On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan, creating powerful tsunami waves that battered the country’s northeastern region. The resulting damage was nigh-apocalyptic: nearly 16,000 people were killed, over 6,000 were injured, and over a million buildings were damaged or destroyed. The earthquake and tsunami caused a massive failure at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power and leaking radiation into the environment that has diminished little since the event. The World Bank estimated the total financial damage to be $235 billion, giving the earthquake and tsunami the dubious distinction of being the most expensive natural disaster in human history.
Japan has made amazing strides in rebuilding itself since then, but there can be no doubt that the event has left deep wounds on Japan and its people, and it will be many years until the healing is complete. And it may be that the Church in Japan will play a pivotal role in that healing.
Christianity Today recently ran a series of articles exploring how Japanese Christians have been serving their neighbors, and the results they’ve been seeing. The first article, Soohwan Park’s “Redeeming Disaster in Japan,” explores how the Church has been carrying out the sort of relief work that “traditional” relief services often overlook, and how local churches are able to provide unorthodox relief efforts that can nevertheless have long-term effects. In one particularly inspiring passage, Park describes an attempt to promote the long-term development of a damaged region:
Our research led us to Usuiso, a tiny coastal fishing village heavily damaged by the tsunami. Some 200 homes were lost, and many villagers died. Before the disaster, Usuiso was aging, economically declining, and socially inactive. After the tsunami, the only landmark of the village was a pile of radioactive debris that stood out on the flattened landscape like a mountain.
In this desolation, the leadership of one church, Global Mission Chapel, in nearby Iwaki City brought vision and hope to local survivors. While the mayor fled after the disaster, church members started serving all over the city, even though the church had also lost families.
In contrast to the slow action by Iwaki City officials, the church quickly gained the trust of the city’s remaining residents. As church members served in disaster-stricken areas, they met evacuees from Usuiso. Christian volunteers began to visit the village to pray over what remained. Church elders proposed a design for a new village with restored homes, businesses, educational and cultural facilities, and commercial centers.
In response to the disaster, Global Mission Chapel changed its name to Global Mission Center because, they said, “A church is people, not a building.” Members committed themselves to relocate to Usuiso when appropriate and to stand with villagers for generations to come. After two years, there is fresh momentum for restoring Usuiso. The members of Global Mission Center saw this vision of a new Japan rise out of their prayers with their suffering neighbors.
The second article, Alanna Foxwell-Baraja’s “Beauty From Broken Things,” focuses on one specific ministry: a ministry called Nozomi where women from the affected regions come together to make and sell jewelry. The ministry provides a number of services: employment which allows the women to earn a living, community in which they can jointly deal with their loss and suffering, and finally, spiritual discipleship.
The third article, Kathy Oyama’s “Meeting Our Tokyo Neighbors with Open Doors,” isn’t specifically about the earthquake relief efforts, but rather, another account of how Japanese Christians are slowly and quietly reaching out to their neighbors. In this case, the opening of a neighborhood play center for local families. Oyama details the center’s humble beginnings:
[O]ur first small step was to open our restrooms to neighbors using the park where we had hosted the fall festival. Soon, we had a constant stream of mothers with small children making their way to our building. At virtually no cost, we were able to serve people in a way equivalent to providing a cup of cold water (Matt. 10:42; Mark 9:41). We soon realized that moms would benefit from a place to change their children’s diapers, so we set up an area for that, using equipment we had on hand. Near the entry to the restrooms, we started posting information about church-sponsored classes and events that might meet their needs. All of these actions were passive and nonthreatening and allowed us to build trust—important in a culture historically deeply suspicious of formal Christianity. We were not preaching or ministering directly to anyone with words or a message. We were trying to serve from a position of quiet humility.
In all of these things, according to pastor and scholar Atsuyoshi Fujiwara, the Japanese people are experiencing a “fourth encounter” with Christianity. However, as opposed to previous encounters, which were characterized by a success-oriented vision of Christianity, this encounter seems to be characterized by the Church’s humility, service, and unity. And the results are promising, especially in those areas hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami.
American Christians can learn much from the witness of our Japanese brothers and sisters. We often hear how our country is slipping into a “post-Christian” era, but even so, Christianity still wields considerable cultural influence here in the States. Our Japanese brothers and sisters do not have that “luxury.” Currently, about one percent of Japanese call themselves “Christian,” while the vast majority subscribes to a syncretic mixture of Shinto and Buddhism. Although Japan technically has religious freedom, Christianity is viewed with wariness as a “foreign” religion. (A friend of mine currently serving in Japan as a missionary put it this way: for many Japanese, converting to Christianity would mean that they would no longer be Japanese, and that potential loss of their cultural identity is simply not worth it.)
As a result, Japanese Christians have realized that they need to work within the usual power structures. As Oyama puts it:
[W]e have learned to work humbly with the people in authority around us, instead of confronting them or accusing them of mistreatment. We have chosen to work with the system the way it is, rather than attempt to demand the rights that the constitution of Japan grants us. We want to be peacemakers in a land that holds peace in highest esteem. In so doing, we hope to introduce as many as we can, both in our local community and our municipal government, to the Prince of Peace.
The American Church can often seem obsessed with numbers (e.g., the size of our congregations, the amounts in our offering plates, the number of officials we can get elected each political season). For Christians in Japan, who are already so marginalized, focusing on numbers—and the cultural power they imply—is essentially pointless. Instead, they’ve had to take a subtler and and deeply intentional approach, by moving into hurting and needy communities and first meeting their physical, earthly needs (be it a vocation to earn money, or providing space to change dirty diapers). Such an approach may seem inefficient, costly, and unimpressive—but I daresay that it will bear some impressive fruit in the coming years and decades, as Christians come together to help heal a deeply wounded nation.