Learning Japanese:What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Two years ago when we arrived in Japan, I devised what I believed was the perfect language acquisition strategy. I would use my Rosetta Stone application for an hour every day, read and write kanji for an hour every other day, and “absorb” the language through my everyday interaction with Japanese society. I had to pat myself on the back for being so brilliant. Brilliantly naive.

A few weeks later, I dropped the Rosetta Stone from my plan. I always hated it anyway; it was annoyingly repetitive and the stuff it was “teaching” me was 90% stuff I already knew. Next to go was writing kanji. Why should I learn to write kanji when the majority of the time I use it is behind a keyboard? For the next few months I focused on reading kanji, which was mostly instant gratification given my bent toward visual learning. But once I hit 600 kanji and the new ones become more complex or too similar to ones I already learned, it became a chore to learn new kanji and I quit studying that too.

Which left me with absorbing the language through everyday interaction with Japanese society. Which is a complete and utter sham. As it turns out, there is only so much you can learn from a 15 word interaction with the grocery store cashier or train station attendant. And most of it is “I’m sorry, could you repeat that? My Japanese is poor.”

So a few weeks ago, I finally admitted defeat, swallowed my pride, and went crawling back on hands and knees to where I should have started all along: with a Japanese tutor. My Japanese tutor is the sweetest, most gentle teacher one could ever hope for. Yet showing up at my lesson still feels like climbing into the dentist chair for a root canal.

Because learning Japanese is painfully difficult. The language itself is fairly straight-forward and follows more rules than English by far. But the context of Japanese and the different sets of vocabulary and word forms based on who you are speaking to is mind boggling. This is why I believe some Japanese people prefer to learn English, which is for the most part, a one-form-fits-all kind of language.

But I have already learned some important things only a few weeks into my lessons (apart from Japanese grammar and vocabulary). I hope these lessons are helpful to you as well if you consider whether or not to study Japanese.

I know more than I think I do. My Japanese tutor coaxes me (she’s too gentle to demand) to express myself in Japanese. As it turns out, I can say quite a bit in Japanese, though it doesn’t come naturally and I struggle with finding the right words and sentence formations. But if I don’t practice, it never comes naturally, so as much as I hate to verbalize in Japanese, I do it in conversation with her. And I hope it becomes more comfortable soon where I can also try it with others.

There is a strong connection between speaking and listening. My biggest worry has been that I have been slow at improving my aural comprehension of Japanese. From the time we arrived here to the time I started my lessons, I probably improved my listening skills from about 15% of what I heard to 30% in two years. In the past 3 weeks alone, I realized that my listening skills have already improved noticeably, though my focus has been on speaking and writing. I can easily imagine my aural comprehension reaching 60-70% within 6 months if I remain diligent.

There is a strong connection between reading and writing. My biggest mistake in learning kanji was to stop writing it. When I look back at the kanji that I practiced writing, I still remember almost all of them. The practice of writing definitely ingrains the image of the kanji in your head so when you see it, you recognize it. My tutor has me writing a journal in Japanese every other day, at least. I actually enjoy it though my vocabulary is small and my sentences sound like something a preschooler would say.

Passive learning can only take you so far. And really, it’s not very far at all. Trying to absorb language through “immersion” only works if you are an active participant. People who live in homestay situations with native speakers and engage in conversation every day will learn a language through immersion. If you are only an observer in social interactions, you won’t learn much. Force yourself to engage and push yourself to learn new vocabulary and grammar so you can be confident in interacting with others. Even if you try to learn by watching TV or listening to the radio, parrot the words you are hearing so you are speaking as well as listening.

You’ll probably regret not studying the language. Looking back, I think about how many more conversations I could have had with people, how much deeper I could connect with acquaintances if only I had started studying Japanese immediately after we arrived here. It’s water under the bridge now, but that doesn’t mean I should let another day go by without trying to become fluent in Japanese. We may not live in Japan forever, so is it really worth wasting the time we have here not being able to communicate with people on a deeper level?

I will still admit, it’s hard to approach language acquisition with eagerness and joy. But I am trying to focus on the goal: the day I can talk about almost anything with anyone I happen to meet, without fear of stumbling over my words or sounding like a child. And that gives me hope.

 

Stop Asking The Wrong Question

The Christian church in Japan is growing, though much of the growth is at the roots, where it is not easily recognized. In this fast-paced, instant access world, it is easy for churches and missions to look at Japan and ask “why are Japanese resistant to the gospel?” This is absolutely the wrong question. The real question we should be asking is “How is the enemy (Satan) interfering with our ability to communicate the gospel to the Japanese?”

