Over ten months have passed since Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Sociologist Peter Berger once said that religion legitimates the “marginal situation” that is best represented by death.
This legitimation can be seen individually and collectively, and the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami will definitely be seen as “marginal situations.” Although it did not become major news, various religious organizations in Japan have helped the victims of these natural catastrophes. After the earthquake and tsunami, a few interfaith organizations started to support the victims.
The Faith-based Support for the Earthquake Relief in Japan is one of the groups that started after the earthquake, and it still has a page on the Facebook where people contact each other (www.facebook.com/FBNERJ). The Japan Religion Coordinating for Disaster Relief is another group that also formed after the earthquake to support the victims across different religious beliefs (www.indranet.jp/syuenren/).
Right after the earthquake and tsunami, local shrines and temples were offering shelters for those affected. According to the newspaper Shūkan Asahi (December 30), religious organizations, whether considered “new” or “old,” have attempted to avoid putting their identities as religious organizations and practitioners forward in their relief efforts. One leader from an alliance of new religious movements said that because some people are so sensitive to some religious organizations, they dared not reveal their identity; the important thing was to help the victims.
Some Buddhist monks who opened up their temples right after the disaster accepted and supported those who were affected, regardless of religion. Many other Buddhist monks volunteered to pray for those who lost lives in the disaster by chanting Buddhist sutras, as the practice is a major funerary activity in Japan. Not all the adherents of those religions share the same attitude toward the relief operations: some individuals are openly revealing their religious affiliations. Some victims reject those individuals with open religious affiliation, and yet as time passes, religious affiliations start losing their importance. It does not have to be actively evangelized, but the interaction of the religious practitioners and the people with a pure intention to help could awaken religious sentiments.
The January 18th Sankei News reports on an alliance between such different religious traditions as Buddhism and Christianity in Miyagi prefecture, one of the major disaster areas. A significant number of people have claimed to see “ghosts” and “monsters,” yet there are no places to talk about this issue. Religious organizations are now helping people regardless of their religious affiliations by offering a helpline. Religious differences are not a major issue when facing such a harsh reality.
This alliance also has a practical aspect, as the organization is more effective in working with the municipal government, because it does not fall into a particular religious tradition. Although their religious affiliations are different, their sincere efforts at alleviating the suffering of the victims of the earthquake and tsunami continue. An afternoon in Miyagi brings people coming to see Buddhist monks at “Café de Monk” to mend their broken hearts. It soon will be the one-year anniversary of the disaster. Religious leaders with diverse backgrounds are now planning an interfaith ceremony to mark the anniversary.
—By Ayako Sairenji, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the New School for Social Research