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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A Yearful of Blessing

Recently, we compiled a summary of our ministry work for our organization’s annual report. As I went through my calendar entries and photographs from the past year, I was amazed at how easily things unfolded for us. It was as though the plans were already in place, and the only requirement for us was to participate in them. Imagine that.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~ Jeremiah 29:11

I also re-read our annual report summary from last year. One year ago, we were still finding our feet, praying about and for ministry opportunities and getting plugged in with the local Christian community. Today, we’ve found confidence in being able to live in Tokyo as residents, established several new ministries within the context of our new home church and have a diverse network of contacts within the community whom we can serve and be served by.

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Best of all, the work we have been doing has led us down the path of helping to plant a new worship service at a nearby school in the coming year as well as hosting what will likely be a very large scale English Summer Camp this coming August with a new church partner from California. Both of these things align with our overall vision of serving the community around our church and reaching the many children and young families around us.

We have truly been blessed by consistent financial partners this past year and have had full support pretty much continuously since we arrived in Japan 16 months ago. But we are prudent enough to realize that we may not always enjoy this level of support and we will need a reasonable savings in our ministry account to ensure we make it through the more challenging times.

If you are so led, would you consider a one time gift or new financial partnership with us in our ministry here in Tokyo? Instructions for supporting us can be found on this webpage.

By the way, though our annual report will be published by JEMS, our sending organization, and emailed to our church partners, if you are interested in personally receiving a copy of our report, please leave me a note in the comments and if we have your email address, I will send it to you.

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As always, we are grateful for your prayers, your encouragement, your financial support, and your love for us in Christ Jesus. We love you!

What is a “Free School”?

Every weekday morning around 7:30, the streets are flooded with the uniformed masses of Japanese school children trudging off to school. In many ways, they are like their Western counterparts: dreaming of upcoming vacation days, worried about a pop quiz in math, laughing with their friends about some YouTube video playing on someone’s phone. It’s easy to forget that in one important way, they aren’t the same.

The Japanese education system still stresses the idea of collectivism, that the needs of the many are greater than the needs of the individual. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, some of the ways this teaching manifests itself can be disturbing.

The Japanese proverb that best defines their particular brand of collectivism is this: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” In school, the end result is that nobody wants to stand out from their peers in any way, good or bad. You may be the smartest kid in your class but you’d dare not act like it by asking your teacher for more challenging work. If your peers find out about it, you’ll be put in your place.

The most common manifestation of collectivism is the bullying of the children who refuse to be, or due to mental, emotional or physical issues, cannot be, part of the collective. The bullying problem in Japan is well documented and there are many reasons for it apart from social collectivism, but the point is that the school yard can be a very cruel place for many Japanese children.

So while we witness thousands of children march off to school every day, there are likely hundreds more who can’t or won’t leave their homes. For some, the bullying has become so bad that they cannot deal with it any longer and their weary parents, having exhausted all options, simply allow them to stop attending school. For others, the school administrators themselves have requested that the family stop sending their child to their school. And there are other reasons, often related to one of these two.

Our friend and JEMS affiliate Moto Kimura is passionate about children and families in this situation. Moto is the administrator of a “free school” at a church in Ueno. Free schools are now starting to show up all over Japan, often started by churches who are compassionate toward families with children who cannot or will not attend Japanese public schools.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Moto’s school twice already and meet the children who attend his school. None of the kids could be legitimately called “bad” kids. Some have short attention spans and need to get up in the middle of a lesson and walk around a bit before resuming their work. Some have learning disorders and need a little more help learning their subjects. And some appear completely normal but perhaps have been bullied so badly at public schools that they refuse to return.

The ability to help children who do not “fit” the Japanese public school system is an area where the government is struggling. Even in the area of treating common learning disorders, Japan lags behind other first world nations. And so it is, where the government is in need, the church can help provide an answer, this time through Free Schools.

Of course, much more can be done, if there were more professional special needs teaching resources coming from overseas to serve Free Schools and their like. Like my wife has come to serve her school as a Speech Therapist (and in many other ways), Japan can benefit from bilingual resources educated in American universities on treating these learning disabilities that are still relatively new to Japan.

As for me, I will be giving a chapel message once per month at Moto’s school and teaching some simple photography concepts to the older students. Please pray for Moto and his school and the many schools like his that churches are using to serve the people of Japan. This is just another tangible way to provide the love of Christ to families who are desperately in need.

