Little Voices Magnified

Yesterday, as I watched the mini-bus full of our Redwood team pull out of the preschool on their way back to California, I felt the tears welling up. For a week, we had transformed the rooms and halls of the preschool, normally unused during vacation periods, into places of joy and laughter for over 200 children. They danced like no one was watching, sang at the tops of their lungs, and gave praise to a God they were only just beginning to know, but One who knew and loved them before they were born.

Their little voices echoed in the hallways of my memories, their little footsteps literally running into the chapel excited to sing and dance their hearts out for Jesus. In those moments, it wasn’t difficult to understand the joy God feels for us, His creation, and what He intended our relationship to be with him: children running with joy to spend time with their Father.

Dozens of volunteers spent hundreds of man hours preparing for and participating in English Summer Camp this year. Many people, most who didn’t even attend the event, gave time and resources to support this event: prayer, financial, labor. And many volunteers here in Japan sacrificed their vacation time to spend time with these children.

I’m so thankful for the breadth and depth of our local volunteers this year. Some came from other churches to help, some from other ministries, like a great group of young people from YWAM. Some were local university students who love children. Some were mothers of participating children who wanted to be more actively involved.

Some of our volunteers said that by participating in camp, they came to a fuller knowledge of who Jesus is and what Christianity is about. A parent said that she had never seen her child as full of joy as they were during English Summer Camp. On the last day, there were already requests to do a mini-camp in the Fall, maybe with a few members of the Redwood Team returning to lead it.

This is all we pray and hope for; the opportunity to build deeper friendships and relationships based on the foundation of God’s love. Through our friendship, we hope to help our Japanese friends gain a clearer understanding of God’s great love for them. We want to stand with them in their times of joy and times of sorrow, their triumphs and trials. For Jesus called us to live out his love in the world in action, and not just words.

Sharing some of the beautiful moments of this year’s English Summer Camp: children worshiping their Heavenly Father and being loved with the love of Jesus through our leaders and volunteers.

 

Free To Be

In a recently published article in the Japan Times, the uncomfortable issue of child suicide stemming from school pressures was brought into the light once again. On the first day of the academic school year in April and again on the first day of school after the long summer break, suicides among students spike, a trend that has gone on for over 40 years.

Though the Japanese education system is a wonder in many ways, it has serious blind spots that put children, especially those who have trouble fitting in, at risk. For students who are socially awkward, terrible and often relentless bullying is common. For students who are not academically gifted, the constant pressures of testing, where your future opportunities can be set for you in the 6th grade is a factor. And for students with learning or behavioral disorders, the rigid structure of public school can be extremely difficult, on top of the bullying and academic performance pressures.

Last year at JEMS Mt. Hermon, I was introduced to a brother who is passionate about giving children who don’t fit into the rigid mold of public education and chance to learn, thrive, and be accepted unconditionally. Moto Kimura is principal of the Keiyu Gakuen free school, a church-based school near Ueno Park in Tokyo. Moto is a co-worker in more ways than one: he is a JEMS affiliated ministry worker.

Moto, his wife, and his two children all serve and attend Keiyu Gakuen along with about a half-dozen other staff members. They serve children from elementary school to high school age. The curriculum is fairly fluid and there is plenty of room for play. Minor behavioral “problems” that wouldn’t be tolerated in public school classrooms, like talking out of turn or getting up and walking around during a lesson, are ignored by the staff. The kids are free to be who they are.

Since last November, I have been serving monthly as a Chapel time speaker and photography teacher, as well as an informal English “coach”. I give a simple message to the children which I usually try to focus on God’s purpose for our lives and our value as His children. Then we eat lunch together and I talk to some of the kids (in English and my broken Japanese) and joke around with them. Every two or three months, we also do a simple photography lesson in the afternoon, which is basically teaching them how to use a camera and taking portraits of each other, which I allow them to print on the spot. The photographs they have taken of each other have become a source of amusement and laughter as we bring them back as slideshow material every month.

