Help from around the world poured into Japan after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident wrecked havoc. And recently 22 young people from the island nation returned the favor during a two-week trip to the suburbs.
They pulled weeds, washed windows and worked on the drywall at the Chicago Japanese Mission Church under construction in Arlington Heights. They also packed food for Feed My Starving Children and traveled to Gary, Ind., to help prepare a school library for the academic year. They also cooked traditional Japanese dinners for a group of senior citizens and for the people at Bolingbrook's New Song Church, one of their hosts.
Only four of the teens live in Miyagi prefecture in the northeast region of Japan where the worst devastation occurred. Most are from Osaka, which is farther south and an area that received earthquake damage but did not suffer the tsunami or nuclear threat.
The four young people from the northeast said their homes were spared, but relatives and neighbors lost theirs, and the cloud of nuclear fear still hovers. Most of all they appreciate the help that came from the United States and other countries in the form of food, clothing and water.
"Only two weeks we spend here," said Mitsuho Fukuzawa, 16. "It's thanksgiving to people who live in America doing very good help to tsunami areas."
"Now people don't worry much about the nuclear accident," said Mitsuho, "but some people still say, 'This food we cannot eat because there is something wrong. It's not good for our body."
And she fears earthquakes much more than she did before.
Yoshiyuki Aoto, 18, said a neighbor's home seemed only slightly damaged, but it had to be demolished. And his uncle not only lost his home to the ocean, but he also lost his job.
The worst devastation Yoshiyuki saw was while volunteering during the cleanup when he pulled sand and debris from a house.
Haruka Hikithi, 13, said her grandmother lived on the second floor of a building whose first floor was swept by the tsunami. Later the grandmother passed away, and the young girl does not know whether the trauma of the tsunami contributed to her death.
Ai Higuchi, 15, whose home is very close to the nuclear danger zone near Fukishima, said she wanted to achieve fellowship with Americans who helped the Japanese.
"They want to do what they can do here. Our trip purpose is to serve people," said the Rev. Kyouko Yonaha, who translated for the young people.
Daehong Kim, a pastor with Grace Mission in Osaka, said working together helps create kizuna, or a bond between the Japanese young people and suburbanites.
"We have a different culture, but we are human and as Christians we are serving the same Lord and same God," he said.
Japan is still recovering, said Kim, noting many of the 200,000 people evacuated from their homes are still in temporary shelters.
"Our theme is it's more blessed to give than receive. That is from the Bible, and I want them to know these things. We need help and we need to help," Kim said.
The youngsters had fun, too, visiting Great America in Gurnee, the Mitsuwa shopping center in Arlington Heights and the Kikkoman Corp. factory in Wisconsin.
Volunteers from New Song and other churches in the area worked hard to make the trip a success.
"For us it's this whole idea of fellowship and getting to know about them and expand our work and theirs," said Carol Shepardson of Bolingbrook.