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.

Train Etiquette: A Cultural Lesson for Japan

Here is a cultural lesson quiz for those of you considering coming to Japan based on a real life situation I recently encountered.

On a crowded train which has just stopped at a station, a woman gets up and leaves the train, leaving an empty seat on the bench. A man standing near the seat waits the requisite 5 seconds to ensure nobody else is going to sit down there, and begins to gather his bags so he can sit down. At the same moment, another woman enters the train and sees the empty seat and makes her way toward it. Unfortunately for both of them, their views of each other are blocked by other people standing in the aisle.

They both arrive at the empty seat almost simultaneously, to each other’s surprise. After a moment of awkward silence, each politely defers the seat to the other.

Question: Who ultimately gets the seat?

Now the savvy Japanese culturalist among you will be quick to point out that I have left out some critical information, which is the ages of the two people.  For it would be easy to answer this question if one person was younger than the other ; the eldest would sit. But as I did not engage in an extensive interview with either party and the age difference was not apparent, let’s say that they were exactly the same age.

The next question that you might ask is in what part of Japan this took place. Because, for example, if this were in Kansai, the people might have boldly asked their fellow Osakans to scooch a little closer together and make room for both of them. Let’s say this happened in Tohoku where people are a little more modest with one another.

Finally, there might be those among you who ask why this even matters. The reason it matters is because one day you might play the role of one of these two people and you will thank me for imparting knowledge that keeps you from appearing as a fresh off the plane barbarian from the West.

So now that we have addressed all of the relevant questions, let’s hit the play button on our scenario and see what happens.

Nothing. For the next 20 minutes until both parties reach their destination, neither sit in the seat. Both stand, literally a foot from that precious, inviting seat. And no one else nearby who silently witnessed the exchange will sit down either. The seat has become, for this trip, a throne of shame to anyone who dares sit in it.

Since it was impossible for the parties to determine by social standards who should sit, nobody sits. And anyone standing nearby who tried to sit might as well spit in their faces. It would be like saying “I’m more important than both of you, so I will take the seat.”

The moral of the story : upon boarding a crowded train and spotting an empty seat nobody is trying to sit in, don’t take it. It’s a trap.

Japanese Service and the Intersection of Culture and Gospel

Last year, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “How Japan Has Perfected Hospitality Culture”. The author describes in the article how he personally experienced the incredible hospitality of Japanese department stores, hotels, and restaurants, and from his descriptions, one might come to the same conclusion as he did. But is the hospitality culture of Japan as wonderful as it is made out to be?

One thing that should be noted about the author’s perspective: he experienced Japan as a western tourist soliciting the most high end hotels, restaurants and department stores in Tokyo. One might expect good, even great service from the same level of business in any major international city. Does that experience trickle down to the masses who actually live here?

I frequent our local “Mister Donut”, a popular donut chain in Japan. My friend and I basically use it as our office-away-from-home once a week. I order a donut (or two if I’m feeling spendy) and a bottomless cup of coffee and settle in for a 2 or 3 hour study or work session.

At the register, I am given the same good, if slightly generic level of service you can expect at any regular restaurant, store or service in Japan. I am greeted when I walk in the door, and am treated politely and professionally during the transaction and I am thanked or apologized to at least a half dozen times.

But when it comes to refilling my coffee, the employees are on that task with eagle eyes. Rarely does my cup fall below the half-full line (unless the shop gets incredibly busy, which it does at times) before someone is around to offer me a refill. And when the refill comes, the employee knows I take my coffee with cream and sugar and often knows how many sugars to give me. And the refills keep coming until I’m over-caffeinated and have to ask them to stop.

You bag your own groceries at every supermarket in Japan (which is one service exception oddity I have not figured out) but most clerks will sort your cold items from your hot items and give you plastic bags for your meats that are already scrunched up and ready for you to slide the meat package into. They actually work on the task of scrunching up the bags when nobody is at their register. They have hashi (chopsticks) if you buy a bento (box lunch) and spoons for your yogurt and ice cream.

