Redeeming Disaster in Japan
One night during the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, Jesus appeared to pastor Sumiyoshi in a dream. "I saw Jesus approaching the nuclear power plant, walking toward the plant. Jesus asked me, Are you evacuating?"
In Fukushima Prefecture, the plant was severely damaged in a "cascading failure" that for weeks was out of control after the earthquake and tsunami. It became the most severe nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. Nearly 20,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands more became homeless by nightfall.
For Sumiyoshi, Jesus' convicting question reminded him of the questions Jesus asked of his disciples before the crucifixion, about whether they would abandon him. Sumiyoshi said, "Those reminders led me to make my own decision to remain in my community.
"People were saying, 'The nuclear power plant is very dangerous,' or, 'We will have another tsunami.' I asked myself, 'To whose voice shall I listen?' " He said he decided to listen to God, not man. "I learned this one thing. That is the challenge to us about our own faith."
The events of March 2011, together called Japan's "triple disaster," marked the most expensive catastrophe in recorded history. Losses reached more than $235 billion. Close to 1 million people were forced from their homes, including nearly 100,000 people who on a moment's notice evacuated about 13 miles away from the nuclear plant. Japan, one of the strongest economic powers of the world, was brought to its knees. Leaders declared a state-level crisis for the first time since World War II.
A Country of Conundrums
Within 24 hours of the earthquake, local churches, agencies, and relief groups started to mobilize thousands of volunteers from more than 80 nations.
More than two years after the triple disaster, the Christian level of engagement in the disaster zone remains significant. There is no precedent for this kind of faith-based effort after natural disaster in Japan's 2,000-year history.
After his dream, Sumiyoshi and his wife decided to stay and serve their community. His small local church, Nakoso Christ Church, started serving a few thousand people in a remote town that was overlooked by big agencies and government services.
The relief work by local churches is occurring in the context of the government's painfully slow response. At least 200,000 evacuees, some exposed to high radiation levels, still dwell in temporary housing.
Japan is a country of conundrums to the watching world, especially in the eyes of anthropologists, missiologists, development professionals, and aid agency leaders. It is one of the wealthiest nations, with a $4 trillion economy—and also has one of the highest suicide rates. It boasts high achievements in technology and science. But Shinto, the traditional Japanese religion that once defined the emperor as head of state and god, still plays a highly influential ceremonial and cultural role.
Only 1 percent of Japanese claim Christian faith. Among Christian leaders, Japan has the stigma of being "a hard soil to plant the gospel." That soil may have loosened since the disaster. Atsuyoshi Fujiwara, theologian and founding pastor of Tokyo's Covenant of Grace Church, believes the events of 2011 are Japan's "fourth encounter with Christianity."
In the first three historic encounters, Fujiwara says, the Japanese rejected it. "Each period was different. Yet there was a pattern. Christianity came in chaotic periods when Japan lost peace and order. Initially, Japan accepted Christianity, yet gradually rejected it when it recovered peace, order, and confidence." (See "A Fresh Encounter with Jesus.")