The farmer who hanged himself, distressed about a cabbage harvest ruined by radioactive fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant; the overworked government worker near the complex who took his life; the father who killed himself after a fruitless search for his child after the tsunami– all these are but reflections of the ongoing suicide (30, 000 per year) in post-modern Japan. Nearly 100 people a day commit suicide; one every 15 minutes. The most common hour of death is 5: 00 am for men; and noon for women, after their families have left for work or school. The suicide rate in Japan is tragically alarming. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among men aged 20-44 and women aged 15-34.
Imagine the soldiers and police officers who have spent weeks on the grim search for bodies, as well as nuclear plant employees working overtime to deal with the crippled reactor! They are ordinary men and women like us with families, who are all vulnerable to the effects of the disaster. As the nation rebuilds from the 3/11 major catastrophe, public health officials are concerned that a lingering sense of hopelessness and desperation among those affected might lead to a surge in suicides. In a nation that’s already coping with one of the developed world’s highest rates of suicide deaths, there is a high probability that post-disaster stress could eventually lead to a higher rate. The nation experienced a rise in suicides after the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,400 people. Those who chose to die included the city’s deputy major, who doused himself with kerosene on the first anniversary of the disaster. There is a fundamental question that will arise in the hearts of people who have lost homes, family and friends: “What do I have to live for?”
When pain shatters that all is well, happiness flees away. We are often left with nothing, but overwhelming sadness all around us. In a time of tragedy, nothing really matters more than the most fundamental questions in life. i.e: What is the ultimate purpose of my existence? What was I living for up until this time? Often times, inexplicable pain dims our hearts. Even our future is seemingly bright-less. We see no way forward. No light ahead. All hope seems to be lost. But is there a hope-filled future?
It is crucial to note that in the Japanese worldview, suicide does not have the Judeo-Christian connotation of sin. Indeed it is quite the opposite. In the Japanese culture suicide is romanticized. It is often interpreted as a noble and honorable act, especially among the older traditionalists. However, even in modern Japan, this mind-set has survived and still persists in the culture. For instance, The Daily News Global notes:
The suicide rate in Japan increased 20 percent in 2010. Those who commit suicide most are unemployed. The report issued by the national police of Japan (NPA) as part of an annual study of suicide, reported by the CNN page, Thursday, March 3, 2011. In the report, by 2010 there were as many as 424 people who committed suicide for not getting a job. Earlier, in 2009, the suicide rate of unemployment is 354. NPA report mentions the unemployed who committed suicide were mostly students or scholars. In 2009, the rate of student suicide unemployment reached 23 people. This figure increased in 2010 with 53 people, 130 percent more. Besides unemployment despair, the NPA said the suicide rate in the child’s guardian or baby sitter is also increasing. In 2010, the number of baby sitter who committed suicide as many as 157 people, up 44 percent from a year earlier. Japan is one country with the highest suicide rate in the world. Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said the suicide rate in Japan reaches up to 30 thousand people per year, for 13 consecutive years. This figure is considered to be very worrying because it contributed to 3.5 percent drop in Japan’s population reaches 127 million people. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan made the effort to reduce the suicide rate as a priority in his administration. Previously, Naoto Kan, said he aims to reduce the factors that make people unhappy (Daily News Global)
In the ensuing months, as the quake and tsunami victims seek to move forward with their lives, the true gravity of the disaster will slowly begin to weigh in for many. This is not only the concern of government officials, aid organizations and mental health workers, but also the church. The “aims to reduce the factors that make people unhappy” are certainly good political intentions, but they are meager and surface attempts to heal the malady that afflicts humanity. The problem is deeper still. It is spiritual. The Church is called to do only what the Church alone can do by the power of the Gospel, i.e to minister to the whole person- body and soul.
Happiness is when all things around us are well. But true lasting joy may remain even when ones happiness is completely shattered. Happiness, when confused with true joy, brings with it emptying and terrifying results when our legitimate physical needs are ripped away from us. The kind of joy we speak of is found only in the person and work of Christ on the cross. This is why the Christian has a different message. The gift that Christians bring to the suffering world is not the empathy of doubt and uncertainty of the future, but great hope in the power of the Cross. A true Christian brings with him “good news of great joy for all people” [Luke 2: 10] even in the midst of overwhelming circumstances & horrendous tragedy.
