tsunami flooding seemed unfazed: After the quake, they sat on the back of a truck, smoking cigarettes and listening to the sirens. (Officials lifted the warning within 30 minutes.)
But like the trauma of 9/11, the trauma of 3/11 doesn't go away easily for most Japanese in this northeastern region. Thousands remain homeless, and many fear the unknown effects of radiation still leaking from Fukushima.
During a Sunday morning service on Aug. 22 at Eiko Church in Sendai (a congregation of the Reformed Church of Japan), the pastor led the gathering of 22 Japanese Christians in a reading from the book of Jonah: "For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea, and the flood surrounded me; all Your waves and Your billows passed over me . . . When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to You."
The pastor spoke about the grief of 3/11, but he didn't offer a reason for why the disaster happened or speculate on what would happen in the future. Instead, he encouraged the small congregation to seek peace in Christ, and assured them: "Since Jesus bore our sins on the cross, He will also bear our sorrows for us."