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Room at the inn for Fukushima believers
by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) Dec 23, 2011

Japan emperor recalls 2011 as 'truly distressing year'
Tokyo (AFP) Dec 23, 2011 - Japan's Emperor Akihito marked his 78th birthday on Friday by recalling a "truly distressing year" but praising the unity of the Japanese people in overcoming March's earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disasters.

In his birthday message, the monarch also called on the nation to prepare for any more disasters and reflect on its wartime past to strive for peace.

However, while he did not give his customary news conference owing to a recent illness he released a statement on his "reflections" and appeared with his family on the balcony of the Imperial Palace to greet thousands of well-wishers and give a short speech.

"This has been a truly distressing year, dominated by disasters" he said in his statement, remembering the March 11 catastrophe as well as heavy rains and floods that hit wide areas of the country in the middle of the year.

"However it has been encouraging to note that the people in the afflicted areas are enduring the harsh conditions in evacuation and that many people are volunteering to support the victims," he said.

"I feel that the Japanese people have come together as a nation to squarely face the disaster and do what they can to be of help for the victims."

The 9.0-magnitude quake and monster tsunami ravaged the country's northeast, killing nearly 20,000 people, and crippled a nuclear power plant which has been since leaking radiation into the environment.

Akihito, who ascended to the throne in 1989 following the death of his father Hirohito, has played a role in keeping with his status defined by the US-inspired post-war constitution as a "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people."

His role may be largely ceremonial but he is held in deep regard by many Japanese.

The emperor and 77-year-old Empress Michiko travelled to the disasters zones every week for seven weeks since late March, comforting victims at evacuation centres, as they did after past disasters including the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

However, he has been ill recently and last month underwent 18 days of treatment for bronchial pneumonia.

Christmas for one homeless pastor and his itinerant flock, forced to flee when Japan's nuclear crisis erupted, will have echoes of its origins this year as they gather in a shelter far from home.

The reverend Akira Sato says he and his 50-strong congregation are expecting an "unforgettable" Christmas a long way from the Fukushima Daiichi Seisho (1st Bible) Baptist Church, which lies in the shadow of the crippled power plant.

"This Christmas will be very special. I will never forget it," said the 54-year-old, who is planning to hold his December 25 service at a church in western Tokyo that has offered temporary refuge.

"I often call myself a homeless pastor," Sato told AFP. "We know we won't be able to remain homeless forever, but we do not yet know where we can go. We are still wandering."

Sato has presided over services at the Fukushima church -- whose name, along with the power plant simply means "first" -- since 1982.

The original church was founded in 1947 by an American Baptist missionary. The congregation rebuilt it in 2008 just five kilometres (three miles) from the atomic plant.

Then on March 11 a 9.0 magnitude undersea earthquake spawned a towering tsunami that crashed into the power station, knocking out its cooling systems and sending reactors into dangerous meltdown.

Along with tens of thousands of other people, Sato and his flock were ordered to leave their church and their homes, which lie inside a declared 20-kilometre no-go zone as radiation levels soared.

Drawing parallels with Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Sato says he took his parishioners from one church to the next, seeking refuge and something to eat, while caring for elderly believers stricken by pneumonia.

"To me, the first week was like a scene from a movie," he said.

As well as the practical difficulties, the group also faced discrimination over rumours that people from Fukushima had been exposed to radiation and could "infect" others.

"We were told we were dirty simply because we were from Fukushima," Sato said. "We were so frustrated. We were so sad. The disaster destroyed everything."

After nine months of wandering -- during which three parishioners died -- the group has ended up at a church and an adjacent cottage in Tokyo.

Although Christians only account for around only one percent of the country's population, the Japanese capital in December is awash with Christmas cheer.

Buildings and trees are decked with lights and festive music rings through the shops as people buy presents for friends and family.

The liveliness of Tokyo is a welcome relief after the misery of 2011. But, says Sato, it has not all been bad.

"We have lost a lot of things, but we have also gained something we didn't have before," which is a real sense of gratitude, Sato said.

"We were nearly crying with joy when we were first given blankets and warm food," he said.

"Most of all, we are still alive. We had thought we needed a lot of things to live. But that appears to me to have been an illusion now," he added.

"I told myself that this is the reason I became a priest, for this day. As the Bible says: God gives us nothing we cannot bear."

Sato said the nuclear disaster could have been a warning from God about human greed.

"When I temporarily returned to our church in protective gear, the town appeared unchanged.

"Dogs were running and cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Everything was as it used to be. Except for one thing. There were no people. It's like Paradise Lost," he said, referring to the Christian belief that mankind was ordered out of heaven for disobeying God.

"Maybe we sought affluence too much," he said. "Maybe we were too greedy. We could have gone too far. God may be telling us, 'Come back to Fukushima again after you have calmed down.'"

But with the decommissioning of reactors expected to take anything up to 40 years and warnings that tracts of land around the power station will be uninhabitable for decades, Sato has decided he must re-establish his church on higher ground.

He intends to borrow money for a new building in Izumi, southern Fukushima, some 60 kilometres away from their old home.

He plans to name it "Fukushima Daiichi Bible Church, Izumi Chapel," and to build it facing the direction of their old one.

"We need hope and a home," Sato said.

"People cannot live on bread alone. This new church is a symbol of revival. We will sing our hymns every week looking towards our hometown."

The church's multilingual website, where donations can be made to help with building costs is: www.f1church.com

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Japan PM to ask China for disaster zone pandas
Tokyo (AFP) Dec 22, 2011 - Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Thursday he would ask China to send pandas to a disaster-hit Japanese city to help boost morale among those still suffering from the earthquake and tsunami.

"When I visit China at the weekend, I will try to make final arrangements," Noda said. "I will do my best to make the dream come true."

The premier is scheduled to be in Beijing on Sunday and Monday for talks with Chinese leaders at a time the region is on tenterhooks following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

The visit also comes as Japan holds two Chinese fishermen, arrested for straying into Tokyo's waters.

Noda hopes to highlight the panda lease as a "symbol of Japan-China friendship" when the two countries mark the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of their diplomatic ties next year, local media said.

Noda was speaking to officials from Sendai, one of the cities hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which killed nearly 20,000 people in Japan's northeast and sparked a crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Sendai's local administration has already asked the Chinese embassy in Tokyo for the lease of giant pandas to lift the spirits of local children.

"We hope our children can heal their wounded hearts by looking at the adorable pandas," Sendai deputy mayor Yukimoto Ito told reporters after meeting the premier.

The meeting was also attended by Japanese pop star Masahiko Kondo, 47, who has been supporting reconstruction in the disaster zones and pledged to chip in for Sendai's panda project.

Panda diplomacy has been a key plank of China's engagement with the outside world for many decades.

A panda craze gripped Japan for the first time in 1972 when China gave Japan a pair to mark the normalisation of ties.

China also leased two pandas to Kobe in 2000 to cheer up children traumatised by the 1995 earthquake that devastated the port city.

There are 11 giant pandas in Japan at present, including two that arrived at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo in February under a contract that will cost the metropolitan government $950,000 a year for the next decade.

The money will be spent on wildlife protection in China.


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Japan PM to ask China for disaster zone pandas
Tokyo (AFP) Dec 22, 2011
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Thursday he would ask China to send pandas to a disaster-hit Japanese city to help boost morale among those still suffering from the earthquake and tsunami. "When I visit China at the weekend, I will try to make final arrangements," Noda said. "I will do my best to make the dream come true." The premier is scheduled to be in Beijing on Sunday and Monday ... read more

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