Project Canterbury

They That Sat in Darkness
An Account of Rescue Work in Japan in the Words of the Rev. Yoshimichi Sugiura

New York: Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, [1912]

Chapter XI. The Result of the Flood on My Work, beginning of the overflow.

Following the rainy season of this year, successive storms of rain have been experienced in the eastern part of our empire throughout the summer, and the water in many rivers in and about Tokyo awfully increased at the beginning of August, and we were very restless and anxious for what would come about.

It was on the evening of 11th August that the Sumida River suddenly began to overflow its banks at last, when I had just reached my church to preach on my way home from Oji. Many people who were present there reported that they came through streets which were flooded already as high as their knees, and the matter seemed very urgent. So I decided to suspend the meeting and proclaimed that those persons who came from lower parts of the city should go back to their homes and others [56/57] to visit their friends in the dangerous quarters to render them help.

The field of my work, composed of the two districts, Honjo and Kukagawa, is the lowest part of the city, lying on the eastern side of the River Sumida, and moreover the numerous canals that ran through it in every direction gave the flooding water great facility to submerge the whole part of it at once.

The night was passed by the terror-stricken inhabitants, in whole part of these two districts, without sleep in making their own relief. On the next morning, however, the water seemed to increase no more, and their hearts were somewhat tranquilized. But when one danger was over another great one was coming.


In the afternoon of the next day, 12th August, at about three o'clock, we received a most terrible telegram that the strong embankment of the Tone River was broken at a spot about twenty-five miles from Tokyo, and its furious water was rolling down toward us at its full speed. We had a dreadful [57/58] remembrance that it was broken once, about one hundred years ago, when the tremendous damage ensued, it flooded over many districts of the city, as high as fifteen feet at some places. Of course, the telegram caused a panic of the people, and in the mean time the new great force of that water arrived and the flood began to swell suddenly.

In the eastern part of Honjo district the water in the canals soon rose many feet higher than their embankment and began to fall down into the streets in the shape of a broad cataract. So that it flooded there so suddenly that a man in Umemoricho, for instance, whose wife had just been in labor, could scarcely lift her up on a shelf, and when he came to the child, he found it dead in the merciless water.

A poor laborer, who had been living in Oshima-machi, had a girl of eight years old and twins, which were born only nine days before the flood, and was nursing his wife, who was seriously ill. When he found the water like the sea around his house he was much perplexed how to make good their escape by his single power. They waded a long way through deep water in dark night, directing their steps toward higher places, but [58/59] everywhere the flood became higher and higher, and they were forced to change their refuges three times in a night, until the energy of that unfortunate wife was at last exhausted and she died the next morning. In what condition of distress he was at such time can better be imagined than I can describe.

The loss of his wife was a severe blow to this poor family. The man lost his entire power to work from that day, having these helpless children in his hands to be taken care of by himself alone, and the consequence of it was the starvation of the whole family! He was one of the poor sufferers from the flood, who were reported to me by our members, and I tried to help him by paying the expenses of a foster-mother for the twins, until they died one after another before the end of this year.


Almost all the houses of the members of the Union who lived in these districts were inundated, but they fought this natural enemy with the same faith and perseverance as in [59/60] their daily life, and the flood itself seemed to have been a great baptism to my work, and renewed our faith by the practical experience of God's gracious providence revealed very clearly in it.

Before I describe a few instances of that grace, however, I wish to deal with an example that taught us how unavailing human power and contrivance were at such a moment.

There lived a rich man, Mr. K. Watanabe, in Rameido (eastern end of Tokyo), who had built a fine large house and moved to it a few months before the flood. When his house was inundated a large boat was sent to him from his kindred to save his family out of the danger. All the members of his family climbed into it at once, and were about to leave the place. The poor people around, who were desperately crying for the help from the top of their houses, saw this happy family, amazing at the wonderful efficiency of the power of gold, and complained of their own sad fortune.

