A New Era for Japan

Yesterday, the Heisei Era of Japan, marked by the reign of Emperor Akihito, came to a close and today, the Reiwa Era under his son Emperor Naruhito begins.

Reiwa begins as a new era should, warm and sunny, green with optimism for the future. Unlike almost every other new era which is preceded by the death of an Emperor, Akihito requested to abdicate the throne to retire to a less stressful life, so today, Japan isn’t burdened with mourning the death of an Emperor, just welcoming a new one. Children hunt small fish and bugs with nets along the clear stream alongside their mothers and fathers. An octogenarian pauses on the path to wipe the sweat from his brow and watch the families enjoying their day. It could be any beautiful Spring day, but it isn’t. It is Reiwa Era, Day One. It’s the day that sets the tone for the future.

Reiwa 令和, we’ve been told, is translated as “beautiful harmony”. The kanji (Chinese characters) are so laden with meaning, an official translation was necessary to help people understand the context of the name, which comes from an ancient book of Japanese poetry. Prime Minister Abe said that Reiwa represents “a culture being born and nurtured by people coming together beautifully”.

It turns out that many Japanese were ready for a change in eras. The Heisei era, though a time of peace for Japan, encompasses many memories Japanese people would rather forget: several major natural disasters including the tragic triple disaster of 2011 that claimed the lives of over 18,000 people and left cities in beautiful Fukushima Prefecture still uninhabitable. It was also on the Heisei watch that Japan experienced its first major act of domestic terrorism when the Tokyo subway was attacked with sarin gas in 1995.

Former Emperor Akihito did an admirable job as a spokesman for peace and ownership of the wartime atrocities Japan committed on its enemies (some of which his father, Hirohito, was at least indirectly responsible for). From all recent reports, Emperor Naruhito will continue the work his father started, reminding the present and future generations of Japanese who did not experience WW2 about its horrors and Japan’s role as an aggressor.

We also pray that the new era will be an era of “beautiful harmony” for Japan, but rather than simply the harmony of people building society together, we pray that Japan’s harmony come from a newly discovered relationship with their Creator God. The hardships of the Heisei Era caused many Japanese to consider the meaning of life closely and through the witness of many Christians who have served the needs of those displaced by natural disaster, the elderly, the disabled, the widows and orphans, Japanese people have come to have a more and more favorable view of Christianity. It should not even be a surprise that Christian influence on the Imperial family, who represent the Shinto religion itself, has been very prominent in the past 3 generations.

Isaiah 43 reminds us that God is working for our good and I believe His promise holds true for the nation of Japan:

“Remember not the former things,
    nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:18-20

The Reiwa Era will likely continue for the next 30 years or more, much like the length of the Heisei Era before. We cannot anticipate the changes in Japan over the next three decades, let alone the world. But we can believe that God’s love for His people in Japan will be seen as undeniable in this era and His people will respond to the persistent calls of their Heavenly Father who invites them into His loving arms.

Was It Worth It?

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A special entry by Jeremy Fong.

Time. As children, we are taught how to tell the passage of time through a clock. The passing of each big hand, a minute, and the small hand, an hour. But as an adult I’m starting to realize how little I truly understand about time. A minute is made up of sixty seconds. 1, 2, 3…60. Yet there are moments when each second is an eternity, and time refuses to flow. And there are other times when each second is so fleeting, time seems to flow right through me. What is time, and what makes it valuable?

Only a few days ago, the narrative of this newsletter would have been completely different. On December 21, my mother and I were involved in a solo car crash. As we approached the freeway from the onramp, we lost control of the car. Perhaps it was the worn out tires, the freshly wet road, or driver miscalculation, it didn’t matter. All I could think about at the time was, ‘Well this is it. This is how I die’. We bounced off the meter high wall dividing us from the thirty feet drop from the overpass, and spun around until colliding with the other side of the lane’s wall putting us facing towards oncoming traffic. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. The danger was immediate and threatening, and my life was not the only one at stake. Once the car had stopped, my eyes quickly shifted to my mom. Was she injured? Could I help her even if she was? We both looked at each other, examining one another for injuries. But we were both unharmed.