The difference is the first question incorrectly assumes that Japanese are not interested in or are opposed to learning about Christianity. The truth is that Japanese people are open to learning about many things, including Christianity. In a recent Pew survey, the majority of Japanese surveyed  had a favorable view of Christianity and of all the major religions, chose Christianity as the most favorable, even above Buddhism. They may not like the idea of organized religion, but then again, Jesus wasn’t a big fan of it either.

The second question rightly assumes that there is spiritual warfare going on between those opposing God and those doing His work. And this is not just between groups of people but in the spiritual realm of angels and demons, which I am not knowledgeable enough to discuss at length, but I know it goes on around us every day, unseen. Satan does not want the Japanese to hear the gospel message. He does not want Japanese to know the facts about Jesus Christ. And he is throwing huge amounts of resources into battle to ensure they are kept in the dark.

So how is the devil working to oppose the message of the gospel to the Japanese? This post would go on for pages if I tried to explain every aspect of spiritual interference Christians face in Japan, but I’d like to highlight some of the major ones and perhaps dive in to the details in future posts.

The god of Work

Japan is known as an industrious nation and solidified that reputation in the post WW2 era, becoming an economic superpower on the back of manufacturing and quality improvement. However, that reputation has become an idol for many Japanese companies who now insist on a work-life imbalance that most Americans would find horrifying. Though a lingering economic malaise has slightly improved the situation for the average Japanese worker, long hours and six day work weeks are often the norm. If a worker has free time, it is often used to catch up on sleep, spend time with family or engage in a hobby. There is simply no room for learning about Christianity in the schedule of most Japanese once they graduate from college.

Ironically, most Japanese, including those in the government, know that overwork is a big problem in Japan. However, nobody seems able to make any major inroads to change. I believe this is because deep down, Japan is proud of its workaholic reputation in the world and employees are rewarded for taking part in that system of overwork.

Christianity as a “Western religion”

Christians should be aware that Christianity is neither western nor religion, with its roots in the Middle East and its emphasis on a personal relationship with God that is unique to Christianity. Yet because of its obvious differences from Buddhism and Shintoism, this reputation is difficult to shake.

Much of Japan’s cultural identity is based on Buddhist and Shinto concepts. The most central concept of collectivism vs. individualism is one of the strongest separators of Christianity from the Japanese. By its nature, you cannot be Christian and Buddhist or Shinto simultaneously. Becoming a Christian requires a person to renounce their belief in Buddhist and Shinto ideals, an act which separates a person from the collective group. This bond to the collective: society, family, work, social group, is what makes it extremely difficult for Japanese to accept Christ, who says “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

The Work of Cults

The existence and popularity of cults in Japan is proof in itself that Japanese are indeed spiritual people. Spiritual, yet not necessarily religious. Unfortunately, many cults, including those who identify themselves with Christianity, are active in Japan, preying on people’s spiritual hunger. Even those who are wise enough to escape the grip of a cult find themselves suspicious of any other “religious” group, and perhaps rightly so.

As Japanese people are not well aware of the facts of Christianity, cults which claim to be Christian can be very dangerous to them. For Japanese people, cults like the Mormon church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Unification Church can be indistinguishable from true Christian churches until it is too late. Even in the best cases, these cults create distractions that keep Japanese people from learning the truth about God. In worse cases, it turns them into deceivers of their own people.

The “Powerless” Church

I bring this up cautiously and without pointing fingers at any organization or church in Japan. However, in Japan, just as anywhere in the world, there are churches that exist that are not demonstrating the power of the gospel in changing people’s lives. Some are merely social groups of people meeting together every week to sing songs and hear an uplifting message. Some are churches that treat new visitors as outsiders who are creating an inconvenience to them. Some refuse to acknowledge that the methods used to share the gospel with others has changed dramatically over the past few decades, or that methods that work in the West do not work nearly as well in Japan.

The worst cancer in the Japanese church is the lack of unity between churches. While more partnerships between churches have been forged recently through disaster relief efforts, there are still too many churches trying to do things on their own without any inclusion of other churches or organizations in their area. When disagreements or battles between Christian groups become public (and Japanese people do love their gossip), it puts a stain on our reputation as people who have been changed by the power of Christ.

When we begin to ask the right question, we understand that the most powerful weapon again Satan is prayer. And prayer is something that can be done by anyone, at any time, from anywhere. Would you consider joining us in regular prayer against the activities of Satan to deceive the people of Japan? Would you ask prayer groups you belong to to include this topic in their prayer times? The war was already won when Jesus pronounced “It is finished” on the cross, but the battles for the souls of God’s people are still being waged, and you are a difference-maker.

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.

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.

