Saturday, March 10, 2012

Remembering 3.11

The past year has been a terribly hard one for Japan. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the devastating earthquake and unprecedented tsunami that ravaged a wide area in the northeast part of the county and caused major damage to the nuclear power plants in Fukushima, a place name that most Americans had not heard of before but which is now a household word.
Some have compared 3/11/11 in Japan with 9/11/01 in the United States: “3/11 will be etched on our heart and psyche just as 9/11 is imprinted on the American psyche," wrote a Japanese Christian leader a few days after last year’s disaster. “The reasons are totally different, but it is a single event which determines how we as a nation will live for many years to come.”
There are stark differences, of course. Nearly 20,000 people were killed in the disaster in Japan, 45,700 buildings were destroyed, and an estimated 230,000 automobiles and trucks were damaged or destroyed in the disaster. Thus, the destruction was much, much greater on 3/11 than on 9/11.
The main difference, of course, is that 9/11 was completely the result of human ill will whereas 3/11 was a natural disaster. Sometimes natural disasters are called “acts of God.” A legal dictionary explains: “An act of God is a natural catastrophe which no one can prevent.” But while “act of God” may be an acceptable legal term, it is most unacceptable as a theological one.
Yet there were those who literally thought the Japanese tragedy was caused by God. Two days after the 3/11 earthquake/tsunami, Rev. David Yonggi Cho, senior pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church (in Seoul, Korea, and the world’s largest church ) called the Japanese quake and tsunami “God’s warning.”
The next day on his radio show, Glenn Beck called the tragedy a message from God. And that same day even the Governor of Tokyo told reporters that he thought the tsunami was tenbatsu (divine punishment). The Governor later apologized, but I can find no record of Beck or Rev. Cho doing the same.
But “natural disasters” means not only that they occur in nature but also that they happen from purely natural, rather than human or divine, causes. For example, scientists can ascertain how or why earthquakes occur: they are caused by the movement of “plates” below the surface of the earth. Further, large earthquakes in or near the ocean cause large tidal waves, now widely known by the Japanese word tsunami.
I hope you have been able to see some of the pictures of northeast Japan showing the marked contrast between the situation there now and last year just after the tsunami wreaked such devastation in that section of the country. If not, check out this website that shows how much of the devastation of 3.11 has been overcome. (Here is also a link to a YouTube video expressing gratitude for help received.)
The Japanese people, with considerable help from abroad, have done remarkably well in overcoming last year’s terrible tragedy. But many people are still living in temporary housing and some continue to suffer physically and emotionally. Prayers for and support of the Japanese people by the international community are still very much needed.
Note to those who live in the Kansas City area: Greater Kansas City Japanese Film Festival - Saturday, March 10 (10:30 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.) and Sunday, March 11 (10:30 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.) at the Kansas City Art Institute and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. A number of films will be shown, including Norwegian Wood and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (nominated for a 2011 Academy Award). Contributions accepted in lieu of admission. More information at


  1. It hadn't occurred to me before that the two incidents, 9/11 and 3/11, had the day of the month in common. A couple more incidents like that and eleven will be the new unlucky number.

  2. A Thinking Friend in Kentucky wrote (by e-mail): "The tornadoes that ravaged parts of Indiana and Kentucky, claiming 35 lives, gave us a small taste of the disaster in Japan, Leroy. I weep for both."

    Writing about those tornadoes in his March 5 blog posting, Rev. John Piper, widely known pastor of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, said,

    "We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command."

    I disagree with Piper's statement as much as I do with those (cited above) by Rev. Cho, Glenn Beck, and the Governor of Tokyo.

  3. I suspect, Leroy, that we'll never get past these awful theologies until we have adequately abandoned an anthropomorphic conception of God.

  4. On one level, the two events can be contrasted, but on another, they are similar. Both reflected a failure of wise planning. I remember seeing a report about ancient sign posts in Japan, warning not to build your house below the level of the signs, which marked the high water mark of an old tsunami. Yet homes were built below that level, and nuclear power plants, too. Is it truly a natural disaster when so much followed from a failure to learn from history?

    In a similar way, American arrogance in both dealing with the third world and with designing high rise buildings helped set up the tragedy of 9/11. Hopefully both countries are learning from their experiences as they plan their futures.

    My family was touched by both experiences. My wife and I had already purchased air tickets to visit New York when 9/11 happened. We were going to New York at the end of the month to stay with a friend and celebrate our 25th anniversary on 9/18/01. Walking the streets of New York was an overwhelming experience. We went to see ground zero, which was still smoldering a couple of weeks after the attack. When we returned to Kansas City, we met a former coach of our son's baseball team, who was there in his capacity as a highway patrol officer to guard the airport. Our world had changed. Japan was our daughter's destination the summer after the earthquake, a trip that ultimately ended up not happening. Once again, we were aware we were not that far from it.

    I remember some years ago reading a book that drove home the message that "life is ferociously nonlinear." We like for things to be linear. We can solve the equations. We like the idea of "make straight in the wilderness a highway." Well, the wilderness has other ideas. Whether in New York, Japan, or anywhere in between, we need to remember that.

  5. What happened on 3.11 was not just a natural disaster, a also a profoundly human-caused disaste. I feel it is important to see that the cause of the on-going nuclear crisis is Fukushima was not caused by the tsunami, but by the preceding earthquake. In other words, in earthquake-prone Japan, a similar inicident could happan at any nuclear power in Japan. Yet the nuclear industry seems bent on framing Fukushima is a specail case, and on insisting that higher breakwalls will protect other plants from tsunamis. No, the Fukushima nuclear disaster was caused by human hubris in the face of countless warnings which were treated with disdain.

  6. People don't seem to carry a long-term bitterness toward God or nature for devastating events the way they do if a person or persons are behind it. The latter can certainly be multi-generational. The story of the Persians and Jews is a good case in point, but I know of another which dates back hundreds of years even within my own family.

  7. Daniel's point is well taken. There are safer reactors than the ones most used.
    Thorium-salt is probably the safest, both physically and environmentally - but is has no military side benefits like the uranium reactors. Thorium also has a far shorter half-life, is more readily available, and 15 times more efficient, and it cannot melt down. The technology has been tested for 50 years.