3/11 Japanese Earthquake - The Untold Stories of Spiritual Response

The huge earthquake that struck northeast Japan on March 11, 2011 tested a nation and its faith. On this first anniversary we pause to remember that day, with prayer and reflection on what it means. Without warning, on a cold sunny day, an entire region was shaken by one of five most powerful earthquakes ever recorded; then the unimaginable power of a tsunami swept away everything in its path. The prolonged horror of the Fukushima nuclear disaster closed off vast areas and called reliance on nuclear power into question. 3/11 rammed home messages about human vulnerability.

As we witnessed a disaster in video after video, shattering photos, and maps that put us on the spot, the first impressions were of chaos. Dark thoughts centered on the natural force that can destroy without warning or recourse. Threats of nuclear catastrophe sparked rumors that Japan's revered emperor had been secretly moved far from Tokyo, economic collapse seemed imminent, and political systems were jolted. Some called the events a punishment for a materialistic life, wages of sin. Visiting Japan a month later, I felt the somber mood and the eerie quiet of empty hotels and airports, and of streets where the few pedestrians walked with bowed shoulders.

But Japan has in the ensuing year won the world's admiration. Its response to catastrophe set new standards for courage, solidarity, compassion, and diligence. Cleaning and rebuilding began even as people mourned the dead and searched for thousands who never returned. Families and communities supported each other. Support poured in and it was used, and used well. Japan is testimony that life goes on, that there is hope even in the darkest hours. A Japanese tradition likens this tough endurance and core strength to wheat: wheat sprouts in cold, harsh winters, is trampled on, but with deep roots in the ground resists cold and wind and grows straight into productive and beautiful plants.

Japanese religion today defies simple descriptions and it is often ignored. Some 70 percent of Japanese say they belong to no religion. But after 3/11 the spiritual beliefs that are deeply embedded in Japanese culture came into play. The religious response to the 3/11 catastrophe is an important part of the story of recovery.

In the tsunami's immediate aftermath, people prayed, looking to their core beliefs and values for courage and understanding. Then the practical sides of religion came into play. Places of worship in Japan are said to outnumber convenience stores by a factor of four and community centers by a factor of nine. Temples, shrines, churches and other entities are everywhere and they often served as the centers where supplies were distributed and that welcomed people whose villages had disappeared and who were evacuated from the contaminated zones. Japan's 80,000 temples and 85,000 shrines were logical sites for communities to gather, and, perhaps as evidence of historic wisdom, many were beyond the reach of the tsunami's waves and thus survived.

Monks and priests in the areas affected were present from the very first moments and today, on the first anniversary, they will lead prayers for those lost and for recovery. They offer comfort and a link between past and future.

But the response of religious institutions extends far beyond traditional prayer and community. Japan also has a vibrant and complex set of newer religious movements and organizations that sprang into action. They used ancient and modern techniques: from personal appeals to followers to skilled media campaigns. While bureaucracies and governments moved slowly, hampered by rules, political infighting, and inadequate preparation, these groups mobilized aid efforts. They displayed strong organization and an ability to mobilize both funds and volunteers, among young people especially, and across international borders.

Tenrikyo, an organization founded in 1838, established a disaster response center and built on a long history of volunteering rooted in its religious practice of hinokishin. Soka Gakkai, the largest movement of its kind, immediately turned its Tokyo headquarters into an emergency communication center. Their northeastern facilities became shelters and centers to ship food and supplies to the surrounding areas. Rissho Kosei-kai, another large movement, mobilized ambitious relief efforts and raised large charitable donations. Their efforts were profoundly practical but they also offered spiritual support, to their own members and far beyond.

Worldmate, a new religious movement combines elements of Shinto and Buddhist traditions and is involved in a remarkable tapestry of philanthropic efforts (its leader, Haruhisa Handa, is a trustee of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, which I lead). They instantly refocused their complex charitable work on northeast Japan. Teams with trucks delivered supplies of food and emergency supplies within days of the tsunami and their information was far ahead of government bulletins (they had members inside the Fukushima plant). As the nuclear disaster unfolded, the group looked far and wide for Geiger counters, and succeeded in borrowing them from a UK university. They called themselves the Godzilla squads, after the legendary monster created by nuclear radiation. They trucked supplies as far as the Geiger counters showed them to be safe, reaching many who felt abandoned and alone.

The active and constructive religious response to Japan's 3/11 catastrophe caught some by surprise and it has received fairly scant attention. But what happened may well stand as an important landmark. It shows what one leader calls the unconscious religiosity of the Japanese: an amorphous sense of being connected to something transcending the self, a gratitude to the ancestors, divine beings, and people in general. It is alive, he says, even within those who say that they have no religion.

While the traditional shrines and temples served as havens that helped to rebuild communities, the newer religious movements played different roles. Appealing especially to young people, they showed that religion in Japan dimensions that are modern and focused, combining traditional appeals to solidarity and spirituality with modern capacities to mobilize and direct energies to productive ends.

This religious story shows an important if often obscured face of Japan. It is part of Japan's remarkable response to the disaster, part of the fortitude, community solidarity, and determination to rebuild that we must admire and salute as we mark 3/11's first anniversary.