Saturday, September 23, 2017

Rural Japanese Christianity

This month we had the opportunity to travel outside of Tokyo and the main island we live on, to visit some Japanese friends in Oita City, Kyushu, Japan. The husband was originally from Oita, so they decided to return there about a year ago to help their father's small church that had been planted by an American missionary in the 1970s. It was a good reminder for us to realize that outside of Tokyo in the 'real Japan' life is a lot more challenging for Japanese Christians. It was also a good reminder for us that there are very few Christians in Japan.

Historically, the island of Kyushu had a reputation for being open to the initial Jesuit arrivals in the 1500s. So much so that the Daimo, or regional ruler converted to their cause. Oita City historically had been converted to the Jesuit cause at that time as well. However, tragically, later the entire Jesuit converted population was put to death by the Shogun. This history has been preserved to this day as a reminder of 'misfortune' for those who dare depart from the established traditions. In more recent times the city of Nagasaki, which is also located on Kyushu island, was known to be a 'Christian'city', despite being a weapons production center during World War two. Historically, it was one of the cities that received complete atomic destruction. So, in the mind of many Japanese who are aware of history, Christianity is met with caution especially in more rural areas.

Our friend's church which has been in existence since the 1970s has about ten people that attend it. It is not because they are not good ministers, or not faithful; it is just the spiritual reality of their area. In a small city there is great pressure not to depart from the ancient traditions, even if a person does not believe in them any longer. Local rituals, traditions, and beliefs are strongly tied to success as well as abiding by the wishes of departed ancestors. Even though there may be interest in Christianity, many do not want to risk being hated or shunned by their family. Outside of urban areas family ties are viewed as more crucial to daily life. The pastor told us that the church had a lot of opposition when they moved to a new property, but that the local people eventually accepted them after many tense years. They are especially hated for refusing to take part in the local matsuri festivals which include many forms of spirit worship to the local deities. Though their church is small it has its advantages. One advantage to a small church comes in the form of strong spiritual unity and care for one another under difficult conditions. For that we could learn from them just what really is important. A new generation is now ministering with new ideas on how to reach the area. The pastors advice to us after thirty years there in the ministry was to not give up. Please pray for the believers near the Oita City area!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Japan Culture Series 13: Hedataru to Najimu

To a degree whether we realize it or not our personal space plays a key role in our daily relationships with one another. For instance, in the United States we recognize that it is wise to set boundaries in our relationships with co-workers. Most people would probably not share a lot of personal details of their lives with a co-worker as opposed to a spouse. We tend to setup boundaries within our social interactions to govern our daily lives. To move from a casual acquaintance to a close friendship requires that we go through certain invisible social steps all the while paying close attention to social cues of each party involved so as to see whether it be possible to gain a closer relationship or to maintain the present casual acquaintance.

In Japan this process can be described with two terms, Hedataru and Najimu. Hedataru means to separate or set apart while Nijimu means to become attached to or familiar with. Relationships in Japan begin with a distance known as Hedatari, then move through Hedatari, and move into the closeness of Najimu. Moving through these stages requires much time, restraint, and patience. Unlike the United States or Latin cultures where relationships can be developed rather quickly, in Japan it seems to take a lot of time. Japanese people tend to keep at a distance as many of their social interactions tend to be far more formal. From the student to the teacher, the customer to the dealer, or the child to the parent much distance as well as formality is observed by default. With a more formal society it not only takes more time to develop close relationships, but it is also more rare of an occurrence. To be invited to someone's house for instance is not only rare, but also indicates that a major change in relationship has occurred. Once Najimu has been established trust will increase. Interestingly enough, since Japan is a highly formal society there are outlets seen as necessary for shedding Hedataru with strangers such as drinking together as well as attending the Onsen together without clothing!

