Our God, Eager to Save

Posted January 10, 2010

Tomohisa had reached a coveted status in Japan’s vertically-ordered society: medical doctor. Along with the status came wealth, which he used to buy the affection of women…and lots of booze. His selfishness blinded... [Read More]

The Humbled Tsunami

Posted December 2, 2011

When the warning sirens went off, residents in a south Sendai neighborhood fled to the local school. Together with panicked children still in class they climbed to the rooftop. Some 600 altogether... [Read More]

Japanese Get "Bach" Hope

Posted September 21, 2011

Who would have thought Bach would be involved in 21st century mission work in Japan? I have frequently read with interest of the strong connection between classical music (particularly J.S. Bach) and Japanese interest... [Read More]

Tsunami Ground Zero

Posted April 7, 2011

I still haven't returned from tsunami ground zero. That is to say, although I've been back several days already, the reality of the scene is still with me. The incredible amounts of mud in once beautiful homes... [Read More]

"Nice Try, Kevin" File

Posted February 9, 2011

This one goes into the "Nice try, Kevin" file. I just thought it was a nice-looking bunch of flowers in the storefront and, on the spur of the moment, decided Kaori deserved to enjoy them. Chrysanthemums, however, are... [Read More]

The Gulliver Complex

Posted November 9, 2007

I'm a giant again. Well, not really. But it sure feels like it again since returning from the States. The first sign was bumping my head in the shuttle bus from the airport. By habit, I normally duck my head through any... [Read More]

Foreigners Don't Get the Point

Posted January 31, 2010

I'm standing in line at a drugstore with other shoppers. The woman in front of me has just pulled out a business card file. Hurriedly she flips through at least a hundred or more cards searching for the right one. It's a... [Read More]

More Powerful than Bombs

Posted July 5, 2008

Fuchida grew up loving his native Japan and hating the United States, which treated Asian immigrants harshly in the first half of the twentieth century. Fuchida attended a military academy, joined Japan's... [Read More]

Ready?

Posted September 14, 2010

I'd been putting it off. Although I knew it was important, taking inventory of our earthquake and disaster gear just wasn't getting done. Japan rests along the "ring of fire" in the Pacific ocean, a stretch of area that is... [Read More]

150 Years Later

Posted March 17, 2009

This spring marks the 150th anniversary of Protestant Christianity in Japan. The first protestant missionaries set foot in the port of Yokohama back in 1859. Now they were real church planters -- overcoming all... [Read More]

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I for Japan. Japan for the World. The World for Christ. And All for the Glory of God.

— Kanzo Uchimura, Japanese Evangelist

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Rambling Notes from Japan

Here are some blog posts that we hope will make you feel a part of things, and help you understand how to pray better for us and Japan. Please see our external blog in Blogger, if this page does not display correctly.

A "Barky" New Year?

Wan Wan!    

Ah, 2018. The year has only begun and it's already going to the dogs!


Today, January 1st  (1/1), can be pronounced “wan-wan” in Japanese. “Wan-wan” happens to be the way that dogs bark in Japan. (And all this time you thought they said “woof-woof,” right?)

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the year begins with a couple barks. After all, 2018 is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese (& Japanese) zodiac. Japan knows how to market this idea. Dog-themed ads, products, foods, stamps and greeting cards are everywhere. And our local pet shop has a great discount on Shih Tzus (while supplies last) this first week of the year.

But wait! Is it really THE YEAR OF THE DOG? 
The Bible says that it’s actually “THE YEAR OF THE LORD’S FAVOR


v18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 

v19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."    Luke 4


Jesus, quoting from Isaiah 61, pointed to the fulfillment of the prophecy in himself. Because of Christmas. Because he came. This would now be a favorable year! Jesus was not referring to a calendar year of 365 days, but an era of time during which man can be redeemed by His work at Calvary’s cross. This year, 2018, and every year until the rapture of the church, is an era and year of God’s favor! It is a year of possible forgiveness in Christ, and hope for this life and eternal life to come!

But how many Japanese will know that 2018 is anything but the year of the dog? Frankly, very few. In fact, 99.5% percent have no idea. We have to tell them the year can very different!

While it is still the year of the Lord’s favor, and before this era of time comes to an end, we are all entrusted with good news to share with our world. Kaori and I believe God would have us to preach this good news and “proclaim the year of God’s favor” in Japan. It is this conviction that moves us forward here in the year ahead of challenges and blessings.

So, thank you for sending and supporting us in this work! Your confidence in God to work through us in Japan is encouraging and humbling!

If you would like to become a support partner with us in 2018, it’s really easy to do, and it’s a really critical time for us in our start of Vision 2020. In 2018, we’d like to be fully supported again for this work. We’re making progress, but still need monthly commitments. Click here to begin, or here for more details. Pass this along.

God bless you in 2018, this year of His favor for the world. Happy New Year!


Kevin & Kaori Laverman


P.S. Cats really rule as pets in Japan. (And wait until you hear what they say in Japanese. Hint: ニャーニャー)


The End of Endings


Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:25-26



This time of year, people all across Japan walk about in awe under giant canopies of soft pink. It’s cherry blossom time!

Many view the blossoms simply as nature’s beautiful spring show. Others view metaphor: cherry blossoms are a boundary marker in the seasons of life. They’re a reminder that our lives, too, are fragile and fleeting. For the samurai, fallen cherry blossom petals symbolized a fallen warrior. Their lives bloomed and fell in glory for their lord.

Regardless of how you view the cherry blossoms, one thing is sure: their brilliance comes to a quick end.

Good Friday and Easter should turn our view upside down. The metaphor is reversed. It is not the samurai who sacrifices his life for his lord. Rather, the lord sacrifices for his servants. On Good Friday, Christ, our Lord, sacrifices for us. At the cross, he throws his life away in sacrifice. He is like the fallen petal. But only a single one need fall to its end. Christ dies in the place of us all.

Now, the clock turns backward. Can you imagine falling cherry blossom petals suddenly reattaching themselves to the tree, their source of life, and going onto full and beautiful existence? This is what Christ has done for us. At the cross, he died. At the grave on Easter, he defeated death. We who believe in him are reattached to the source of true life. God, the Holy Spirit, now dwells inside. Divine, eternal life has fused itself into us.

No longer must “cherry petals” flutter in mass toward the ground. No, for in Christ, our forever end is averted. True spiritual life begins. Our brief lives can be lived in without the pathos of transience and ending. Our lives can be lived with the blessed hope of eternity to come. Why? Because we know that the end of this season on earth, is but a more glorious flowering of life in heaven to come.
Christ’s death has reversed the curse of endings. Glorious life begins. Let’s give thanks to as we celebrate Good Friday and Easter.


Chocolate Conundrum

Japan's got a sweet deal for men on Valentine's Day. Forget about choosing cards, fussing over flowers, or treating your date to dinner out. Here in Japan, it's all about gals giving the chocolate. The guys just relax and wait for the sweet treats to come their way. (Don't worry. The men will get their turn later.)

On February 14, ladies get the murky duty of judging where they stand in their relationships, and giving accordingly.

First, there's the "giri choco" or "obligation chocolate." This is an inexpensive bag of sweets that you give to the guys around because you must. It's expected. It's a way of "greasing the skids" of the relationships in life. All of them. Well, mostly. Just don't get caught not giving to someone!

Then there's "honmei choco" or "favorite chocolate." These you only give to guys you want to show your affection toward. These sweets tend to be rather expensive, and probably even homemade.

Oh, yes! There's the "tomo choco" or "just friends chocolate" as well. That's a whole other category of relationship to figure out.

With all this chocolate swirling about, you'd think the guys would be thrilled. Not really. Getting chocolates comes with a whole set of obligations. Men must reciprocate on "White Day," a month later on March 14. Each and every chocolate needs to be responded to, often with one worth three times as much as received. Talk about putting on the pressure!

No doubt about it. In spite of all the heartshaped boxes, Valentine's Day in Japan is less about love, and more about duty and obligation.

Japan, if all this makes you yearn for a true unfettered expression of love, forget about the chocolate thing. Look to the cross of Christ instead. Here is a love given out generously to all − without levels, obligations, or payments still owed. John 4:10 says "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."

Now that's a sweet deal! Obligation chocolate? Nah! I'll take unmerited love.


Christmas is all about KFC

Japan spells Christmas with three "finger-lickin' good" letters: K-F-C. Move over sushi and wasabi, fried chicken is the main course on Tokyo tables at Christmastime.

The roots of this craze go back four decades. On a Christmas day in the early 1970's, foreigners in Japan flooded the newly-opened KFCs, gobbling up the colonel's best recipe. It was a poor substitute for the visions of golden-brown turkeys that danced in their heads, but it was the only crispy bird to be had around. A shrewd KFC manager watching the foreigner stampede saw yen signs. In 1974, the company presented its first Christmas meal: chicken and wine for $10. It sold well in spite of being costly for its time.

Today, a family bucket will set you back $40. Still, the Christmas fried chicken fad has taken root in a big way in Japan. A quarter million buckets (or boxes) of chicken will be sold on Christmas day alone. A savvy marketing blitz helps. Weeks ahead of time, a flurry of coupons fill mailboxes of urban homes. TV ads feature Japanese children in Santa hats (and with KFC barrels in hand) dancing about to catchy jingles. Even the revered statue of the colonel in front of KFC stores gets dressed up in a Santa suit (somehow it fits his mystique). Stores take orders four weeks in advance. Long lines form early on Christmas eve to pick up the crispy parcels. KFC has become the go-to meal at Christmastime.

Colonel Sanders would roll over in his grave if he knew that KFC has become the focus of Christmas in Japan. You see, he became a born-again Christian late in life. He knew the focus of the celebration was Christ. We do, too. Right?