 

When Mission Becomes Life

Tomorrow marks 19 months to the day that we arrived in Japan with stars in our eyes, giddy with expectation. Tomorrow is Tuesday, and it will feel like just a normal Tuesday with school and work, a trip to the supermarket and some language study time. Many of the things that fascinated me about Japanese life are no longer quite so fascinating. We are grateful to be able to walk a couple hundred meters (yes, meters, not yards) down the road to pick up some fresh produce from a roadside stand and leave money in a lockbox, but it’s no longer a novelty. I no longer think the world is ending when driving down two way streets that are the width of 1.35 cars and I see another car coming toward me. These are all just part of our life now, the life we have here in suburban Tokyo.

I can’t say for sure when I personally crossed the point where I stopped thinking of myself as a missionary and began to regard our current situation as a season of our lives. But with that shift came some changes in mentality, some good, some bad, some just gray. For those who desire an insight into the mind of a 1.5 year learner in the field, here’s what I have come to understand so far.

Ministry life integrates into the world we live in. Recalling the horror stories from Perspectives class of missionaries who go to third world countries and literally build themselves fortresses to live in and wonder why the local people never trust them, we laughed and said we’d never be like that. But separation happens in subtler ways in the field as well. My weakness is definitely language. If I can get away with speaking English in almost any situation, I will. The other day I asked the cashier at Costco in Japanese if I could speak English. She replied (also in Japanese) either Japanese or English was fine. So of course, I defaulted to English. Seems innocent enough, but that decision draws a line between myself and a local person that doesn’t need to be drawn.

I’ve made a decision to be more intentional about language acquisition this year. It is one barrier between myself and the Japanese people that I don’t want to let languish any longer. But many things can become the “fortresses” we live in. Where we chose to live, where we chose to worship, who we chose to become close friends with. And in order to live in the world we have chosen to live in, we may have to make some uncomfortable choices that draw us closer to the people we have come to share the gospel with.

Boundaries are difficult to identify, but must be set. The more ministry becomes a part of everyday life, the harder it is to identify the boundaries that separate ministry from our personal lives. But wait, that sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t ministry fully integrate into our personal lives?

The answer to that could probably be debated at length, but one thing is certain; nobody is able to do ministry 24/7. There must be Sabbath days, times of refreshing for our souls, times to spend only by ourselves or with our family. Jesus set many examples for us to follow with regards to time alone with God, time fellowshipping with his closest friends, and time being among the needy crowds. He took naps at times which his disciples may have considered inconvenient for him to do so! But Jesus knew how to work, how to play and how to rest.

In a workaholic society like Japan, setting work boundaries is actually a ministry in itself. If we don’t set aside time to refresh ourselves, we are no different from secular Japan that tells people they must work themselves to the point of exhaustion to be productive and therefore, worthy. If our lives in Japan are to be a witness to those watching us, then we need to demonstrate the value of the Sabbath, of time for ourselves and our family. It’s unfortunate that many churches fail because their pastor, in their zealousness for God’s work, forget to set boundaries and forgo rest and refreshment time.

I want to do it all. But there are times when I need to be reminded that I’m not here to do it all. That God has a specific calling for me at this time and I need to stay true to that calling and not wander off following the latest, shiny thing I see. The way I do this is to always know our vision, our church’s vision, and ensure every activity I do is in alignment with those visions. English Summer Camp is one of those programs where it is crystal clear that it aligns with the visions we share with our church pastors on reaching the young families in our community. And so I weigh each of the ministries we are involved in against our personal ministry vision and our church ministry vision and it becomes much easier to know how to prioritize my time and energy.

We are in the world, not of the world. We are truly blessed in having so many people and churches partnering with us in ministry that finances are rarely a concern for us. I don’t say this to boast, because I know God has provided those partnerships for us and given people a heart to reach the people of Japan through our ministry, and that is humbling. It is also a responsibility that I don’t take lightly and thinking about how we spend based on how God has provided is at times stressful.

The worldly man in me sometimes desires to be free of that responsibility. “If we were independently wealthy, we could focus on the things we want to do and not have to worry about financial accountability,” I think. And then I start wondering how I can make that happen.

Now I don’t believe being wealthy is a sin, but when it becomes a distraction from our ministry, then it becomes sin. And when I start to see the blessings of God as a burden because I am too proud to accept His financial blessings on us through others, that is certainly sin.

Where this really hits home is with photography. As I gain in experience and exposure, many well-intentioned people have talked to me about ideas for making my photography more profitable. And I must admit the idea of becoming financially self-sustaining through photography is a seductive idea. But at this season in our lives, it just isn’t in alignment with our vision.

