Tsunami Aftermath: Second Chances in Japan
For two days last spring, Hiroshi Minegishi lived inside his car in a parking lot, surrounded by mountains of debris from the historic March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
On the third day, he climbed across rooftops and crushed cars, arriving at the spot where his small church once stood. It took him a long time to find pieces of tile and tin that resembled the place where he ministered as a pastor for so many years. For a moment, Pastor Minegishi stopped his efforts and prayed, "God, somehow be glorified in the midst of this horror."
At the time of the quake, Minegishi was about 200 yards from the coastline in the northeast fishing town of Kesennuma. As he fled to higher ground after hearing tsunami-warning sirens, he received a chilling text message from his daughter miles away in Tokyo: "Escape. Escape. Escape."
"I decided then that all I really have—or ever had—was the love of Christ," Minegishi said, "so I need to let him rule."
In the year since the largest quake in Japan's recorded history, Christians have witnessed more than the walls of buildings come down. During Christianity Today's recent travels through the quake zone, pastors and other Christian leaders said that the cultural and spiritual barriers that have for generations divided Christians from each other and from greater Japanese society have weakened in the aftermath.
"We've been called to remember in these months that the church really is the body of Christ," said Joseph Handley, president of Asian Access, an interdenominational evangelical organization that works throughout Asia to develop Christian leaders.
"It doesn't matter if it is a traditional-looking building, Samaritan's Purse aid workers circling up in their tents, or a businessman rebuilding homes and community centers in a fishing village. All of it is part of the true presence of the invisible church, bringing the kingdom of God to bear for the good of Japan."
Japan has a longstanding reputation as a "missionary's graveyard," Handley told CT. Christian workers from overseas have seen few results, becoming discouraged and returning home. "For the few who stay, ministry is truly a lifetime commitment with slow, small triumphs building on friendships established over generations."
New Moment Arrives
During interviews, Japanese pastors said that the end of World War II was the last time there was such an open window for Christian outreach in a nation largely composed of Shinto and Buddhist believers.
Right after the war, in late 1945, Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur urged visiting American clergy to send 1,000 missionaries to Japan. He said it was "necessary to replace the old Japanese religion with Christianity." Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders affirmed the call and mobilized hundreds of American missionaries.
But Doug Birdsall, the Lausanne Movement's executive chair who served as a missionary in Japan for 19 years, told CT that the American missions response did not achieve the expected result of seeding Japan with churches that would grow in number and influence. Birdsall said, "A historic opportunity was lost." Christians in Japan have never composed more than 2 percent of the population.
When the earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11, they struck a nation already suffering economically and culturally. "The economy has been struggling for more than a decade, suicide rates have skyrocketed, and there's a disintegration of family structure with growing divorce rates and numbers of latchkey kids," Handley said.