The rest is mostly a blur. I made sure to hold my mom’s hand while going through the conversations with first respondents, family members, and inevitably insurance companies. I’m not sure if I thought I was doing it to prove I was strong to my mom or the other way around. All I could do at the time was focus on force I could feel on my fingers as I tried to ground my body once again. Whether I was actually going to or not, as we approached the first wall, I thought I was going to die. And now I’m not going to take my life for granted again.

My life could have ended right then. Time slipped right through my fingers, as my mind struggle to keep up. It happened all within a matter of seconds. Yet even days later, I have still yet to process such a tiny percentage of my life. Of course, being the person I am, my most pressing thoughts have nothing to do with the actual event, but the philosophical implications of it. The majority of those thoughts stemmed from the idea of human frailty. Even if I was unaware, I felt entitled to this life, a future that God had planned out for me. I thought of all the things that I would accomplish, of this life I envisioned for myself. It could have been taken from me, except for the fact that it doesn’t exist. I’m not guaranteed anything in this life. I can have all these elaborate plans for my future, but I am only kidding myself if I think I can discern the plans God has for me. Albeit, this is the lesson that God has definitely placed on my heart while on this gap year, and what I can only hope, cemented, through the car crash.

Christmas marks five and a half months since arriving back. That’s a total of 240,480 minutes and 14,428,800 seconds and counting. I will be the first to admit that I hated the idea of  spending a gap year living in the States. I was not in a good place with myself, and most definitely not with God. At the end of Senior year, I had tried build my life back together on my own. But it had come crashing down. I was hurting, but I was determined not to let it happen again. I needed to find God, and find Him I did.

Honestly, at this point I can’t even remember all the times I’ve seen God working in my life. Whether it be through simple conversations, cultivated relationships, or opportunities that have suddenly presented themselves, I’ve truly been blessed each day here. I distinctly remember a conversation with someone from church that has stuck with me all this time. I don’t recall the exact wording, but she said something along these lines, “Jeremy, you’re in a season of receiving. I know that may be a hard thing to accept because you have given so much to others. But God has placed you in this season for a reason…”. That was during my first month back, and looking from the mountains I have overcome, she was so right.

There are some days that I wish didn’t happen while I was here. But they pale in comparison to all the joy that has entered my life. I will always remember my time in California fondly. There’s just so much to be grateful for. I’m speechless just trying to process it all. I know I’ve grown so much here and I’m thankful for each and everyone who have helped me along the way. In a matter of months, I’ve learned a lifetime of lessons. I’ve learned to distinguish the difference between giving up and letting go, to allow my narrative to be ever-changing, to not undermine my self-worth, and ultimately to allow God to be the center of my life.

He saved my mom and I in that accident. How else can I explain any of it? I still don’t understand why exactly it happened. What was the point of allowing us to get into an accident, only to remain unscathed? But to think of other possible outcomes or circumstances makes me sick. I am here writing, breathing and unharmed, and all I can be is grateful. Those few seconds in the car were so fleeting, but I now have a lifetime to reflect. And from this moment, I know that my time is valuable. I can only hope that I continue to use it wisely.

He Gives and Takes Away

If I wrote this post just four days ago, it would be about the joy and challenges of welcoming a new furry member into our family. We adopted Aoba from a dog rescue organization on September 16th, just before she turned 3 months old. Having a puppy in the house has been a challenge, but mostly it has been the joy of having a pet who loves you even more than you love them.

But three nights ago, the narrative of this post changed in a way that fills me with sorrow. Chiizu, one of the feral cats living in our neighborhood, was struck and killed. Chiizu was no ordinary feral cat to us. He adopted us as his family, basking in the sun on our doorstep, greeting us in the morning and evening for his meals, eating from our hands. I was convinced it was a matter of weeks before I would have enough of his trust that he would allow me to finally pet him, giving him the physical love that he deserved.

