Japan’s 127 million inhabitants remain traumatized from the triple torrent that devastated the country. Its worst earthquake on record spawned an enormous tsunami that swamped coastal areas, killing thousands and critically damaging a nuclear power plant, threatening a complete nuclear meltdown.
This is the worst disaster to hit Japan since World War II, and the vast economic toll has made it the world’s costliest natural disaster. And the repercussions are ongoing. Here we survey what’s happened and then turn to the Bible for some perspective—to help us navigate through tumultuous and uncertain times.
Sudden shock and a 15-minute warning
On March 11, 2011, the fourth strongest quake in recorded history, measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, rocked Japan with a jolt equivalent to that of 30,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic blasts. According to Japanese seismologists, a major quake close to this magnitude is a once-in-a-thousand-years occurrence in the region. In the capital of Tokyo, some 150 miles south, thousands cowered in fear beneath their desks in tall, swaying, shock-absorbing skyscrapers.
Within nine minutes, tsunami sirens loudly blared throughout the northeastern portion of Japan’s 1,300-mile eastern coastline. While the country is one of the best prepared to deal with the threat of a tsunami, residents in the hardest hit areas probably had only 15 minutes to rush to higher ground before the first column of waves slammed ashore.
Tens of thousands of people living in ports, coastal towns and tiny cove communities simply could not escape the 30-foot-high wall of water that breached with ease some of Japan’s best coastal defenses. It swept across rice fields, engulfing entire cities and totally leveling some towns. In some areas the surge of icy water shoved debris miles inland, killing most of those who were unable to scramble to higher ground. In several coastal communities, more than half the population was left dead or missing.
The powerful surging waves pulverized wooden houses, scattering rubble like matchsticks in every direction. Cars, trucks and even train cars were thrown about like toys. Ships, tankers and boats collided, and some were washed far inland or left stranded in mounds of mud and debris 5 to 30 feet deep. Some multistory buildings became gutted shells as water rose as high as the fourth floor.
As the scale of the horror began to sink in, rescuers and search dogs combed mud and debris looking for survivors, corpses and personal mementos. For more than two weeks, some of the world’s best trained disaster relief personnel remained hindered by cold weather, shattered roads, snapped rail lines and downed telephone networks. The numerous aftershocks and threats of additional tsunamis also hampered their efforts.
Hundreds of survivors were pulled from mounds of debris. Government officials reported that there were more than 360,000 homeless who fled to one of the 2,000 ill-equipped makeshift emergency shelters on high ground above the vast plains of mud-covered debris. Most were forced to stay there for weeks because they had no homes or jobs to return to.
The double shock of the earthquake and tsunami left nearly 28,000 confirmed dead or missing. More than 2,000 bodies were recovered after having been dragged out to sea, and many more may never be found. One man was rescued after floating on a piece of metal roof from his home some nine miles out to sea.
For over two weeks 221,000 households fortunate enough to still have homes went without power, and more than 2.4 million went without running water. Many became “food refugees” at evacuation centers. Stores remained closed because food and supplies could not be delivered due to a shortage of fuel. And drivers waited in single lines nearly all day to receive their 20-liter ration of gas (5.3 U.S. gallons).
Averting nuclear meltdown
As if this double whammy was not enough, the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl radiated additional fear across Japan and around the world. The speeding tsunami waves, as tall as a house, washed right over the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan’s northeast shoreline. This knocked out power and crippled the backup generators needed to circulate vital coolant.
Suddenly four of the six atomic reactors were in dire trouble all at the same time. Three were threatening meltdown from overheating. A series of destructive explosions and fires rocked the complex. Two of the buildings housing the reactors were left a twisted mangle of steel and concrete, and concern grew that at least one containment vessel for fuel rods may have been breached. Emergency crews inside the overheating structure raced to restore power. Others began drenching the building with more than 900,000 gallons of seawater to avoid a complete meltdown.
As they battled to regain control of the reactors, workers faced many setbacks. Many were exposed to high levels of radiation, including three who were hospitalized. And hazardous levels of radiation leaked into the atmosphere and soil. (Read of the courage of the Fukushima 50 in “They Were Not Afraid to Die”.)
Many near the plant were told to stop drinking tap water after high levels of radioactive iodine were detected. Levels surpassed 4,800 times the legal limit in the seawater south of the plant. Government officials said there was no immediate danger to nearby residents and that the ocean would quickly dilute the worst contamination. (In fact, the power plant had to then dump more than 10,000 tons of radioactive water into the sea to make room for containment of higher-level radioactive water.)
Japanese authorities say efforts to control Fukushima’s overheated reactors will take months, during which time radiation will likely continue to leak into the environment, extending a nuclear emergency that already ranks as the most serious in a quarter-century.
In mid-April, the severity rating of the incident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale was raised to the highest level of 7, the same as that of the Chernobyl disaster.
National and global anxiety
Not since atomic bombs rocked Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II have local residents felt the palpable fear of a nuclear disaster. As the only country to have suffered mass radiation from atomic attack, many Japanese understand full well the deadly effects and long-term health risks of radiation poisoning.
The safety of water and food became a particular concern. Japan exports three billion dollars’ worth of food a year-mainly fruit, vegetables, dairy products and seafood, with its biggest markets being Hong Kong, China and the United States.
Low doses of radioactive contamination in milk and some leafy vegetables were detected in these countries, which then banned their import. Many other countries, including Canada and Australia, followed suit in an effort to prevent the contamination’s spread throughout the global food chain. Some also banned seafood.
