Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Great Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami

I find it hard to write about what I've witnessed.

Iwaki is located south of Fukushima on the eastern coast of Japan. A great wave, hundreds of miles long, hit the coast a little over a month ago. Thousands died. Thousands are still missing.

Several of us went northward to visit the province last Saturday. Buried in the rubble were homes, possessions, and families.

It is the worst thing I've ever seen.

The Wave
After the earthquake, the ocean itself receded hundreds of meters. This process, known as "withdrawal," is deceptive and often prompts people to pick up beached fish and shells. A few who have experienced this sort of thing before or have heard stories from their grandparents know that this is a classic sign of tsunami. In other words, "RUN." 

Ocean, seawall, piano keys
A tsunami itself is not a wave, but a flood. It is a wall of dense water that is stacked from the back, and hits with the momentum of an army of freight trains. Tsunami travel at more than 500 mph across the ocean without losing much momentum. The deadly Sumatran tsunami in 2004 originated more than 3000 miles away from its areas of impact. As a tsunami nears land, the water slows and stacks up on itself. The more narrow the obstacles in the chute, the higher the water rises, pushed from behind.

It was 2:46 pm on a Friday. Children were at school, parents were at work. Families were separated.

The tsunami measured up to 37 meters tall. Who could stand a chance?

Gazing at the wreckage, it was as if a monster had reached out of the deep and engulfed the city with its massive arms, and then, like a child with a sand castle, steamrolled it, back and forth until nothing made sense and everything was chaos. The reason? Cold, capricious fun, or maybe boredom.

In the Nebraska, we fear tornadoes. These devastating twisters wreak havoc on rural communities, and have even destroyed entire towns. But that doesn't compare to 13,000 dead and 14,000 missing. That doesn't compare to 160,000 living in shelters. That doesn't compare to thousands of homes and families destroyed. That doesn't compare to nearly 100 children now confirmed as orphans. That doesn't compare. That doesn't compare...

Throughout this process, I am amazed at the resilience of the Japanese. We visited a nearby relief shelter, stationed in a school gymnasium. The mood was almost festive. Thanks to some missionaries from the local church who showed up to do music and give back rubs, many people were smiling amid the devastating situation. 

The shelter was clean and organized. Incredibly so. Newspapers lined the floor and hundreds of people slept on mats with makeshift cardboard walls for 'houses'. Privacy was impossible, but at least they had each other.

Cherry "tree" and space heater, Iwaki shelter
The Japanese response in some ways puts hurricane Katrina to shame. Despite having little fuel, clean water, food, medicine, and shelter, the Japanese faithfully take care of themselves. There has been little looting, and even the homeless have been allowing refugees to take shelter with them beneath tarps.

But I do not write to indict the American mentality, nor to praise the Japanese response--only to paint a picture. People are trying to stay hopeful. The shelter we visited even has its own indoor cherry "tree."

I didn't feel right taking pictures of people--my own admission of weakness as an amateur journalist. I wasn't gawking, but I didn't want to look like I was, either. Though, many people came up to our photographer and wanted their pictures taken. They seemed eager for us to hear their stories.

Their survivor stories are their new realities.

We may have caught a brief moment of sunshine during our visit, but it is difficult for me to believe that it is like that all the time. The physical destruction is a calamity in itself--measuring 25 trillion yen ($300 billion), but how do you count human suffering?

The cost cannot be measured.

What is the actual cost of a 200-year-old family business that was destroyed? A child orphaned? An entire city demolished? History erased? What is the current exchange rate in dollars to tears?

It is imperative in times like these that those who reflect on the tragedy don't stop short of meaning. We shouldn't artificially construct tacky, pre-fabricated explanations, but we must also distill what few drops of meaning we can from this broken barrel. We are called to point the way. Even if it is inadequate, we owe it to ourselves and our God to try.

Unfortunately, I feel like I'm at the end of a Coen brothers movie, having watched something horrible, and asking myself "What was the point of that!? What did we learn from all this!?"

The simple, existential answer is, "nothing."

On the other side of the coin is the Christian storybook, saying "God has a reason, He will bring good out of this."

I find both of these instinctive explanations tempting, but foolish. They are both too trite and simplistic. It seems to me a vile sin to offer a trite answer to explain great human suffering.

I have wrestled with this ever since the disaster originally happened more than a month ago. It has only pained me more to see the site of the tsunami for myself, but I am glad I did. On one hand, I feel that the more pain you experience as you grow older, the more pain you take on, and the harder faith becomes. On the other hand, I hope that this loss of innocence will result in clearer vision, despite the burden.

In my mind, this calamity grieves God greatly. This is not "an opportunity." This is not a "tool." This is not "God's punishment." This is not "OH, well, gosh, if they only had Jesus they'd be filled with hope and joy! YA-HOO!" Let us not forget that whole families were buried by water beneath their own homes just a month ago.

On the other hand, God is not distant from this situation. God allowed this to happen. The love of Christ still pervades. We must wrestle with that by faith. We may never know why. But we must know our place when disaster is permitted to strike.

The Bear
While in Iwaki I saw several different "Pooh Bears" that stood out from the wreckage, and, whether in ironic memorial or in a desperate attempt at hope, someone had stood one up along the side of the road. As cars passed by, they could see this happy, loving bear smiling at them from atop the rubble.