As missionaries it takes considerable time for us to establish relationships not only as foreigners, but also in respect to Japanese societal norms. If we fail to observe these customs we will be seen as barbarians, much akin to something like walking into a five star hotel without shoes or a shirt on! Imagine the embarrassment! However, once relationships are established Japanese tend to be far more open to the gospel. It appears that they tend to get truth from relationships rather than objective sources much like the post-modernist person does in the western world. This could be one of the reasons why it takes more time for Japanese people to become Christians. We must remember to remain firm in keeping our testimonies which includes avoiding drinking, Onsens, and local pagan-rooted festivities. Unfortunately to Non-Christian Japanese these choices can all be seen as blocks to establishing a friendship. However, we will continue to trust God. Please pray for us as we continue to build relationships with Japanese people.  

Friday, July 21, 2017

Obon Festival

What would you do if Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Memorial day were all combined together into one holiday? Would you forgo that new holiday because of the dark spiritual elements? Would you ignore the spiritual aspects and celebrate family time? This is the dilemma many Christians in Japan face each summer as Obon, the Buddhist holiday for honoring the spirits of dead ancestors, is celebrated beginning on either July 15th or August 15th (depending on the region where one resides), and continuing after for three days. Obon is one of the three major holidays celebrated in Japan each year with strong emphasis made upon family gatherings, feasts, and dances to summon as well as worship dead ancestor spirits returning to earth. (Similar to Dia de Muertos in Mexico as well as parts of the USA now.)

With Japan being a group-oriented society it is expected that much pressure be exerted upon everyone to partake in this holiday. (Imagine if you told your church friends that you refused to celebrate Thanksgiving!) The spiritual climate in Japan during this time can feel quite heavy and ominous over the entire country, which likely has to do with invoking 'spirits'. Some Christians choose to forgo the spiritual elements, refusing to worship dead spirits, but will go and spend time with their families in a “Thanksgiving” like manner. Other Christians are okay with participating in the holiday and think nothing of being involved in pagan practices either out of ignorance, defiance, or 'liberty'. Very few if any churches provide an alternative to help Christians at this time. In the USA often times when Halloween comes many churches will do “Reformation Day”, “All Saints Day”, or “Harvest Festivals”. In Japan when Obon arrives there appears to be a time of silence as no one really knows what to do. New Christians likely talk to their pastor to see what their options are or avoid the issue completely. Such is the strength of societal pressures in Japan upon the individual.

Personally, in one of my language classes I told a teacher that I am Christian and would not be participating in any Obon festivals in class. This was met with shock followed by the explanation that it is just a fun holiday, but that no one really believes in spirits anymore. Ironically, on the day that I missed out on, they learned the Bon Odori, which is known as the dance to welcome the dead spirits! On another class occasion we were to make 'wish' cards which are tied to a tree. Essentially these are 'prayer requests' to certain deities. Again, I was told that it was just a fun tradition, but that they did not really believe it. They then went around the room and had everyone share what their wish was. Of course when they got to me, I didn't say anything for awhile. Then after much prodding, I told them that my wish was that many Japanese people would become Christians! That was met by much reaction! This was quite a pressure-filled experience for me, but was only a small experience of what it is like for Japanese Christians here in this society. Before we jump up and say, “Well I would have told them...!”, I think it is good to pray for our Japanese Christian brethren and realize what it is like in a country that is only one percent Christian! Though the pressures here may be difficult, the good side-effect is that most Christians here are extremely dedicated to their beliefs once they completely understand them. Please pray for Japan as well as Japanese Christians as they face Obon each year!

                                                          (Prayer Tree - Tanzaku

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Japanese Culture Series 12: Iitoko-Dori

Japan is known throughout the world as a country that blends ancient traditions together with modern life into one society. How is this even possible? This is what the Japanese call Iitoko-Dori, and it resonates strongly within Japanese culture. From ancient times Japanese culture has been known to blend elements together from differing world-views to create a unique society. At one time in ancient history Japan was at the end of the Silk Road, which made it the place where many ideas ended up. Traditionally a Shinto nation, Japan later encountered Buddhism as well as Confucianism and Christianity. The 'best' elements were taken from each world-view to combine together into a uniquely Japanese culture. The harmonizing of seemingly conflicting ideas took precedence over focusing on any one idea as the only or best truth to behold.

