To watch the news reports, read the wire stories and listen to radio updates, it’s easy to conclude that Japan is fighting for its life.
The devastation is heartbreaking. By Monday morning thousands of bodies were beginning to wash up on shore, overwhelming relief efforts. Any estimate at the death toll is a calculated guess, but it will likely be in the tens of thousands. The long range impact of the nuclear fallout is also unknown. At the very least we know people have been exposed to varying degrees of radiation.
One of the themes emerging amidst the carnage appears to be the poise and composure of many of the survivors. During one news report, a U.S.-based reporter asked a correspondent in Japan if the victims were “satisfied” with the international relief effort. His response was instructive.
“The people here are unnervingly calm,” he said, noting that although they’re also probably in shock, they just don’t appear to possess an entitlement mentality. To the astonishment of the host, the correspondent concluded, “They don’t expect anything from anyone.”
I am not surprised. As a young college student, I lived for a year in Tokyo, which is approximately 200 miles south of Sendai, where the majority of the destruction now lies. It was a transformational year for me. Anytime you’re exposed to a different culture, you’re indelibly changed, or at least you should be. I found the Japanese people to be practical and, given their history, not unfamiliar with adversity.
During my time there I was paired with a local family. I lived with these gracious new friends and have fond memories of discussions around the dinner table. If there was one recurring theme in the many conversations, it would be the father’s wonder and amazement that I was sitting there at all. That’s because during World War II, my host was a teenager and vividly recalled the bitterness between nations.
Isn’t it fascinating, he remarked again and again, that during those years our two countries were enemies and at war. And yet here we were, forty or so years later, sitting at his table, breaking bread as friends. He would tell me that during WWII and for years thereafter, Japan operated with a survivor-like mentality. It wasn’t about thriving. It was, very simply, about struggling to live and see another day.
Looking at this week’s tragedy, I suspect this is the root of the Japanese people’s calm temperament and resolve, and why many seem to be composed amidst the crisis.
I would urge you to join me in praying for those impacted and struggling to not only survive, but to cope with the loss of loved ones.
Let me add a final thought: A calm exterior doesn’t always bespeak a hopeful mind or heart, especially when your hope is not rooted in faith in Jesus Christ.
According to reliable estimates, only one percent of Japanese are Christians. In fact, only 30% claim any faith at all. Still, several years ago, pollster George Gallup made an intriguing discovery. Amidst the teenage population, seven percent were Christians.
As we watch and wait for more answers from this devastation, we might be reminded that tragedy has a habit of forcing the most important issues and moving people in one of two directions. For some, crisis hardens and make them even angrier than they were prior to tragedy. They grow cynical, dejected and depressed. Yet for others, a remarkable and beautiful thing happens. Instead of making them bitter, they become better. They emerge softer and gentler, even more compassionate. In other words, the tragedy doesn’t traumatize, it transforms.
Let us pray for those now struggling on the island of Japan. Let’s also pray that the horror of this natural disaster will be redeemed amidst the recovery, and that many who don’t believe in Him will find ultimate hope and rescue through faith in Jesus Christ.