For The Love of Sakura

Each year in early March as the cold of Winter begins to thaw and the trees that had been bare for the past three months begin forming tiny buds, the countenance of millions of Japanese begins to change. In Tokyo, where people are notoriously stone-faced in the public eye, you might catch a twinkle in someone’s eye as they gaze out the window of the train over the Spring trees. Or a wide smile as they walk beneath a blossoming cherry tree from the grocery store to their apartment.

Nothing seems to warm the hearts of Japanese people quite like the coming of Spring in the form of cherry blossoms (桜の花). There is even a word specifically for the appreciation of blossoming cherry trees, hanami 花見, which basically breaks down to “flower-watching”. For one or two weekends in March or April and perhaps weekday evenings as well, Japanese travel in hordes to popular locations for hanami: Ueno Park, Meguro River, the Imperial Palace, and what seems like the entire city of Kyoto.

What I love about this season is that it is a reminder to us of what God has in store for his people here in Japan. It reminds me of Isaiah 35, which speaks of those who will be redeemed by Christ:

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
    it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
they will see the glory of the Lord,
    the splendor of our God.

The crocus, like the cherry blossom, is a flower that signals the end of Winter by blooming into beautiful color. Like the cherry, it is a hardy plant that reliably blossoms every year. That is why the cherry blossom is such a perfect symbol of the redemption coming to Japan. It is inevitable, it signals the end of the dead of Winter, and it bring joy to the people who see “the glory of the Lord, the spendor of our God” through it.

Please pray with us for the coming “end of Winter” for the people of Japan, that they will see the glory of the Lord as beautifully as the blossoming cherry trees spreading over the country.

 

Another Christmas Season in Japan

If there is any particularly difficult season to be overseas, it would definitely be Christmas. It’s a time of year normally spent with family and friends and there is an excitement in the air that is very different from the rest of the year. Living in Tokyo, Christmas seems very different to us. We are thousands of miles from our families and though the outward signs of Christmas are apparent in decorations and the beautiful winter “illuminations” that many parks and neighborhoods setup for this time of year, the spiritual emptiness of the season is also very real. Most Japanese, knowing little about Jesus and the reason we celebrate Christmas, do not celebrate in the same way we do in America. Christmas day isn’t even a holiday in Japan, so with people going to work or school like any other day, it all seems so, well, normal.

Yet it is during this season that we are most aware of why we are here. We pray for the day when the people of Japan recognize Christmas in the same way we do: the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift of hope to mankind. So one of the pleasures of the season is helping to introduce the gospel story to the people of Japan through the message of Christmas.

For our church, the Christmas season means a special Children’s Christmas Festival, where children both from the church and from the community come together to perform skits and music, play games and compete in indoor sports, make crafts and eat food. As most of activities, the idea is to allow people from the community to come into the church and see that we aren’t weird or dangerous. We are just regular people who are willing to admit we need a savior, and that savior can only be Jesus.

My small offering this year was once again taking family portraits. Though I was initially disappointed to find there were less families taking portraits this year, I was later happy to learn that there were more families who were not regular attendees of our church or church events who took photos. I had a team of people helping me and the care they took in helping families get the best possible portraits were hopefully noticed by those new families who came.

We also helped to host a Christmas party for our English Club with help from our pastors and other ministry workers from church. We made Christmas cookies and had a little photo booth to take fun Christmas pictures with the students. University students will go on break for about a month soon, so we wanted to send them off with something fun in the midst of their studying.

 

And no Christmas would be complete without the wonderful Christmas Gospel Choir concert. Choir members are practicing for this amazing concert for months in advance and it shows in their enthusiasm and the beautiful harmonies. The concert plays to a packed house of over 300 people, many of which are friends and families of choir members who are not yet believers (in fact, a number of choir members themselves are not yet believers). As I have previously mentioned, the gospel choir is one of the most effective outreaches to people who wouldn’t normally visit a church and hear the gospel message. Many members of our church became Christians through participating in the choir. As always, even the next generation of gospel choir members, from 3 to 13 years old, also performed and our pastors Seiji and Kathy gave a lighthearted gospel message in the middle of the concert.

And finally, we took a short trip to Kyoto for a little family time. We drove to Kyoto to save some money and it turned out to be an easy drive with very little traffic. We had a great few days of exploring the beautiful city of Kyoto, but we’ll save that for another post.

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We may never become used to the differences in celebrating Christmas in Japan compared to celebrating Christmas in America. And that’s okay, because in the end, it all comes down to a miracle over 2000 years ago, born as a humble King in Bethlehem.

Tea and Gospel

It began as a simple cultural experience opportunity. A very generous woman from church invited us to attend a tea ceremony (chanoyu 茶の湯) demonstration at a local community tea house and thought it would be an enjoyable experience for some of us from church who were from America. We were able to try several different demonstrations, from making our own tea to having tea made and served to us.

At one point, we were joined by a jovial older man who was surprised to see a group of non-Japanese people participating in the event. As we observed the playful way he interacted with the rest of the people hosting the event, it became clear to us who he was: the head teacher of the tea school. Apart from his love of jokes and teasing, his love of tea ceremony was obvious. He began to wax philosophical: “It would be so wonderful if you could experience tea and kaiseki together…” Kaiseki is a traditional preparation of Japanese cuisine in several small individual dishes. Depending on the complexity of the meal, kaiseki could be 5 simple dishes to over a dozen more complex creations.

We agreed that tea ceremony and kaiseki would be lovely, in that moment forgetting that the act of agreeing with him was already a commitment to the future event. Less than two weeks later, our friend from church was contacting us again: would we be available to experience cha-kaiseki (kaiseki meal followed by tea ceremony) with our friendly host preparing all the details?