Receiving such a melancholy send-off, the rich man's boat started, rowed by a strong crew, and rode down over the rapid stream along the streets of Taihei-cho and Umemori-cho, and came near to the Honjo Railway [60/61] Station. But when it was steering round the corner of Nagasaki bridge it went whirling round at the mercy of the angry eddy, and at last was overturned. Eighteen bodies in it were all scattered about in the furious torrent before hundreds of spectators, who sent out many life boats in an instant and endeavored to save them.

Notwithstanding of their great efforts, the eldest girl of the rich man, with many thousands of yens of money, and a servant were by no means saved, and the body of the former was found afterwards in the canal near my house, about a mile below, and the servant's under a raft of timbers not far from the spot.

This unexpected news must have been a great surprise to those poor people in Rameido, who found themselves rather in safety on their houses, and they understood that they should be grateful that they were not so rich as this unfortunate family. Such events occurred everywhere in the flood, and I have no time to describe them all. So now to compare with this instance of the unreliability of human power, I wish to return to the accounts of our poor friends who were saved by God even in the most dangerous circumstances.


Mr. S. Hashimoto is a typical member of the Union, full of the spirit of self-help and self-respect. Formerly he worked in the Honjo Railway Station in this city, and had a most unfortunate accident.

The accident happened on the 15th January, 1900, when a train was just running into the depot. At that moment he lost his footing from the platform, and no sooner had he fallen flat upon the rail than the train went over him, cutting his feet off by the middle of the thighs. Though he was once in a most critical condition, he held on to life, and underwent a long surgical treatment in the Roto Hospital, and recovered his health again. All expenses in the hospital were paid for him by the railway company, but as he could not receive a sufficient subsidy for future relief, he soon fell into great privation with his family, and encountered unspeakable hardships and pains for many years. But all adverse circumstances could never conquer this feetless man, and I used to encourage, whenever I visited him. Carrying a trade in a small [62/63] scale, he supported his family, then the old mother, the wife and a child. At the same time he devoted himself to learning with great perseverance, and at last he opened a private school at the eastern end of Honjo district, and now is teaching English, Chinese, mathematics and book-keeping. His wife is also an admirable woman. It is by her faithful service that he attained his end. His mother died when they were at the depth of their poverty, and he has three children at present. In lucky or unlucky days, he is always in a most happy frame of mind, and every member of the Union who called on him was encouraged by his good humor and faith. He is truly a living sermon in my Union.

However vigorous in his spirit he might be his house was in the most unfavorable position in the flood, not far from the said rich man, and, moreover, his wife had labor only three days before the overflow. Even his eldest son was only seven years old, and therefore there was no one who was strong enough to do any work in such calamity. So I was in the greatest anxiety about this helpless family from the beginning. Therefore I sent two strong young men, when the Sumida [63/64] River began to overflow, on the evening of nth August. But at that time there was not so much water in Kameide, and his house was in safety. On the next day, however, when the bank of Tone River was broken, the water from it had directly rushed into his part and submerged his house immediately, before I could send the relief hands. When two strong men ventured to cross the dangers on the way and visited him on that night, I had not the slightest hope of his safety.

When they reached there they found, to their despair, that his house was flooded already, and that the rapid torrent with many floating materials was dashing mercilessly against its closed doors. But when a door was open, to their ecstasy and surprise they saw the whole family in ease on a strong shelf, which was constructed very well. The newborn child, knowing not anything of this world, was peacefully sleeping with its mother in the bed, only one foot high above the roaring water, which was running through the house from the front door down into the canal behind. But whence had such a timely relief come? The question in the visitors' [64/65] hearts could never be solved. It was God who sent it actually.

A friend of Mr. Hashimoto, who lived far away in Tabata village, had come out to Tokyo on that day, without thinking anything about him, but when that person saw the telegram, posted up by the side of Azuma bridge, and learned that the Tone embankment was broken just a few minutes before, a thought flashed into his heart, and felt a great necessity to render his assistance to his maimed friend. He hurried on hither at rapid pace, with two other bodies, who joined him while on the road by his request. When they have arrived here, no drop of water was seen around his house, and Mr. Hashimoto could not understand why they did come in so hasty a manner.