And of course there is the ubiquitous combini (convenience store), which in Japan, unlike America, is actually convenient. I can walk into a store and pay my utility bills, ship my luggage to the airport, or buy tickets to a baseball game. If I don’t know how to do something, the clerk patiently walks me through it, free of eye-rolling or sarcastic remarks.

So yes, I have generally concluded that living in Japan and at least somewhat disguised as a Japanese person, and using shops and services of the average person, I still receive a level of service far above Western standards. And no catch, right? Not exactly.

One must understand that Japan is a very structured, role-based society. Interactions and levels of politeness are afforded to people based on the relationship between two people in a specific interaction. In the case of service provider to customer, there is an expectation of a level of service and politeness that the provider is to give to the customer. In fact, my wife and I often struggle understanding people at shops because there is a special vocabulary that is used for those provider-to-customer interactions!

On the other hand, there is no similar expectation for the customer. The customer may use the rudest forms of language, as if speaking to a child, or not even acknowledge the service provider at all. Aside from not causing a scene in public (which no Japanese person would do because it would bring shame on them), the customer is basically free to act however he likes. In other words, the service provider must lie like a doormat for the customer and thank him for being walked on.

While this all sounds like a good deal for customers, one should expect that at some point, they will need to play the role of the service provider. Helping out at the school thrift shop. Doing part time consulting work. Greeting people at church. And, oh how the tables turn.

When you are put in the position of service provider, you must learn all the nuances of serving others. The attention to detail, the extra greetings and vocabulary, and the humility it takes to not expect anything in return. As one who was raised in Western culture, I don’t know if I have the capacity to do this on a daily basis.

There are lessons to be learned from this part of Japanese culture. Because the ability to give hospitality and serve others is so ingrained in most Japanese, this is a trait they can recognize and admire in Jesus. For it was Jesus:

 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8

The humility of Christ is something Japanese people can recognize and appreciate. Many have probably gone through times when they struggled with having to humble themselves. Yet Christ Jesus never struggled, though he was God and had infinite power at his disposal at any time, even to the point of allowing himself to be killed on the cross for the wrongs we have committed against him!

Sometimes, we tend to focus on all that is wrong with Japanese culture, but there are many things it gets right. Humility and having a servant spirit is one of those things and we should encourage our Japanese friends that this spirit in them is something they already have in common with Jesus, Son of God! Making these connections help break down the fallacy that Jesus is a “western god” and Christianity a western religion.

I Love To Tell The Story

When I was 20 years old, I dropped out of a university Mass Media and Film program in favor of a small time gig working as an assistant photographer for a local studio and more free days to spend at the beach in Santa Cruz. Though I never finished my degree, my love, or perhaps admiration of film making has never quite faded away. I had a small taste of producing a short film with a small group of friends in Singapore 15 years ago, but when my friend Paul Nethercott asked me to join his team to work on a full length feature film here in Japan, it was like an answer to an unspoken prayer.

Though production on the full length film, 2 Criminals, is still a ways away, we had the opportunity to practice film production on a small scale with a team of students from Huntington University in Indiana. The Huntington team, led by Professor Dawn Ford, came to Japan to shoot footage for a PBS pilot on Japanese culture. Over a two week schedule, the team shot footage about kimono, tea ceremony, wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) and ikebana (flower arranging).

My schedule allowed me to be with the team on several of the location shoots. My job was to photograph the shoot from a behind-the-scenes perspective, capturing images that could be used to promote the project and simply create a record for the production crew that they could remember their experience from. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much value my presence would provide as none of my images would ever be used in the actual final production.

As it turned out, it was an amazing experience for me. Though the scale of the production was small, it was still larger than any other production I have worked on. I got to see how the crew worked together and how much detail there is in even the simplest shots. As preparation for our 2 Criminals production, the experience was invaluable to me.

