“I’M still alive,” Fr. Jack Serate, a Franciscan missionary serving in Japan, emailed on Mar. 22.
This was 11 days after Mar. 11, a day whose claim to history lies in approximately two minutes: a magnitude-8.9 quake, a seven meter-high tsunami, and nuclear contamination.
Yet, framed by human quirks, the scale of these triple disasters I narrowed to this pinpoint of concern: how was Fr. Jack?
A Cebuano whose ministry took him from the Philippines to the Saitama Diocese in Japan, Fr. Jack has served for years a multicultural parish: Filipino, Japanese and, due to intermarriages, the Filipino-Japanese.
As a news source, he was first known to me as an advocate of migrants and overseas workers. Later, I learned from the advocacy he and his parishioners pursued among upland school children in the southwestern town of Alegria, Cebu.
Last year, after the death of his sister, Fr. Jack disappeared. We knew he was in Japan but we received no emails until 11 days after Mar. 11.
Family, friends and parishioners may brush off that first line in his email—“I’m still alive”—as typical of the man’s humor, generous and self-mocking.
Reading and rereading his Mar. 22 email, though, I realize that more than stating the obvious that he was alive and well enough to reply to our email inquiring on his welfare, his first line affirms his own resurrection after Japan’s triple disasters.
With Fr. Jack’s permission, I share excerpts of his emails to point out what is often overshadowed by the tragedies befalling overseas Filipinos.
It is that we learn from others.
As one who said funeral masses for loved ones and comforted the bereaved even though he was one of them, Fr. Jack could not vent his own grief. Resuming his pastoral work in Japan, he felt the repression more since the local practice was to hold a wake for two days, cremate and then report back to work.
His dim view of the Japanese “automaton” changed after the Mar. 11 disasters. After that major quake—the strongest to hit Japan since recording began in the 1800s and reportedly 8,000 times stronger than the one that ravaged Christchurch, New Zealand last February—Japan had to deal with powerful aftershocks, sometimes one every 30 minutes, for days after. Three-hour brownouts, scarce food, nuclear contamination—in Fr. Jack’s words: “Mora ug Third World country ang Japan ug First World country ang Philippines.”
Yet, Fr. Jack witnessed and learned from the Japanese how to be a person for others. Public servants report to work despite suffering the loss of many in their family, he wrote. Although the Japanese are not perfect, he observed that the Japanese sense of honor and community made him reflect on the penchant of Filipinos to sometimes treat love of country as a fad, like a flag worn on one’s shirt, and just as easily discarded.
Fr. Jack wrote: “A few years ago, the police station in Tokyo expanded their ‘lost and found’ compartment because of the big bulk of returned or turned-over things that the citizens found in the trains or on the streets, (like)… umbrellas, key chains, wallets, money, cell phones, etc.”
“In the disaster areas (after Mar. 11), people found a lot of money and other valuable things (like safe boxes) that they found when they were searching in the rubble. I was expecting that the people who found the cash would keep them because they badly needed cash for their own survival but all were turned over to the police. The people who found the money suggested that the money will be used for the rebuilding of their city…”
“Children at a young age are being trained to be honest and they should not take what is not theirs. And it is the policy here that if you turned over to the police what you found, after three months when nobody claims it, the one who found it can own it. But usually they don't claim it, thinking that three months is not enough for the owner to know (about) it. That is why a lot of found things are still in police custody.”
“Kanus-a kaha ni mahitabo sa Pilipinas ang honesty?,” Fr. Jack emailed.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 17, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column