I've missed a few Christmases in America. Christmas 2013 is our first in 10 years. And I've come to a conclusion after spending Christmas in Japan for awhile and now being home on furlough. I don't know whether it's really true that "Nobody does chicken like KFC." But it's definitely true that "Nobody does Christmas like America." The music and concerts, the lights and decorations, the get-togethers and endless food, the TV specials and store sales...the celebration runs the gamut from dreamy and reflective, to bustling and hectic, to grand and breathtaking. We know how to do Christmas! But we also know how to lose our focus in the whole celebration.

It turns out that Christmas really is all about KFC. That is, Keeping the Focus on Christ. Time with family and friends, twinkling decorations, tasty food, thoughtful gifts are all wonderful trimmings. But we lose out on the main course if we miss worshipping the One whose birthday celebration it really is.

When it comes to Christmas, it might be too much to ask that America would simply scale it back, tone it down, or turn some of it off. Simpler celebration doesn't seem to fit our bigger and better sensibilities. But at the very least we can individually take time to simply worship him. 1 Peter 3:15 says, "But in your hearts sanctify him as Lord." In the middle of it all, choose things that will draw you into worship of Him. And choose to see the rest in a new worshipful way. Choose to let the light displays remind you of the Light of the World who came and "gives light to every man" (Jn 1:9). Choose to let the table spread with food remind you of the Bread of Life who came and "gives life to the world" (Jn 6:33). And, of course, choose to let the presents (however quirky they may be) remind you of the "indescribable gift" (2 Co 9:15) who came to give forgiveness and cleansing, adoption into God's family, a place in eternity, and he himself to us.

Let the things of Christmas amplify and not distract your worship of Him. KFC. Keep the Focus on Christ. And that's what will really make Christmas "so good!" (KFC pun intended)

P.S. — Anyone want some Japanese KFC coupons?


New Year House Shopping

I'll never forget that sensible question. It was uttered by a little boy wandering about in the same aisle as me in our local home center around new year's day. His mom was right there next to him, keeping him busy while his father, no doubt, was checking out the power tool sales. The boy took inventory of everything about him, touching and monkeying with whatever was within his reach. Then he abruptly stopped, looked curiously at an item up high, pointed, and asked mom, "What's that?" He'd probably never seen a housing for a deity that Japanese typically use to decorate a kamidana, or god shelf, in their homes. This particular one was on sale.

His mom followed his finger to the do-it-yourself kit (roughly the size of a loaf of bread), and said, "Oh. Well, that's a house for god." The boy's response was priceless. He wrinkled up his face quizzically and said, "A house for god? Why would god need a house? That's dumb." From the mouths of babes! His mom was completely nonplussed. She darted a sheepish glance at me before scurrying the boy along.

Why limit the divine to a tiny decoration? How have we limited God in convoluted ways within our own faith? Perhaps not in the way of a do-it-yourself kit, but to greater degrees than we recognize and admit. A missionary colleague here in Japan wrote a piece on this subject and the Japanese New Year traditions. The original article is here. I have included it below. Enjoy, think and pray!
For many Japanese, the New Year begins with hatsumode, the year’s initial visit to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. Meiji shrine in Tokyo and Shinsoji temple near the airport in Narita are the most popular sites for hatsumode, each attracting more than 3 million visitors during the first three days of the year.

The typical pilgrim arrives dressed in kimono, then bows, claps, and makes a brief silent prayer to the deity for health and prosperity in the year ahead. Many temple Buddhas and shrine kami (divine spirits) are thought to specialize in answering certain types of request: Some attract struggling businessmen, some draw students facing exams, while others offer help to forlorn lovers.

Japan is home to a multitude of shrines and temples, some boasting a history stretching back over a thousand years. If the Apostle Paul were to visit, he would likely echo the judgment he expressed in Athens, that the citizens of this place must be “very religious” (Acts 17:22).

In this he would be mistaken. In a recent Yomiuri Shinbun poll, 72 percent of respondents claimed no religious affiliation. Except at holidays and other special occasions, Japan’s shrines and temples are frequented more by tourists than by devotees. Yet very few Japanese would be willing to give up these religious sites, and the vital, if vague, link with the transcendent they represent.

Temples and shrines bear witness to the human desire to make contact with the divine, as our hearts are restless apart from the One who made us. On the other hand, perhaps they equally and ironically reflect a desire to contain the divine, as our hearts are rebellious and fearful of giving up control.

Temples are very convenient. If God is in the temple, then we know where to find Him when we need help. But once we leave the temple, He remains behind while we are free to go and do as we please.
Since the temple belongs to God, if I go there, I play by His rules. I take off my shoes, bow, kneel, or whatever protocol requires. I show proper respect, because after all, the temple is God’s territory.
But once I get home, my house is my house, and there I am in charge. My life is my life, and I am the boss. If I need help from God, I’ll let Him know. Otherwise, He can stay in the temple—a kind of cage for God. In the temple, God is safely locked away, no longer at large where He might catch us by surprise.

Of course, we Christians understand, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man” (Acts 17:24). Yet we all too easily fall into the “temple” mindset, assigning God His place in the religious sector of our lives while claiming the rest as our own. We’ll give God one day a week and a tenth of our income, but as for the rest of our time and money, well, we would rather God mind His own business, and leave our stuff alone.
Nearly as ubiquitous in Japan as the shrine or temple is the koban. This is a compact police station housing one or two officers per shift whose job is to keep watch over their block. Mostly they are called upon to give directions, to handle lost and found articles, to take reports of petty crimes, and to offer help in case of emergency.

A temple serves as a kind of divine koban. We want a deity who is always on call to show us the way, help us recover lost items, listen to our complaints, and save us when we’re in danger.
But of course it doesn’t work that way. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). The true God will not submit to our restrictions, or play by our rules. He may show up at any place and any time, upsetting all our plans and laying claim to all our possessions—even our lives. He cannot be caged.


Joy to the World


It was right there on our mall store window. For most Japanese passers by, it was meaningless decorative lettering. But in a world where the sacred and secular rarely meet, the presence of these words spun me in my steps. What's more, this is Japan! You won't find talk or sight of the Lord Jesus ANYWHERE at Christmas time. My unofficial poll numbers show a 99% ignorance level concerning Christmas day. If pressed, Japanese kids will adamantly insist that December 25th is the day that Santa was born (or died).

But then I spotted it. On another sign immediately below "the Lord is come" on a rack of winter clothing styles was posted "New Arrival" (see yellow arrow above; click to enlarge). The juxtaposition of these signs made me grin. "This storefront could start another cult," I laughed. But after reflecting a moment, I decided to take the words as a bit of prophetic hope for Japan. Some 2000 years this side of the first arrival of Christ, the Spirit of Christ does come again and again to Japan, convicting this nation of sin, righteousness and judgement. And every heart that opens to him from stylish Tokyo to 311-struck Tohoku experiences a brand "new arrival" from the Ancient of Days. We missionaries dream of the day Jesus will be the new style in Japan.

Our prayer this Christmas is that many Japanese will experience the "new arrival" of Christ into their hearts and lives! Please pray along with us and for us. 


Jesus Rocks in Aomori, Japan

Many people in northern Aomori, Japan have discovered that Jesus really is a rock (not the Rock, unfortunately).

It seems that a recently discovered rock formation in a hidden alcove along Lake Towada roughly resembles the silhouette of Jesus. Hundreds of tourists are boarding boats to take a closer look. A YouTube video describes the scene.

The name of the lake begins with a Japanese letter that looks like a cross (十和田湖). That coincidental spelling bolsters the idea in the mind of some tourists that this rock is indeed religiously significant. Some have even suggested that this may have been a site of worship for Japan's hidden Christians during the brutal 16th century persecution.

Frankly, I'm not impressed when people discover religious shapes in moldy bread, mildew stains, or the like. My faith is neither built upon, nor deepened by, such nonsense. This "Jesus Rock" discovery fits the same category in my mind. However, if such random encounters can lead a Japanese person to consider Christianity for the first time, I suppose I am glad for it. As Paul put it, "But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way...Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice" (Philippians 1:18). (I would hope that the message of the Gospel would be filled out for that individual by an encounter with a Christian as well.)

While I'm underwhelmed at the "discovery," what does impress me is that Japanese people would think to make a connection with Jesus. Remember that Japan has the least number of Christians (0.5% of population) of any developed nation in the world. So, I could understand if looking at this rock they were to see the shape of a goblin from Japanese folklore (it is approaching Halloween in Japan, too). I could also understand if they were to see a demon-like gargoyle, like the dozens you spot at any shrine or temple in Japan. But Jesus?

Many examples of Japanese making such connections (don't forget about my post on the people in Shingo) with Christianity lead me to an optimistic outlook for missions in this country. Yes, it is regrettable that superstitions and syncretistic beliefs muddy the Gospel water so badly, but I am encouraged that:

1) Regardless of the odd context, at least the conversation on Christ has begun.
2) Regardless of the poor response to Christianity, at least someone has left a witness that led to this connection with Christ.
3) Regardless of the wrong place they are looking, at least they are looking for Christ, and continuing to look.

Naturally, I would hope that such oddball sightings would lead a Japanese to seek out solid truth presented to them by a Christian, in a church, or through a Bible. And perhaps they will. Who am I to say that God can't work that way? Perhaps these odd "discoveries" are small ways that God can find room to crack open the hardened Japanese heart just enough to, as the tourists looks at the rock, gently whisper, "You will look for me and find me when you look for me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13).

May God lead many Japanese to the Rock of our Salvation.


The Feudal Christian "Rebel"

Juan Goto (1586?) was born Matagoro Iwabuchi, the son of the lord of Fujisawa Castle in northern Higashi-Iwai, Iwate prefecture. He lived during a time of great political instability. His own family was caught up in a power struggle when Great Lord Kasai was accused of not rallying troops for the Battle of Odawara. During this battle, Juan's older brother was killed. This loss, in addition to the political struggles about him, may have contributed to Matagoro's next actions.

Something seems to have snapped in Matagoro that caused him to want to "get away from it all." He fled across country to the far southern city of Nagasaki. This cross-country journey of some 1200 miles was a remarkable feat in itself in his day. From Nagasaki he boarded a vessel that landed him in Ukujima Island of the Goto Islands chain (map). This was as far away as he could get from his homeland and still be in Japan. It reveals, perhaps, a bit of his despair and desperation.

