Nearly a half-million people are sleeping in emergency centers  in Japan tonight (as you read this it is already nighttime in Japan), while 2 million households are without water and electricity.

The northeast coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu looks as though World War II bombing raids just happened.

At least three nuclear reactors are in the process of melting down or have suffered hydrogen explosions.

Entire towns have been reduced to rubble. As of midday Monday, there were 1,900 confirmed deaths, but authorities say 15,000 people are unaccounted for.

As the world watches in horror, there is a grave danger that Japan’s humanitarian disaster will spin out of control, as the best efforts of Japan’s government simply fail to meet the challenge.

Japanese television is interviewing mothers who have no milk for babies, no medicines for sick children, no food, and just the clothes on their backs.

Meanwhile, mortuaries have run out of space and body bags, as the number of bodies recovered runs into the thousands.

The humanitarian crisis sweeping Japan is nearly incomprehensible, but it is very likely to get worse. Although Japan is better prepared than almost any other country on earth for these types of disasters, there is no amount of preparation the government could have done to mitigate the effects of the 30-foot wall of water that obliterated over a thousand miles of Japanese coastline.

Over a dozen countries have begun offering aid to Japan, foremost among them the United States. Nearly a dozen U.S. Navy ships are or will be engaged in relief efforts, while the U.S. Air Force is airlifting in supplies and rescue teams, some of them civilian from places as far-flung as Fairfax, Virginia and Los Angeles. A good number of the U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa ironically were in Malaysia, preparing for a disaster response exercise; they have been turned around and are expected in Japan midweek. Yet this still is not enough, and Japan’s government needs to start planning a far more ambitious humanitarian and disaster relief operation.

Right now, helicopters are needed most. With roads, airports, and ports washed away or clogged with debris, the only way to reach many of the affected areas is by helicopter. Yet Japan now has barely 100 military helicopters engaged in relief efforts. The United States should start sending all of its heavy-lift helicopters in Japan and South Korea to northern Japan. Similarly, the Air Force should dramatically ramp up the number of C-17s bringing in supplies to Misawa Air Base, so that supplies are on the ground when transportation to affected areas can be undertaken. To be sure, U.S. forces are already beginning much of these types of operations, but the numbers alone mean that most efforts are just scratching the surface of what is needed. In short, Japan needs its own Berlin Airlift.

Yet success in relief and recovery operations will depend in no small part on the strength of the Japanese government. Unfortunately, Japan is led by a government that before the quake was registering less than 20 percent approval rates. Political talk last week was of how long Prime Minister Naoto Kan could stay in office, now that he was charged with receiving the same type of illegal campaign donations that led to the resignation of Seiji Maehara as foreign minister just two weeks ago.

It is this very weakened premier who must lead Japan through what he rightly calls its greatest crisis since World War II. Already there is public criticism of the government’s approach to dealing with the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, with some claiming that Tokyo has not been fully forthcoming with information about the severity of the situation. Perhaps as a result of the Prime Minister’s political weakness, the most visible face of the government has been the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, who is doing daily news conferences related to the disaster.

So far, the government, which took power in August 2009, has received the support of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party for any emergency spending bills needed to meet today’s emergency. -- This is to be expected in most societies, where people must turn to their leadership to literally help save their lives. Yet, given the weakness of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, they have perhaps less leeway to make the mistakes that naturally come in trying to respond to a catastrophe of this size.

Japanese have talked in recent years about the sense of pessimism creeping into their society and the lack of faith in government. Right now, a population that was cynical before this earthquake struck is showing its resilience in the face of the unimaginable. Yet the bonds that tie a people to its government are tested as never before under these circumstances.

If this crisis has shown the strength of Japanese society, it will also reveal the competence of the government to deal not only with the short-term emergency, but the equally difficult task of reconstructing Japan’s ravaged coastline over the coming years.

Michael Auslin is the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.