Hands and Hearts

by Johanna Kato /
Johanna Kato's picture
May 04, 2008 / 1 comments

“I’m a Princess,” she said, opening her palms and turning her face to the sky. Soft pink petals of cherry blossoms sprinkled down magically around her. I’d never seen Kamioke-san look so light; so full of life. I’d been visiting her off and on as a volunteer for several months, through Hands and Hearts, an organization created to offer companionship to the elderly who suffered loss in some way during the ’95 Kobe earthquake.

Princess Kamioke 

The Quake

On January 17, 1995, within a forever-altering 20 seconds, a 7.2 magnitude quake caused an estimated 150 billion dollars in damage in the Kansai area. Over 6,400 people were killed, and 15,000 injured. 1/5 of the population was left homeless, and hundreds of thousands of homes were reduced to rubble. 203 acres of urban land were swallowed by fire, leaving 85% of the areas public facilities; hospitals, schools, and buildings with heavily sustained damage. Railway systems were damaged, water and gas could not reach the homes, sewer systems were down, and even the ports were largely destroyed.

Despite all of that – unbelievably, after just one year much of the city was rebuilt, functioning at 75-95% capacity of its pre-quake days. Still, no matter how functional the railways became, or boats docked in the harbor, the personal losses that were suffered could never be replaced.

Getting Involved

Hands and Hearts stepped into this void where tractors, engineers, and contractors could not. The goal was to repair social bridges that perhaps had been torn down. To run errands, provide listening ears and “hearts” for the elderly who found themselves suddenly alone after the quake.

I spotted Hands and Hearts in a local magazine, and through them, became connected with a handful of elderly folk as well as a random assortment of mostly-foreigners from here and there across the globe. We gathered every other week to spend our Sundays spread out across cities in pairs, visiting our new-found friends in their homes, apartments, nursing homes, in the hospital.

We sipped tea, went shopping, pored over old, crackly photo albums, and allowed their stories to wrap us up in visions of the past. On birthdays, we ate cake and Celebrated Life. During Christmastime, we held a banquet, complete with a bell chorus that chimed us right up to the time to play Bingo. Together, we journeyed through the months and time slipped by.

I got to know Kamioke-san over bowls of noodles, rice crackers with tea, and shuffling trips to the store. She had lost not only her husband, but also her only son in the quake. The weight of sadness seemed to have turned her ankles and changed her gait to an always-tired shuffle. Her shoulders normally slumped and the furrows above her eyes rarely smoothed, even in laughter.

Magical Moments

But for a few weeks in the spring, Japan becomes somewhat of a magical place, when it feels that anything is possible. Cherry blossom season is the time for Hanami; a time to enjoy the blossoms by picnicking, going for walks, drinking beer, playing games, and generally reveling in life’s beauty. We held a Hands and Hearts hanami picnic, eating our obento, being led through songs and again Bingo-happiness. I am so honored to say, that I was present that day, when Kamioke-san shed layers and years of grief, turned her eyes to the sun, released the furrow from her brow, and for a moment, became a Princess. A real Princess in our midst.

Of my time as a volunteer with Hands and Hearts, I can only agree with Nimoy, who said,

“The miracle is this - the more we share, the more we have.”


hands and hearts 




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