Out With the Old, In With the New

This past weekend, Rikko Preschool, the site of our upcoming English Summer Camp, held a ceremony to bid farewell to their old school building which is being demolished this week. Kids and parents alike gleefully wrote, drew or painted on the walls of the buildings and classrooms, everything from “Thank you” messages to piles of poop (Japanese kids love to draw poop).

Though the event was announced only a couple days earlier, hundreds of children and parents came to the event. It was easy to see the love the community has for the preschool and the nostalgia associated with the old building. One of our church members even made a cake in the shape of the old building to commemorate the event. Our pastor presided over the ceremony and it was wonderful to hear him and the president of the school remind people that Rikko is a Christian preschool, a fact that until recently was not well-known or well communicated to the alumni families.

The highlight was being able to tour the brand new building for the first time, and it was so exciting to see how beautiful and spacious it is. With its wood flooring, large windows and open spaces, it has an airy feeling of being connected to the outside space. There are many large, well stocked classrooms and best of all, a chapel that is probably larger than the chapel of our own church. It was not difficult to envision how the space will be used this summer for our English camp, but beyond that, we can imagine that huge chapel being filled every week for worship service with members of the community who have never had the opportunity to attend church before.

A very pleasant surprise was the cross-shaped window above the main entryway, forever a reminder to those who come of Rikko’s roots as a Christian institution. As God has blessed Rikko with such a beautiful new facility, we pray that it can be used for His glory, to share the gospel of Jesus with the families of Rikko and the surrounding neighborhood.

A Yearful of Blessing

Recently, we compiled a summary of our ministry work for our organization’s annual report. As I went through my calendar entries and photographs from the past year, I was amazed at how easily things unfolded for us. It was as though the plans were already in place, and the only requirement for us was to participate in them. Imagine that.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~ Jeremiah 29:11

I also re-read our annual report summary from last year. One year ago, we were still finding our feet, praying about and for ministry opportunities and getting plugged in with the local Christian community. Today, we’ve found confidence in being able to live in Tokyo as residents, established several new ministries within the context of our new home church and have a diverse network of contacts within the community whom we can serve and be served by.

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Best of all, the work we have been doing has led us down the path of helping to plant a new worship service at a nearby school in the coming year as well as hosting what will likely be a very large scale English Summer Camp this coming August with a new church partner from California. Both of these things align with our overall vision of serving the community around our church and reaching the many children and young families around us.

We have truly been blessed by consistent financial partners this past year and have had full support pretty much continuously since we arrived in Japan 16 months ago. But we are prudent enough to realize that we may not always enjoy this level of support and we will need a reasonable savings in our ministry account to ensure we make it through the more challenging times.

If you are so led, would you consider a one time gift or new financial partnership with us in our ministry here in Tokyo? Instructions for supporting us can be found on this webpage.

By the way, though our annual report will be published by JEMS, our sending organization, and emailed to our church partners, if you are interested in personally receiving a copy of our report, please leave me a note in the comments and if we have your email address, I will send it to you.

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As always, we are grateful for your prayers, your encouragement, your financial support, and your love for us in Christ Jesus. We love you!

What is a “Free School”?

Every weekday morning around 7:30, the streets are flooded with the uniformed masses of Japanese school children trudging off to school. In many ways, they are like their Western counterparts: dreaming of upcoming vacation days, worried about a pop quiz in math, laughing with their friends about some YouTube video playing on someone’s phone. It’s easy to forget that in one important way, they aren’t the same.

The Japanese education system still stresses the idea of collectivism, that the needs of the many are greater than the needs of the individual. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, some of the ways this teaching manifests itself can be disturbing.

The Japanese proverb that best defines their particular brand of collectivism is this: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” In school, the end result is that nobody wants to stand out from their peers in any way, good or bad. You may be the smartest kid in your class but you’d dare not act like it by asking your teacher for more challenging work. If your peers find out about it, you’ll be put in your place.

The most common manifestation of collectivism is the bullying of the children who refuse to be, or due to mental, emotional or physical issues, cannot be, part of the collective. The bullying problem in Japan is well documented and there are many reasons for it apart from social collectivism, but the point is that the school yard can be a very cruel place for many Japanese children.

So while we witness thousands of children march off to school every day, there are likely hundreds more who can’t or won’t leave their homes. For some, the bullying has become so bad that they cannot deal with it any longer and their weary parents, having exhausted all options, simply allow them to stop attending school. For others, the school administrators themselves have requested that the family stop sending their child to their school. And there are other reasons, often related to one of these two.