The way I try to bring these impulses under control is to offer my photography services to ministries and ministry workers at pro bono or highly discounted rates. Of course, photography is an expensive business to be in because of the cost of equipment, and the wear-and-tear and technological advances that require equipment to be replaced. But though I have been able to offer free or nearly free services to local ministries, God has still provided financially an amount of money that can be used to cover the cost of repairs or replacement for much of my equipment. This is funded through gifts and donations from ministries or payment for small photography jobs unrelated to ministry.

Believe me, it’s difficult to explain to people that I can offer free or highly discounted photography services to them because of the obedience and generosity of individuals and churches back in America supporting us. But it’s a story I love to tell because it is a concrete image of God’s faithfulness at work and the love of Christ through his body, the church, in action.

No one is an island. One of the most disappointing things I see among fellow ministry workers and organizations is the cowboy mentality that often comes with being raised in the West (western culture, not western US). I believe walls between churches and organizations were crumbled as a result of the cooperation needed to respond to the 2011 Tohoku disaster, but remnants of the walls still remain. As we live here, we see them, though again, more subtly than one might imagine.

But I do realize that many missionaries and organizations want to work alone or within their own context. Working with other individuals, churches, denominations is messy. Feelings get hurt, people get offended, too many opinions on how to do things get thrown around. I’ve been on both sides of that as well, feeling like an outsider being kept out and feeling like an insider needing to exclude others from my work.

The fact is, the work to be done in Japan, in Tokyo even, is too great for one family, one church or even one organization to tackle alone. Our English Summer Camp will likely require 100 or more volunteer helpers, many of which will need to be proficient in Japanese and English. Our church alone won’t have the resources to staff it. We will need members of other churches or organizations to help us. And what will they gain? Perhaps nothing apparently significant. No new church members. Maybe a line item on their annual report.

But the Kingdom of God gains. The reputation of the church in Japan gains, as not-yet-believers see that we can work together as well as we can work separately. New believers are added to the global church who will eventually gather in Heaven, worshiping God together.

The enemy seeks to divide the church. He has done it successfully since the church was founded and he knows it is one of our most glaring weaknesses. For while we argue and offend others with differences in opinion that are insignificant to the gospel message, we are distracted from doing the real work of the Lord together.

Ministry workers, we need thicker skins. We need to not take offense when someone disagrees with something that in the big picture is minor. Political views. How we raise our children. Even minor doctrinal differences that have no bearing on the message of the gospel. And we need to stop feeding the machine that turns us against each other. Stay positive. Focus on the only message that matters: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because in the end, we need each other. We need to help one another. We need to deal with one another, warts and all, because that’s what Christ called us to do. That’s life: dirty, messy life. Let’s not forget when we answered the call to join the front line of the battle for people’s souls, we would be living in the trenches.

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.

The Canopy of Autumn

Growing up in the mild climate of the Bay Area, one thing we definitely missed was the dramatic turn from warm to cold weather signaled by the autumn foliage. It wasn’t until I visited the eastern Sierras in October of 2011 that I realized what I was missing. Needless to say, coming to Japan where both Autumn and Spring bring spectacles of nature that the entire country goes crazy over was an incredible experience for us.

To say that Japan is crazy over the changing autumn leaves is an understatement. Because cherry blossom season is so short in the Spring, popular places to view cherry blossoms tend to be packed with people for a short period of time. But because the autumn colors tend to last longer and experience a week or more at “peak colors”, the crowds don’t seem to be as intense, though the overall numbers probably match their Spring counterparts.

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There are, of course, websites for tracking the changing leaves across the country. And this is a great thing because you wouldn’t want to trek out to a remote location only to find the leaves haven’t changed colors yet.

It just so happens that one of the best places to view autumn colors in the Saitama prefecture is a mere bicycle ride from our house. And a bicycle is perfect because during peak colors, the streets surrounding the location are a gridlock of cars searching in vain for a parking space.

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The location is the grounds of a Buddhist temple called Heirin-ji. The temple itself takes up only a small portion of the forest, but the leaves are best viewed against the classic backdrop of ancient Japanese architecture, as some of the buildings were built in the late 17th century.

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The rest of the space is a woodland preserve of the Musashino Forest, a rarity in such an urban environment. On a quiet day, one can walk seemingly alone through a stretch of forest and maybe catch a glimpse of a raccoon dog or other animal not commonly seen in the surrounding city. But there are no quiet days for walks during the autumn leaves season. Hundreds of people wander the park on weekdays and thousands on weekends.

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Still, every once in a while when the crowds disperse for a few minutes, one can get the sense of standing beneath a tapestry of color only the mind of God could have created, breathing in the cool, earthy air and feeling the fall breeze on your face. And in that moment, a whispered “Hallelujah” might escape your lips because to witness autumn in Japan is a glimpse of God’s glory yet to come.

No words can really describe the beauty so I leave you with a few more photos to savor.

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