I got to become friends with the staff and students of the Huntington University crew as well. I was so impressed at how professional these students were on set, although some of them were still teenagers. They were disciplined at their work and rarely complained, even though they were working in a totally different culture and environment than what they were used to.

And best of all, I learned that photography, one of the few useful skills I brought to Japan, could be used in very positive ways. The nature of making film or video is that it is not an “instant gratification” kind of product. Producing a quality film can take weeks, even months. Photographs, on the other hand, can be produced in near real time. Posting my photographs on social media each night turned out to be a great motivator for the team and give the supporters of the project real time feedback on how the team was doing. Dawn kindly told me that she viewed my photographs at the end of each day to remind her of how much work her team had accomplished and how beautiful the finished video would eventually be.

I didn’t come to Japan to be a photographer. But in small ways, God is showing me that if I can offer my skills and experience to Him, He can use it for His glory. Next week, I’ll be accompanying my pastor and his son to Northern Thailand for a mission to help record a hill tribe’s effort to create a coffee growing business. My prayer is that the images can be used to help the tribe secure distribution partners in countries outside of Thailand.

Paul reminded me that being a good photographer isn’t just about taking pretty pictures. It’s about using those images to help tell a story. And stories speak to people’s hearts, move them to action, open their minds. Lord, let your story, the gospel story, be my story.

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true;
It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.

I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.

Miyabi – A Lesson In Japanese Culture

If Japanese culture can be seen around us every day in the little things, like a meticulously trimmed bonsai in a bank lobby or an omamori (good luck charm) dangling from a cell phone strap, Miyabi lies at the opposite end of the spectrum as a grandiose, in-your-face display of all things beautiful about Japan.

Miyabi is a three-day event hosted at Meguro Gajoen, a large and famous hotel which is itself known for its over-the-top display of Japanese culture. Gajoen is primarily a wedding venue and as such, has built an environment of perfect backgrounds for Japanese wedding photos. One side of the building is almost exclusively a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking a Japanese garden, complete with waterfalls, zen stone garden and koi ponds. As all gardens in Japan, the look changes dramatically from season to season with a little help from both nature and a talented grounds-keeping staff.

But back to Miyabi. This event brings together many of the arts that are collectively known as bunka, Japanese culture. Traditional dance, music, kimono, ikebana (flower arranging), shodou (calligraphy), and other arts are performed for the public in this breathtaking venue, all free of charge. If you were in Tokyo for a week and wanted a crash course on Japanese culture, just spend three days here and you’d be swimming in it.

My friend Paul Nethercott and I went to Miyabi to support Sheila, a woman who attends Paul’s church and whose work a film team we are working with from Huntington University in Indiana will be making a part of a documentary on this month. It is easiest to describe Sheila as a kimono expert and aficionado though officially, she is much more than that. With the depth of her knowledge about kimono, she is a national treasure to Japan.

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On the day we attended, there was an oiran procession which Sheila’s daughter took part in. Oiran were the highest class of courtesan and in their day often attained celebrity status. Paul joked that the oiran’s costume could put Lady Gaga to shame and indeed, the oiran set the standard of haute couture in the same way Lady Gaga affects ours today.

We also viewed a kimono fashion show which Sheila herself was involved in. Though I expected the beautiful traditional kimono, there was a great representation of modern twists on the kimono for the younger generation: shades of punk, goth and good old rock and roll.

After the show we toured a room full of incredible ikebana, plants and flowers representing the New Year arranged in intricate shapes and designs. Ikebana is actually more than just flower arrangement; it’s the art of arranging living flowers.

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Finally, we watched a performance by Yosakoi, a group combining traditional Japanese dance with coordinated flag waving. Several of the flags were on poles 4 to 5 meters longs and were waved gracefully over the heads of the audience. It was an energetic show of skill and stamina.