Global anxiety also grew regarding the prospect that a large explosion or complete meltdown would propel dangerous clouds of radiation internationally. Plumes of tiny radiation particles did traverse the globe with small, non-dangerous traces being found in at least 13 American states, in British Columbia, Canada, and as far away as Iceland.
The crisis has intensified fears about nuclear safety worldwide. But a number of key countries—notably France, Russia, China and India—will likely remain committed to nuclear power.
This costliest natural disaster ever will likely exceed $300 billion, government officials say. That surpasses the $81 billion for Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, and the $100 billion for the 1995 quake in Kobe, Japan.
Some have speculated that Japan’s strong institutions, advanced economy and ample human capital will enable it to rebound relatively quickly. Japan has always shown phenomenal resilience in the face of immense odds.
However, the country was already hurting economically before the current crisis. The Wall Street Journal reported on April 1 that “some in the government are considering calling on the Bank of Japan to directly underwrite Japanese government bonds, or JGBs—essentially printing money—to fund reconstruction. Even before last month’s disasters, Japan’s public debt was already about twice the size of the nation’s $5 trillion economy, and the central bank has been very careful to avoid giving any appearance that it’s directly printing money to fund that debt” (“Japan Debates TEPCO Control, Debt Monetization”).
However, it seems likely that this is what will happen, which will lead to inflation at home and, with the actions of other central banks, abroad—ultimately hurting consumers everywhere.
In any case, even if the economy were to recover, the psychological toll on Japanese survivors of the triple disaster may linger for years as many cope with the trauma of fleeing for their lives, the death of loved ones and the ripping apart of homes and whole communities.
Why natural disasters?
When natural disasters like this strike, our hearts and prayers go out to those caught up in the crises. We may also search for meaning behind events. God’s Word reveals the underlying causes of natural disasters and shows us what we should learn in times of great tragedy.
God created the perfect safe environment for Adam and Eve—the Garden of Eden. But from the time they bit into the forbidden fruit, they chose to reject God’s way and determine for themselves how they should live. So God denied them access to this protected environment (Genesis 3:23-24 Genesis 3:23-24 23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from from where he was taken.
24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
American King James Version×).
Notice God’s judgment: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (verse 17, emphasis added throughout). Man’s environment would now present grievous difficulties. And natural disasters have plagued mankind ever since. Again, the underlying cause is mankind’s choice to reject God’s way. The reality is we now exist in a world that is largely cut off from God and the protective, lush and perfect setting He designed for us in the Garden of Eden.
Yet those who die in accidents or natural disasters are not necessarily greater sinners than those who survive. Time and chance happen to all people, and anyone can be suddenly snared in disasters (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 11 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.
12 For man also knows not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly on them.
American King James Version×). Jesus Christ explained the randomness of some events by citing examples of how harsh leaders and devastating natural disaster can randomly strike (Luke 13:1-4 Luke 13:1-4 1 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answering said to them, Suppose you that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, No: but, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think you that they were sinners above all men that dwelled in Jerusalem?
American King James Version×). His bottom-line point is clear: “But unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (verse 5).
Signs of the end time
Christ clearly said many natural disasters would be a sad reality throughout history and would build in impact toward the end of the age. He foretold: “There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines and calamities ; this is but a beginning of the intolerable anguish and sufferings” (Mark 13:8 Mark 13:8For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows.
American King James Version×, Amplified New Testament).
While God may not directly cause many natural disasters, He sometimes directs them as His judgment on a rebellious humanity (Genesis 6:6-7 Genesis 6:6-7 6 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
7 And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repents me that I have made them.
American King James Version×, 11-13, 17; 18:20; 19:24-25). He will directly intervene in more and more events as the time for His Son’s return draws near.
Natural disasters or accidents should humble us and help us deeply appreciate our dependence on God to sustain life and deliver us from harm (Revelation 16:8-11 Revelation 16:8-11 8 And the fourth angel poured out his vial on the sun; and power was given to him to scorch men with fire.
9 And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which has power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory.
10 And the fifth angel poured out his vial on the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain,
11 And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds.
American King James Version×). God is a God of comfort and compassion. He will comfort us in times of trouble so we can comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 3 Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; 4 Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted of God.
American King James Version×).
But God also places creating a better spiritual relationship with Him ahead of physical comfort (James 1:2-4 James 1:2-4 2 My brothers, count it all joy when you fall into divers temptations;
3 Knowing this, that the trying of your faith works patience.
4 But let patience have her perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.
American King James Version×). Sadly, many have to learn things the hard way (Romans 8:7 Romans 8:7Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
American King James Version×; Proverbs 14:12 Proverbs 14:12There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
American King James Version×). Natural disasters have and will be used to shake people out of their complacency and lead them to seek God (Luke 21:25-26 Luke 21:25-26 25 And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; 26 Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.
American King James Version×; Revelation 6:12 Revelation 6:12And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, see, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
American King James Version×; 11:13; 16:18). (For more on this, see “Natural Disasters: A Biblical Perspective” in The Good News, May-June 2011).
The good news is that after Jesus Christ returns to establish His righteous government, He will restore a magnificent safe and secure environment much like the Garden of Eden (Isaiah 41:17-18 Isaiah 41:17-18 17 When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue fails for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
18 I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the middle of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
American King James Version×; Micah 4:3-4 Micah 4:3-4 3 And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 4 But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken it.
American King James Version×; Amos 9:13 Amos 9:13Behold, the days come, said the LORD, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that sows seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt.
American King James Version×). God speed that day!