Standing in the doorway of an evacuation center here, Koichi Chiba greets two senior LDS missionaries.
He recalls the days after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, when everyone in the evacuation center received half a rice ball to eat each day and nothing else. Then he talks of the missionaries' first visit.
"If you hadn't come, we wouldn't have had meat to eat," Mr. Chiba tells Elder Conan Grames and his wife, Sister Cindy Grames. "The other thing we didn't have — we just couldn't get fresh vegetables. You brought us the first fresh vegetables."
Today the center is not as crowded as it was during the Grames' first visit, when people filled every bit of space after the disaster destroyed their homes and claimed almost all of their belongings.
Some have moved from the center to temporary housing provided by the government. Still, many remain waiting for their own temporary housing unit and more space. In the evacuation center each family has an 11-foot-by-11-foot section of the large room.
It is a stark reality for the thousands of disaster survivors who are now looking to rebuild their lives.
The vegetables delivered by Elder and Sister Grames on this day are a small example of how the Church is helping them.
It has been more than three months since the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and powerful tsunami left 15,547 people dead, displaced thousands and destroyed more than 551,000 homes throughout Japan, according to the National Police Agency. To date some 5,344 people remain missing.
Standing on a hill that overlooks a city with extensive damage, Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Seventy and president of the Church's Asia North Area speaks of the devastation. "This is just a microcosm of what has happened up and down the coastline, wherever you go."
But, he adds, the Japanese people are strong.
"The emotions that you find here as we go about meeting people are just from one end of the spectrum to the other, at once you are feeling these emotions of hope and restoration and, at the same time, they are mixed with these emotions of tragedy and loss."
Elder Stevenson said one thing, however, is certain: the Church has and will continue to help.
Immediately after the disaster, the Church sent water, food, blankets and fuel to the disaster zone.
In addition, the Church donated funds to each of the three prefectures impacted most by the disaster and to the Red Cross. Funds were also used to purchase eye glasses for the many who lost their prescription glasses in the tsunami.
And that was just the beginning.
In May the Church donated five vans to the city of Onagawa. The vans are now being used to transport villagers for shopping, to visit public baths and to see their doctors. (See Church News, May 21.)
In June the Church pledged funds to help the Miyagi Prefecture Fishing Cooperative. Of the 90 fishing boats in the cooperative, only two were not damaged by the tsunami. And although the men are fixing their boats and reclaiming some of their equipment from the land and the sea, they could not go back to work without ice to preserve their daily catch.
The Church donated an ice maker, a refrigerator, a cooler truck and other equipment and supplies. (See Church News, June 18.)
Elder Stevenson is certain that, as is the hope with all the Church's efforts, the cooperative donation will foster self-reliance.
But, he added, perhaps the greatest Latter-day Saint relief in the area has come with the more than 10,000 volunteers who have donned "Mormon Helping Hands" T-shirts and given more than 100,000 hours of service. "The yellow vests have become famous," he said. "People have been so taken with the show of support. They say, 'If you see yellow vests, grab them and get them back to your house.' "
An unplanned result of the help, Elder Stevenson said, is that people in Japan are coming to know the Church.
"More people are able to recognize us as an organization that really cares."
The road to Kobuchihama, a small fishing village on the Oshika Peninsula in northern Japan, is paved with sorrow. Visitors must pass eight demolished villages on a cracked and broken road before they reach what is left of Kobuchihama, where 160 homes were destroyed.
Three months ago, Elder and Sister Grames and the executive secretary for the area presidency, Elder Masahisa Watabe, and his wife, Sister Faith Watabe, made their way along the road to Kobuchihama. "Not a house was still standing," recalled Elder Grames. "There were small blue plastic baskets everywhere. These villagers mostly raised oysters. We guessed that they must have carried them in these blue baskets, some of which were now more than 20 feet up in the trees."
When they arrived in Kobuchihama they found a convenience store and the survivors, who were living off of processed noodle soup and rice.
The village leader had fashioned a chart on a large piece of cardboard. It documented how many of the 588 people in the village were living in the remaining 20 homes.
The missionaries gave them blankets and returned two days later with fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and clothing.
In the following weeks Elder Masamichi Watanabe and his wife, Sister Moto Watanabe, began completing weekly food orders for the village.
"To take care of the needs of this many people is the thing that is so stressful here," said Elder Watanabe.
Sister Watanabe says it will be the end of July or early August before government leaders can begin building temporary housing units.
The village leader, Masahiko Ishimori, explains, however, that temporary housing will not solve these people's problems. "Residents are not working," he said. "They don't have money. They don't have cars."
They need to find employment, he adds. "These are fishermen and they want to begin fishing again. That is the Number 1 priority."
However, before they can fish, the damaged harbor needs to be repaired.
And Mr. Ishimori has other worries. Soon, he said, the government will stop sending needed food.
The missionaries assure him that the Church will provide help as long as it is needed.
The people here, he says, will find their way.
A large rock carving is testament of that. The rock pillar stands among the village's demolished homes. It is carved with a reminder of the 1933 tsunami which "came up this far."
When the 2011 tsunami carried the monument away, villagers — determined to remember the past — found it and returned it to its original foundation.
Senior missionaries greet dozens of young people attempting to practice their English, at the Kitakami Middle School in Japan.
"How are you?" Sister Grames asks a group of youth.
"I am happy," they respond.
Sister Grames smiles as she watches the students. "Their lives have improved 100 percent since we first met them," she explains.
They are lucky students; their school stands on a hill. When the earthquake hit the students were in the gymnasium rehearsing for graduation. Every student at school that day survived.
Looking from the balcony of his school, however, Principal Takuya Hatakeyama points to another school not far away. The students and teachers there, he explains, were evacuated after the earthquake to the soccer field on the school grounds. When the tsunami hit, they were all washed away.
Then he shifts the conversation to the reality of his own school. Half the building was damaged beyond repair in the earthquake, he said. And many school programs have yet to be re-implemented. "What they don't have are programs," he said. "They are middle school students. They need to get out and move their bodies. That makes them feel good."
Elder and Sister Grames bring the school good news. The Church will fund new tents to protect the students from the hot sun when they are outside. The tents will also allow needed instruction to take place and make it possible to provide many sports programs.
Principal Hatakeyama, who lost his own home in the disaster, is asked how he first came to know Elder and Sister Grames.
"God knows," he answers. "They helped my school. They helped my students."
Prominent signs placed amid the miles and miles of devastation and destruction in northern Japan send a one-word message about the people here: "Ganbarou!" — which means "hold out, stand firm and hang in there."
Elder Stevenson said the Church plans to help disaster victims here do just that.
He pledges that in coming months the Church will use humanitarian dollars for education and employment initiatives and for an agriculture effort in which leaders hope to use a new technology to restore fields damaged by sea water. And, throughout the summer, Latter-day Saints in yellow helping hands vests will be a common sight in the disaster zone, he promises.
"There is a sense of resiliency here that is unmatched," he explains. "That is one thing we know about the Japanese; they are not going to let this stop them or put them down."