One might wonder why it is important as a Japanese ministry worker to attend and experience Japanese cultural events. The answer lies in the fact that the culture of a people reveals a lot about the keys to their hearts. If we examine each aspect of Japanese culture individually, one or more facets of the heart of the Japanese is revealed to us. And without a doubt, the very same things that Japanese value in their culture can be found in the gospel. Many Japanese view the Bible as a foreign work of literature and Christianity as a Western religion. But as we better understand Japanese culture, we can relate aspects of the Japanese culture to the Word of God, demonstrating that the Bible is God’s love story for all mankind.

One fine example is the art of tea ceremony. Our friend and co-laborer Matt Burns created a wonderful short called “Serving Through Tradition” that relates the tradition of serving tea to Biblical teachings. Several pastors in Japan are practitioners of tea ceremony as a way of connecting Japanese culture to the gospel.

Serving Through Tradition 茶道:伝統を通して奉仕する from CRASH Japan on Vimeo.

Tim Svoboda, President of YWAM San Francisco, gave us some sage advice in his Perspectives class: “The job of the missionary is to fall in love with the place they are in.” Everyday, God gives us a new and deeper love for the country of Japan, its culture and its people.

Day One: Japan

It’s actually closer to the end of Day Two as I write this, but everything has been a blur since we left California on Tuesday morning. Despite our visa issues and the late night packing and cleaning, once we got to the airport, everything was like it was on rails. All of our bags and boxes weighed in properly, the flight and service were perfect, and a wonderful CAJ employee, Naoko, picked us up at the airport and has been a God-send to us ever since. So far, she has taken us to City Hall to get us through all of the processes of becoming a resident of our city and Japan and taken us through a full morning of opening a bank account where we were seemingly routed through every seating location and employee in the building. All the while, she and her family is prepping for their own move across the city this weekend!

Arriving at our new house, we found a fridge stocked with food and other sundries, and all the necessities we would need plus a few more we thought we were going to have to purchase. This morning while we were at the bank, brand new curtains were installed for us. To say CAJ has treated us well would be an understatement. We feel more like royalty than ministry workers. But we realize it is just the way things are done around here. But I’m not talking about Japan. I mean in the CAJ community, where the love of Christ is evident in the way people treat one another, especially those of us who are new to Japan. We’ve had the privilege of meeting several CAJ staff members who had in some way supported us in getting here or making us comfortable in our home.

So what have we learned so far living here in Japan? Here’s a few things that stick out:

Japanese food is amazing. Yes, we already knew this, but living here and eating from restaurants, conbini (convenience stores, e.g. 7-Eleven) and supermarkets, Japanese food is simply the freshest, tastiest food we’ve ever had. Yesterday, for example, we boiled some corn fresh from the local fields, had fresh baked pastries from a local bakery delivered to our house by new friends, picked up a tray of maguro sushi (tuna) from a little shop on the way home from the station (less than $7 for 12 pieces) and topped it off with crisp potato croquettes, picked up from the prepared food section of a nearby supermarket at half price (5 pieces for $2.50). I didn’t even have room for my Coolish soft ice cream in the freezer! When Americans think of Japanese food, they often think of sushi or ramen, but there is such incredible variety in Japanese foods, one can never grow tired of trying new foods. And yes, we did have a great spicy ramen from Kinkai Ramen, a favorite hangout for CAJ staff and students.

Japan Amazon Prime is the best. In America, we get 2 day shipping with Amazon Prime and it costs $79 per year ($99 starting next year). Of course, Americans also get perks like free movie and music streaming. But then you realize when you get to Japan that those “free” movies and music aren’t actually free. Because in Japan, Amazon Prime costs $39 per year, and you get several choices for shipping. The first choice is 2 day shipping (which can also often be next day shipping in the greater Tokyo area) with a scheduled delivery window of 2 hours. This is best if you want your package delivered to your door but you can’t wait around all day for the delivery person. The second choice is next or same day shipping but you don’t get to choose a delivery window. If someone is going to be around the house, this works great. But another option is to have the delivery made to a local convenience store so you don’t need to be home to receive the package. You can just go to the local store, most of which are open 24 hours, and pick up your package at your convenience. No extra cost. Beat that, America.