Our friend and JEMS affiliate Moto Kimura is passionate about children and families in this situation. Moto is the administrator of a “free school” at a church in Ueno. Free schools are now starting to show up all over Japan, often started by churches who are compassionate toward families with children who cannot or will not attend Japanese public schools.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Moto’s school twice already and meet the children who attend his school. None of the kids could be legitimately called “bad” kids. Some have short attention spans and need to get up in the middle of a lesson and walk around a bit before resuming their work. Some have learning disorders and need a little more help learning their subjects. And some appear completely normal but perhaps have been bullied so badly at public schools that they refuse to return.

The ability to help children who do not “fit” the Japanese public school system is an area where the government is struggling. Even in the area of treating common learning disorders, Japan lags behind other first world nations. And so it is, where the government is in need, the church can help provide an answer, this time through Free Schools.

Of course, much more can be done, if there were more professional special needs teaching resources coming from overseas to serve Free Schools and their like. Like my wife has come to serve her school as a Speech Therapist (and in many other ways), Japan can benefit from bilingual resources educated in American universities on treating these learning disabilities that are still relatively new to Japan.

As for me, I will be giving a chapel message once per month at Moto’s school and teaching some simple photography concepts to the older students. Please pray for Moto and his school and the many schools like his that churches are using to serve the people of Japan. This is just another tangible way to provide the love of Christ to families who are desperately in need.

Falling In Love

The job of the missionary is to fall in love with the place that they are in. – Tim Svoboda, YWAM

If you’ve followed our adventure for this past year, you may notice that among the ministry events we participate in, there are also many cultural events that we take part in as part of our life here in Japan. Summer festivals, tea ceremony, and even pop culture events have all been things we have been blessed to enjoy. Though these events seem unrelated to our core ministry here, they are actually a vital part of our ministry when we look at the big picture and the potential that we may be in Japan for many years.

For the sake of simplicity and because I tend to be a prolific writer once I get going, I’m just going to break this down into a few key points. Over the next few months, I’ll expound in detail on several of these so you get a better understanding of what I mean by them. Ready?

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Among the many wonderful tidbits of wisdom from YWAM director Tim Svoboda, this is one that I use every day. Japanese culture, as viewed by a person from Western culture, is very difficult to understand. The priorities of the average Japanese person and the group vs. individual mentality are so radically different that one must pause to think in the Japanese mindset before reacting. Full immersion in Japanese culture helps make that transition to the Japanese way of thinking easier, though it is never automatic. Participating in Japanese tea ceremony, for example, teaches us the mentality of serving others in even the smallest of detail. It teaches us to appreciate beauty in seemingly ordinary things. It teaches us the virtue of humility that is held in such high regard in Japanese culture.

Be the salt. Be the light. Because Japanese culture is so relationship based, the concept of evangelism has to be adapted to fit that relational model. It is said that a Japanese person will take 3-5 years to make a commitment to Christ, but not because they don’t understand the gospel on an intellectual level. More likely, it is because they want to take the time to know you as a Christian, literally a “little Christ”, to see how Jesus makes a difference in your life.

Just like Western culture, there are many subcultures of Japanese culture which are by nature more difficult to reach with the gospel. Not necessarily because they are resistant to the gospel, but because Christians lack the desire or courage to become part of those subcultures to be the salt and light to them. Often, the groups that suffer are those with strong adherence to Japanese traditions which was seen by the traditional Protestant church as pagan. We feel that if God opens a door to build a relationship with a specific group of people, we are obliged to take that step. So we make it a point to get involved with as many different subcultures in Tokyo as we can: artisans, musicians, photographers, college students, special-needs children, and even break dancers!

Inspire others to do something. I apologize if this sounds self-serving, but one of the reasons we do these things is for you! As we interact with people from outside of Japan, we find that many people are interested in Japan and its culture but know very little about it. Part of the issue is the language barrier and part is that the Japanese people put a strong value on being separate from the rest of the world. Japan is probably one of the most homogeneous first world nations, with little desire from the government or general public for looser immigration laws. Many things are talked about being “uniquely Japanese”, even things that aren’t really unique to Japan.

As we experience Japanese culture and share these experiences with you, we hope that we are creating sources of information in English for people who are curious about Japanese culture and inspiring people to care about and pray for the people of Japan. If a few of you are inspired so much to become ministry workers here in Japan, we certainly wouldn’t complain about that either!

