Hope in Japan after 3-11

By Anna Kojima - Tokyo, Japan - Pentecost/Assumption 2011



March 11, 2011 began just as usual for me. I work in an office tower in Tokyo, and it was "TGIF." Since I was scheduled to meet a good friend after work, I was simply looking forward to the end of my day.


Earthquakes are rather common in Japan, so when I began to feel a slight shaking at my desk at 2:46 pm, I thought, Oh, it must be just one of those little quakes again. Then when it began to shake very violently, I exchanged bewildered looks with colleagues. As it became worse than any we had experienced before, and as we swayed like a pendulum (skyscrapers are structured to sway during earthquakes in order to absorb the shock), I crouched under my desk and held on to it. The shaking seemed to continue forever. The biggest quake lasted about five minutes, and it was followed by a series of aftershocks.


I wish I could boast and say that I prayed trustfully to God at that moment, like an exemplary Catholic. But in truth, my mind just went blank. I just kept saying to myself, "UH-OH! PLEASE STOP! WON’T IT EVER STOP?"


Books fell from the bookshelves, but thankfully our office did not suffer serious damage. Neither did most of the main areas of Tokyo, although a few deaths were reported. However, all the trains and subways stopped in Tokyo and its suburbs. Terrible traffic jams caused buses and taxis to become useless, especially in central Tokyo. I, like many others, had to walk for hours to reach home. A number of people, who were living far away from their offices or were on business trips and could not get home, stayed overnight at their offices or in public facilities.


Only after I reached home and turned on the TV (yes, the electricity was still working) did I see the horrific video images of the tsunami as it quickly swallowed up towns in Miyagi and other prefectures on the Northeastern coast. Then I heard the news of the alarming state of the Fukushima nuclear plants. Gradually, it dawned on me that this earthquake was indeed not “one of those little quakes” as I had initially thought but was something “beyond imagination,” as many Japanese politicians and other officials commented repeatedly in the days that followed. 

For nearly a week, all the usual TV programs were cancelled and replaced by continuous news coverage of this unprecedented disaster. As of mid-May, the number of casualties in Japan had reached over 15,000, with 9,500 people still missing. Approximately 117,000 have taken shelter at public halls, gymnasiums, and other public spaces, because they were forced to leave their homes. For the Japanese, this 3-11 disaster has been the worst since World War II. It has affected all of us in Japan in one way or another. We all feel we have suffered this event in a personal way. Many compare its impact to the September 11 attacks in the United States.


In the midst of such disaster, we have been heartened in Japan by the relief effort, which began immediately. Many nations all over the world -- including China, with which Japan has had strained relations for many historical and territorial reasons -- have offered generous financial, humanitarian, and other forms of aid.


Many touching episodes of personal, human courage and self-giving have been reported, as well. In one case, a Japanese man ran quickly to a place where many Chinese exchange students were staying. He shouted and warned them that a big tsunami would surely come after such a big earthquake, and he instructed them to escape to higher ground. The Chinese students were saved by his warning. He himself was found dead afterwards because he had remained in the area to warn others to run for their lives. 


Japanese Catholics have been doing their part in the relief effort, as I can testify through the story of my own parish, Kichijoji Catholic Church.


Kichijoji Church is located in eastern Tokyo, and it is one of the largest Catholic churches in Japan, with the registered number of parish members reaching approximately 5,500. Members of the parish donated nearly ¥1,500,000 ($18,569 US) to Caritas Japan, a member of Caritas Internationalis. Also, Kichijoji Church accepted a request from the Embassy of the Philippines to welcome refugees. For about three weeks, starting March 16, the church provided temporary shelter to forty-three Filipinos who had been living in an area heavily affected by the earthquake and were forced to leave their homes. After staying at the church, the refugees either went back to the Philippines or moved on to the homes of friends or relatives. These are the main things the parish has done related to the earthquake so far, and the parish stands ready to take further action as requests arise.


To this day, the congregation prays for the disaster victims before every Mass, using a prayer composed by Leo Jun Ikenaga, S.J. the Archbishop of Osaka, which I believe is prayed in most Catholic churches throughout Japan. The following is an English translation of "A Prayer for All People Suffering from the Great Disaster in Eastern Japan":

Merciful and loving Father, in times of joy and sadness, you have been with us and have never abandoned us. As we continue to pray and offer sacrifices in solidarity with those who are suffering due to the recent devastating earthquake that happened in our country, we ask you to console and strengthen them during this difficult time, and we pray that their normal, peaceful lives may soon be restored. We also pray for all those who died during this great disaster, that they may finally rest in peace in your light and love. We ask this through Christ our Lord, Amen. With the loving intercession of Mary our mother. Amen.

Before 3-11, statistics showed that many Japanese, including the young in my own generation, were pessimistic and uncertain about their future. The economy was sluggish, and it was repeatedly reported in the news that Japan was losing its status as "Number 1" in Asia while China and South Korea were speedily gaining strength. I felt this air of national pessimism even before the disaster.


Personally, I was also getting a bit gloomy about the future, thinking that maybe it is not possible for the Japanese to hope for a bright future, even in more spiritual terms. As Christians, we put our hope ultimately in the good Lord, but in Japan, Christians comprise less than one percent of the whole population. Most do not believe in any particular God. It is not easy to sustain feelings of hope in this culture.


Then, 3-11 occurred. The generous displays of friendship around the world, with nations' looking beyond the so-called national interest, was unexpected by many Japanese. It was a wonderful surprise especially to those of us formed in this modern culture where personal financial success and happiness in material, worldly terms are the top priority. Such offerings of friendship allowed many Japanese to become free from a sense of xenophobia and to become more open to the world. There is much to learn from this generosity.


Also, since many Japanese felt as if this disaster was their own personal experience, they sent unprecedented amounts of donations to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations involved in the relief effort. Before 3-11, it was typically said that “giving donations” was not as deeply rooted in Japanese culture as in Western cultures. Yet many now believe that that trend may change after this triple disaster. Volunteer activities were also not very common in Japan, but now volunteers are flocking to help. There are even companies contemplating establishing “volunteer leave” to allow their employees to engage in volunteer work. 

The damage has been devastating, and no one has a clear idea when there will be a day when we can say that northeastern Japan has recovered and can prosper once again.  In particular, the radiation is still a great threat, and its long-term consequences a great unknown. Employees of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which manages the now notorious Fukushima nuclear plants, are risking their lives to try to stop the radiation and safely shut down the plants. We do not yet know when or how this will be achieved. The Japan Self-Defense Force and the police are still searching for missing bodies and are still trying to clean up the endless piles of sludge, rubble, and wreckage. Many farmers, fishermen, and other food manufacturers in the Northeast and other parts of Japan suffered huge losses. They are still battling inaccurate, troubling rumors that their vegetables, fish, and other food products are contaminated with radiation, despite the fact that only those that clear inspections are on the market and being exported.

Yet even in this time when Japan can be said to have reached an all-time low, I believe that the spirit of solidarity, revealed to us globally, and also revealed among the Japanese at home, is a great reason for hope for the future. I myself no longer feel completely dark. There is no doubt that we must keep on searching for an answer to the fundamental question, “Why did such a terrible disaster ever happen?” But, as long as true friendship -- seen in the willingness to share pain and to accompany those who are suffering -- is cherished in Japan in the years to come, then I think the phrase, “Japan as Number One,” which became famous as a term about economic power about 30 years ago, can come to have a radically different meaning in my country, as something to aspire to in a spiritual sense.