God had a plan to turn around and use this refugee. At the edge of Japan, on Ukujima island, he "happened across" Jesuit priests in the tradition of Francis Xavier who shared Christianity. At the end of his desperation, he found a reason for hope. Matagoro was soon baptized on the island on which he thought to abandon himself. He was given the Latin Christian name "Juan" and took the surname "Goto" from the islands of his baptism. He spelled his first name "Juan" with two Chinese characters that meant "happy hermitage."

Juan returned to the Fukuwara area of Iwate prefecture (the name means literally "God-Blessed Field"). There he pioneered the construction of irrigation canals for the local rice farmers. He built a church and saw some 1000 become Christians in the early 17th century. He enjoyed living peacefully among these converts, gaining a reputation for looking after the welfare of peasant farmers. In 1623, however, things changed dramatically for Juan and the whole of Christendom in Japan. It was Juan's greatest persecution to his new faith. He stood up to it heroically.

The Tokugawa Shogunate government had issued orders forbidding Christianity. Those who ignored this ban were brutally tortured. Many thousands of Christians in Japan lost their lives. A small remanent of Christians went underground. Lord Masamune Date was regional daimyo of areas including Juan's Iwate prefecture Fukuwara area. While he was not unsympathetic to Christianity, under the watching eye of the Japanese Shogunate he carried out the ban on Christianity in his own regions. To Juan Goto, however, he offered "gentler" restrictions:

1) Do not invite a Christian priest to your castle, even for a moment.
2) Do not convert anyone to Christianity.
3) If you pledge to keep the above two, you, but only you, may keep the Christian faith. But you must not talk of it to anyone.

Juan Goto no doubt agonized over his response. To reject these terms would mean a sure end to his position and lands, a disgrace to his family line, and a risk to his life. Ultimately he chose his faith and rejected Lord Date's terms. He wrote (in typical Japanese niceties):

"Most humbly and with proper formalities, I am filled with gratitude for my Lord's favor, but Jesus Christ's favor is far more immense than my Lord's. I will not be able to please your lordship this time." 

On the heels of his decision, the crackdown on Christianity came to his own Fukuwara lands. He and a few of his converts were able to escape to the Nambu territories and find refuge under the lord of Iwasaki Castle. Here, in spite of the ongoing persecution and prohibition on Christianity, Juan and his followers continued to preach the gospel in the surrounding areas of Hanamaki, Morioka and Tono. Lord Isenokami, who sheltered Juan, was eventually poisoned for his Christian sympathies. As for Juan, it is not clear what became of him after this. A memorial stone discovered in 1951 in northern Yonekawa, Japan, places his death at 1623. Death at a relatively early age might suggest that he, too, lost his life for his faith.

Near his memorial are rows of tombstones of other persecuted Christians. Thanks to Juan Goto's revolutionary irrigation techniques, the area of Fukuwara, Japan has become a rich grain belt. But the real harvest can only be seen with eyes of faith. This lord of Iwabuchi brought many to the Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ. Much spiritual seed he planted in his life and death produced a great harvest for eternity. Juan Goto bore witness to the truth of John 12:24:

"Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds."


Superstition & Mission (Part 2)

It turns out dad got it wrong. Money does "grow on trees." Just look at the photo at left as proof! Recently while hiking down a mountain past a buddhist temple, I stumbled across several of these trees with trunks stuck full of coins. I had seen this elsewhere, but not to this degree. It is the Asian equivalent, I suppose, of the "wishing well" or fountain of pennies one might come across in a Stateside mall. No harm done by these innocent superstitions, right?

For Japanese, however, such superstitions have permeated (and control) daily life. Japanese readily admit their Shinto polytheistic belief in "millions of gods" (yaoyorozu no kami) present in creation. Buddhist and Taoist gods were even brought over and absorbed into their belief structure. These gods are given to whimsy and must be sought out for blessing and good luck. Punishment and bad luck are just as likely. A whole ecosystem of superstitions are formed to guide one in how to receive or avoid such.


The people of many gods. I was surprised when I first learned that Japanese even have a god of the toilet (see Wikipedia here). Keeping a clean toilet ensures a pregnant woman of a good-looking child. "G(g)od of the Toilet" even became a hit song here in Japan a couple years back. Apparently the toilet god has been a common belief in eastern cultures for centuries. Suddenly one has new insight on Elijah's teasing of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (see a paraphrase of 1 Kings 1:18, like this version) when he suggested one possible reason why Baal did not show up. Did belief in a toilet god exist even then?

I certainly do not mean to make fun of my dear host culture. But it grieves me deeply as a missionary (as it does the heart of God) that Japanese have this twisted understanding of their Creator. For missionaries in Japan, this distorted worldview poses a great challenge to our gospel message.

As I wrote in my previous post, I take some clues from a fellow missionary, the apostle Paul. Paul also faced the challenge of addressing a culture (the people of Ephesus) filled to overflowing with superstitious belief. They were keepers of the temple of Artemis. Their city was flooded with images, idols and occult activity. Paul spent three years in this pagan environment.

Paul's letter to the Ephesian Christians saved out of their superstitious beliefs rings with joyous praise for God's eternal purpose. Ultimately a good dose of theology proper is what the Ephesian church needed. Ephesians 1 sets the tone. "Purpose" "Plan" "Promised" "Power" "Will" "Authority" "Creation" are some words Paul uses  frequently in the letter. Ephesians needed to know that there is one authoritative God, Creator of all things, who wills and acts according to his eternal plans.

One wonders, then, why God permitted pagan superstitions and beliefs to exist so long before revealing the gospel to the Ephesians. Did God ignore the sad state of affairs in Ephesus? No. This was all a part of His eternal plan for bringing salvation to man and glory to His Son. Everything is "...according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we [the Ephesian church]...might be for the praise of his glory" (1:11~12).

And so, even in superstitious Japan, God is working out his purposes to bring glory to himself and salvation to the Japanese. Each Japanese soul saved out of this culture of superstition is a foretaste of that day His plan for this nation will culminate in "joyous praise." We keep praying and working toward that day.


Superstition & Mission (Part 1)

Put a broiled fishhead in your entryway. Pile salt just outside your front door. Avoid cutting your fingernails after dark. Paint your house neon yellow. Do not whistle at night. What do all these odd actions/non-actions have in common? They are ways to ward off bad luck in Japan.

Japan is filled with such superstitions. While some are modern urban legends, many come from the animistic roots of Japan's religious beliefs. The many (millions of) gods and evil spirits in nature are capricious and mischievous. They must be appeased or driven away lest they bring death or misfortune to oneself.

Many superstitions surround the fear of death and suffering. The numbers four and nine are unlucky because they are pronounced in the same way as death (shi) and suffering (ku). Hospitals avoid the use of these numbers for rooms and floors. You'll also never find a set of four dishes in Japan. Plateware comes in sets of three or five.



Japanese are careful to hide their thumbs when they see a funeral hearse. Not doing so will mean an early death for your parents. In Japanese, a thumb is called your parent finger (oyayubi). Protect your parents by protecting your parent finger.

Other actions that invite death include bringing potted flowers on a hospital visit (a play on the word for "root" in Japanese suggests the patient may not recover). Sticking chopsticks in your rice (this is only for funerals). Using a single chopstick in both hands (only done to pick up bones after cremation). Sleeping with your head toward the north (dead bodies are laid out in this direction). Being in the middle of a group of three when your picture is taken (you are in the best focus and the pull of the camera upon your spirit is the strongest).

I know you're asking by this point, "Do Japanese REALLY believe that?" Unfortunately the answer is yes. The culture is saturated with it. The selling of fortunes (uranai) in Japan is a major business. Horoscopes and numerology play a big part in the psyche of the Japanese people. The availability of such with the explosion of smart phones has greatly exacerbated the problem.

And so one of the challenges in our mission work in Japan is speaking to a culture that is filled with superstitious beliefs. How do we respond from the Bible?

The spiritual scene in Japan is not unlike the superstitious city of Ephesus. The people of Ephesus lived in the shadow of the great temple of Artemis (Diana). Priests and "miracle workers" abounded. Occult worship was everywhere. The city was preoccupied with the black arts. The worship of Artemis included prostitution and mutilation rituals. Into this city of magic and witchcraft comes Paul with a message of the true and living God. It is helpful to read the way that Paul speaks to the Ephesian church in this culture of superstition in his letter to them. Recently I read Ephesians afresh with this "addressing-a-culture-of-superstition" lens. Stop and take a few minutes to do the same. I'll share a few insights in a future post.

(TO BE CONTINUED)


Signs of the Times?

A drive through Japan's rural towns throughout the north might lead the casual observer to assume these places are staunchly Christian. Why else would signs everywhere proclaim such things as "The blood of Christ purifies sin," "God is watching your heart," and "The wages of sin is death"? But the truth is quite the opposite. In many of these rural areas one would be hard-pressed to find more than a solitary Christian, much less any church presence.

The signs are lettered in white and yellow calligraphy against a black background. Once they are up, they can remain for decades on end until the structure they are attached to literally begins to crumble. These signs, called "Kirisuto Kanban" (Christ signs), are the work of Christian group called the Bible Distribution Society, founded by a missionary in the 50's and now active only as a loose network of a few people.


The group approaches a particular property owner for approval to post the sign. No money changes hands. In fact, the owner is unlikely to be a Christian. So why would these "unintended evangelists" agree to the cause at all? For some, the presence of the sign on their property functions as a helpful theft deterrent. Others feel they are raising the level of morality in their community. Superstitions abound in rural Japan and so still others may feel that to reject the sign would invite some form of divine retribution. These reasons, along with the group-oriented nature of Japanese in small towns, result in the small signs being posted heavily throughout northern Miyagi, Iwate and Akita prefectures.