You see, Chiizu was the largest boy in his litter of kittens. Their father was never around and their mother disappeared mysteriously four months ago. Chiizu, for whatever reason, became the caretaker of his siblings. We would often find him cuddled up with one of his sisters, or his little brother Pika, napping around our house. If he was eating and one of his siblings came near, he’d move away and let them eat. While many of the other cats visited our house regularly, it was always “Chiizu and …”. So for six months I regarded him as ours, the same way he regarded us as his.

One of the reasons I resisted pet ownership for so long after our dog Evie passed in 2012 at 14-years-old was because I did not like to deal with the mortality issue of pets. Every time I’ve lost a pet to the inevitable passage of time, I swore I’d never have another. But this is the first time I’ve had to deal with the loss of a pet whose life was cut short.

The loss of Chiizu is still fresh, grating on my emotions, and causing me to give pause during the day to think about the hole his absence leaves in my daily life. But that loss is balanced by the time we spend with Aoba, so young and full of life herself, ready to lick me to death or snuggle up when she’s tired at the end of a long day of playing and exploring. And I feel like God is teaching me about mortality, about not holding on too tightly to things, even life itself. That the cliche that everyday is a gift is cliche because it is true. Aoba won’t live forever and neither will I (at least in this space and time). But God gives us each day richly to enjoy and if we focus on the good gifts He gives us, life is a lot easier to bear. One might even say, life is beautiful when enjoyed the way God intended us to.

Thank you Lord for each of the days we had to enjoy with Chiizu and each special day we have to love and be loved by Aoba.

Reflecting on English Camp, Year Three

Two weeks ago we completed our third English Summer Camp in partnership with Redwood Community Chapel of Castro Valley, California and Rikko Kindergarten here in Nerima. Over 300 children were signed up to come and about 270 participated this year, about 70 more than we had last year. Perhaps most encouraging was the number of children who came for 5 or 6 days of the program rather than 2 or 3, as was frequently the case in the past two years.

As usual, we had our share of obstacles leading up to camp again this year, and while we recognize that as a sign of opposition from the enemy, I am also meekly aware of how little faith I have. Because God has always come through and almost always in ways that are better than we could imagine.

In past years, our team from California stayed on-site at the Kindergarten in the dorms, but we were unable to get rooms this year. And very late in planning, we also learned that our access to the school would be limited to business hours, another major change from prior years. On the surface, both changes seemed like huge inconveniences to the team and I was extremely frustrated. But not only did God work things out so there weren’t any major inconveniences, the living and eating arrangements actually worked out for the better this year.

Another disaster with our camp shirts was narrowly averted when our partners found a company willing and able to print our shirts overnight after our original order from another company was lost in transit.

For the second year in a row, we also had a typhoon on track to hit Tokyo during the week of English Summer Camp, but even the typhoons bow to the Maker of heaven and earth. The typhoon passed in the wee hours of the morning and had little impact on our program schedule except a minor delay.

Beyond that, things went so smoothly it was as if it were on rails. Volunteer signups picked up the few weeks before camp and we had plenty of helpers including an army of people from church helping with the registration rush on the first day. They were so effective, there wasn’t a registration rush at all, and kids were ready to go right on schedule.

But lest we be Marthas instead of Marys, logistics aside, this was an amazing week for us and the children who participated. We were thrilled to teach the children songs reminding them “Our God is a great big God and He holds us in his hands” and “What great love the Father has given us that we should be called His children.” It gives me such joy to think that one day when these children need to know that God is real and He loves them, they will already have these words planted in their hearts.

Most importantly, the children (and by extension, their families) spent a week experiencing the love of Christ through our many Christian staff and volunteers. We continued to build upon the relationships we have with some of our special friends who have now known us for two years. They know who we are and are learning, step by step, WHY we are. That because of God’s mercy through Jesus we can try to love others as God loves us. And we hope the more time they spend with us, the more they can confirm the truth about God’s love for us and for them.