But when they had built the high temporary floor, and were putting up the family and furniture on it one by one, the water began to rise up at enormous speed and ran into the house. It submerged the floor at last, when their work was just finished. Thus this helpless family was saved out of the great danger beyond all human expectation.


There were many other families among the members of my church and the Union, in this quarter, who were no less in need of help, and though my heart was bursting with anxiety for their fate, I could not get time and hands enough to do so many things at once at such an urgent moment.

Among them I can count Mr. Kurahashi, who was a blind man; Mr. Otaki, Mr. Tanishima and Mr. Majima, who were in the worst part of the flood : and Mr. Sakurai, who missed his mother and sister in the water, when they were escaping from the danger in night, and other sick men. But when circumstances allowed me to visit around I found them all in safety, and none of them lost even simple pieces of their furniture, obviously protected by the providential hand of the Almighty, while many folks around them were receiving much damage to their property and even to their lives. This clear contrast gave us a profound instruction and made our confidence in the words of God much stronger than ever, as in the time of Noah.


There could never have been before so good opportunity as this great calamity to test: the faith and courage of our members. I would conclude this description of the Hood by recording the interesting accounts of their struggles in this battlefield of our faith.


Mr. D. Otaki was a poor artisan, living with his wife and two children in the most dangerous quarter, as was said above. His work is to make toys in his own little house. From the morning of T2th August the water was increasing little by little, and his neighbors were in great consternation, and no one could take their works. But as the member of the L. R. U., he worked assiduously to make up some toys before 3 P. M., as he promised to his customer, while he ordered his wife to prepare food for many days. When his work was finished he carried out the products by a cart and brought them to the customer. He conveyed also his elder boy, important furniture [67/68] and clothes by the same cart to intrust them to the care of a friend on his way. Seeing his distress to draw that heavy cart through muddy and flooded road, his wife joined him to push the cart from behind, leaving a baby to the care of their neighbor for a while.

When they returned home and were making precautions for the flood the water from Tone just reached them and increased at every moment. Then the family climbed up higher and higher as the water rose, until they were driven into the ceiling, in which they were trembling with terror, for the water came so high up that they could reach its surface with their hands. As it was a little house of only one story, there was no higher place for them to climb, and when the gloomy night fell they were entirely sealed up in that narrow space under the roof. I heard that a dead family was found after the flood at somewhere in Kameido, having been killed by the suffocation in the same circumstance.

Mr. Otaki, however, broke a hole in the roof, and climbed up to the top of the house to look abroad. The surrounding scene was truly sickening; the painful and urgent cry for help [68/69] from the neighboring inhabitants mingled with the mournful echo of the cattle growling in their last agony were arising in the dark as in a sanguinary battlefield; the roof upon which he was standing looked like a little rock to be carried away at any moment by the roaring torrent; death truly stared him in the face!

He feared that his wife should lose her consciousness in an instant, if he allow her to look out over this awful scene. So he determined rather to retire with his family to the ceiling and cheer them, entrusting their fate to God. Their prayer was answered, and the water increased no more, standing still at a few inches below them. They passed three days in this state, having sufficient provision, that was prepared by his wise foresight, and were saved out by a life boat sent from the city authorities in the morning of 15th. Though there was much damage in this neighborhood, he did not lose anything that belonged to him, and even got the more confidence of his customer by his honest behavior at such a time.


The quarter where our boarding house stood was soon inundated, when Sumida River overflowed on the evening of 11th. All bodies in it constructed high shelves, and prepared every thing for the coming calamity, as far as they could. When the unexpected water from the Tone united its new great force, however, the place became very dangerous, and the naval soldiers and policemen went round about here with many life boats and persuaded the people to flee.

Many thousands of the poor sufferers were sent off to the school buildings, Buddhist temples and wrestling circus, where they were well provided with all their daily necessities; there they slept under the brilliant gas and electric lights at night; there they passed their lazy days without any toil for their livelihood; they were rather happy to stay longer there. Therefore they are dreaming of the "gracious flood" even now, and praying that it would come again in next year.