If you want a healthy debate on evangelistic methodology, ask a Japanese Christian about the "Kirisuto Kanban." I'm not sure that one can say the signs are unhelpful to the cause of Christ. Certainly they move people to consider spiritual things. One might say, however, that the image these signs convey of Christianity to the average Japanese tends to be somewhat negative. Japanese pastors I've asked agree that the signs create an unhealthy fear and suspicion of the work of the local church. Particularly in the wake of 311, a balanced message is needed. The grieving Japanese needs a sign that reminds him that "Christ brings hope to life!" not simply that "After death comes judgement!"

Regardless of one's opinion of the approach to evangelism, the placement of these signs on rusted out, cracked and dilapidated structures is, I think, unfortunate. It lends to the perception that the message of the signs is from a bygone era, and leaves one with a rather depressed feeling. It seems at times that the signs are almost protesting the somber conditions in which they find themselves displayed.We need to be humble in our convictions about through what means God works. God certainly honors the convictions and dedication of those with which we may differ. We also need to continually reflect on culture and Scripture and prayerfully consider what evangelistic means are most effective in reaching the heart of man. May God guide our hearts, heads, and hands!


Life Worth Little in Wealthy Japan

Sobering news out of Tokyo today. The Cabinet Office reported results of a survey that 1 out of 4 Japanese has considered suicide. Yes, 25% of Japanese think of killing themselves. For the last dozen years, Japan has trended toward a higher and higher rate of suicide, surpassing 30,000 cases every year. That's one person every 15 minutes! Many are group suicides. Japan's suicide rate is nearly triple that of the USA! Countless cases go unreported because of the family shame factor involved.



As missionaries, we try to keep tabs on social trends. This one is particularly saddening to us. We are reminded of it every time a Tokyo train we're aboard abruptly stops with the chilling announcement of a "jishin jiko" (someone has jumped). Why are so many Japanese contemplating this tragic decision to end their lives?

Many reasons are pointed out: the current economic malaise, the breakdown of the family, the pressure-cooker education system, the high amount of undiagnosed mental illness, the bankruptcy and debt problems, the bullying problem in schools, the Asian collectivism and peer pressure, the 311 disasters...

I think, however, that these factors could be overcome if it were not for lack of one thing, no, two things: caring relationships and knowledge of a caring God. Yes, for all their affluence, Japanese find themselves with this stark lack. Counseling is not provided; Christ is not known.

Mother Teresa put it well: “The greatest disease...is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. There's a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.” The Japanese claim a belief in 8 million gods, but not one of them offers a personal relationship, not one is close and real to them, not one has loved them with a cross.

Prime Minister Kan vowed efforts to curb suicides, saying, "What we need is a society in which nobody feels abandoned." With all respect to the prime minister, what Japan truly needs is a knowledge of a personal God that never abandons his children, and a church that loves them as Christ. This is our mission. No, God's mission with us and you!


Jesus Buried in Japan?

Absolutely not! But the rumor, as outrageous as it seems, has become the center of a local attraction in the village of Shingo, Aomori Prefecture. The legend here is that Jesus traveled to Japan when he was a youth and learned Japanese ways and customs. He later returned to Israel in his 30's where his teaching was rejected. Before the Romans could crucify him, his identical twin brother Isukiri snuk in and "casually took his place on the cross" [so says the sign at the location]. Afterwards, Jesus returned to Japan and spent his life in Shingo as a rice farmer. He lived until 106, raising a family and doing good deeds locally. He was buried in the Shingo village where a mound with a cross marks his grave.



There is much more to this silly story if you google for it and can bear the details. One such detail is that the Jewish star takes it shape from a five-point flower that grows wild on the hills of Shingo. The grave attraction even has a small museum where some Hebrew and Japanese artifacts, writings and records are displayed. There is also an annual festival in June that centers around the grave and features traditional Japanese dance.

When I first heard this story of Jesus' grave in Shingo, Japan my initial reactions moved from surprise to outrage to sadness and back again. As a Christian, it outrages me to see legends sprinkled with twisted ideas about my Savior take the place of God's revealed truth in Scripture. As a missionary, it saddens me that Japan has put Jesus in the grave. In many ways it is symptomatic of the historic response of Japan to Jesus. Christ is dead to them. Ninety-nine percent of Japanese have no hope of a living Savior that offers strength for life, and life eternal. They have stopped at Good Friday and left Jesus in the grave as a nation. Lest we be too judgmental, though, let's remember that we also can live as believers as if Christ were dead. Although He is alive forevermore, we can live as if he is dead in our lives. We can forget his resurrection power to transform us, his resurrection promise to secure our future, and his resurrection strength to guide and carry us. We, too, can get stuck at the grave and never move forward to the empty tomb.

It's the empty tomb that encourages me to a more optimistic missiological outlook for Japan. Because He lives, there is hope for this people. Japan can move toward the empty tomb and experience the real Easter joy God desires. God is doing that one by one today. Perhaps He will do so in greater numbers tomorrow.

So even though the Shingo Village seems to have exploited the cross and Christ for personal gain, I see in their foolishness one positive note. In some way these Japanese are trying to make a connection with Jesus, trying to understand His story through their own. As gut-wrenching as their attempt is, it gives some place to start with what the Bible has to say. Perhaps the Apostle Paul's Mars Hill address to the Athenians (Acts 17) is a fitting example of how to lead them to truth from there.

Because Christ is risen, we move forward in declaring his message in Japan. By faith, I see Shingo, and the nation of Japan, celebrating not around the grave of Christ, but at the great message of the empty tomb. He is risen! He is risen indeed!


Merry Halloween?

It doesn't take long in Japan to discover that many holidays have crossed the ocean. One also soon discovers that the way these holidays are celebrated is very different than one's own experience. Japanese tend to be very eclectic, adopting a variety of styles, tastes and customs from many cultures, but always adapting them to suit their unique tastes. Borrowed holidays are a pretty "mixed up" affair here. 

This American foreigner was intrigued to discover that Japanese turned Valentine's day into two separate events in February and March, one for boys and another for girls. Christmas has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. And the Christmas cake, not ham or turkey, is the main eating attraction.

Several years ago Halloween began to become more popular in Japan. While I have mixed feelings about this holiday coming to Japan, it brings a flavor of home to see pumpkins and fall decor in stores. But I have to draw the line at the new greeting this year printed on Halloween goods and decorations everywhere: "Merry Halloween." I hope it is a one-year anomaly coming from some confused supplier somewhere in Asia, but I have the feeling it's going to become a fixed part of the local vocab.

I can see where this mixed up holiday trend is going in Japan. So someday when a Japanese wishes you a "Happy Christmas" in a card with a picture of a Mickey Mouse cake on it, you will know where it started.



Can Japanese get their hope Bach?

Unintended missionary to Japan?
Who would have thought Bach would be involved in 21st century mission work in Japan? I have frequently read with interest of the strong connection between classical music (particularly J.S. Bach) and Japanese interest in Christianity. Japanese have great respect for beauty and culture, so this is no surprise. It seems God uses a variety of unusual evangelists and music genre to guide Japanese to himself. Gospel music, of course, is another boom. Read the following excerpt of a longer article available here:

No other country in the developed world keeps as many palm readers busy. None produces as much pornography; nearly half the worlds smut is made in Japan—and openly consumed in trains and subways. Suicide rates have risen from 23,000 in 1996 to 25,000 in 1997 and 32,000 in 1998. In that year, seventy–four children killed themselves in Tokyo alone, twice as many as in 1997. According to opinion polls, 60 percent of the population admit to being afraid every day. Most fear bringing shame on their families, teachers, or superiors by failing at work or in school.


What people need in this situation is hope in the Christian sense of the word, but hope is an alien idea here,
 says the renowned organist Masaaki Suzuki, founder and conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan. He is the driving force behind the Bach boom sweeping Japan during its current period of spiritual impoverishment. Our language does not even have an appropriate word for hope, Suzuki says. We either use ibo, meaning desire, or nozomi, which describes something unattainable. After every one of the Bach Collegium’s performances Suzuki is crowded on the podium by non–Christian members of the audience who wish to talk to him about topics that are normally taboo in Japanese society—death, for example. And then they inevitably ask me to explain to them what ‘hope’ means to Christians.”

Like Georg Christoph Biller, Leipzig’s current Thomaskantor and Bach’s sixteenth successor in that position, Suzuki sees himself as a missionary. 
I am spreading Bach’s message, which is a biblical one, he said, echoing the Swedish theologian and Lutheran archbishop Nathan Söderblom (1866–1931), who called Bach’s music the fifth Gospel. A member of the Reformed Church, Suzuki makes sure his musicians, mostly non–Christians, get that point. During rehearsals he teaches them Scripture. It is impossible to say how many of my performers and listeners will ultimately become Christians, ” Suzuki said. He believes, however, that Bach has already converted tens of thousands of Japanese to the Christian faith.


Tsunami Stones

His family perished in the water along with hundreds of others. His beloved town was destroyed beyond recognition. His family home and grave markers were washed away. First the earthquake. Then the waves of water that crushed everything in their path. There was little warning of the tragedy that came ashore that day.

In the midst of his grief, the man desires that generations to come not endure the pain and sorrow that he is going through. They must be warned of the danger of tsunamis! They must not build homes along the shoreline! The man devises a warning system: a marker stone. The year is 1896. The Meiji-Sanriku tsunami has just killed 22,066 Japanese.

Hundreds of these stones are found along the coastline of Japan. Some are more than 600 years old. "High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” one reads. "Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis," another stone warns. "Do not build any homes below this point,” an inscription on another stone advises.


In the bustle of modern Japan, many disregarded such good advice, building communities right along water's edge. Perhaps they took comfort in the sea walls built in the 1960's after a smaller tsunami. But in the town of Aneyoshi, a centuries-old stone saved the day. It was advice that a dozen or so households of Aneyoshi listened to carefully, and on March 11, 2011 their homes and lives were spared from a disaster that flattened low-lying towns all around.

