The Big Dance – Koenji Awa Odori

Summer festivals in Tokyo tend to be gatherings of 50,000 of your friends and neighbors, but the Koenji Awa Odori, with over 1,000,000 people in attendance over the two day event, still ranks as one of the largest in Tokyo. How did a festival in a quiet little neighborhood of Western Tokyo grow to such enormous proportions?

Likely, it has come about due to the now 10,000 participants in the festival, dance troupes from all of Tokyo and now Japan. The event is a constant stream of dancers, along the main street outside the station and spilling over into side streets. Awa odori (odori meaning dance) has its roots in Obon, the festival honoring the dead, but has grown into its own. While Obon festivals tend to be more restrained, Awa Odori use more instruments and more vigorous dance moves. Like Obon, spectators are encouraged to join in the fun. Like all festivals, food vendors set up stalls with delicious festival snacks (and of course, what would a festival be without beer?).

It makes sense to use this article to point out the difference between “honoring” and “worshipping” the dead. Many people falsely believe that Obon festivals “worship” the dead. This likely comes from the fact that followers of Taoist Buddhism believe the spirits of dead ancestors revisit the household altars (butsudan) during this time period and people pray at those altars. Prayers are not meant to be offered “to” these spirits, but on behalf of these spirits, whom the living may believe are trapped in some spirit world of suffering.

Obon is actually a celebration based on a Buddhist monk who prayed for his mother to be released from this world of suffering and in the process, recognized her love and selflessness to him. Through his recognition of the sacrifices she made for him, he danced for joy, which became Obon. So Obon is a time to “honor” the love and sacrifice of people, not unlike the American holiday of Memorial Day for those who gave their lives for the ideals of America.

The songs and dances of Obon are often based on the daily lives of the people of ancient Japan, filled with movements like hauling in fishing nets, mining for coal, and planting rice. Watching them is like a glimpse into the Japan of old.

We attended this event as the kickoff “photowalk” of our Ekoda Photography Club. It was a great thought at the time, but now having experienced it, I would probably think better of taking a large group to this event in the future. We ended up losing a couple members of our group less than an hour into the event and with the swelling crowd and limited space to stand, it was going to be impossible to find them again. Additionally, it was very difficult to find good spots to take photos; some people who wanted good shots were there at 4:30am to stake out the best locations. This was frustrating for me and I’m sure even more so for less experienced photographers.

Even so, we did have an enjoyable time and got a few memorable pictures and probably many more good memories that we were not able to capture on camera.

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.

Start Again – Yona Ishikawa

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

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

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

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

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

An Inspired Gift

Recently I was rushing around doing our last minute お土産omiyage (gift) shopping for our friends and family back in California. I stopped in one shop to admire some delicious looking jams and jellies from a company called St. Cousair. Looking closely at the label, I noticed something interesting: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” John 15:5

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As I browsed through other products made by St. Cousair, I noticed the verse appeared on every label. After purchasing some Earl Grey tea and some little jars of  ゆずyuzu marmalade (made from a citrus that tastes like a cross between orange and lemon) and いちじくichijiku fig jam, I hurried home to check out the company online.

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Sure enough, on the English page of their website, Mrs. Kuze speaks plainly about the faith of her and her husband and how committing to run their struggling company by Biblical principles turned everything around for them. With business booming and distribution all over Japan, the Kuze’s decided to build a church on the site of their winery. Unlike many “churches” in Japan which are merely beautiful buildings for young Japanese people to hold a wedding, theirs is a real church with services every Sunday. Mrs. Kuze is a seminary graduate and pastors the church there. Since its completion in 2005, over 100 people have been baptized there, a phenomenal number for a rural Japanese church.

In a nation where less than 1% of the population professes a Christian faith, it is rare to find a company that presents Christianity so plainly to its customers. Yes, there have been several prominent Christian companies in Japan (Morinaga, the huge confectionery and dairy company was founded by Christian Taichiro Morinaga, grandfather of Akie Abe, first lady of Japan), but few that are so direct about their faith. One could call St. Cousair the “In-n-Out of Japan” and not be far off.

In any case, I am proud to be able to give such a precious gift to a friend back in California. While the gift is but a token, the story behind it is inspiring. It’s an honor to be able to support a company with a vision to share the gospel like St. Cousair.

Visit the St. Cousair webpage in English or in Japanese.

The Bright Stars of a Future Japan

One of the pleasures of working with International students in California was becoming friends with “special” students. Yes, all students are special, but we would sometimes meet extraordinary students who had a passion for life and learning. Some International students study in America because it’s easier or less stressful than staying in their home country and treat their stay as a long vacation. But others come to fully embrace learning about a new culture and language in the short time they have. They take every opportunity to explore, to make friends outside of their own culture and immerse themselves in the English language.

While we lived in California, I only saw half of the picture: how these students behaved while living overseas. But moving to Japan and reconnecting with some of our exceptional student friends, I have had the chance to see the other half of the picture: how these students use what they learned studying abroad in their lives in Japan. And I am so impressed with what I have seen.