C.R.A.S.H (Christian Relief, Assistance, Support and Hope) Japan has done, by God’s grace, an incredible work of rallying churches in Japan and abroad towards relief and rebuilding efforts. I admire the work of C.R.A.S.H, led by Jonathan Wilson (pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship, Japan). They offer Disaster Volunteer Training (DVT) which gives the information and skills people need to effectively minister the love of Christ during disaster in Japan. In the meantime, there are countless other smaller independent churches and christian organizations that are relentlessly and joyfully demonstrating the love of Christ. Then there are individuals who work hard behind the scenes and would not leave others even when everything around them has been brought to rubble and debris. One such person is Rev. Sumiyoshi (TCI alumni) who remained in the deserted Iwaki City, Fukushima, which is about 50 km from the damaged nuclear power plant. While his church had been sharing supplies, people started coming to the church. And the following Sunday on April 10th, three of them were said to have come to believe in Christ. “God didn’t tell me, ‘Yes, you can evacuate.’ As long as people are living here, I can never leave them behind” said Rev. Sumiyoshi.
A worship service took place in the wilderness of rubble and debris where roughly about 50 people attended, including volunteers from around the country. There they prayed for those who died in the earthquake. There are endless stories of faithful Christian men and women who have found tears of joy in the midst of pain. Often times, when you ask God to change situations, you may find that He instead gives you the strength and the joy to endure them, unchanged. He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1: 11). And He brings about great compassionate outcomes in the end. As someone once said: Pain is not beautiful in and of itself, but what is beautiful in any painful circumstances is the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy from around the world. Japan is dearly loved by Jesus. He knows and understands the pain of people. He entered into our pain. He embraced suffering, the punishment of our sins on the Cross. He died. But the story didn’t end there. He didn’t leave us hopelessly groping in the dark. He conquered death and rose again offering forgiveness for our sins, including the Japanese. And this truth is powerfully embodied in the lives of men and women who chose to stay, risking their own lives in demonstrating the love that Christ has given to the Japanese.
Indeed we are called to “let [our] light shine before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16). We are called to do “good works” with the right motives. Our motive is God’s glory, and not ours. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2: 10). We are called to repent not only of the bad things, but also of all the good things that we did for all the wrong reasons. We are called to give God all the glory that belongs to Him. God is light. He says: “I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them” ( Isaiah 42: 16). And as a people created in His own image, we are called to reflect that glorious Gospel light in this dark nation, where more than ninety-nine percent of the population have not even heard of the name of Christ.
There is still a massive reality of pain and suffering out there that people are experiencing, which we do not feel in our present comfort zones. We, too, were once in darkness, not deserving anything. Suffering did not make sense while we were in the dark. But now we know that no suffering is absurd because God is absolutely sovereign. At “one time [we] were darkness, but now [we] are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5: 8). Therefore we are called to “walk as children of light” reflecting the Father’s glory. There is a rock-solid promise for Japan: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2). And although “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” [Psalm 30:5b]. May that bright and joyful morning in Christ come soon for the hundreds and thousands of Japanese that are still out there suffering in the night. God is for them in Christ. He has offered them everlasting hope. And He has given the Church the undeserved privilege of making His light known to those that are suffering in darkness around us. The whole Gospel must be preached.
It would be very unkind and unloving if we try to liberate people from their present temporal sufferings and not offer them the whole Gospel to alleviate their eternal sufferings. The ‘whole’ Gospel (not just the Gospel of “good works”) needs to be proclaimed throughout the whole of Japan. The whole Gospel must be administered to the whole person. Yes we must, with utmost care, do all we can to care for their present temporal sufferings but especially their future eternal sufferings. There is hope for Japan not only today- here in this life– but also tomorrow and in the next. The Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Roms 1: 16). But it is also the power of God for faithful endurance in our present crisis (see Part 3)
True lasting joy in Christ is found even when all things around us are brought to ruins. Joy in Jesus is not momentary, but everlasting. To have joy is possible even when happiness is unachievable in an impossible situation. This joy found in the person of Christ is the treasure that is worth giving up everything else: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his JOY he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 12: 44). This is why, in the face of tremendous loss and suffering, Christians find great hope and joy-filled life in Christ. This is the kind of joy that no earthly power or wealth can deliver. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ does that!
- This post is part 4 of a series of posts: Divine Comfort In The Midst of Catastrophe. See: Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3.
- C.R.A.S.H is supporting Noah Naito and the new Seaside Chapel ~ please watch this amazing video and share it with your friends. It has English subtitles.