As Japan opened up to the world during the Meiji Era its leaders realized that they needed to modernize rapidly. During this era they gathered information from Western nations in order to carefully chose the elements of those societies that they deemed were the best and set forth to modernize Japan. Unlike other countries with ancient traditions, they were successfully able to rapidly change their nation while retaining many ancient beliefs. After World War 2 Japan was able to quickly adopt a new belief system of materialism and rapidly rebuild their nation while keeping to many of their ancient beliefs. Even today Japan is known as a country that tries to find the best ideas from other nations to either absorb or improve upon as noted in the successful automobile and electronics industries.

How can this belief impact missionary work? On the positive side there is very little religious conflict. In Japan the people often have a difficult time believing that there is only one truth. In Japanese society it is perfectly acceptable to hold to multiple religions with conflicting ideas by only holding to parts of each respective system. It is said that Japanese are born Shinto, have a 'Christian' wedding, and a Buddhist funeral. However, when rapidly adapting new ideas there has been little regard for the impacts on the people. For instance in modern Japan material success has become the main goal with the cost being a society in which competition is high from a young age, stress is high, work hours are long, and suicide rates are high. Change is slow in this area since ethics are considered to be relative due to a combination of belief systems. Japanese know that these societal conditions are not normal, but will not speak out against them until the entire group desires a change. Please pray that the Japanese will realize that Iitoko-Dori is not the ultimate truth in life!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Japanese Culture Series 11: Aimai

In every culture communication is vital on all levels for daily functioning. One of the distinct ways in which Western and Eastern cultures differ is in the realm of communication style. For example in the Western world, direct as well as open honest communication has become the basis for building understanding with one another. Western culture tends to generally value truth over harmony in communication. (Although that has been changing with the concept of political correctness!) However, in Japanese society the value of harmony has become the basis for understanding one another when communicating. How is harmony achieved in communication? In the place of truth as the prime value in communicating, Aimai, or obscurity exists as the norm to achieve harmony. Why?

Japanese society in general was built around densely populated amounts of people having to work together closely in a small area for survival, hence the need for harmony became necessary. The group became more important than the individual. In a group setting the need for harmony was said to be more important than truth so as to not cause offense as well as division. This characteristic became evident in the development of Japanese culture as ideas from Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism, Secular-Humanism, Christianity, and Materialism all blended together with no one 'truth' overriding another. With these strong influences being incorporated into culture the concept of truth became highly obscured which is especially evident in communication. Even to this day Japanese people tend to have a difficult time clearly saying: “Yes” or “No”! Decisions often take a long time since every small detail of each part of the group must be carefully considered for the sake of harmony. In America indecisiveness is considered a great weakness, however in Japan it is considered very wise!

More complexities arise when the vertical hierarchy of Japanese society is included into the equation. For example in new interactions Japanese people carefully try to ascertain what the social ranking of the person they are talking to is so as to not cause offense. To avoid potential offense it became safer to speak ambiguously rather than specifically. Even though Japanese speak in a very obscure as well as ambiguous style, it is a highly valuable trait to be able to discern true intentions. This is called 'reading the air', or the art of understanding what is actually trying to be communicated from the vagueness of what is actually being communicated! For instance, rather than saying 'No', most Japanese will say 'chotto' which being translated means 'it is a little bit hard for me to..'. So, even though the Japanese person is not directly saying 'No' it is generally understood that 'chotto' is a polite way of trying to get out of something! Rather than pressing the matter for details as to why the person is saying 'chotto', most Japanese will be able to 'read the air' and understand not to pursue the topic further!

