What the Japanese Church Has Learned 10 Years After Fukushima

On February 13, almost 10 years to the date after the infamous March 11 triple disaster that struck northeast Japan, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake shook the same region.

Like a strobe light, memories and emotions that had been dimming for a decade returned. However, the aftershock was not just a reminder of the devastation and 20,000 deaths from 2011’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake in the Tohoku region and resulting 45-foot tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima. It also prompted the Japanese church to call to mind all that God has done since.

Pastors and ministry leaders in Japan told CT of how the disaster has shaped the Japanese church and where they are headed next, providing a perspective of hope and urgency for churches worldwide amid the trials of the pandemic and current conflicts.

Shaken and Stirred into Action

For Yoshiya Hari, the triple disaster marked an almost immediate career and life change. Within days, the pastor of Saikyo Nozomi Chapel was assigned to help run CRASH (Christian Relief Assistance Support and Hope), organizing and allocating the masses of donated material and volunteers that were suddenly flooding into Tohoku from Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, the United States, and other nations.

“I was so overwhelmed. I was just a local church pastor and suddenly I was here,” said Hari, also Asian Access’s national director for Japan since 2011. “The news was broadcasting shocking scenes: the tsunami, the nuclear reactor explosion in Fukushima. There was so much fear and it felt like trials were hitting us like waves that keep coming and coming. Japan seemed almost at its end.

“But we realized that people all over the world were praying and sending support and we were encouraged,” he told CT. Organizations like CRASH helped mobilize relief efforts in Tohoku and, more importantly, established support networks of pastors and ministers across Japan that have continued for the past decade.

“Relief has its time limits,” said Hari. “But the local church has an eternal commitment.”

Pastor Yoshiya Hari in Onagawa, Miyagi, after the 2011 Tohoku triple disaster.

Image: Courtesy of Asian Access

Pastor Yoshiya Hari in Onagawa, Miyagi, after the 2011 Tohoku triple disaster.

Japanese pastors agree that in many ways the disaster in Japan has been a catalyst for positive change.

“The spiritual atmosphere has changed and people are more open to the gospel,” said Nobuyoshi Nagai, lead pastor of Tohoku Central Church and Japan’s national director for Alpha. “Churches from all over Japan and the world now have a desire to come to Tohoku to evangelize and plant churches. Many people have accepted Christ and many churches have been planted since the disaster.”

“Small communities in the northeastern disaster area that had been notorious for limited receptivity to the gospel before 2011 have now recognized the presence and importance of the church,” said Takeshi Takazawa, a church planting veteran who currently serves as Asian Access’s vice president for innovative initiatives.

“We’ve also seen more connections within Asia,” he said. “For example, the Love Singapore movement has embraced Love Japan, and the Filipino church has a strong relationship with Japanese churches.”

Churches in Japan also now feel better prepared to address new disasters and social issues. When a large earthquake struck Kumamoto in 2016, Christians from Tohoku immediately connected with leaders there to share about their experiences and advise the response.

Prepared for Pandemic

COVID-19 has brought about challenges for the recovery effort in Japan, including drawing government and media attention away from any tsunami recovery efforts in the northeast. But the church has been able to use wisdom gained after the disaster to offer help during this new crisis.

Support methods such as pastor networks and crisis management plans that were created in relief efforts have been reactivated nationwide this year to support those in need. Establishing networks and building local community trust were necessary in addressing both the 2011 disaster and the 2021 pandemic.

“Networks we had set up in 2011 allowed us to share ideas and wisdom in the midst of the pandemic, and since we had built trust with the community and local government after the tsunami, people sought help from churches during the pandemic,” said Yukimasa Otomo, pastor of Shiogama Bible Baptist church in a small fishing town between the large cities of Sendai and Matsushima. For example, his church provides food for those who have lost their jobs or working hours amid public health measures.

Destruction in Sendai

Image: Courtesy of Asian Access

Destruction in Sendai

“All Japanese were impacted in some way by the disasters in 2011. For some, it may be just a superficial change, but for others, including pastors and churches, it has caused deep and significant changes,” said Hari. “I pray that the pandemic causes similar deep changes in us—including myself.”

“Japanese Christians are once again re-examining what it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ because of the pandemic,” said Takazawa. “The church has moved out of the ‘come in’ mindset to be more missional.”

The increased sensitivity to outsiders and commitment to holistic care prompted several churches to reach out to internationals who came to Ishinomaki for fishing jobs and were stranded with limited options or made to work harder to make up for factories losing workers because of COVID-19.

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Source: Christianity Today