A God that loves us infinitely and knows us completely desires that we be spared from personal disaster in this life. He desires that we be spared not from physical death, but from spiritual, emotional and relational death that poor choices and rejection of His ways can bring. His warnings are left for all generations to know and heed. The warnings in His Word are not raging outbursts from an angry God. His warnings are gracious love calls that say, "I am for you. I want you to enjoy everything I have to give you. Listen to my wisdom for your life."

"Today I am giving you a choice between prosperity and disaster, between life and death...Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live." Deut. 30:15, 19 NLT


Uncool Hero

Another sign of the times in Japan: a new superhero has been born. With the Fukushima nuclear power plant down (melted down), and the mecury up, Japan is scrambling to find the extra energy it needs to avoid summer blackouts. Everyone is being urged to turn off or turn down unneeded electric.

Only in Japan would you find a superhero to champion the cause. Right out of the PR office of Tokyo's Power Company just in time for the peak summer heat comes: Energy Savings Man. He may look cool, but the advice he gives is anti-cool: TURN OFF YOUR A/C (Or, at least adjust the thermostat).

I'd like to say I am Energy Savings Man in our home, but it is Kaori who truly champions the cause. We fight over control of the A/C thermostat...it's going to be a long summer. These days, It turns out that it's COOL to be a little more UNCOOL in Japan.


No Second Opinions?

I was interested to see this hospital scene. That any doctor's opinion in highly vertical socially structured Japan is even questioned is a sign that, perhaps, things are changing a bit.

The Second Opinion window, however, is obviously not getting much business. After hours? Shut down by the doctor's union? Shut down for lack of inquiries? Japanese patients embarrassed to appear so brazen? Perhaps some combination of all of the above. Some things change more slowly in Japan. Somehow I doubt this will catch on fast.


"Nice try, Kevin" file

This one goes into the "Nice try, Kevin" file. I just thought it was a nice-looking bunch of flowers in the storefront and, on the spur of the moment, decided Kaori deserved to enjoy them. Chrysanthemums, however, are usually seen at Buddhist altars along with incense sticks and food morsels for the dead. It's sort of like giving your beloved a grave marker for their birthday. This was a point that Kaori reminded me of when I presented my well-intended gift.

If I had stopped to think about it long enough, I might have remembered that this variety is more associated with occasions of death, then times of joy. Navigating the cultural symbols correctly often gets me in trouble. After 12 years in Japan, my nice try, Kevin" file is pretty full.


Small Thinking

We're back in Japan. Which explains why I keep bumping into things. After 6 weeks of being conditioned to the wide open spaces of life in America, we are back to working with the inches of urban Tokyo. My mind hasn't totally re-calibrated itself to the new spatial realities of this environment. I keep bumping into things...again...and again. Thankfully no damage has been done to people or vehicles. But heads, fingers, toes, and knees have gotten a little sore.

When we first arrived in the States in October, I suffered through the opposite syndrome. What to do with all this extra space! I could sit wide, or with legs outstretched. I could wander around large rooms and hear my echo. I could get out on either side of the car. I could always find parking. I could buy large size versions of things and find places to put them away. I COULD THINK BIG! Now I must relearn to think small. Small spaces. Turn, move, sit, park, walk about in a tight axis of centimeters.This will take a few days yet to get used to.

Perhaps the shortcut to relearning Japan spatial limitations is a trip to "Don Quixote," the big discount seller here in Japan. The store is crammed with stuff (and extremely noisy). Things are stacked precariously from floor to ceiling with only tiny aisles in between. It resembles the scene from a Dr. Seuss story. If it wasn't for my tightwad missionary nature, I wouldn't step foot in this place. As it worked out, my visit to the store today created a little extra work for the cleanup crew. I may be over jet lag, but spatial distance lag will take a few days more. And so, at least in Japan, it seems that thinking small is at least as important as thinking big.


Undokai

Welcome to fall in Japan. A season for school undokai, that is, athletic competitions.

When I was invited to the undokai for the child of a church member, I anticipated something of a smallish scale. My experience with undokais had been 50~60 people or so gathered in a park to watch and cheer on their kids as they run relays, jump hoops, pull tug-a-war ropes, and so on. Imagine my surprise when the undokai I had been invited to involved 3000 adults and some 300 kids.

With this many involved, it's pretty hard to include everyone without injury. Yet the kids marched in formation, danced in rhythm, and did various group-oriented athletic activities that could only be possible in group-oriented Asia. The day was a great cultural study. Take a look at this short video of the kids dancing in formation to the music. You have to see it to understand.


Food "or" Thought

"Anyone seen my swimming buddy lately?" There was something about this scene that struck me as sobering, yet almost comical. When I saw what was becoming of these poor fish, I had to stop to record the moment - see this video. Seize the Day, indeed. One moment swimming carefree together with friends, and the next shishkabobbed in front of a fire.

Yes, this fried fish-on-a-stick is actually a popular treat throughout Japan. I am sure there is a sermon illustration in here about the fragility of life and uncertainty of the future. I could almost hear the fish in the tank whispering in agreement with David, "Teach us to number our days aright." Ps. 90:12


Life in Tokyo has its Ups and Downs

I have a new appreciation for Japanese engineering. Engineering that uses vertical space UP and DOWN in such dramatic ways:

On a recent trip through Tokyo I went deeper underground than I've probably ever been before. The newly completed shortcut through the heart of the city involves driving your vehicle down an extended corkscrew tunnel that winds you a dozen or so stories underground before straightening out. Only at that level could the engineers circumvent the cobweb of subway lines and underground structures that crisscross Tokyo. Entering the tunnel is like entering a future spaceport. And the ride down not unlike Space Mountain at Disneyland. I think my ears popped a few times on this "journey to the center of the earth." Wow, here is another place I want to avoid being during an earthquake. Not a good idea to run out of gas down there either.

The flipside to this dramatic DOWN is the up, Up, UP of the Sky Tree. This will be a radio tower and observatory some 2080feet tall upon completion sometime in 2012. We recently saw a scale model. Even at 1/25th of the actual size, it soared above us. For comparison's sake, you can see it next to the Empire State Building in the photo above. My list of places not to be in an earthquake keeps growing.


Chicago Forecast: Snowy with a Chance of Re-entry Shock

Snow and re-entry shock were two surprises waiting for us back in Chicago upon our arrival.

We scooted into Chicago on Monday just ahead of the big snowfall on Tuesday. Okay, just a couple inches or so. But coming from comparatively warm Tokyo, it's been awhile since we saw this kind of snow! Justen enjoyed sledding with a home church member -- what a rare and wonderful treat for him!

Re-entry shock is something we always struggle with when out of the States for a long period of time like this. We've written about this experience here and here and here on this blog. In essence, the values, dreams, ideals of our host culture of Japan become the ingrained norm for us. We become surprised by how far apart they are from folks in our own homeland. Although we want to find belonging and yearn to identify ourselves completely with our home culture, we have been changed significantly in ways while we were gone.

And people, places and things have also changed significantly. Absorbing the many changes all at once is quite overwhelming. It all brings about a sense of alienation, confusion, and frustration. The strongest feeling is that I have simply missed out on being a part of the journey and lives of friends and family...as if I've been asleep while they've all moved on. This is part of the missionary complexities that we are learning to deal with as best as possible for our mental health.


Foreigners Don't Get the Point

I'm standing in line at a drugstore with other shoppers. The woman in front of me has just pulled out a business card file. Hurriedly she flips through at least a hundred or more cards searching for the right one. It's a common sight in Japan. Point cards.

In an effort to keep customers loyal, it seems that every business in Japan -- from the largest chain department store, to the smallest ma and pa variety store...everything -- has their own unique point card. Spend a hundred yen, get 1 point. Collect 5000 points, get a coupon for a few yen off your next purchase. Just make sure you use your points within a certain period of time, and for certain items only, etc. This is the way it goes. And Japanese people seem to be almost fanatical about the concept. The first question you are asked by the cashier is "Do you have a --- card today?" and "Would you like to make one?"

I realize the point card system is popular in the States as well, but the Japanese have truly mastered it. For myself personally, it seems more fuss than it is worth: managing all those point systems for such a meager return. It seems smarter to simply shop at a discount store from the beginning. I guess I just "don't get the point" as a foreigner.

However I do have a few point cards (okay, only one) for places I visit frequently. When making a recent purchase, I was quite excitedly about finally cashing my hard-earned points in to cover the cost. I hadn't frequented the store in a while, but now was finally the moment. When the cashier announced the price of my sale, I confidently flipped out my point card:

"Please use my points." I said proudly, expecting him to be amazed at my diligence.
He looked at the card oddly and then said, "I'm sorry. But this card is no longer used by our store."

My heart sank. All my carefully saved points took wings in an instant. I would have laughed had I not been so amazed. How could they do this to me after carrying that card around so long in my wallet, using it at every opportunity?

"We do have a new point-getter machine. Every shopper can use their store card to get up to 100 points any time they visit." the clerk said, trying console me in my obvious shock.

This was small comfort. But I followed him to the point-getter machine for a demonstration. He inserted my new store point card for me. We waited. How many comfort points would I be awarded? The answer came. As if sticking out its tongue at me, the machine spit the card back out. Printed on it was a big, fat zero.

I guess foreigners just don't get the point.


Thanksgiving Mouse

Thanksgiving was a little different for the Laverman family this year. While our Stateside friends enjoyed Thanksgiving turkey, we enjoyed a mouse...Mickey Mouse, that is. Kaori's folks were down from Yamagata for a week and eager to experience Tokyo Disneyland with family here. So, Kaori's brother's family and ourselves took a day off to challenge the likes of Splash Mountain and Monsters, Inc. Yes, it turns out that it truly is a small world after all.

A couple of things that caught my attention from the day:

1) It seems that Anglo features still fit best with Japanese' perceptions of modern fairy tales. I found it interesting that so many western foreigners were part of the Disney Parade. I suppose it would have been usual to see a Japanese Prince Charming...or would it? And does Mickey have to speak only English. Didn't he get any language training?

