Finding Gohime: Heroes of the Faith in Japanese History

On a recent writing assignment, I toured Okamoto Castle, “the Shining Crow”, known for its black exterior complemented by a set of gold leafed koi ornaments along the roof, which catch the rays of the setting sun. A display by artist Kimiya Masago depicting the life of the first lord of the castle, Ukita Hideie, caught my attention. A portrait of his wife, Minami no Onkata, nee Maeda Gou was part of the display, in which she sat astride one of the great koi on the roof gaze set on the distant horizon. Around her neck, prominently represented in the image was a gold crucifix.

Illustration of Maeda Gou (Minami no Onkata) by Kimiya Masago

As I have traveled around Japan, my interest has been piqued by the existence of early Christians in Japan, particularly among the ruling class. While there is solid evidence of many Christian daimyos existing prior to the first edict against Christianity made by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587, much of history after that time has been erased or hidden, as is often the case when the powers-that-be would rather not admit to something they aren’t particularly proud of.

What was extremely interesting in this case, however, was the fact that Minami no Onkata, whom I will from now address as Gohime (Princess Go) was a beloved adopted daughter of none other than Toyotomi himself. If Gohime was a Christian, did she become one in defiance of her father’s edict, or did her father invoke the edict in spite of the fact that his own daughter was a Christian? It didn’t take much searching to find the answer.

Gohime, as it turns out, converted to Christianity nearly 20 years after her father’s edict, around 1606. At that time, her husband Hideie and their two sons had been exiled to a distant island, punishment for Hideie’s loyalty to Toyotomi against Tokugawa Ieyasu, who defeated Toyotomi to become the first Shogun of Japan. Gohime returned to the home of her adopted family in Kyoto. Her father had already passed in 1598, but her adopted mother Kitanomandokoro, a woman of considerable influence and power still remained at the family home with her multitude of servants. Where the story becomes even more interesting is when we examine the household of Kitanomandokoro, the first wife of Toyotomi.

Many texts record Kitanomanodokoro becoming a dedicated Buddhist nun after she was widowed. However, during her reign as basically the First Lady of the Momoyama Period (1573–1600), she wielded great influence both with her husband and on her own, a rarity for a woman in those days. Toyotomi and Kitanomandokoro adopted several children from prominent families, including Gohime and her older sister Mahime, and records show that they truly cared deeply for each of them.

Kitanomandokoro initially strongly opposed the Jesuits and the spread of Christianity, described in Jesuit letters as “cold and unkind”. However, many of her servants and members of her household had become interested in Christianity and more than a few converted, a situation which despite her original feelings, she at least tolerated. Over time, her regard for Christianity changed until she had completely reversed her opinion on Christians and the Jesuits. It has been strongly suggested that when the Jesuit priests and Christian daimyos were unable to get Toyotomi to relax his edict against Christianity, it was Kitamandokoro who successfully petitioned her husband for leniency toward the Jesuits and their disciples.

Later in life, Kitanomandokoro was recorded as saying “…it seems to me that Christianity has great rationale. And it is superior to any other religion, and it is more plausible than many existing Japanese religions.” She continued: “Every Christian agrees on one truth, and claims that to be true. That makes me believe that [Christianity tells] the truth. Japanese religions never agree, and are never the same.” Although it was never recorded that Kitanomandokoro ever officially converted to Christianity, her words suggest a greater understanding of the gospel message than most Japanese had at the time.

Because of Kitanomandokoro’s support of Christians and tolerance for Christians in her own household, Gohime was able to grow up under the influence of several women who were well educated in the gospel and regular attenders of the thriving Osaka church, which they were allowed by Toyotomi to attend. Her husband Ukita Hideie was not a recorded Christian, but his Okayama domain officially permitted Christians to reside and evangelize. His mother, Fuku, like Kitanomandokoro, was a vocal defender of Christians and received appeals from the Jesuits for help. Thus, after her marriage, Gohime continued to live in an environment supportive of Christianity and probably contained Christian servants.

So perhaps it was only natural that later, faced with the trials of being separated from her husband and sons forever, Gohime finally grasped the full understanding of God’s love and mercy. Her sons had been baptized before their exile; she could now be reunited with the family she was forcefully separated from in this life. After her conversion, she returned to her birth home in Kanazawa where she made a substantial donation for the building the church there. Christianity in nearby Kanazawa had thrived under the protection of the Maeda clan, which Gohime was part of. Gohime remained at the estate of her birth family until her death at the age of 61.

I find it very disappointing that few evangelical Christians in Japan have a working knowledge of the roots of Christianity in Japan. I do not know if it because those roots were seeded by the Catholic church and there is still some deep seated mistrust between Protestants and Catholics that has gone unresolved for nearly 500 years now since the Reformation. Perhaps it is because many Japanese Christians were eventually forced underground, becoming the Kakure Kirisutan (Hidden Christians) who worshipped in secret, often using the veil of Buddhism as cover. I’ve even heard Western Evangelicals refer to these Christians as syncretic, a term that shocked and angered me.