He was no doubt the lost toy of some child. His smile was not mocking, but kind. And, most importantly, he was standing in the front lines with the best of them, amidst the chaos, as if to say "I see your pain, and I love you. I'm still here with you."

This picture to me symbolizes the admission of sadness and loss, and despite, hope.

Is that not our place in this time? To stand together with this deep loss, to step along side the Japanese and help carry the burden? To be a friend, and reach out to offer hope and a future?

Instead of seeing this as an "opportunity" to preach Christianity, can we instead show love, and make others ask, "why so much, why me?"

If no one is asking, then something is wrong.

The church we visited in Iwaki is a wonderful example of this. They have worked for the good of their community, and because of that they have earned an excellent rapport. They are allowed into the relief shelters, where they give foot & back rubs and perform live music. It seems to me that there is no difference between ministering to someone's physical needs, and ministering to their spirit. How simple is this? In fact, the latter demands the former.

Our place is with those who suffer. The tsunami reminded us that we are small, and our lives are short. I never thought I would be within range of a nuclear meltdown, but here I am. If it is all we can do, then can we be salt and light? Can we be a pleasing fragrance in the middle of this abyss?

Let us not pretend that we know why God allowed this destruction. Let us not pretend we have an easy solution. Let us mourn with those who mourn. Let us pour out our spirits to help others in their time of need. Let us pray for their safety, prosperity, and hope.

Let us help the victims to face a better tomorrow.


  1. This is a question many of us are wrestling with back home, too. We witness the destruction and tragedy from afar, on 3-inch YouTube videos, and blithely gape at the horror (the horror!) of it all, while quickly retreating back to our usual daily routines in the solace of knowing we sent a text message to deliver $10 to the Red Cross. What is the proper way to respond? I'm not sure. But an easy explanation is not only unhelpful, it's actually hurtful. It allows us to abdicate responsibility: "God allowed it to happen," we say, which means we can sleep easily at night if we don't try to do anything to help.

    Accounts like yours help bring a much-needed perspective to all this, Mike. It helps us see that there may never be a way for us to understand why this happened, but gives us direction in how we ought to respond. And that is with love, compassion, giving of our time, talent, and treasure, and doing what we can to help those in need rather than just flipping the channel and moving on to the next bit of celebrity gossip or political fearmongering.

  2. Your post is another item that continues the challenge of how to engage, how to help around this disaster and also how such events impact our relationship with God. Many thoughts but just a few dot points:

    - I rarely hear the Tower of Siloam line Jesus retorted with when we have people asking questions of "what did the Japanese do to deserve this?" or "it's such a pagan nation, this is punishment". Jesus said, "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." It wasn't a pronouncement of judgment but yet another merciful warning to all who remain here today that should result in humbling not pride.

    - Such natural disasters are ultimately a consequence of humanity's moral evil. When the custodians of the earth fell into sin, so was the earth subjected to it. This is often what people miss. They detach humanity's overall sinful pursuit of it's own power from it's consequence in the destructive nature of the earth about us. Death is also a consequence of sin.

    - I find it odd that people who hold deeply secular views are so dismayed with the situation. Should not their utilitarian/rationalist view of the world say that all these people were going to die anyway and that from time to time quakes happen. Ultimately they have no reason within their worldview for their deep anger and grief at such destruction and I believe moments like this a necessary to shake some from their self focused stupor.

    - We are called to stand alongside with those who suffer and mourn with those who mourn. That's something hard when it's easy to disengage by changing the channel yet we are meant to be moved to cry out with and for our fellow Imago Dei bearers.

    - The Boxing Day or Indian Ocean Tsunami was in 2004 right?

    - Pooh. Ok this isn't something I've thought through enough but has been on my mind for a long time. Isn't there something odd about how we as a humanity create these characters be it ultra-kawaii ones or superheroes or Evangelion, that embody characteristics or values we treasure. Then we place them on altars in our lives, be it shelves in prominent places, adorning our diaries or heaven forbid even our dashboards. These statues and toys come to mimic some of the function of idols in Ancient Mediterranean cultures, if not modern Hindu and Buddhist cultures. They make people feel better but the item in itself holds no power. It's merely a reflection of the human meaning put into it and whilst most people know that, just try destroying one. Something about it still seems weird.

  3. i love the observation about the pooh bear. i imagine it as an ironic attempt at humor, but i'm not sure whether i like an ironic pooh bear or a consoling pooh bear better. either way, very interesting. there's a lot there to unpack in just that image.

  4. Aaron- I know, right? It was a strange and bizarre feeling to see him sitting by the road.. camping atop one of many empty foundations, sand, and debris.. Everything was out of place. Even he was out of place, but at least he was intentional. It's pretty open to interpretation...

    Casper- Thanks for the date! You're correct. Comment = Omoshiroii! It is true that the bear could also be to make people feel better, but it holds no real power. And what a feeble attempt in light of the circumstances...

    Simon- I'm so grateful you enjoyed my post. =) It would be very hard to be in the states in a time like this and stay focused in the long haul. Honestly, it can't be helped. There's a feeling of powerlessness due to the distance and insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way. Indeed, many Japanese in Tokyo actually feel this strain in a way, too. Though many of them want to help (physically, especially), they don't know how or don't have a way. This feeling of powerlessness can bring a guilt that it's important to be aware of. As an American, it's hard to stay connected. You can't blame yourself, but you can do a little--or maybe a lot! After all, we need media, computer, and video guys here at CRASH...

    Good comments!!