2) Japanese are known for their service-orientedness. There were many things that Kaori's father, as a blind man, could not experience in the theme park. But the way that Disney workers fast-tracked us through rides, and bent over backward to accommodate his needs was truly impressive.


Let the Children Come

Japanese celebrate a 1000-year-old festival in November called Shichigosan. “Shichigosan” literally means “seven, five, three.” These are the ages that are considered critical in a child’s development by Japanese. Parents will dress their children in traditional clothing, and take them to the local shrine where the priest will offer a prayer of blessing from the gods.

This affords a unique opportunity for the church in Japan. There is no stronger god than the true, living God; and no greater blessing than that which He gives. Why not ask parents to have the church pray for their children instead?

This past November Sunday, I again had the opportunity to pray for the salvation or spiritual growth of kids gathered at our church, as parents watched and listened. Jesus said, “Let the little children come!” and so we welcome them in His name!


Ode to Quiet Shopping


There's a place in Japan I dread going. It sucks the breath of me when I know I must. No, it's not the dentist or even the immigration office (that is an experience, though). It's the large chain electronic store.

Visitors to Japan will quickly notice that quiet shopping is hard to come by in Japan. The worst "offenders" by far are electronic stores. It seems that each store has its own unique theme song promoting it's outstanding prices, great service, thoughtful employees, and so forth. The one I visited yesterday pumped out this information at 2 minute intervals to the tune of "My Eyes Have Seen the Glory."

These infomercials are blasted quite loudly and so repeatedly that one wonders how the employees are able to endure their workday. I suppose like the person living next to the railroad tracks that never hears trains anymore, one eventually grows acclimated to even this environment. Still, I can't believe it can be very psychologically or physically healthy to be exposed to the decibels and repetition. As for myself, I make a beeline for what I need (an ink cartridge, some batteries, an audio cable) and get out as soon as I can.

Lately I've that Amazon.jp is a much quieter (and often cheaper) option. Now if only I could make the gas pump stop giving me instructions and promoting items to the Japanese pop tunes. That is a topic for another day.


The Best Show in Town

No summer is complete without a good fireworks show. Japan has some of the best I've seen. And Kawasaki has outdone itself year after year. This past weekend our family went to see the show near the Tamagawa river, a mere half-mile from us. We weren't disappointed. The Chinese are said to have invented fireworks, but it might be argued that the Japanese have perfected them. Coordinating the fireworks display with the beat of music was impressive. Most impressive, however, is the sheer size of the fireworks, and their close proximity to ground level.

I always come away with a better sense of the music that has shaped this culture. The "Sukiyaki" song was part of the show, but many more Japanese favorites had the audience of around 600,000 singing and clapping. Yes, I said 600,000. Believe me, it felt like more. I also always come away with a very sore neck trying to take in both fireworks shows. I've written here before about seeing only half the show. This year was the same. But what a great treat to end the summer with!


Black Gospel and What?

Black gospel and traditional Japanese drums, that's what! This past Saturday I attended the joint choir Gospel Concert that included many of our church workshop members. It takes a bit of creativity to pull off a mix of gospel music and Japanese drums, but it turned out very well. Typically drums will perform at Japanese festivals, which include religious aspects that are not altogether sanctified. But here we have redeemed them for the gospel. Literally. Take a look at this video link to get an idea.


Who is That Masked Person?

Swine flu is here. Here in Kawasaki, Takatsu. A stone's throw from our house. We've lived through the other Asian flu scares, and I expect this one is survivable as well. It is interesting, however, that the first case of swine flu in Tokyo strikes so close to home. A student who attends a local girls school around the corner from us seems to have come down with it. The school, quite well known in the area, remains closed down.

That brings me to something our friends in back in the States often ask: "Why is that person in your Japan video wearing a mask?" No, they are not likely to have some highly contagious disease. And they are not fixing to rob a bank! They are simply acting out a cultural norm. It's true: Japanese are perhaps among the heaviest face mask users in the world. The recent flu outbreak has resulted in an actual scarcity (a local drug store is rationing them out!) as commuters and students have donned the mask like never before. Even before the flu, however, Japanese can frequently be seen wearing face masks. Some suffer from hayfever, others are being polite about not spreading their colds, many simply find it a sanitary way of living in an compressed space with multitudes of people.

That is probably the point that is best drawn out here. Americans live, for the most part, with great amounts of personal space. Urban Japanese, however, have no such privilege. Tight. Cramped. Layered. Packed. This is urban life Asian style like you have never seen it. The social dynamics that result from such a close-quartered lifestyle shape Japanese character, and are important to know when involved in mission work. It seems that masks are more than just masks...they're social dividing mechanisms. I feel like launching into a great sermon illustration related to masks, but will leave it there for now. Gotta go get in the line at the drug store for a face mask.


Golden Week Chess

This is a five-day weekend in Japan called "Golden Week." A string of three national holidays on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday give Japanese workaholics a "golden" opportunity for a break from the pace of life in urban Tokyo. Many return to their family homes or head to vacation spots. We definitely felt the exodus this Sunday in church, with many gone, and many eager to leave immediately after the service. The usual room cleanup crew was pretty thin this week.

Meanwhile, Kaori, Justen and I were invited to the home of new believers, a church young couple here in our neighborhood for the holiday break. Justen got a chance to hone his "shogi" talent with the young husband. "Shogi" or Japanese chess is fairly easy to learn, but incredibly hard to master. For me as an American, watching my son play "shogi" reminds my of how blended his cultural experience is from a young age. And it definitely fits into the category of "where did he pick this up?" Kaori and I just watched in amazement as he beat his teammate twice.


Sushi Movie

A friend recently forwarded this link to me which gives you an inside look at a sushi restaurant. Many popular "kaiten sushi" shops have a circular conveyor belt where plates are placed that revolve around in front of the seated customers. Customers choose the plates with sushi items that look appealing to them.

This short video was taken by a foreign customer who placed a running video camera on the conveyor belt. The clip makes for an interesting few minutes of people watching, and an inside peek at the kitchen at the heart of the sushi shop. Enjoy!


Way Back When in Japan

Justen and I took the last day of his school spring break to do a little cultural study. A local museum/park/cultural center near our home has an open-air historical Japanese village. You are free to wander about, touch, look and explore Japan as it existed a century ago. What an incredible change this country has gone through in a relatively short period of time in its history as a nation! For Japanese citizens the lifestyle was perhaps quite normal. But I kept on thinking of the rugged change of life that Protestant missionaries from the west were met with. Once in country, there was no turning back like there might be in today's jet age. Missionaries a century ago certainly were met with their share of challenges even before attempting to evangelize in this country.

I noticed a Japanese "manji" on the doorposts of most of the historical houses in this village. I photographed it at right. Most people would associate this with Nazi Germany. Few know that the symbol actually existed centuries before this in Indian and Chinese culture, particularly in Buddhism and other eastern religions. Japan, which imported Buddhism hundreds of years ago, also began displaying the manji as a symbol of peace.

I was reminded that some Japanese homes now display a very different symbol for peace: the cross. My heart is filled with joy for these Japanese families for whom Christ made "peace through his blood, shed on the cross." Yet 99% of Japanese are unaware of this peace. Pray that this new peace symbol will be hung on the heart doors of all Japanese in a nationwide awakening.


Japan in a Panic

Makoto first noticed signs of panic attacks when he was in the middle of an exam. The tension forced him to repeatedly make trips to the toilet. He couldn't concentrate at all. For the next exam, he made a point of arriving two hours early to make sure he got a seat near the door. That failed to calm him and he found himself in the same situation all five exams he took.

After graduating from university, the company he worked for was changing over to a new system. Makoto threw himself into the extra work involved. He worked well into the night, missing the last train home. He would nap at a nearby sauna and be back in the office first thing in the morning. This went on for months.

One day on a train, when his exhaustion was at its peak, an ‘unpleasant feeling' came over him. His breathing quickened, his palms began to sweat, and he felt the urge to use the bathroom. Soon Makoto couldn't ride the subway to work anymore. Today, fearing a panic attack, he will not even go to a barber shop. Instead he has a stylist come to his home - for an additional fee. “My wife says it’s a waste of money,” he says. “A healthy person can't possibly understand. Imagine a person, who seems perfectly normal, and yet can't get on a train, or go to a barber shop.”

Makoto and many others in Japan suffer from a condition known as panic disorder (PD). Panic engulfs them. How many people are affected? Current estimates suggest up to 4 percent of the Japanese population. What is the solution for panicked Japanese people? The power of the Gospel. "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." (2 Timothy 1:7).


Japanese Trash Can Wisdom

I could write reams of blog entries on the humorous and often incongruous ways English is used in Japan. It is delightful to find these nuggets tucked away here and there in our neighborhood. It may just be my dry sense of humor, but they make me smile. Often just when I need a smile. Like the day last week when I sat down at a restaurant table upon which a sign had been placed: "NO SMORKING." It's a good thing I don't smork. The sign was all the more amusing to me because it was not hastily handwritten. It was an engraved plastic professional-looking sign. Glancing at the other tables around me, I noticed smorking was not allowed there either.

This afternoon while buying lunch at the boxed lunch shop, I went to throw away an item and found that the garbage can was full...of philosophical advice (Photo above). I don't typically think of reviewing my life before pitching something. Was the garbage can suggesting that some people are throwing away more important things...their own lives? For the Japanese eye, this type of thing is just ornamental design. No one actually reads it. For this English-speaking foreigner, however, it is makes one do a double-take to see the way that English is used.

Another example that made me do a double-take this past week was this restroom sign. No English was used in this case, but it might have been helpful. I have gotten fairly adept at the various and sundry ways that a public restroom is referred to in Japanese. I've also seen many interesting English versions in Japan: "Resting Room", "Hand Washing Room." Sometimes I confess that I am a bit bewildered altogether and simply stand back to observe which gender enters which room.

