Returning to Tohoku: Elder and Sister Oaks Visit Japan One Year after Disaster

Contributed By By Kristen McMain Oaks, Courtesy of Church News

  • 23 March 2012

Kristen Oaks, wife of Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, visited Japan almost 12 months after a March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami devastated the area.

“I realized more than ever that ‘because of the Savior's birth, life, and Atonement, there are no unsolvable problems. There are temporary tragedies and difficulties, of course, but they need not be permanent or unconquerable. He always has a solution that will advance our eternal progress.’”—Kristen Oaks, quoting Elder Tad R. Callister of the Presidency of the Seventy (“Fear Not,” Ensign, Dec.  2010, 42)

Editor's note: Kristen McMain Oaks, wife of Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, served a mission in the Japan Sendai Mission. Last month, almost one year after a March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami devastated much of the area where she served in Northern Japan, she returned with Elder Oaks to Tohoku. There they surveyed the damage and recovery efforts and offered comfort and hope to Church members and missionaries.

I write this account as a former Sendai missionary whose main qualification is a deep and abiding love and respect for the nation of Japan and her people. During this visit I was blessed with a fair ability to communicate directly in Japanese with my friends.

Before my visit, the Japan Sendai Mission alumni website, created by former missionary Todd Ogaard, helped me retrieve valuable information about my friends and former companions in Japan. Due to his love and respect for the Japanese people, Brother Ogaard returned to the country to give service and assist members following the disaster.

It has been said that “tragedy is the celebration of the human capacity for change.” The triple disaster that struck Japan on March 11, 2011—the earthquake, the tsunami, and nuclear exposure—changed the lives of all those living in Northern Japan (Tohoku) forever—many died, homes were destroyed, and havoc ensued. In the course of these same events prayers were offered, miracles occurred, and faith grew strong in the hearts of the Saints living in Northern Japan. During our recent visit Elder Oaks and I were blessed to see the sustaining strength only the gospel can offer.

Japan is a land accustomed to adversity. We witnessed the resolve of Tohoku, much like the Okiagari-koboshi, a small Japanese doll designed so that its weight causes it to return to an upright position if it is knocked over. As a sister wrote, “Tohoku people are like Okiagari-koboshi.” It is a symbol of “Never give up” and of “Resilience.” Tradition in the Aizu Region of Fukushima Prefecture mandates the purchase of one such doll for each member of the family on January 10 of every year. This year, January 10 was no exception, and the people of Northern Japan are ready to rise again.

Elder Gary E. Stevenson, president of the Asia North Area, arranged with Sendai Church member Sister Date for dinners and meetings with those I knew in Sendai. During these gatherings I had precious conversations with leaders, friends, and missionary companions. I heard stories, not of sadness and distress, but of a people blessed by their unwavering faith, constant prayer, ongoing service to others, and the ability to make and keep covenants.

I saw the fruits of unwavering faith as I met with Sendai Japan Stake President Sugawara and his wife. His father had been the former janitor at that same stake more than 38 years before. The elder Brother Sugawara was far more than a janitor as he ministered to all who knew him. He carved geta (Japanese sandals) for returning missionaries so they would not forget Japan. He often lifted our spirits as we returned to the stake meetinghouse after hours of walking through the cold and he consistently friendshipped members.

That night I also learned from Sister Shinohe—whose family was the first complete family baptized in Tohoku—that Brother Sugawara wrote letters of encouragement and gave sambikas (songbooks) to new converts.

Brother Sugawara not only raised a son who would someday become president of the Sendai stake, but he also prayed for his own wife to join the Church, trusting in a promise given in his patriarchal blessing that he would live to see her baptized. She was baptized, at age 85, just two months before his death in the late 1980s.

The Japanese can be praised for enduring to the end. Sister Kimi Kono joined us. She is 90, frail, and a woman of great faith. Kono Kazuhiko, her son, joined the Church nearly 40 years ago, and then I taught his mother and sister. In February of 2011, just weeks before the disaster, Sister Kimi Kono, at age 89, joined with her family and received her endowment in the Tokyo Japan Temple. Her family is a covenant-keeping family. Knowing this family was endowed—and together forever—eased some of my pain as I watched the disaster unfold on television. It was so wonderful to be at her side again.

Other members shared their stories. Sister Asono told of the complete destruction of her home, which she shared with her aged mother. By an unexpected circumstance, her aged mother had left very early the morning of the tsunami for an excursion to a hot springs. Her homebound mother would surely have perished had she remained home. Sister Asono and her husband were at work in their flower shop, high on a hill, and avoided drowning as they escaped on back roads. The Asonos, after losing everything, moved to an evacuation shelter where they ministered among the people there, sharing hope, faith, and gospel messages. Now in a temporary apartment, the Asonos continue to minister through the Helping Hands program to a nonmember family in their apartment. Their ongoing service is constantly blessing the lives of those around them.

Remaining active in the Church can be difficult in Japan, where rides to church often take up to three hours, business and school activities are often held on Sunday, and few people are Christian. It was a joy to see the strength and commitment of my former companions and friends, Sister Sakurayama Sairenji, Sister Tashiro Sasaki and Sister Date, who not only still attend church after nearly 40 years, but also have made it the center of their lives as they serve in Church positions and help missionaries and members. I learned home storage is being actively practiced as Sister Sairenji treated me to Japanese storage items the Relief Society made—dried persimmon, spices, and seaweed. These sisters try to be diligent in all things.

Mothers teach faith to their sons. It was remarkable as we met with the missionaries in Tokyo to recognize Elder Casey—the son of my former companion from Hawaii, Sister Kanani Kaonohi, who has had six sons called to serve in Japan: Seth, Ammon, Omni, Micha, Jarom, and Helam. She also has a seventh son, Ira, who served in Korea.

I realized more than ever that “because of the Savior's birth, life, and Atonement, there are no unsolvable problems. There are temporary tragedies and difficulties, of course, but they need not be permanent or unconquerable. He always has a solution that will advance our eternal progress. ... That is both the reason and the essence of the Atonement. That is why Mormon said, ‘Ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ’ (Moroni 7:41)” (Tad R. Callister, “Fear Not,” Ensign, Dec. 2010, 42).

The triple disaster changed lives and fortunes and brought many members closer to their Savior.