The best news is that plans are already in place to continue this ministry, next year and beyond. As these children grow up with the Word of God planted in their hearts, we will develop ministries to help them deepen their understanding of the gospel. But for now, we are patiently planting, watering, and loving what the Lord has entrusted to us.

The Blessed Little Ones

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the greatest blessings for ministry workers in the field is the gift of expertise: lending your life experience, training and education in an area where it is most needed. This past month, a family from our home church did just that. Pam Y. came with her husband (the associate pastor of the church) and three young girls to serve us in a very unique way: providing her expertise on working with children with special needs. Pam taught a workshop to the elementary school teachers at the school my wife works at and helped my wife teach a seminar for parents of children with special needs at the preschool where our pastor is the chaplain. For the latter, we were hoping a few parents might show up so we wouldn’t be lonely; in reality, almost 20 parents came, underscoring what we believed to be the truth. Resources for Japanese parents with special needs children are so scarce they will make use of any opportunity they can to get help.

Japan lags behind most first world countries in terms of providing resources for children with learning and behavioral challenges. The reasons probably lie in the structure of the Japanese educational system and are reinforced by the expectations of Japanese society. Did you ever wonder why Japanese students are famous for their uniforms? The Japanese educational system stresses uniformity, being part of a group and contributing to the success of the group. Everyone learns at the same pace, so those who cannot keep up are considered a burden to the entire class. It’s no wonder the typical Japanese classroom can seem hostile to a child who is a slower learner or has attention deficit disorder, dyslexia or is on the autism spectrum.

The Japanese “solution” to these types of children is to place them in special schools where they are not hindering the progress of their classmates. Of course, once you have been tracked into one of these schools, the doors slam shut on your chances for a bright future. At best, most students in these types of school may end up in vocational school, if they are able to continue their education beyond secondary level at all.

For this reason, any loving parent will avoid getting any sort of diagnosis for their child that might label them as “special”. In America, special needs children get special attention and help. In Japan, the same children get swept to the side, into the shadows. Therefore, if parents want to try to ensure a future for their children, their main option is to help their children by themselves. Unfortunately, there are few private resources available that can help them.

My wife has a burden to help children and families like this. We have prayed even before we arrived in Japan for a chance to use her skills and experience working with special needs children in ministry. Finally, the doors opened up to us to help the parents of children at the local preschool, and in God’s perfect timing, He brought Pam to us at that exact moment to co-facilitate a seminar for them.

We don’t know exactly where this path leads us. We do know that there is a lot of interest among the parents for help. One mother is working on forming a support group for families with special needs children. Another Japanese man who has training and expertise in this area is anxious to lend his help. There is momentum building, a momentum driven by the Spirit for this time.

Please pray with us as we determine how this ministry will develop and how to best use it to show the love of Christ to families and children who often feel alienated, alone, or frustrated by their situation. The church has always been a place for those who felt cast aside by society, and we want to be here to welcome them to the family of Christ.

Northern Thailand – A Reason to Return

20180305-_DSC3168Among the six children living at Migiwa House, E was a little different than the others. Using a pet analogy, if the other children were like dogs, E was the cat. The other kids reveled in physical play and hugs while E would hang back, occasionally come to grab your hand for a moment or sit on your lap, only to be off again quickly on her own. Though all the children came from lives of varying degrees of difficulty, E’s life was probably one of the most difficult. Her mother was in prison. Her father, when he wanted her around at all, was physically and verbally abusive. One would think E would find refuge in spending 10 months of the year living at Migiwa House, away from her home in the village to attend elementary school, but on the contrary, she often expressed her discontent. She even refused to pay next year’s school fees given to her by her guardians at Migiwa House because she said she wasn’t going to come back.

I have a soft spot in my heart for this little girl, tough on the outside, but broken and hurting inside. The five days we spent with the children at Migiwa House, I tried to make sure E felt like she was a part of the family, to remind her that she was surrounded by people who loved her. Once while we were out walking, E came beside me and grabbed my hand, walking beside me for a few minutes before running off to play. Teru, her Migiwa House “dad” told me later that she never wanted to hold anyone’s hand. Maybe the Lord provided a special connection between us.