This sign was also a new one to me. It appears that this might be a restroom for pregnant men only? Perhaps I am easily confused. But what made it more confounding to me was that the women's restroom had a picture of what looked to me to be more of a man than a woman. Again, I step back in these cases and observe before proceeding. This action has spared me embarrassment in numerous cultural situations. More examples in the spirit of fun to come.


Japan's Gone Bananas!

It seems that bananas have been in short supply in our grocery store these days. I wondered why at first. As it turns out, foreigners are the last to pick up on the trends and pop culture. I overheard a conversation at church that brought me up to speed. Stated simply: Japan's gone bananas!

It all started with a pop Japanese singer claiming she lost more than 20 pounds on a banana diet. There was no stopping it after that. Every Japanese young woman who felt she was a kilo or so overweight had to try it for themselves. It is the diet for the undisciplined. The protocol is:

1) Eat 1 banana with room temperature water for breakfast.
2) Eat whatever you like the rest of the day within reason.
3) A small sugary snack at 3pm is fine.
4) Get to bed by midnight.

Here's a link for a video if you're interested in checking it out for yourself.

Japan is a homogeneous unit of people, not individuals. When compared with their western counterparts, Japan is far and beyond a copycat culture. If something becomes hip, it takes the country by storm in as much time as the 150million cell phones can get the word out. (As a side note: I pray for the day that revival sweeps through Japan in the same fashion).

This isn't the first diet to sweep the nation. There was the tofu diet and the fermented bean curd diet crazes not too long ago. I didn't mind the grocery store being low on those. I suppose in time this diet will also go the way of all flesh, but in the meantime if you want a banana you've got to stand in line.


New Neighbors

We're getting some new neighbors. About 7,500 of them to be more specific. We continue to marvel at the new city-in-a-city called "Rise" being built just a few minutes from us. Its three towers rise some 30 and 40 stories above the rest of the neighborhood. It's slated to be completed by April.

This is just another in the trend of major construction projects around us. Just last year "Eden" opened. It's massive towers of concrete and steel hardly do justice to its name. More than 8,000 people live in that tiny footprint of land. And more such construction projects are in the works in our immediate area. Our easy access to points in Tokyo makes the Denentoshi rail line a desirable place to find housing for commuters. But we wonder if this massive urbanization is really sustainable. Talk about population density!

On the other hand, 7,500 new neighbors means 7,500 new evangelistic opportunities. Thank you, Lord, for bringing those opportunities our way!


The New Year's Flight

As the year draws to a close, Japanese people are preparing for the year’s most important holiday by cleaning their houses and decorating their front portals with pine and bamboo. On New Year’s eve, millions will prepare buckwheat noodles, signifying longevity and prosperity, and millions more will visit their local shrine or temple.

In another time-honored tradition, a minority will celebrate the year’s end in quite a different fashion; they will vanish into thin air. New Year’s eve, when people generally clear their debts, has become the most popular night for yonige, (the midnight flight). People who have fallen into debt, simply disappear in the night to start a fresh life in an anonymous city or country.

So common is the practice that it has spurned an industry of removal companies specializing in midnight dashes, even avoiding burly men with baseball bats, called variously benriyasan, (‘Mr. Convenient for Anything’) or yonigeya (‘Midnight Flight Shop’). These companies are good at disappearing acts. Once a family has dashed, the yonigeya will clear out the contents of the house in 15-30 minutes, storing them in a secret warehouse until they can be reunited with their fleeing clients. Full-service companies offer leased property and untraceable phone lines in a new city and can, for a hefty fee, provide a new identity, which is no mean feat in tightly documented Japan.

Source: Tokyo Financial Times (2006/01/03) & missionary Neil Verwey

For believers we usually advise, not to flee but to face the music. Jesus says to us, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) Don't run away from Jesus, run to Him! He will shoulder your burdens and give you rest!


Could Bach bring Revival to Japan?

Christian History & Biography reports that tens of thousands of Japanese are coming to Christ through the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This is primarily thanks to organist and conductor Masaaki Suzuki. When he performs the St. Matthew Passion during Holy Week, the concerts are sold out, and afterwards the stage is crowded with people asking about the messages in Bach’s music. The messages are thoroughly biblical, so much so that Bach’s work was once called “the fifth Gospel.” In the words of one Japanese musician who converted to Christianity: “When I play a fugue, I can feel Bach talking to God.” Bach, a devout believer, would no doubt rejoice to know that centuries later his music is still spreading the good news of the gospel.

On the night of Jesus’ birth, an angel appeared to shepherds. Why shepherds? Perhaps they fit with the humble circumstances of His birth; perhaps God wanted to point back to King David, who began as a shepherd; or perhaps He wanted to point forward, to the arrival of the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God. In any case, the shepherds responded to the angel as others had, with both awe and terror. “Do not be afraid,” the angel told them, then he proclaimed “good news of great joy”—the gospel—“that will be for all the people”—universal in scope. “Today in the town of David”—prophecy fulfillment alert!— “a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord”—the Messiah, the Anointed One (vv. 10—12).

Then the skies exploded in praise! The watching hosts of heaven could hold back no longer, appearing suddenly in a blaze of light and belting out, “Gloria in excelsis deo” (Latin), or “Glory to God in the highest”

--from Today in the Word (Moody Bible Institute)


Family Issues in Japan

It's hard to believe, but family issues are really taking center stage in Japan these days. Japanese men have are finally owning up to the problems they face. Here is a sample from a recent news article:

In the corner of a small Japanese restaurant, a dozen dark-suited businessmen gathered at a large table. Smoke hovered over the dinner and beer disappeared as quickly as it was poured. At first glance, it looked like a typical Friday night post-work scene played out all over Tokyo’s taverns. But then your eye stops on a poster-sized sign propped up next to one of the middle-aged men. It reads:

Three Golden Rules of Love:
* Thank you (say it without hesitation)
* I am sorry (say it without fear)
* I love you (say it without embarrassment)

All the men at the table stood up. Equally spaced out and still wearing their stiff black suits, they chanted in unison: "I can’t win! I won’t win! I don’t want to win!" The chant was followed by a deep bow, a straightening of the backs, big smiles and a burst of applause. The meeting of the "National Chauvinistic Husbands Association" was under way.

If you're confused at this point, don't fret. The group is called the National Chauvinistic Husbands Association because it's a club for bossy husbands who need help (a little lost in translation effect here.)

So the title is appropriate for this group of men. In an abrupt about face from traditional Japanese relationships, the men are learning how to give their wives more respect.

More poster signs surrounded the men at this meeting:

Three Golden Rules of Renewing Family:
* Let's Listen
* Let's Write
* Let's Talk

And there's even a system of ranking your husbandry in the club:

Rank 1: Love your wife after three years of marriage
Rank 2: Help with the household work
Rank 3: No extramarital affairs or at least she doesn't know about it
Rank 4: Ladies first
Rank 5: Hold hands with your wife in public
Rank 6: Listen to what your wife has to say carefully and seriously
Rank 7: Solve issues between your wife and your mother
Rank 8: Say thank you without hesitation
Rank 9: Say I'm sorry without fear
Rank 10: Say I love you without embarrassment

After the meeting, we followed a young man named Yohei Takayama home. He'd just been promoted to "Rank 4." He admitted that "Rank 5," holding hands with his wife in public, was not going to be natural or easy. He and his wife have been married for two years. His wife said he’s been a member of the club for a year and a half and it has changed their relationship dramatically.

Namely, she said, he helps more around the house, listens to her more, and understands she also has a career that exhausts her. What they’re growing into, she said, is a partnership. They went grocery shopping, and I noticed he carried the bags and helped her decide what to buy. As they left the store to go home, he took her hand in his. It didn't look like the most natural thing in the world for him, but he was trying. His wife smiled as they walked home.


Lost Japanese Parrot Knew His Address

When Yosuke, a parrot, flew out of his cage and got lost, the little guy did exactly what he had been taught -- recites his name and address to a stranger willing to help. Police rescued the African Gray parrot from a neighbor's roof in the city of Nagareyama, near Tokyo.

After spending a night at the station, he was transferred to a nearby veterinary clinic, while police searched for clues. “I tried to be friendly and talked to him, but he completely ignored me,” policeman Mr. Uemura said. The parrot kept mum with the cops, but began chatting with the veterinarian. “I'm Mr. Yosuke Nakamura,” the bird told the vet. He also provided his full home address, down to the street number, and even entertained the clinic staff by singing songs. “We checked the address, and what do you know, the Nakamura family really lived there. When we told them we had found Yosuke, they were elated,” Mr. Uemura said.

The Nakamura family had been teaching the bird its name and address for about two years, and they were very happy that it finally paid off!
Source: Internet News, 2008-05-26

Just like that parrot, and just like sheep we have all gone our own way and completely went off course! All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way. (Isaiah 53:6). To us who are more intelligent than parrots and sheep, God has explained how we can find our way back to Him! You will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul (Deut. 4:29).


Bathing Your Way to Purity

Much of the way that Japanese religion merges with everyday life in Japan is in areas of physical cleanliness. The relationship between the gods and man in the Japanese worldview comes down to the matter of personal purity. If one is to be on good terms with the gods, it is believed that one must avoid things which would cause physical pollution. If it occurs by some accidental way, it must be taken away. And one great method for doing so is the most obvious one: a good hot bath. Japan is blessed by many mountains, and consequently many hot springs.

One can see here how the Bible speaks to this matter of cleanliness before the God who has made us and loves us. The cleansing God offers has nothing to do with a physical bath. In fact, it is quite useless for a right relationship with our Lord. "Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me" (Jer 2:22). God is into the deep cleansing that man needs, begins at the heart polluted with sin, and uses the agent of the Holy Spirit. "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit."

Having said that, our family does enjoy a good hot spring bath from time to time for the simple recreation of it. Here's a photo of us last week going to the famous Mt. Zao hot spring. It's an outdoor sulphur spring that leaves one with an unmistakeable smell. Rather ironic that bathing leaves one smelling.