As it happened, the timing could not be more perfect. My mother was visiting from the States and this was an experience that not many visitors would have the opportunity to participate in.

What we did not realize was that this was a private event just for us. Five of us from church were the guests with the teacher and one of his students serving us. What was most amazing were his words to us at the end:

“The enjoyment of the event was mostly for my student [the woman who served the meal and tea]. It is her pleasure to have guests to practice serving.”

And this is the truth about the tea ceremony. The idea of tea ceremony is that the pleasure is for the host, even though he or she is seemingly doing all the work. But the entire tea culture is based on serving others not out of obligation but out of pleasure. And here in tea culture we find one of the hidden connections between Japanese culture and the gospel message.

As the host of the tea ceremony serves out of his pleasure, so our Lord Jesus served out of his love for us. And Jesus reminded us that we should serve others in the same way when he said: But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Now, of course, after only two interactions with this tea teacher, we are not yet in a position to explain this connection between tea and the gospel to him. But even as we concluded this past experience, we had already began to lay plans for a future one. This is how we build bridges to people groups in the community that we might not normally have access to, having a sincere interest in their lives while hoping they will express the same interest in ours.

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.

Why A Youth Movement is Key to Sharing the Gospel in Japan

I came to Christ as a 13-year-old Junior High School student, as a result of my best friend inviting me to a church youth event. It was probably not his primary intention that I would come to know Jesus when he asked me to come, nor was it my intention to learn more about God. I was there to have fun and he invited me because we were friends, pure and simple. Our leaders at the time, men of God who I still count as friends and mentors 30 years later, never preached at me or coerced me into making any decisions; they were simply there for me, loving me like they would love their own children. Four months after coming to church, I made my decision to follow Jesus.

As it turns out, my story is hardly a unique one in terms of how and when I was first introduced to Christ. In fact, it is estimated that worldwide, 70% of people who eventually come to Christ will do so before the age of 15, and 80% before the age of 20. If you think carefully about the implications of those statistics, a church that is serious about reaching the world with the gospel would invest the majority of their time and resources in youth ministry! Sunday mornings might even become youth events for churches who consider themselves “seeker friendly”.

Obviously, the church isn’t going to change that radically in the near future, if ever, nor does it necessarily need to in order to be more effective at communicating the gospel message. But it does mean this: the future of the church lies with the young. Taking two churches with the same number of members but one has a larger population of people under 20 in attendance and one does not, the former is more likely to thrive in the long term.

This poses a bigger challenge for the average church in Japan. The average age of a member of a Japanese church is growing older each year, now probably in the 65-70-year-old range. While there are many reasons behind this trend, one stands out like a 1,000kg gorilla: over 50% of Japanese churches have no specific ministry for youth.

Young people don’t come to church in Japan because church, in its current state, is not for young people. In America, many churches have youth events, children’s Sunday School, children’s services, and some employ youth pastors. Even with a myriad of youth oriented ministries, dedicated staff to implement them and a Judeo-Christian culture, it is still a struggle to get American kids into church.

Now consider Japan, which has no Judeo-Christian culture, few church ministries tailored for youth, a shortage of youth workers and stiff competition from extra-curricular activities and cram school on the weekends for the already scarce free-time of Japanese youth. It is little wonder why most Japanese churches have a void in the under-20 demographic.

I have often talked about the fact that there are near limitless opportunities to evangelize in Japan, but not every opportunity is equal in value. If 80% of people come to Christ before the age of 20 and most Japanese churches are not doing anything to reach that demographic, there is a missed opportunity for the gospel here roughly the size of a black hole.

Fortunately, in the past year a group of pastors and Christian leaders have started meeting together to address this black hole of ministry. They have started the “4/14 Window Movement Japan“, (4/14 refers to the age group between 4 and 14, where 80% of the opportunities lie) which aims to help churches understand the opportunities and challenges in ministering to this demographic. For starters, they have taken the excellent graphic material from the English  4 To 14 Window site and translated it to Japanese. They are also starting to meet regularly to brainstorm ideas and build networks to turn the 4/14 Window Movement into, well, a movement in Japan.

I am keenly interested in this ministry as a parent of children in this demographic, as a former youth advisor, and as a ministry worker who has witnessed how God works through a youth ministry like Vacation Bible School (VBS) on a Japanese church. For thousands of American children including myself, their first encounter with Jesus came when they were invited to a VBS program at a church in their community. Yet many Japanese churches have no ministries designed to invite children and their parents into the church in a non-threatening way. Could a VBS movement work to “grease the wheels” for the 4/14 Movement to truly be set in motion?

This is a subject I hope to address frequently over the next few months and years. I’m interested in feedback from those with experience in Japanese church ministry. What ministries do you think would be most effective at reaching the under-20 demographic with the gospel?

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Watch Your Tone With Jesus!

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Watch Your Tone With Jesus!

Shinsuke Ohtomo, a pastor at Jesus Lifehouse International Church in Tokyo and “friend we have yet to meet”, has taken on the challenge of translating the Bible in way that is unique to the Japanese language. Because Japanese uses several different words for relating to others based on things like age, social status or tone, it is a very rich yet complex language when expressing relationships between people. Original translations of the Bible to Japanese used one very formal type of expression for the way Jesus related to others. However, we know that depending on the situation, Jesus used very different styles of communication: harshly to the hypocritical religious leaders, persuasively to the masses, and compassionately to those seeking him in faith, just to name a few.

Though often overlooked, linguistics plays an important role in how we relate to gospel. A great novel like Les Miserables would not play out nearly as well if it were written by an author of technical manuals rather than Victor Hugo. In Japanese, with its vast richness of vocabulary for expressing relationships between people, linguistics become even more important. This is another example of how contextualization helps reveal the fullness of the gospel in the heart language of the people it is being addressed to.