Here are a few examples from some of our students we had English conversation groups with or spent time with in other ways.

Jun is working for the Japan League Soccer Association and regularly using his English skills to help communicate with foreign professional soccer clubs and translate contracts for players wishing to play overseas.

Saya and Nana are working at a growing company developing tools to teach people English. Saya even got me some contract work doing voice-over for one of the tests they are developing.

Another Jun worked hard on improving his English and got a job last summer translating for the visiting Brunei national soccer team while they visited and played in Japan.

Mitsu is finishing his degree at Waseda University and working part time for a start-up company.

Now that we live in Japan, it’s more difficult for us to find these exceptional young Japanese people who want to have a positive impact on the future of Japan, though we know they are around us. Fortunately, my friend Steve Sakanashi has brought a company to Japan to attract exactly that kind of person.

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Sekai Creator started in Seattle as a course teaching leadership and entrepreneurial skills to Japanese international students studying at local universities, but Steve’s vision was to reach more potential leaders of the new Japanese economy by bringing the program to Japan. In mid-May, he finally realized his dream by launching his course in Tokyo.

Steve asked me to photograph the launch event which was attended by over 35 bright young stars of the future. They came from various universities across Tokyo to hear about the six-week program which will give them hands-on training in being an entrepreneur and experiencing every role necessary to bring a new product to market. Steve brings in experts in various areas of business to share their knowledge with the students, but the students are required to develop a product, market it and make a 50,000 yen (about $500) profit in the six-week period. It is a difficult task, but the challenge pushes the limits of the students’s abilities and helps them to learn through experience, success and failure.

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The kick-off party was appropriately held at Ryozan Park, a beautiful community workplace where people can rent shared office space to collaborate and network with others. Though not inspired by Sekai Creator, the concept of Ryozan Park definitely fits the mold of what Steve would like his students to create in Japan.

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At the party, I had the privilege of meeting and talking to many extraordinary students, learning their stories and seeing a glimpse into the future of Japan. And I like what I see in them.

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Congratulations to Steve and his team on realizing their dream of launching Sekai Creator in Tokyo. I look forward to seeing how Sekai Creator inspires the young people in Japan to break out of the traditional thinking patterns of Japanese business that are hindering the economy and innovation of this otherwise amazing country.

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.

Baked Cheesecake Kit Kat (Yes, It’s a Thing)

It’s raining today, and being cooped up inside means finding something interesting to do. I remembered a little treat I had in the okashi (snack) cupboard that I had passed many times in the aisles of pretty much every supermarket we shop at, only last time, I picked up a bag.

Japan is famous for a lot of things, but one thing we seem to get the most questions about are the exotic types of Kit Kat flavors that are available here. There is even a gourmet shop in the basement of a department store in nearby Ikebukuro that sells the rarest of flavors at premium prices (think in the neighborhood of $4 per American sized Kit Kat bar).

Kit Kat for common folk used to mainly include only dark chocolate, the ubiquitous matcha (green tea) and more frequently, strawberry. But as of several months ago, a new flavor began showing up regularly: cheesecake. And this was no ordinary cheesecake flavor; the picture on the bag showed a bar after it had been toasted in the oven for a few minutes.

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Generally speaking, when it comes to snack food, I’m not one to add any extra steps between the process of getting it from the bag to my mouth. Perhaps that’s why I waited months before actually picking up a bag to try it. When a chat with my friend led to more Kit Kat talk, I remembered my secret stash and decided to give it a try. So here is my report of the “unwrapping” of the Baked Cheesecake Kit Kat.

Opening up the bag, you find 13 cute, individually wrapped Kit Kats. No surprise there. This is Japan, home of the cute and the wrapped. (And also, home of unnecessarily detailed instructions for things you shouldn’t really need instructions for unless you’re an alien being visiting Earth for the first time, in which case you’ve come to the right country.)

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The instructions on the wrapper, from what I can make out with my terrible language skills, basically tell you to please use a saucer or tray to toast your Kit Kat in the oven. If you fail to use a saucer or tray and your Kit Kat catches fire and burns your house down, don’t say you weren’t warned. 13 times. Being an American, I completely ignored the instructions and used a piece of foil instead.

I popped the Kit Kat into the oven, turned it on and a few minutes later, voila! Out come the perfectly toasted bars of sweet goodness.

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So I know what you really want to know is how they taste. Well, I was skeptical that the the taste of any candy bar could be improved by a few minutes in the toaster oven. And I was completely wrong. It’s hard to completely describe but the flavor reminds me of the top layer of a creme brulee, but with the melty wonder of white chocolate with a hint of cheesecake flavor. It is heaven and I am hooked.

So if you’re not a fan of more traditional Japanese Kit Kat flavors like sakura (cherry) or wasabi (green horseradish), you’ll probably want to give this amazing flavor a try. If I don’t buy them all first.