How can this impact ministry in Japan? On a positive note cooperation with church projects is high because of harmony as well as not wanting to offend in communication. A strong sense of group unity can help a church face adversity as well. However on the negative side, just as in a church in America that practices love and harmony while abandoning truth, so can be life in Japan in the realm of communication – frustrating. General acceptance exists while at the same time making it difficult to understand what people really believe. Truth becomes a matter of group decision. Also, Japanese people without exposure to the West are not used to direct communication, so it can seem barbaric or rude to them when it does happen! (However the new generation is changing because of increased exposure to the West.) Finally, because Japanese people can be afraid of being excluded from the group, they will often 'go along to get along' no matter how bad a situation can become. Please pray for us as we navigate communication in Japan!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Re-Cap of our time in America

As we embark for Japan again I wanted to take this last blog from the USA to recap our time here since leaving Japan on June 30th, 2015.

When we were leaving Japan Katie had to change her ticket to Asiana airlines so that we could be on the same one-way ticket to Montana from Tokyo. Unfortunately it was a last minute purchase, so she was seated far in back of the plane while I was seated in front next to a bunch of Sikhs that did not speak English! None of them wanted to change seats! So, I will never forget asking the flight attendant if I could move back to an empty seat to which she said only if the person next to the empty seat agreed to it! Fortunately he did! Not only that, he agreed to switch places with Katie who was only a few rows away so that we could sit next to each other for the flight home! Off to a good start!

From there we eventually arrived in Missoula, Montana only to spend the whole month there recovering from jet lag and the reverse-culture shock of coming back to the USA. I then gave my SUV to my mother in exchange for her old Toyota Camary as we would be moving south and would not need a 4-wheel drive vehicle. We then drove from Missoula, MT to New Market, TN to stay with Katie's parents and plan our wedding that would be in three months on October 15th, 2015. At that time her parent's pastor Mr. McE, generously let me live in their apartment house in TN for 3 months! Thank you Pastor! Soon after we got married in a little white country church in TN with just close friends and family attending. After that we went on our honey-moon which ended in Jacksonville, FL on November 1st, 2015. I then officially joined the mission board, and officially became a missionary.

Next, we decided to go help one of our struggling supporting churches in Water Valley, Mississippi for the next three months while staying at their parsonage. This was an excellent experience as we were able to connect with everyone there during a crucial time and were also able to each lead one person to the Lord from the community. With the help of friends we were also able to get our prayer cards, video, poster board, and power point presentations done at this time. Around January 31st, 2016 we moved to GA to live with Pastor Jackson at our sending church. (for me at least, this has always been Katie's sending church). We also found out in January 2016 that Katie would be expecting baby Mary. For the next several months until May we visited every one of Katie's supporting churches so that they could meet me. This took us all around Georgia, to Florida, up to Michigan, across to Maine, and back down to Georgia. As far as we know all of the churches accepted us. During the end of this time we also took a 12 week Bradley Method birthing class in preparation for a home birth.

When July 2016 came around, Katie was over six months along in her pregnancy, so we decided to have her stay with her parents while I drove out to Montana for a month and a half to visit a lot of Montana churches to speak at the MT Bible Camp camp as well as raise support. At this time we got our first new supporting church as a couple. Thank you Berean Baptist in MT! I then came back in August to help Katie prepare to deliver the baby at our place in October. On October 12th, 2016 our baby Mary K was born after almost two days of labor related events at the Pastor's house in Newborn, GA. Thank you again Pastor Jackson! Our healthy baby girl came at 7 pounds 5 ounces and 19 1/2 inches long. Much thanks to our midwife, Debbie, and Katie's mom for coming for 2 weeks to help us during this time! We feel so blessed to be parents to our little Mary! She has brought us so much joy!!!