Falling in love. Another wonderful tidbit from Tim Svoboda, as seen at the top of this post, is that our primary job is to fall in love with the place we are in. We can’t love the people if we hate the culture. We must learn to value the good things that they value. Of course, we weigh those practices against the Word of God and we do what is right according to Scripture. But it is never wrong to develop a deeper understanding of the culture in the place where you live. The Svobodas spent 30 years in India, so Tim knows exactly what he’s talking about when he says this.

Almost every visitor to Japan leaves with a respect for some part of Japanese culture that they encountered: politeness, generosity, cleanliness, humility, aesthetic beauty. Not surprisingly, everything a person could admire about Japanese culture has roots in the character of God. An ability to connect the things Japanese people admire to scriptural references to the character of God helps break down the false idea that Christianity is a Western religion.

As you follow this blog, you will continue to see a mix of both ministry related and culture related posts about our life here in Japan. What I wanted you to see is that the two are intertwined with one another in ways that aren’t always obvious. Though I’ve only given you a brief overview of the importance of studying local culture as an overseas ministry worker, I hope to give you more in-depth essays on these topics in the future.

Michael W. Smith Comes To CAJ

One of the benefits of working at (and having kids attending) one of the prominent Christian schools in Tokyo is the possibility of high profile visitors dropping in for a visit every once in a while. Last week, CAJ was fortunate enough to be one of the few venues visited by the legendary singer-songwriter-worship leader Michael W. Smith. Mr. Smith has traveled all over the world with the Billy Graham Crusade but this year was his very first time in Japan.

Mr. Smith will perform at the upcoming Celebration of Love event, one of the largest evangelistic outreach events in Japan in recent history, in November. Though it wasn’t specifically said, this trip seemed to be a combination of Mr. Smith getting more familiar with Japan before coming in November and creating some publicity for the Celebration of Love event.

It was quite an experience to have such a renowned musician perform in an intimate venue like the CAJ amphitheater, with just his keyboard and occasionally backing tracks accompanying him. In the afternoon, he performed for the school. Though he started off with a few songs, he might have been a little surprised at how few of the students in Japan know his body of work (or perhaps not used to how non-interactive students in Japanese can appear to be, even if they are listening), deciding to switch from concert to message mid-stream. It was just an example of how gracious and in-tune he is with his audience; he didn’t want the kids to sit through a concert of songs they had no context for.

The evening concert, put on for the community, was a different story, however. The “sold out” show (not really sold out, since the tickets were free) was filled with many long time Michael W. Smith fans, so there was never any question that he was going to play his full set. The concert opened with one of CAJ’s talented seniors singing two beautiful songs to a standing ovation, followed by a roaring gospel number by 13 members of the Celebration of Love gospel choir, which will number 2,000 by November. For the final two songs, Mr. Smith summoned the choir back on stage to accompany him, including his well known worship song, “Agnus Dei”.

Of course, the concert at CAJ was simply a taste of the bigger event which will occur in November. For three full evenings, the 20,000 seat Budokan will host the evangelistic Celebration of Love, where local Christians can invite their friends and family to hear the gospel and worship God together in music. This is an event with the potential for lasting impact on the city of Tokyo and indeed the entire nation of Japan.

Please join with us in prayer for the Celebration of Love event on November 20-22. Pray especially that local Christians will see it for what it is: an opportunity for their friends and family to hear the gospel, and not just a big party for Christians in Tokyo.

Start Again – Yona Ishikawa

She stood on the rooftop, guitar in hand, looking like a rock star. The camera drone circled around her, like a planet orbits a star. Yona Ishikawa created that gravity, pulling you into her music, into her world.

We were on the roof with a video mission team my friend and colleague Paul Nethercott brought from Minnesota. This was the third of three Christian artists they were shooting music video for and by far the most elaborate production. The day before, they had shot at an industrial warehouse in the pouring rain. Today, the rooftop of the house they were staying in and the streets of the surrounding neighborhood.

The incredible revelation about Yona does not lie in her current state as a confident musician rocking it out in music videos on rooftops shot by a film crew from the States. It is in her backstory, when she spent ten years suffering from depression and life as hikkokomori, living as a shut-in in her home with little social interaction. It is often difficult for people who have lived through depression to share their experience with others, particularly in Japan, but Yona felt it was important to share her experience to let people know that God can transform lives, like He lifted her out of her state of depression and isolation. She even wrote a book, “Start Again” (in Japanese only) about her experience.