Bridging The Gap in Tokyo

Walking into The Bridge Live, it’s easy to think you’ve just stumbled upon a hidden gem of an underground jazz club. First the location: Shimokitazawa, an artsy suburb of Tokyo that is a destination for urban 20-somethings due to its lively nightlife, edgy shops and abundance of great restaurants. Half Moon Hall, the venue for The Bridge Live is itself an architectural masterpiece.

Next, the musicians. Four or five bands, mainly people from the neighborhood, come to play their music here. The music ranges from classic jazz to folk rock to Beatles covers, but one thing remains the same: the high quality of the musicians who play here. Only then do you realize you didn’t pay a cover charge to come in the door.

When Joey Zorina takes the stage, you realize why you are here. Joey, a talented guitarist himself, is pastor of The Bridge Fellowship, a weekly home church gathering. The Bridge Live is an event held 4 or 5 times a year as a way to present the gospel message to this crowd of young and artistic people. The message is given in a way that connects with what is typically going on in the lives of this demographic.

Finally, the night closes with a professional Christian band or musician who is able to share a testimony along with a few songs. At the end of the night, everyone chips in with help cleaning up and a few groups might go off together to enjoy a meal together in this lively neighborhood.

I first attended The Bridge Live to cover the testimony of Shinada-san, one of the ex-Yakuza men whom our film “2 Criminals” is based on. I have continued to attend because of the quality of the music and message I experienced there and as a way I could bless the musicians playing there with professional photographs of themselves in concert.

This demographic of young and artistic people is often considered a “fringe” demographic, largely because the values of modern Japan culture place so much value on material wealth, and artists typically aren’t the ones making lots of money. This holds true in the West as well, but committing to the life of an artist in Japan is a real commitment that could have a lasting effect on your relationships with your family and friends. But because of their “outlier” status, this group is also one which are more ready to hear and accept the gospel message. However, they may not feel comfortable attending a more traditional church, so having a place like The Bridge Fellowship to attend is a blessing for them.

The Bridge Fellowship will be going through a transition to a full-fledged church as part of the Redeemer City-to-City Movement. Please pray for this ministry as it serves this specific demographic of Japanese and if you feel inclined to learn more and perhaps support them financially, visit their website to learn more.

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.

Sowing the Seeds

One of the questions we are often asked as ministry workers in Japan is why only 1% of Japanese identify as Christians. While this is a complex question to answer in a single blog post, let me toss you a fact and a theory to consider.

Fact: Most Japanese people have little knowledge of the Christian God or Jesus Christ. Now, if the entire country was evangelized and still only 1% of people made a decision to follow Christ, I would say our work in Japan is finished. Our job is to make the gospel known, not to “convert” or “save” people. Salvation is through Christ alone. The work of communicating the gospel, the job of ministry workers and really every Christian living in Japan, is far from over, however.

Which leads me to my theory about being stuck at the 1% threshold. Imagine yourself as a farmer with a huge field that you wanted to grow a crop of corn in. Now imagine that perhaps once a week, you went into your field and dropped a few kernels of corn, kicked a little dirt over them, and went to paint the barn or milk the cows or some other farm related thing.

If the weather was kind to you and provided you some rain, if birds didn’t pick your corn kernels out of the ground, and if weeds didn’t choke your growing corn stalks, at the harvest, you might have some corn. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, 1% of your field.

So my theory is this: Historically, Japan has not invested enough effort in planting the seeds of the harvest to see a greater harvest. And what do those kernels of corn represent? Investment in ministry to the children.

It is said that less than 50% of Japanese churches TODAY provide any sort of children’s ministry: Sunday School, youth programs, Bible camp, etc. With no children’s ministry going on at church, when children hit the age where secular events like sports or school clubs are an option for them, they simply disappear from the church, many of them forever.

I want to be clear that I am not saying this in criticism of the Japanese church. Most churches barely have the staff to support the adult congregation. But I am offering this idea as an encouragement to the churches in Japan; if you invest in children’s ministry now, you will see the harvest of believers later.

I have had countless conversations with Japanese people (and indeed Americans as well) who made decisions for Christ later in life but have clear memories of being taught about a loving Creator God and the sacrifice of Jesus very early in their lives in Sunday School or at a VBS program. Even I heard the gospel many times in elementary school before I made the decision to give my life to Christ in junior high school.