Before Thanksgiving 2016 we moved to a mission house. Around this time I joined the church officially. We waited until January 2017 before starting to travel to new churches to raise support so that Katie could heal and the baby could grow. From January 2017 to April 2017 we diligently traveled to Florida, Tennesse, and Georgia to raise the rest of our support until we found out that we were at 100% support. We are also thankful for many new individuals who have decided to help us reach our goal. Thank you everyone! It has been a long road with a lot to learn, but the Lord has been good to us in many ways. We were thankful to have our first year married together in the States. Katie was able to to rest and prepare for her new role as a wife and mother overseas, and we praise God that we saw her thyroid issues miraculously healed during this time! I was able to learn to live by faith, study the scriptures, and read a lot of books about both theology and Japanese language as well as culture. We were also able to do a lot of evangelism during our furlough in the form of witnessing, door knocking, and handing out literally thousands of tracts across the country. Please pray for us as we return to Japan as a family for this next term! Thank you for your faithfulness!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Japanese Culture Series 10: Chinmoku

In Japanese culture a strong emphasis on silence permeates throughout society. The concept of Chinmoku, or silence, has great cultural value in day to day Japanese life. One of the first distinctions a visitor to Japan will notice in comparison with most places in the world will be that Japanese people are generally very careful about how they communicate verbally. This often gives the appearance of low levels of verbal communication wherever people are gathered. Why? Chinmoku can be attributed to the substantial Zen Buddhist emphasis which teaches that silence in communication tends to lend one to truthfulness. Japanese society therefore views silence as a highly favorable trait to the point where almost every traditional art has a period of quiet reflection included therein. Knowing how as well as when to be silent is key to Japanese life.

In America a popular saying about talking too much is quoted as follows, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” The Japanese people take this to a serious level by carefully applying it to the group setting. By limiting verbal communication it is thought that group harmony is increased with less chances of conflict with other people occurring. Also it is important to be aware of who is around you in the realm of social hierarchy, and thereby limiting what is said so as to show respect to those in a ‘higher’ social rank.

How can Chinmoku impact missionary work? On the positive side Chinmoku can be of great importance when trying to understand people because ideally they will say only what is most important or will use more time to communicate in the best possible way. However, on the negative side Chinmoku can be used to hide true intentions, feelings, or be used to be particularly vague so as to not cause offense. Since silence can be used to avoid conflicts in Japan, there can be great pressure to avoid talking about or even preaching about certain topics in the Bible. Also, such is the extent of Chinmoku in society, that if crime or bullying occurs in public many times Japanese people will simply ignore it or remain silent about what goes on. Silence can also be used to end relationships or show disdain. Because Westerners place more emphasis on direct communication they can be frustrated by the Japanese emphasis on silence! Please pray for us as we navigate this Chinmoku culture!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Japanese Culture Series 9: The Do

In Japan the Do (pronounced ‘dough’) spirit exhibits distinct Japanese cultural values as well as their unique way of learning. Originating from a combination of thought from Ancient Chinese Taoism as well as Zen Buddhism, Do literally means “the way” or way to be followed. The Do spirit follows a distinct pattern as follows:

1) A formal rule-bound pattern to be followed.
2) A constant repetition of the pattern.
3) Mastering the pattern through different levels.
4) Perfecting the pattern.
5) Going beyond the pattern, and becoming one with it.

Practice of whatever is being taught takes place in a setting which the student is to be quiet, respectful, obedient, and mirroring of the instructor. Whether it was learning art, weapons training, writing, the tea ceremony, or religious mantras the student simply had to follow set established patterns to learn from the teacher. In Taoism as well as Zen Buddhism little emphasis is placed on critical thought or intellectual reasoning, but rather on absorbing already established ideas set forth by the teacher through repetition. In this way Japanese thought differs dramatically from Western thought which prides itself on reasoning and analysis.