But our members in the boarding house, however poor and miserable they had been, had an entirely different spirit. Mr. Gonda, [70/71] the director of the house, much grieved that they must sacrifice the long-cherished spirit of self-help and self-respect in their hearts because of receiving the merciful help of others in this temporary trial. All persons under him thought that such disgrace was more intolerable than hunger or any other pain.

So they assembled together and held a prayer meeting, standing in the water, and asked God that they might save themselves out from all dangers, without receiving others' mercy, and they made up their minds to strive for victory over all difficulties in the flood. Mr. Gonda, however, persuaded that any one who thinks himself to be unable to take such hard work should go off at once, and two weak men were carried away by a life boat. Then Mr. Gonda sent the women and children to my church, which was not flooded, to be taken care of by other members of it, that the remaining persons might struggle freely against this strange trial.

All the neighbors had kindly told them that it is too indiscreet to remain in such a dangerous place, and earnestly tried to bring them to the same opinion with themselves. But when they saw our members' obstinacy would [71/72] never yield, they began to reproach and abandon them, crying, "Barbarous Christians! Obstinate fools, who can not care for their own lives!"

Then Mr. Gonda consulted with the members how to support themselves in this circumstances, and they decided that every one should go to certain places and buy any articles he thought suitable, and go round in the water to sell them to the sufferers, who were yet remaining at the far end of these districts.

As they foresaw, the water did not increase higher than their breast on the street, and they went about in the slums, especially where the people had been missed by the officers sent to save them and were in the most distressing state of hunger. They tried to sell their articles to such sufferers at the lowest possible price at first, but as the time went on their miserable condition became greater and greater, and our members were at last obliged often to forget their own matter, and give their articles for nothing. So they were welcomed by the people at everywhere as their saviors almost to be worshiped. When they came home at evening they used to make account, but it was not the money that they [72/73] brought home, but diverse kinds of delightful accounts of their day's work done for the poor sufferers for the sake of our Lord.

There were not a few who understood the true love of Christians for the first time by our members' generous behavior during this flood. One night, however, when they assembled together they found that they had all given up their articles for nothing, each thinking he has met with especially poor people, and on making up their accounts, there were only three sens in cash at all, and they passed that night with hunger, each taking only a morsel of bread. But timely relief came soon, when I visited them to present a contribution of money that had just reached my hands, without thinking whether they were in such a condition. After it, the contribution of money, rice, clothes and many kinds of food began to reach me, following one after another, and it encouraged them to devote themselves more diligently than ever to such charitable work. They ventured to go far and wide into the most dangerous places, and exerted themselves to distribute the merciful presents to those hidden sufferers, whom most people could never find out.

[74] Unless we are poor and acquainted with all their circumstances, we can not detect the secret of poor people. Moreover most of them are selfish and cunning, and therefore, however prudent and cautious the relievers should endeavor to be, their alms will be easily seized upon by idle rogues as their prey, and in many cases their works end with no fruit, while the innocent donors alone are proud of it, dreaming mighty success. I saw many facts of this kind in the Hood. Many poor people, who had not so much damage, were deceiving the visitors with admirable skill to attract their sympathy to seize upon the charitable presents intended only for true sufferers. There were many vagabonds, who took such opportunity and entered into the flooded quarters from other districts. They mixed with the true refugees in order to be taken into the shelters, and received undeserved entertainment.

Our members, however, had been living among such people always, and therefore they were not deceived, and served me as the most efficient distributors of the alms, and by their diligent exertions our Union succeeded in conveying the love of our friends to those whose circumstances most needed it. Led by the [74/75] hand of God, they were thus induced to do a most momentous work at the most needed moment, when no help from the rich or authorities could reach such people; and those who received most of the grace of God were none but our members, who, being called barbarians or fools by other people, experienced such mighty work that none can dream of.

The flood, that caused much damage to crops, business, properties, and lives generally, was thus a gracious baptism for my work, as I said, which renewed and confirmed the faith and spirit of all the members of the Union.

August 15th, 1911.

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