We had the privilege of serving with Tokyo Shibuya Evangelical Church this past week as they provided an English Camp, or what we would call in America a “VBS” program. A team from the Bay Area comes each year to provide leadership and materials for this event. This is the third year they have put on this camp and this year we had 67 children in attendance.

80% of the children (and their families) have little or no exposure to the gospel except through this event. Some parents might even object to a church camp teaching the gospel in Japanese but because it is bilingual, they feel it’s a good experience for their children. Many of the children are repeat attendees from the previous year or two.

One of the personal joys for me this year was walking one boy through the gospel message and hearing him explain the message to me in his own words! Later, I watched as many of the kids were absolutely engrossed in reading their personal copy of “Manga Mission”, a free resource from Next Manga.

Though the children were all offered opportunities to give their lives to Jesus, it would be difficult to confirm which of them did so in faith. Yet, this isn’t even the important thing, as God knows their hearts and true motivations. I believe the most important thing is that the seeds of the gospel were planted in 67 young and tender hearts this past week. God assures us that the word that goes from His mouth does not return without accomplishing its purpose.

If you are not yet familiar with the 4/14 Window Movement that is going on globally to promote evangelism and empowerment to children, I urge you to learn more about this important movement.

Pray with us for these children but also for the greater vision of ministry to the children to grow in the Japanese church. We are seeing many church leaders embracing this new dynamic and recognizing it as a key to evangelizing the nation.

A Ten Dollar Cup of Coffee In Tokyo

In the 1980’s, when the economy of Japan roared like a lion, Americans returning from Japan would shock their friends by telling them that a cup of coffee in Tokyo costs ten dollars. Ironically, it was probably the introduction of Starbucks into Tokyo in the late-1990’s that eventually drove the cost of a decent cup of coffee down below five dollars. Today, with a Starbucks in every neighborhood, Japanese cafes like Tully’s and Doutor at every train station, and gourmet coffee sold even at local combini, cheap coffee is literally a few paces from anywhere you might be. So imagine my surprise when I sat down at the rustic wooden counter at Bon in Shinjuku, opened the menu and found a ten dollar cup of coffee on the menu.

To be more accurate, 1,080 yen, not quite ten dollars at today’s exchange rate, but a couple years ago, closer to twelve dollars. And not just one cup of coffee, but a half dozen different cups of coffee ranging from 1,080 to 1,400 yen. There was even something called “Coffee Service” on the menu that was priced well over thirty dollars.

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On any other day, I would have given the barista an embarrassed smile and quickly excused myself to the nearest Mister Donut, where I could get coffee and a half a dozen donuts for that price. But I had purposely sought out Bon, intrigued by a short article I found in a coffee mook (a “mook” in Japan is a magazine-book). The current crop of Tokyo cafes are hipster-minimalist with unfinished wood tables and exposed pipe in the ceilings. Bon looked like a cafe right out of the 1960’s; from the photos it was almost like you could smell the smoky aroma of cigarettes seeping out of the aged oak counter and shelves. I had to experience it for myself.

In my younger days I played a Nintendo game called “Animal Crossing” where you play a human character living in a town where all your neighbors are animals. In the basement of the museum of your town was The Roost, a dark little cafe run by a pigeon named Brewster. The more you frequent The Roost, the more you realize what a terrific barisa Brewster is. This is sort of how I imagined Bon. After all, I was standing on the sidewalk outside the cafe for several minutes before I recognized the kanji on the sign and decended the steep dark stairs into the shop.

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I ordered the Brazilian coffee from the several different ten dollar types on the menu and watched as the barista ground the beans and made an expert pour-over with the little volcano of grounds forming in the middle of the filter. Minutes later, a small pot of coffee (which was closer to 1.5 cups) was set in front of me along with one of the hundreds of unique cups Bon has on its shelves (which I would later learn was more than 1500). A tray with a bowl of coarse sugar and chilled cream was also provided.

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I would like to be able to say that Bon’s ten dollar coffee was the best I’ve ever had. In truth, it was merely good, better than the overrated Blue Bottle in San Francisco but not as good as little Ekoda Coffee down the street from our church. However, I will say it was the best ten dollar cup of coffee I’ve ever had. And hopefully, the only one.