Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Presidency of the Seventy spent 12 days traveling in the Asia North Area during the month of February. Stops on their itinerary included the Japan cities of Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Tokyo and Sendai, as well as many coastal cities in the Tohoku area devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.
Accompanying Elder Oaks and Elder Hallstrom during their travels were their wives, Sister Kristen Oaks and Sister Diane Hallstrom. Also joining them for part of their travels were Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Seventy and president of the Asia North Area, Elder Michael Ringwood of the Seventy and first counselor in the Asia North Area presidency, Elder Koichi Aoyagi of the Seventy and second counselor in the Asia North Area presidency, and their wives, Sister Lesa Stevenson, Sister Rosalie Ringwood and Sister Shiroko Aoyagi.
This visit was particularly meaningful for many members as they reunited with Sister Oaks who served as a missionary in the Japan Sendai Mission and with Elder and Sister Hallstrom, who lived in Japan as he served in the area presidency and as area president from 2000 to 2003.
Elder Oaks explained one purpose of the trip. “We sought to give comfort following the terrible disaster and tsunami that occurred just about a year ago and also to give the teaching and testimony we always give when meeting with missionaries and members of the Church.”
Thousands of Saints were blessed to hear from the visiting authorities in missionary and member meetings, priesthood leadership conferences, special stake conferences and auxiliary leadership training meetings from the south to the north parts of Japan. Meetings began the weekend of Feb. 18 on Kyushu, the Southern Island of Japan, included a mid-week area review in Tokyo, and culminated in Sendai Japan, the weekend of Feb. 25. The last meeting was broadcast to five district centers and more than 100 locations participated via web-streaming. Heavy snowstorms in northern Japan caused travel difficulties and delays for many, but all were ultimately able to participate by broadcast and web-streaming in spite of inclement weather.
With the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster having deeply affected virtually every person in Japan, the presence of an apostle on Japanese soil, along with his counsel, and blessings upon the Saints and the land, served as a healing balm for thousands who heard his voice.
Particularly poignant was the midweek visit to the greater Sendai area almost one year after the worst natural disaster in the history of Japan, which left 15,000 dead and 4,000 missing. Elder Oaks viewed the devastation first hand on Feb. 23. He rode through neighborhoods where houses stood, ghost-like, shattered to pieces, with fragments of curtains and clothes hanging from broken glass windows, while furniture, toys and dishes were tossed about on the ground outside. They viewed hundreds of destroyed automobiles stacked three-high awaiting disposal.
He walked with Elder Hallstrom and members of the Asia North Area presidency and their wives down a muddy road to the harbor where tug boats and cranes were in the process of pulling an enormous cargo ship back into the water after it had been swept ashore over the sea wall more than 11 months earlier.
A tour through the city of Ishinomaki, the largest city destroyed by the tsunami, wound through mountains of debris collected by the truckload and dumped in piles waiting to be moved or incinerated. Very few communities are willing to accept what is believed to be radiation-tainted garbage.
The final scene was a three-story elementary school with every window smashed out by waves that scattered the grave markers of the neighboring Buddhist temple, leaving one to wonder about the whereabouts of the students who were in the playground and the priests who were lighting incense in their shrines on March 11 when a 40-foot wall of water crashed over this part of the city. The reaction of Elder Oaks’ party was one of silence, a sense of disbelief, as they looked at only one part of the destruction and death that continued for 300 miles up and down this coast of Japan.
But as the people in Tohoku approached the first anniversary of this historic tragedy, these General Authorities and their wives found hope and happiness in the faces of the members who were re-building their homes and lives, assisted by missionaries in the Japan Sendai Mission whose work and service have changed as they have spent many months shoveling mud, hauling debris and lifting hearts.
The following day, in a meeting with the missionaries on a clear, but cold, morning Elder Oaks told them, “Don’t look back. Look forward to the good things that will come in this mission.”
Sister Emi Maki who was in Ishinomaki at the time of the tsunami and spent five days in an evacuation center shared what she took from Elder Oaks’ message. “March 11 will be here soon. There are many things to which we look back to remember our experiences. But just remembering those experiences doesn’t help us know what we should do in the future. We shouldn’t look back, but should face the front and move forward and, through the testimony we gained through this experience, help the people of the world to feel the power of the Atonement that we have felt. I think that is the most important thing I learned today.”
Later in the evening, 372 Church members filled the stake center in Sendai while many more attended the meeting by video broadcast in chapels throughout the Tohoku region. Elder Aoyagi of the area presidency, with his wife serving by his side, presided over the Sendai mission 27 years earlier. They reflected with some emotion on their years with the members in the Sendai mission and thanked them for their courage and determination following the earthquake.
Elder Oaks and Elder Hallstrom and their wives expressed their love and encouragement to the members who lived through the tragedy. Elder Hallstrom urged the Saints, “Let us remember that the kind of tragedy you have just been through is temporary. It is a part of this world. The things that we teach tonight are the things of eternity, the things that are not temporary, the things that are everlasting, those things that each of us can count on to be permanent.”
Evoking surprise and smiles from the audience, Sister Kristen Oaks addressed the members in Japanese. Some of them remembered her as “Sister McMain” from when she served as a full-time missionary in Sendai. She said to them, “I have made Elder Oaks love Japan.” Elder Oaks later replied, “She even makes me take my shoes off in the house.”
Sister Hallstrom expressed her feelings about returning to Japan. “It has been like coming back home for us. We love the people of this great country, and we especially love the Latter-day Saints. Being able to tour the sites that were devastated with the tsunami was heart breaking, but it was wonderful to see how the Saints are responding with faith and with determination and courage to rebuild their lives and reclaim the things which they have lost.”
Elder Oaks helped the members understand that no one knows why tragedies happen and why the Lord in His wisdom doesn’t always step in to prevent them. He suggested that what “we do know is that the Lord strengthens us in times of adversity and uses these challenges to mold us into something better.” He told the members of his mother, widowed at a very young age, who overcame her loss and loneliness to become a city councilwoman and a member of the Young Women General Board of the Church, accomplishments she might not have achieved had the Lord not strengthened her by allowing trials into her life. His counsel was, “Look for the way that the Lord will consecrate your affliction for your gain. That is an eternal principle. He loves you. He wants you to have the choicest blessings that God has for you. When we do the things that God has commanded us to do it causes us to be closer to our Savior. We can hear His voice through the Holy Ghost. We can feel the peace He speaks to our hearts. And we can know that our feet are on the path that leads us to our Heavenly Father and to exaltation.”
Members in attendance expressed their gratitude at what they learned and felt. Koji Ishizawa, the newly called bishop of the Nagamachi Ward, commented on how the evening would help in his new calling. “Here in Tohoku with the earthquake and tsunami we received many trials. I came to understand that through those trials we will grow and be strengthened, that they will be for our benefit. I came to understand this through Elder Oaks, an apostle, and through the Spirit. That is an important message for all the brothers and sisters of the Nagamachi Ward.” Sister Risa Takebayashi who for many years has been confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy simply said, “It was really great to meet an apostle.”
After the meeting, Elder Oaks expressed his feelings. “The members of the Church in Japan have responded to the tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami in an exemplary way. Those who suffered the immediate tragedies have held their faith, and their brothers and sisters throughout Japan through the fine leadership of the area presidency responded with helping hands, with donations, with service and with encouragement. It’s been an example for the whole world. I have been thrilled to represent my Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, and the leadership of their Church and members of the Church throughout the world in assuring the Japanese Saints of our love and support for them and of our prayers in their behalf.”