Whatever the case, I believe the time has come for Japanese Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, to honor the memories of those who remained in the faith at great cost to themselves and their loved ones. As recently as 2017, Takayama Ukon, the Christian daimyo exiled to the Philippines was beatified, one step closer to sainthood in the Catholic Church. According to the church, it was Takayama’s unwavering faithfulness to the believers in his charge in the face of the wrath of Nobunaga, Toyotomi and Tokugawa Ieyasu that led to his beatification. Like Job of the Bible, Takayama lost everything, eventually even his life, but remained faithful to God and to the followers of Christ in his care. But his is a story for another day.

I believe it is critical for Japanese people to see the depths of Christian faith, Catholic or Protestant, in their own history and heroes. For too long, the evangelical church in Japan has glossed over Catholic church history, even going so far as berating the Kakure Kirisutan as syncretists. If the Japanese are to ever fully understand that Christianity is not a Western religion but one which has been practiced in their country 200 years before America was even established, we must first give them heroes of the faith from that time that they can look to.

References:

The Conversion of Hideyoshi’s Daughter Gōby Tomoko Kitagawa, Japanese Journal of Religions Studies 34/1: 9–25 © 2007 Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture

Kitanomandokoro : a lady samurai behind the shadow of Toyotomi Hideyoshiby Tomoko Kitagawa, UBC Theses and Dissertations

Takayama Ukon — A Candidate for Canonizationby Fr. Johannes Laures, SJ

Reflecting on English Summer Camp 2019

This past August, we wrapped up our 4th year of English Summer Camp. It was significant, in many ways, as from the beginning, we didn’t know if there would be a 4th year. Our partners in California committed to 3 years and after that, it would be up to the Lord to lead us. Well, the Lord led us to continue, and we could tell by this year that where He leads, He leads with great blessings.

About 370 children attended camp this year, about 100 more than last year. From the start, the camp had a different feel to it. Instead of wondering if there would be enough kids to have camp, we started wondering if we could fit all the kids who were coming into the rooms we were using. Instead of the friction we had with various authorities, there was just kindness. Instead of the burden of bearing the cost of sending a huge team put on one church from California, we had team members from three churches (and a special guest from Chicago).

I want to share two stories that really demonstrate what the Lord is doing through this ministry.

Transforming A Family

The M family have been an integral part of our church for many years. A couple with 3 children from elementary to high school age, they are active in several ministries of the church. Last year, while Mr. M was on leave from work recovering from surgery, he used his free time to serve at ESC for the first time and enjoyed the experience. He met many of our partners from California and developed friendships with them.

Last fall, the M family took a trip to the Western US, visiting with many of the friends Mr. M had made during the ESC week. They even had a chance to visit Redwood Chapel, the partnering church that enabled us to start the program here in Tokyo. It was during this trip that the M’s realized the people who came to help at ESC were just regular people like them. They had regular jobs and busy lives and they sacrificed their time and money to spend two weeks every year to put on the ESC program.

So this year, it was the M family who sacrificed their vacation time to serve at ESC. For the entire week, the family served and at the end of it all, Mr. and Mrs. M testified in front of many church members about their wonderful experience, and how they are looking forward to serving again next year. I believe their moving testimony will inspire others in our congregation to give their time sacrificially for this ministry.

Sharing The Load

The first two years of ESC, almost the entire team from California was from Redwood Chapel. The first year they sent 20 people to help us. As you can imagine, that is a huge financial burden for a church to bear year upon year, so over time, we prayed other partner churches would be willing to help share the load by sending team members.

This year, Pathway Community Church of Pleasanton and Lord’s Grace Church of Mountain View sent team members to compliment the Redwood team. This greatly reduced the number of people Redwood needed to send to staff the core leadership roles. Above and beyond that, we got to share the blessing of the ESC experience with two new churches.

We had some wonderful new team members with skills and experiences that complimented the Redwood team. Though all were blessings, I will mention a few specifically. A couple of the Pathway team members had studied Japanese and were able to have good conversations with people, especially the Japanese university students who volunteered as helpers. Building friendships with university students is an important part of our church ministry apart from ESC, so we were grateful for that. The Leong family from Lord’s Grace Church were so versatile and flexible, they served in anyway they were needed and stepped into roles they had not planned to fill.

Of course, we always appreciate the veteran leadership of the Redwood Chapel team and their experience is critical to making the camp run with such precision and ease. And the friendships the long term members have built with people here in Japan is so important and precious. But it is great to see other churches joining up with Redwood to serve under their leadership and make it easier for Redwood to continue to send a team every year.

Looking to the Future: 2020 Olympics and beyond

Next year will be a challenge with the Tokyo Summer Olympics scheduled at exactly the same time as our camp. Though we discussed changing our schedule to avoid the Olympics, there is simply no way to do it based on the Japanese school schedule and the availability of our partners from California. So we are pressing forward, trusting in the Lord to help us navigate the giant obstacle that is the Olympic games.

With the momentum we now have, we know children and their families are already looking forward to next year’s program. With several other programs launched at churches in our community, we realize now hundreds of children and their families are able to hear the gospel message each summer. Every year, new seeds are sown, watered, and soon will be sprouting. At our church, we are strategically planning on how to engage the children and families who want a deeper understanding of the gospel.

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.