Though I wasn’t present for the interview, Paul explained her story to me and told me about the song we were recording the video for:

“The song we recorded with her is called Industrial Waste!  (産業廃棄物). She said that is how she felt, worthless and of no use to anyone, just garbage. However, she came to realize that God loves her just the way she is.”
You can clearly see from the photos that Yona is a changed woman. She is a musician, artist, and writer whose confidence and joy hide a very difficult and dark past that she overcame through her faith in Jesus.
Conservative estimates indicate 500,000 people are living as hikkikomori in Japan today, though the numbers likely exceed 1 million because many cases go unreported by family members of the afflicted. Millions more are suffering from some form of depression, often ending in suicide. Please pray for those in Japan who are suffering and for people like Yona to come forward to share how God transforms and heals.

Sowing the Seeds

One of the questions we are often asked as ministry workers in Japan is why only 1% of Japanese identify as Christians. While this is a complex question to answer in a single blog post, let me toss you a fact and a theory to consider.

Fact: Most Japanese people have little knowledge of the Christian God or Jesus Christ. Now, if the entire country was evangelized and still only 1% of people made a decision to follow Christ, I would say our work in Japan is finished. Our job is to make the gospel known, not to “convert” or “save” people. Salvation is through Christ alone. The work of communicating the gospel, the job of ministry workers and really every Christian living in Japan, is far from over, however.

Which leads me to my theory about being stuck at the 1% threshold. Imagine yourself as a farmer with a huge field that you wanted to grow a crop of corn in. Now imagine that perhaps once a week, you went into your field and dropped a few kernels of corn, kicked a little dirt over them, and went to paint the barn or milk the cows or some other farm related thing.

If the weather was kind to you and provided you some rain, if birds didn’t pick your corn kernels out of the ground, and if weeds didn’t choke your growing corn stalks, at the harvest, you might have some corn. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, 1% of your field.

So my theory is this: Historically, Japan has not invested enough effort in planting the seeds of the harvest to see a greater harvest. And what do those kernels of corn represent? Investment in ministry to the children.

It is said that less than 50% of Japanese churches TODAY provide any sort of children’s ministry: Sunday School, youth programs, Bible camp, etc. With no children’s ministry going on at church, when children hit the age where secular events like sports or school clubs are an option for them, they simply disappear from the church, many of them forever.

I want to be clear that I am not saying this in criticism of the Japanese church. Most churches barely have the staff to support the adult congregation. But I am offering this idea as an encouragement to the churches in Japan; if you invest in children’s ministry now, you will see the harvest of believers later.

I have had countless conversations with Japanese people (and indeed Americans as well) who made decisions for Christ later in life but have clear memories of being taught about a loving Creator God and the sacrifice of Jesus very early in their lives in Sunday School or at a VBS program. Even I heard the gospel many times in elementary school before I made the decision to give my life to Christ in junior high school.

We had the privilege of serving with Tokyo Shibuya Evangelical Church this past week as they provided an English Camp, or what we would call in America a “VBS” program. A team from the Bay Area comes each year to provide leadership and materials for this event. This is the third year they have put on this camp and this year we had 67 children in attendance.

80% of the children (and their families) have little or no exposure to the gospel except through this event. Some parents might even object to a church camp teaching the gospel in Japanese but because it is bilingual, they feel it’s a good experience for their children. Many of the children are repeat attendees from the previous year or two.

One of the personal joys for me this year was walking one boy through the gospel message and hearing him explain the message to me in his own words! Later, I watched as many of the kids were absolutely engrossed in reading their personal copy of “Manga Mission”, a free resource from Next Manga.

Though the children were all offered opportunities to give their lives to Jesus, it would be difficult to confirm which of them did so in faith. Yet, this isn’t even the important thing, as God knows their hearts and true motivations. I believe the most important thing is that the seeds of the gospel were planted in 67 young and tender hearts this past week. God assures us that the word that goes from His mouth does not return without accomplishing its purpose.

If you are not yet familiar with the 4/14 Window Movement that is going on globally to promote evangelism and empowerment to children, I urge you to learn more about this important movement.

Pray with us for these children but also for the greater vision of ministry to the children to grow in the Japanese church. We are seeing many church leaders embracing this new dynamic and recognizing it as a key to evangelizing the nation.