Caritas Japan volunteers painstakingly clean photos found in debris after a tsunami struck this area of Japan on March 11, 2011. Local residents visit the hall in search of photos of loved ones. Credit: Laura Sheahen/Caritas 2011

By Laura Sheahen in Sendai

“The missing.” It’s been almost ten years to the day since I first heard this phrase uttered with the same quiet, charged intensity. The first time was in Manhattan, the week of September 11, 2001. Today I’m in the tsunami zone of eastern Japan.

I’m with a group looking at the work Caritas Japan has done to comfort and help thousands of people struck by a massive earthquake and tsunami six months ago, on 11 March 2011. As we travel along the devastated coastline, past tilting wrecks of houses and mammoth piles of debris, my Japanese colleagues describe how badly hit each area was: how many people died and how many are missing.

I remember how, as the first shell-shocked days dragged by in New York, photos of the missing papered the city’s subway stations and tree trunks. Here, walls of photos went up in evacuation centres and other gathering places.

In Japan as in New York, there were some happy endings; people found their loved ones alive. But the shadow of the missing, and grief for those known to be dead, hovers other everything.

At Caritas’ base in Sendai, I remember the messages and art sent to St. Paul’s Church near the World Trade Center site. Here, I see familiar tokens of sorrow and solidarity: a poster with “we are with you” written in French; a hanging string of origami birds; a child’s scrawl on a chain made from construction paper.

I see a newspaper photo of a 30-something Japanese woman in jeans carrying an elderly lady on her back, away from a field of rubble, and remember how often heroism and altruism emerge when the worst strikes.

Fr Daisuke Narui stands near a Caritas-run station that provides hot drinks to residents of an evacuation centre in Ishinomaki, Japan. Credit: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

“When I came here in the days after the tsunami, I was struck by how kind people were to each other,” says Fr Daisuke Narui, who coordinates Caritas’ efforts in Sendai. “On the street, people would come up and ask, ‘Are you all right?’”

There’s been a similar outpouring of generosity: people all over the world have donated to Japan. “We got messages from Sri Lanka and Indonesia, places that were hit by a tsunami in 2004,” says Fr Daisuke. “They know our pain.”

For six months, Caritas volunteers have been removing mud and rubble from houses. They’ve been helping people who harvest seafood re-start their work. They’ve been working long hours to be there for families still staying in evacuation centres. They’ve sat beside survivors, listening to their stories of the missing and the dead.

Quietly, the Caritas volunteers have also restored to families something that, like memories, the tsunami didn’t swallow up. “So many photos were found in the debris,” says Father Daisuke. “We clean them and post them, hoping the family will come and find them.”