Bureaucracy? Yes! Japan has been accused of taking things that have already been invented and perfecting them. The same can be said about bureaucracy. So far, we’ve visited government offices, a banking institution and a mobile phone sales counter. You can be assured that you’d better have at least 2 hours to kill to complete a process at any one of them. And it’s not the fault of the people who work there, who are clearly working diligently at their tasks, all the while being amazingly attentive to you. But the tasks they are working at? Many are mind-boggling. For example, at the bank today, we were asked to fill out a new form that would make it easier for the bank to report our income to the IRS in America. Fair enough, since we’re Americans, and probably will end up saving us the trouble later. However, upon further questioning, we found out this form was required to be filled out in some fashion by every customer of the bank, regardless of whether they were American or not! Can you imagine the look of indignation on a British person’s face if they were asked to fill out a form regarding payment of taxes to the American government?

Also, the rules that are laid out for Japanese workers to follow are seldom never questioned. Whether or not a process actually makes sense is not the concern of the average worker. For example, we were asked to provide a copy of marriage certificate at the City office to prove we were married. It clearly said we were married on our Japanese visas, but the woman insisted that the rules required her to see a copy of the actual certificate. It didn’t matter that the scrutiny put on us by Japanese immigration was a thousand times greater than the city’s. What mattered was the rules. We went back to our house to dig out the copy of our marriage certificate and returned 30 minutes later.

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Garbage sorting requires a Masters Degree (which I do not have). We have a 15 page manual on how to sort garbage in our city. Even with help from the manual, Jayne and I were left scratching our heads over some items in our trash. Today was my first experience with putting out garbage. I went to the curbside and took photos of how our neighbors put out the trash (and got some interesting looks from people riding by on their bikes). Then I came back inside to figure out how to sort our trash. My daughter ended up helping me and even then, I contemplated what to do with a potato chip container for three and a half minutes. Not a good sign.

Japan is easier when you’re connected. We’ve only been without mobile phones for 2 days, and we aren’t completely unconnected. We have a mobile Wi-fi device that lets us use our phones to connect to the Internet while we are out and about. But when we split up, only one person gets the mobile Wi-fi, so the other person is left digitally disconnected. We’ve found this to be a problem in a couple of ways. The most obvious is that we can’t communicate with one another when we’re separated. No asking about picking up dinner on the way home or if you need anything from the store. But we’ve also found it’s not easy to navigate our neighborhood without a map and with no Wi-fi, there aren’t any portable maps to reference. No train schedules either. And no way to call our friends to ask for advice or just say hello. It’s been painful so we’re making progress on getting our own phones hopefully in the next 24 hours.

Tomorrow, the weekend begins for us. Happy Independence Day for our friends back in the States; perhaps we’ll do a few fireworks to celebrate with you. Much, much more to come!

 

 

All Things Japanese – Mizuhiki

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My mother, being the serious crafter she is, asked me if I could send her some Japanese decorations she could use to make cards with. I knew what she wanted was mizuhiki, an art form in Japan involving strands of stiff cord that are shaped into beautiful designs. It so happened that we had a bag of mizuhiki stored in our house from many years ago (don’t ask me how this happens) so I got the bag out to send some to my mother. Of course, the mizuhiki turned out to be so beautiful I had to photograph them before I sent them.

Mizuhiki are used in Japan to adorn cards, basically the way we use ribbons or bows in America. I have a couple of examples of cards made with mizuhiki here.

Mizuhiki can also be wire sculptures given as gifts for special occasions. They are usually sculpted into the forms of animals or other objects that can be displayed in people’s homes. Originally, mizuhiki was used to tie up the hair of samurai. Undoubtably, the ties became more and more ornamental. Today, modern jewelers are taking a riff from mizuhiki and creating mizuhiki inspired jewelry. Just another case of how modern Japanese preserve a centuries old art form for future generations to appreciate.