The strongest recorded earthquake in more than 100 years struck off the coast of Japan on March 11, causing horrific damage to the nation’s northeastern region. The 8.9 magnitude earthquake triggered a massive 23-foot tsunami that washed away homes, cars and ships and triggered dozens of fires. The city of Sendai bore the brunt of the twin disasters. Government officials say the estimated death toll reaches into the tens of thousands.
Another concern looms as two nuclear reactors exploded in Fukushima Daiichi and Daini after cooling pumps were destroyed, sending clouds of white smoke into the air. Officials declared a "nuclear emergency" amid fears of radioactive fallout. Some 200,000 residents are evacuating as a precaution. Authorities are also distributing potassium iodide tablets to help protect against thyroid cancer from radiation exposure, officials said.
Christians on the Ground Mobilize
Christian organizations based in Japan are using social networking sites coordinate relief efforts. One Christian group led by Jonathan Wilson has activated a team of volunteers using Facebook. Christian Relief, Assistance, Support and Hope (CRASH Japan) is working closely with JEMA (the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association), to coordinate a large network of experienced volunteers who live in Japan and are familiar with the nation’s culture and language. Leaders are currently setting up a command center in Tokyo with bases in affected areas.
“Many of us are wondering how we can best respond to the devastating news of the earthquakes and tsunami that have hurt especially Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate ken,” Wilson said. “As the computer and television screens pour out images, we can pour out our hearts to the Creator of the universe to take care of the great nation of Japan.”
Early in the weekend, CRASH determined it will not send teams into the areas near the nuclear plants. Leaders say more highly skilled professionals are better trained to provide relief there. Instead, CRASH will focus its efforts in smaller villages who may not receive assistance from the larger humanitarian aid groups. Teams will work through churches who know the community’s needs.
During an organizational meeting with ministry leaders, Wilson compared the network’s mission to the mission of Joseph of Arimathea. “[He] was well-connected and compassionate… [he] used his connections to protect the body of Christ. [Likewise] we as a people must step up and use our resources to help others in their time of need. None of us can do this on our own. We need each other right now.”
Some international Christian humanitarian aid organizations are waiting to deploy until Japan requests specific assistance. World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that was quick to respond to Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, says its mission may be different in Japan because the country is so developed.
"We don’t want to get in the way and want to be laser focused on what is needed and what part of our global expertise we can bring to bear," World Vision spokeswoman Rachel Wolff Wolff. "The good thing is that we’re very experienced in disaster response, we know how to do it well.”
Several reports indicate airport officials in Japan have delayed flights into the country take precautionary measures. Israel's humanitarian voluntary organization, ZAKA has deployed a team to Japan for search and rescue. Last reports indicate that team is held up in Hong Kong waiting for clearance from airport officials in Japan.
Missions Faces a Unique Challenge in Japan
Japan’s population exceeds 127 million, yet less than one percent of those consider themselves Christians. Those who do claim a religious preference typically blend elements of Shinto and Buddhism. The regions hit hardest by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan’s northern Pacific coast are considered the “darkest” spiritually by most missionaries.
Ronald Stoller and his wife Joan have served in the Japan Baptist Conference since 1973 as missionaries in Nagoya, a city about 500 miles north of nation’s quake-prone archipelago islands.
“Joan was finishing up teaching an English class at our church when the place started rocking,” Ron Stoller said. “During another Bible Study [later in the day] at church seven people who usually attend (only one is a Christian) were happy to stay for the Bible study, though three asked if they could first call to check on their children living in the effected areas.”
“It is a good chance to tell people of the peace God provides in such situations,” said Stoller.
Missionaries often refer to Japan as the wealthiest unreached nation in the world. Dan Iverson, a church planter and mission team leader in the Tokyo/Chiba area with Mission to the World, says about 70 percent of Japanese profess no religious affiliation.
“Japan is so poor spiritually. There is suicides everyday and there are so many problems in this rich country that has no clue about the Gospel,” said Iverson. “We pray God will have mercy on Japan in this terrible earthquake.”
Japan is an extremely polite culture and its citizens often avoid conflict. In that regard, Iverson said, missionaries face a different kind of challenge. Japanese people are generally willing to listen to missionaries share about the gospel, but few are willing to become Christians.
According to Asian Access, leaders in Japan have characterized their own nation as "a super power without a moral compass." This is a relatively new phenomenon in a country that was guided, for centuries, by a moral and religious ethic that came out of Shintoism and Confucianism.
“We pray for American Christians and Christians around the world that God would use this [the earthquake] for this proud, rich country to turn to the true and living God,” said Iverson. “That they will eat true bread and not the false bread of wealth and education and all the other things that haven’t worked for Japan either.”
An emergency line has been set up for non-Japanese speakers, at 050 5814 7230 and 03 5366 6001. English, Chinese, Korean are available 24 hours a day. For more information or to donate funds see Jema.org and CrashJapan.com.
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability has created a link on its homepage for givers to connect with member organizations already assisting or poised to assist in the massive relief efforts there. For more information concerning donations go to the "Servant Match Japan" at www.ecfa.org/Relief/Japan.
Russ Jones is a twenty-year award winning journalist and correspondent who freelances for a number of media outlets including CBN, TLN, Travel With Spirit, The Washington Times, the American Family Radio Network and Crosswalk.com. He is co-publisher of various Christian news sites such as ChristianPress.comand media consultant.Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. To contact Russ Jones email [email protected]or see russjones.me.