When the earthquake started I was on the third floor of building that our church meets in with my children, James and Alishea. As it shook my first concern was for the new speakers and lights we had just hung from the ceiling. But as the tremors continued and then intensified I began to realize that this wasn’t the typical earthquake that one becomes accustomed to in Japan. I began to think about how we would get out of the building. “Should we try to take the stairs? It’s really shaking bad!” Then I realized that there were probably dozens of grade-school children in the day-care coop on the floor just below us. The thought came quickly, “Should we try to help them get outside too?” But I knew there was no way to get downstairs now – the building was shaking too hard. Fortunately, after about six long minutes, the building was still standing.
After the first shock began to subside, we all came down the staircase and into the street. It was still early in the afternoon and there were not many children yet. Most were still in school. The ones who were there obediently followed the supervisor out of the building and onto the sidewalk. They had been trained for this and they knew what to do in an earthquake. Right after we got outside the ground started quaking again. I noticed that the traffic signals were all out. None of the cars were moving. We all watched in amazement as a big aftershock hit – the street seemed to roll like the ocean and the large blue road signs above the main highway in front of our building moved up and down on the waves. After a few more terrifying minutes it was all over. The retired men who spent each afternoon volunteering as crossing guards quickly moved out into the intersection and began directing traffic like they had been planning for this type of thing their whole lives. It was amazing how smoothly they switched into emergency mode. No electricity. No signals. No problem! At that moment I was glad that we were in Japan.
Over the next several weeks and months, God used our small church to help people in the same way he used those volunteers. We switched into emergency mode. We didn’t realize the full extent of what was happening for quite a long time. I later read that the initial earthquake was so big that it affect the axis of the earth and the rotation of our whole planet sped up slightly. Amazingly, the entire island of Japan moved 8 feet closer to North America. When the tsunami hit, entire towns were totally washed away. The topography of this island nation changed so drastically that maps of Japan had to be redrawn. But I remember that the scariest thing at that time was the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, only about 180 miles from our church.
With no time to really pause and think about all that we just kept moving forward, day after day. Once, my wife looked at me and said, “It’s like living in a disaster movie.” That was the perfect description of how we felt. Because somehow, even with the daily news of aftershocks and uncertainty about the future, God was using us to help others. We joined forces with many other organizations and individuals. Our local FM radio station began playing Christian African Children’s Choir music (that Satomi gave them) every night from midnight, because they said it gave everyone peace. I can’t list all the amazing miracles God did, but I know that many tons of food and supplies went through our building. I know that we rented trucks and volunteered to drive them. I remember once, we didn’t have quite enough food to totally fill an 8 ton truck that was about to leave for Tohoku. I had just enough money to buy all the vegetables and fruit from a neighborhood farmer’s stand. She was openly teary-eyed when she thanked me for loving her country.
Sometime between one and two months after the earthquake I was in the shower and I finally felt the emotional weight of it. 16,000 souls just north of us were gone. Hundreds of thousand were homeless. The tsunami and the radiation from the nuclear meltdown had both robbed so many of their businesses and even their future hopes and dreams. That was the first time I remember having enough time to really cry after the earthquake. It would not be the last. I still think about these things and pray for the future of Japan every year around this time.
Change is coming to Japan. It needs to come. But change is not without a price. Sometimes things that have remained the same must be shaken before change comes. Please keep praying for this nation. If you are praying for Japan please leave a comment on this site to encourage others. Also check out this song that James wrote right after the quake which we also used to help raise online support for the people affected by the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011.
Pastor Ray, Thank you so much for writing this and to Samuel for his account of meeting the Japanese man two years afterward. These words touch my heart in a deep way. The Lord is using you and your church (including the Kawamotos) to make a difference in the country of Japan and I will continue to pray for your ministry. Love in Jesus, Alicia K from Connecticut
I could not read this without tears as I remember that day all too well. It was my first visit to Japan, and I had only been here for 4 weeks. I had no idea what a “normal” earthquake was like in Japan. It wasn’t until I saw the feared faces of the Japanese as they braced themselves against anything stable so as not to fall, that I knew this was BIG. I, too, remember the streets “waving”. In the hands of our Creator, we are nothing but dust. In the weeks to follow, the Japanese demonstrated patience and grace under unbelievable pressure and hardship. It was at that time, my heart began to melt for these beautiful people. I join you in prayer for the people and country of Japan.
I remember where I was and what happened that day. I was not nearly as close to Fukushima as that but I was customs officer for the Atsugi naval base and had to coordinate the biggest evacuation of the military families ever conducted. We kept being told that if the radiation got bad enough we would have to evacuate the entire base and be the last ones to leave. I also remember the roads moving like waves and people running around screaming. I felt proud of being in the navy over the next couple weeks as we sent rescue helicopters with navy rescue divers up to pull people out of the ocean that had been washed out miles out to sea. And remember all of the military on all the bases rushing to the grocery stores not to buy food for themselves but to buy all the canned and non perishable foods to put in boxes that were being airlifted to the disaster area. The US navy was the first on the scene to help and was the first to send rescue supplies to the area because the Japanese government was in such shock that they didn’t know what to do. i say all that to say something else that really touched my heart 3 years after that day. I moved to Aomori in 2013 and happened to be driving in the mountains and stopped to take some pictures and saw a Japanese man fishing. I stopped to watch him for a little bit and after a couple minutes he noticed me and walked up from the river. I greeted him in Japanese and he in turn said hello in English. Being the middle of nowhere I was really surprised and asked him how he knew English because it wasn’t just good it was really good. He said that he decided to learn English because he was so thankful for the American people. I asked why that was and he started to cry a little and said that his grandmother was saved by a navy diver from Atsugi base after he whole house was washed 2 miles out to sea and she was holding on for her life when a navy helicopter spotted her and the diver jumped in to save her. He said that if the Americans hadn’t been there so fast she would not have made it and wanted to show his appreciation by learning the language of the man that saved his grandmother. After he told me this I was almost in tears and he bowed so low Ive never seen anyone bow that low in japan and after that he shook my hand and said thank you for saving his grandmother. While I wasnt the one that dove in to save her I thanked him anyways and said I am glad she was one of the ones that we were able to save. Its amazing to think I would run into someone that far north that was related to someone that was saved by a navy diver that day. I have never been more moved in my life.
Thank you Ray. I am glad Satomi encouraged you to write. I will be praying that you will see significant lasting good fruit.
I have read this post over and over again…remembering those days after the earthquake and how frightened I felt. We will never forget that time. We will never forget Japan. My dream is to go to that region and help minister someday.
Ray, Thanks for Sharing!! We are continuing to pray for you and Japan! Blessings! Brett