I love my time at the free school as I have developed friendships with the staff and kids. The kids may not be perfect students but it is not difficult to see how wonderful they are in the eyes of God. They are full of life and happiness, and being in a safe place where they can be who they are without fear of being disciplined or bullied brings out the best in them.

Sadly, not enough is being done in Japan to help the many children who cannot conform to the strict mold of the public education system. While much lip service is paid to reforming the system, at the heart of the matter, society wants children to be trained to conform, which is the basis of Japanese society being group-oriented, not individualistic. So progress is slow and every year, hundreds of children will needlessly take their own lives in protest of the system they cannot fit into.

Like Keiyu Gakuen, the church can step in fill needs where they are not being met. A free school is a huge resource commitment, but having clubs or making the church a place children can come to feel safe, with adults they can trust and who genuinely care about them can make a big difference. As one director of a Tokyo non-profit said so accurately:

“School shouldn’t be a place requiring children to sacrifice their lives. I want children to know there are places other than school where they can learn and make new friends.”

Please pray for the children of Japan, especially now as they return from summer break, but also every day. Pray they find hope in something greater than academics or social standing. Pray they find their worth in the eyes of the Lord, who gave his life as a sacrifice because of his great love for them and us.

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.

 

What is Seijin Shiki?

A little while ago, I had the opportunity to take portraits of a young lady from a family who, like us, came to Japan last year to share the hope in Jesus Christ with the people of Japan. The occasion was Seijin Shiki, an event that nearly every Japanese girl (and many boys) look forward to participating in.

Seijin Shiki is the ceremony celebrating the Japanese coming of age, which is 20 years old. Like turning 18 or 21 in many other countries, at 20 years old, a Japanese person is considered an adult and receives all the responsibilities of adulthood. In America, many young adults informally celebrate this time on their 21st birthdays (often with a trip to Las Vegas on the West Coast), but in Japan, any young adult turning 20 before April 2nd of the year of the ceremony celebrates on the same day, the 2nd Monday in January.

On that day, young people can be seen sauntering about town in their finest clothes, or at least the finest clothes they could rent. For women, this usually includes wearing furisode, the most formal and colorful type of kimono for single women, and having their hair and makeup professionally done. For men, it can be either a formal black kimono or a Western style suit.

The Seijin Shiki day is generally comprised of three possible components. First, there is a ceremony that takes place at the city hall of the city where the young person resides. They are formally recognized as adults by the city officials and given a token gift from the city.

Second is a photo session wearing the fantastic outfits that are often so expensive, they can only be rented. These photo sessions often take place at shrines, where young people and their families can also take a minute to pray for a good future. Meiji Shrine in Harajuku is a very popular shrine on this day owing the fact that the area is popular with young people to begin with.

Lastly, but most importantly, the rest of the day is dedicated to friends and family. Some will have lunch at a fancy restaurant with their family and others will meet up with a group of friends and go out on the town, shopping, eating, and possibly taking their first legal drink together.

I was fortunate to be able to photograph our friend decked out in a lovely furisode at a community tea garden not far from our church. Not long ago, I was introduced to a woman who teaches kimono dressing by a mutual friend and she was able to not only provide a lovely kimono to rent but help with the complex dressing process. (Not every kimono is so difficult to put on but this is one of the most formal styles and is usually done with help from a professional or experienced person). We all had a wonderful and enjoyable time.

For some young people, however, this event can be more bitter than sweet. I was recently contacted by our friends in Chiba, asking if I could take portraits of a girl they knew for Seijin Shiki next month. This girl is one of the alumni of the Children’s home we’ve been serving at for the past several years. An organization our friends participate in is putting on a special event for young people from the home celebrating Seijin Shiki. Some of them don’t have families to celebrate with and most don’t have the kind of money it takes to rent the fancy clothing and take photographs of the event, so the organization is helping to facilitate that.

It’s funny how God keeps finding ways to tie my passion for photography in with my passion for sharing the hope of the gospel. When we first came to Japan, I wasn’t sure how useful my photography experience would be to our ministry and now I find so much of my personal ministry is being built on it. Praise God for using what little I have to offer for His glory!

 

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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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.

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.