How can the Do spirit impact missionary work? On the positive side Japanese are very good at learning massive amounts of information in a short time. Because of the Do spirit, Japanese people are highly detail-oriented and dedicated in all things that they set out to accomplish. On the negative side Japanese people do not place high value on reasoning or intellect, so it becomes difficult to try to “convince” them of the truth through typical Western means. Also, in a church setting emphasis can be placed on doing many things without much thought placed on the “why”. Please pray that we can understand how to minister to those that have the Do mindset!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Ancient Japanese Christianity

In recent times a new R-rated Hollywood movie coming out by the name of Silence has been mentioned to me as something that I need to see as a missionary to Japan. This movie depicts a dramatization of Japan’s history when Jesuit priests as well as early Japanese Catholic converts were being tortured and killed for their beliefs. I have read plenty about Japanese martyrdom to be aware of what the movie is portraying and do not need to see a graphic R-rated movie about the subject! In a nation with no concept of forgiveness or grace it is not hard to imagine that brutality would be a regular practice a few hundred years ago.

However, I wanted to pass along some little known history about Japan. I read that Francis Xavier was able to see as many as 3 million converts to Catholicism in 16th Century Japan because of the foundation of Christianity that had already been laid by people hardly anyone knows of that came one-thousand years before his arrival!

My father-in-law gave us a Smithsonian Japanese Lecture Series which indicates that there were three major waves in Japanese history, in which Japan went from being an open country to a closed country. During the first wave, Japan was at the end of the ancient Silk Road, which made it a desirable trade location. Because of this apparently ancient central-Asian Christians came to live there! It is thought that these Christians were descendants of the converts of the disciples Thomas and Bartholomew who went far east as well as north to spread the Gospel. This ancient Assyrian as well as Indian church had many contacts throughout Asia including China, Korea, and Japan.

Currently, most Japanese are falsely taught that Francis Xavier was the first to come to Japan to introduce “Christianity”. However, as much research appears, that story is becoming harder to keep. If the story of Francis Xavier introducing “Christianity” from the West becomes dispelled, while the idea of ancient Christianity becomes accepted, then the notion that Christianity is a “Western” religion in Japan will be dismissed! This is important to missionary work, because it will help Japanese realize that Christianity came to Japan before Buddhism! Please pray that this information will make breakthroughs in Japan!

If you want read more about Japan’s very first Christians I’m enclosing a link to two articles:

Japan Times Article on Ancient Christianity

CBN Article on Ancient Christianity

Friday, December 16, 2016

Japanese Culture Series 8: Zoto

In the United States soon we will be celebrating Christmas, a real occasion for celebration of Christ’s birth often accompanied with the giving of gifts. However, in Japan, Zoto, or the custom of gift giving, strongly prevails in everyday life. On every important occasion gifts are given in great quantity all over Japan. From seasonal gifts such as during New Years when hundreds of cards are sent out as well as money gifts for children to ceremonial gifts of religious significance to gifts of occasion for certain phases of life such as graduations, the Japanese conscience is keenly aware of gift giving. As much as eighty-five separate occasions exist for which it is appropriate to give a gift. On average a Japanese salary man spends about $2300 a year on gifts! Why is such importance placed on gift giving?

In Japanese life gifts can be used to express congratulations, apologies, appreciation, consolation, and as necessary forms of obligation to maintain relationships. (On my first trip to Japan I learned the importance of giving a gift as a way to seek reconciliation after a social faux pas!) Though Japanese are often seen as people that do not verbally express themselves as often as other people groups, they are keenly aware of non-verbal communication to a very high degree. Relations can be better maintained through the giving of gifts in this type of society. For that reason when one travels throughout Japan a regular site is that of the gift shop. Regional gifts are especially prized. When a gift is not brought back from a journey or business trip for co-workers, family, and other groups they may be a part of, one can quickly be viewed as terribly inconsiderate!

So, how can this impact missionary work? Because Japanese people are very considerate in the area of gift giving and receiving they will generally take great time to appreciate a gift given to them. This can be advantageous for occasions to meet people for the purpose of evangelism as well as the giving out of Bibles in a formal way. Gift giving can be an in-roads into establishing a relationship with a stranger. On the negative side, because of the expectation of gift giving, costs can mount up when desiring to maintain relationships! Please pray for us as we navigate the gift giving world of Japan!