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Making miso with disaster refugees

Psychological care for tsunami victims comes through an unlikely source

Making miso with disaster refugees

Participants chat while taking a break from the hard work correspondant, Tokyo

May 17, 2013

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Japanese cooks always keep miso close at hand. This fermented paste is made primarily of soybeans and, depending on the region, may also contain rice, barley or other ingredients.

Westerners may know it primarily as a soup base, but it can also be used in thicker broths and as a stir-fry sauce, among other ways.

Recently, parishioners at Shiogama Church in Miyagi Prefecture, about 320 km north of Tokyo, found another use for miso: as the basis for ongoing relief activities in a disaster zone. Twice each month, they hold a miso manufacturing workshop for those who still live in temporary housing in the aftermath of the March 2011 tsunami.

One such workshop was held last month. After a welcoming ceremony at Shiogama Church, those present were introduced to six volunteer helpers who had come from around Japan. Then they moved to the meeting hall of the Iboishi temporary housing facility in Shiogama City. Plastic bags of boiled soybeans were distributed and the participants, who numbered over 40 including a dozen or so staff members, got down to business.

They mashed the soybeans by pressing on the plastic bags, adding rice malt as they went. It only took about 20 minutes, but it was quite demanding, and some tried to encourage their neighbors: “It works best if you put your body weight into it!”

By the time the activity was done the ice was obviously broken. The fatigued learners chatted about miso production, their lives and other topics over a cup of tea. Special entertainment that afternoon came in the form of some nuns and two of the volunteers singing and dancing in a Japanese rendition of the children’s song The Other Day I Met a Bear, which filled the meeting space with laughter and applause.

This unusual workshop may at first seem to have little to do with disaster relief, but it fulfills a core mission of Shiogama Church and Sendai diocese overall. For half a year after the quake, the diocese designated this church as a base of operations for volunteers helping in the reconstruction efforts. During that time, Catholics here forged strong bonds with each other and even those outside the church; bonds which endure to this day.

However, after the first six months, the focus shifted to the psychological care of victims. Sendai diocese asked each church in the area to make people available as “sympathetic ears” the distressed could come to if they needed to get something off their chest. However, success was limited because of the difficulty of gaining the intimacy of the survivors.

Undeterred, they looked for a better strategy. Tomohiro Mizota says, “doing something together as a way to earn their trust was indispensable.” They cast about until they found the miso solution. “Not only is miso a staple ingredient of day-to-day meals, it’s also something they can share with others in the neighborhood, which seems to be a big draw.”

So they found instructors, learned the art of miso making themselves, and held the first miso workshop about a year and a half ago. The physical effort made people loosen up and talk to each other, which was the church’s goal in the first place.

At first, the staff worried that two workshops a month would be unsustainable, given that prep work alone could take two days. And then there were the costs to consider.

But reinforcements arrived when a group of five volunteers started coming from a church in nearby Sendai City, some 10km west, for each workshop. Others have come from as far away as Kanagawa Prefecture, about 350km southwest. Donated soybeans and cash arrived from more distant churches and private supporters.

The present work is only possible because of the many bonds that sprang up in the wake of the disaster, Mizota says. But the organizers aren’t satisfied yet. Beginning last fall, they started making visits — one every week — to each of the approximately 140 families in the temporary housing facilities here. Their aim: to offer the inhabitants a friendly ear.

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