Each member of our team lavished a little extra love on E. Kathy talked sweetly with her and gave her extra hugs. Kun-san drew a portrait of her sitting on the chair outside and presented it to her. And on the day before we left, I looked E in the eyes and told her to promise she would be there at Migiwa house when I came back next year. She coyly replied, “I don’t know” with her mischievous smile.

As we said goodbye, there were many tears shed by both the children and our team. We knew only a couple days after we left, the kids would return to their villages for a two month school break. Five of them would happily return to Migiwa House in June. The other…we could only pray for.

A few days later, we received an email from Teru thanking us for ministering to the children, visiting the villages to teach music, and teaching English and photography at New Life Center. I quickly scanned the message for news about E, and was overjoyed when Teru said that he was now confident E would return to Migiwa House in two months. She intended to keep her promise to me.

I always wonder if people think it is strange that as a ministry worker to the Japanese, I take this annual trip to support the hilltribe people of Northern Thailand. But I believe God calls us beyond national borders, beyond people groups and simply to those who need Him the most. People like E, who might slip through the cracks and disappear if not reminded of God’s love for her through our visits. For children with unstable lives, there has to be some consistency from adults in their lives, and in some small way, our little team from Tokyo provides some consistency and comfort to her.

The trip also provided an opportunity for us to have a change of scenery and provide still provide much needed ministry. Later, I will report on the incredible progress we have seen over three years and four visits to New Life Center. And this year, my friend Y who is like a brother-in-law to me, was able to be with us the whole week. Though he is not a Christian yet, he spent the week serving alongside us, using the gifts God gave him the same as us, and gaining a fuller understanding of how God works in our lives and the lives of others. I pray that his understanding of the gospel is much more complete as a result of his experience. Experience can move people’s hearts in a way reasoning and logic cannot.

One day, E will graduate from high school and then from university, and I am looking forward to the day that instead of us going to see her in Chiang Rai, she will come to see us in Tokyo. Until that day, we will continue to nurture and encourage her in the language she best understands from us, just being there for her.

Something Fishy at Ramen Nagi

Last month, a friend sent me a message asking if I had eaten at Ramen Nagi in Golden Gai. He must have realized that I spend a lot of time scouting out the best ramen shops in Tokyo for people who come to visit us. I know, the sacrifices I have to make…

Truthfully, I had never been to Ramen Nagi and I was a bit intimidated about eating in Golden Gai but it turned out to be a good experience. Like many places in Golden Gai, it looked a little sketchy from outside with a hand-scrawled sign in English over the door  (and misspelled at that) and a very steep and narrow stairway up to the restaurant. To be fair, if you can read Japanese, it does say Ramen Nagi, open 24 hours on the sign next to the door.

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Once inside, you are seated at a narrow counter with about 12 seats. True to ramen culture, your goal is to eat your ramen as quickly as possible and get out to make room for the people queuing up behind you. Fortunately, I went very early so there were not many people waiting to be seated and I was able to take a few photos.

To be clear, Ramen Nagi is about the fish. The broth is famously made from dried baby sardines and the flavor is, well, sardine-y. If you don’t like sardines, you’ve come to the wrong place. Even the vinegar used to season your ramen is sardine-infused.

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But Ramen Nagi has the mysterious Japanese umami flavor in abundance, and the soup never seems overpowered by fishiness, but rather a nice balance of the smoky, salty broth combined with the fish and nori sheets. The ramen itself is very thick and wavy, a technique used by ramen chefs who want you to really experience the flavor of the broth in every bite. Broth clings to wavy noodles and the thickness absorbs some of the liquid.

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Given that Ramen Nagi is open 24 hours, it would be a great choice for those who miss the last train, voluntarily or involuntarily, and want a bowl of something delicious to see them through to daybreak.

As for me, it broke through my irrational fear of eating in Golden Gai and added another notch on my “best ramen in Tokyo” belt.

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