Yamagata Family

This past week we took a short break to visit with Kaori's home church and family. Here's a picture of the whole Fukase (and three Lavermans) family. Can you find the foreigner? Nothing can make you feel like a foreigner more than being amongst family and realizing you are wholly different. Thankfully, as the Apostle Paul wrote, we are one in Christ: "Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all."

Still, I must admit that several days in the "REAL" Japan (Tokyo is not "really" Japan), I discover parts of me that still stick out in this culture. After a few hours of sitting on the floor, my legs, bottom, and back begin to beg for a comfortable chair. And it's still a challenge to muster up the willpower to eat raw fish and salad for breakfast. Lunch or dinner, okay. But breakfast is still a sacred meal that I try to do more Western style when home. And my Yamagata accent listening skills are also in poor shape. It seems I've been spoiled by the "mainstream" Japanese in the Kanto area.

Well, those and many more things are still areas of growth for me in cultural adaptation. Thankfully I've still some years to work on it.


How to decide just about anything in Japan

Here is a game we played together at our church picnic last week. Q: What in the world is this group of adults doing? A: Playing the rock, paper, scissors game of course! In Japan any child from 3 years on up knows rock, paper, scissors, called "jan-ken-pon" in Japanese. It is the classic way of deciding just about anything. Observe Japan carefully and you will see kids and adults doing this everywhere.

We might think this game is an American invention, but the story goes that jan-ken-pon is based on an ancient game in Japan involving gestures for a snake, frog, and slug. Don't ask me to tell you how one decides the winner of that kind of battle, but perhaps it was an enjoyable picnic game back then, too.


Readjustment

We've grown to expect and understand the adjustments and readjustments needed when traveling between countries and cultures, but that only makes the process slightly easier. We are a week into our readjustment to life and ministry in Kawasaki, Japan. What a week it has been!

1) The jetlag (14 hrs. difference from Chicago time) is one of the first and largest obstacles. For the first several days no matter how hard we tried, we were wide awake at 3 and 4am. And dead tired by dinnertime. They say it takes one day to adjust your body for every hour of difference. That would mean it will take another week yet. I'll have to say, though, I've never gotten so much done before breakfast before in my life.

2) The climate here is another adjustment. It is insufferably hot and humid right now in Japan. It saps your energy and makes you wish for a midday nap, which would no doubt only complicate number 1 above. Today, a mild earthquake hit the area. We thought at first that it was the heavy equipment at the construction site adjacent to our house. A large steel structure is going up (skeleton for new 4-story apartment). The noise would stop us from napping anyhow.

3) Then, of course, there are the many language and cultural adjustments. It seems the new and trendy words I've learned while in the States have displaced in my head an equal number of important and common words in Japanese (I might need a RAM upgrade soon).

On top of this is the work of reconnecting with things in a myriad of small ways that are necessary for everyday life (important stuff like restocking the fridge with my favorite ice cream, for example). And unpacking, cleaning the house, etc. etc. All that needs to be done in the middle of an already busy schedule for us. We've hit the ground running in several ways that make 1, 2 & 3 above a bit more challenging. Tomorrow we leave with some teens for a 3-day camp near Mt. Fuji. It will, at least, be cooler in that area.

Keep up your prayers for the Lavermans as we work through these adjustments over the next few weeks!


How's it Growing?

I had heard about these. The famous square melons of Japan. But I laughed off the idea as nothing more than a funny rumor. Until I saw them myself, that is. Yes, Virginia, there is a square melon! And they are very expensive (around $100 each). Japanese farmers form these by placing them in glass cases while the melon is still young on the vine. Click the picture for a bigger view.

But other than being an interesting piece of cultural trivia, of what practical use is this square melon? As it turns out, it is a perfect solution for the space-conscious urban Japanese. A round melon requires a lot of room in one's refrigerator. But these square melons are grown to the exact size of typical shelving in a Japanese refrigerators. Talk about "cornering" the market!

We're reminded in Scripture of something else that grows to the shape of its surroundings unless we're careful: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Rom. 12:2 Our minds, like melons, need to break out of the conforming pattern of this world. How? "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Phil 4:8. That's how we grow the way we were designed to be! So how's it growing with you?


Thinking Green

The cost of gas these days seems to be on everyone's minds. It puts a pinch in our home assignment budget as well as the miles we travel cost more. People are talking about the need to invent new environmentally-conscious sources of energy to power our vehicles. It seems the Japanese have already discovered that ultimate "green" machine!

I came across this car in our Kawasaki neighborhood some time ago. I'm posting it here as proof that Japanese cars really can be better for the environment. Just look at the way nature has taken to this car! If anyone has an idea as to its make and model let me know or post your guess.


Time Travel Again

We went time traveling again last week. The trip to the States from Japan is always a very literal trip back in time. We arrive at our destination in Chicago at an earlier time than we left from Japan. This is possible because we fly east and cross over the international date line. In the case of last week, we left at 6:30pm on a Wednesday and arrived at 4:20pm the same day. Witnessing two sunsets the same day is very odd. It's enough to put one's body into a jetlag tailspin. And it did. And so again this past week we've dealt with the problem of being wide awake by 3am, and ready to crawl into bed by 4pm the same day. Our bodies do not handle time travel very well apparently. Our bodies grumble at the new schedule, the new and sudden change in diet, the new surroundings and climate.

The physical adjustment of coming to the States is one real challenge. Still another challenge to this time travel is the mental adjustment. Big and small changes that have occurred in our culture and lives of people may have been easily absorbed if meted out one by one over time, but when you have been gone for a while and suddenly are met with all these changes at once, your brain begins to hiccup. You feel a bit of the Rip Van Winkle syndrome. You wonder if you really belong in this country. When exactly did people begin doing this (i.e., walking around talking to themselves with things stuck in their ear, self-checking their groceries, etc. etc.)? This neighborhood has changed. That person is no longer alive. Those familiar faces have grown older. A thousand and one little changes all around make us feel as though we have time traveled into the future.

This adjustment is perhaps the harder one to make, because there is a sense of loss and estrangement. While we don't expect things to remain the same, we do expect to feel at home when we return. But this feeling of moderate alienation with one's own culture should not be unique to missionaries. Scripture reminds all of us as believers that this world is not our home, that being uncomfortable in the world culture about us should be normal, that we are all sojourners looking toward a heavenly home. That "Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ." Phil 3:20

I will always be a traveler in this world as I look forward to the next. This is a good reminder as we begin our home assignment back in to the States.


Bath or Baptism?

You have to be creative as a Baptist church planter in Japan. There aren't a whole lot of options for a baptism, particularly this time of year. We've no church facility yet with a baptismal. Outdoor pools aren't going to work in early spring either, even if one had exclusive access. Rivers and lakes are out. The best we could come up with was using another church facility and a borrowed tub. But even then only some of our people would be able to attend as the service would need to be at a different time and in a different place.

Then the thought occurred..."What if we were able to use the local public bathhouse?" Public bathhouses in Japan are still quite common, as many small urban apartments do not have space for a bath tub or shower. Typically a male or female only bathhouse can handle 20 - 30 bathers at a time with individual faucets for each, and a collective tub for everyone (okay, you'll have to see one to understand the idea).

It would be extremely unlikely the owner would agree to something like that. They've no understanding of Christianity, let alone what a baptism is. It would come across as an odd religious thing. With the many radical new religious groups in Japan, Japanese have a heightened adversion to getting involved with religious things period.

Well, God goes ahead and opens impossible doors for us when we knock on them in faith. Amazingly, the owner of our local bathhouse agreed to let us use the facility exclusively on a Sunday morning for a baptism. Of course, he expects to collect 400 yen a head.

Clearly there was some initial confusion about what a baptism was on his part. He wanted to know, "So, will all the people from your church being getting into the bath together?" "No," we assured him. "Just one. And even he will be wearing clothes." "Oh." he replied, "but if you're paying you should take a bath together anyway." Well, that would be a level of Christian fellowship we're not really ready for.


Vending Machines in Japan

Estimates suggest there are 5.6 million vending machines, which works out to be one for every 20 people in Japan! If you are hungry, for a few coins in a slot, you have a choice of quite a range of hot food like hamburgers, french fries, hot dogs and dumplings.

Are you in a rush to get to work or school? How about having some soup from a Cup-a-Noodle machine on the way? In less than three minutes you get piping hot soup. What about a bag of fresh hot popcorn from a machine using a microwave oven to pop the corn in seconds? If you like rice like the Japanese do, you might visit the rice dispensing machines. You can purchase ten kilo bags of rice in eight different varieties! An egg machine features farm fresh eggs. The umbrella vending machines are popular when it rains.

We often use automated waitresses in Japan. Just make your meal selection from the machine at the restaurant. Feed your money into the machine then you'll get a ticket which you hand to the cook behind the counter inside.

In some places the entire building is a parking machine. Just drive your car into the bay. Each bay rotates through the building to maximize usage of space. Your parking ticket will retrieve your car back to the bottom bay. You back out your car onto the rotating circle. It will also turn your car so you can drive out straight!

God is the source of everything we need...and you won't need a coin. Just ask!

THEREFORE I SAY TO YOU, WHATEVER THINGS YOU ASK WHEN YOU PRAY, BELIEVE THAT YOU RECEIVE THEM, AND YOU WILL HAVE THEM (Mark 11:24).

Go to God for absolutely everything – small or large!


Bowling Japan Style

Once in a while it's important to come together as church family for something fun. Seeing each other outside of the church context can be a healthy change. Today ten of us got together for a bowling and dinner party. Our home is a stone's throw from one of the largest bowling alley's in Kanagawa, so the place was a easy choice.

We discovered that none of us has much of a latent talent in this sport. Breaking 100 was a big deal. But it is refreshing when Japanese get together like this and clap and cheer each other on even when the person has thrown a dozen straight gutters. There is something that Japanese do better in the area of togetherness and community that I have learned much from. The competitiveness is still a part of things, but the emphasis on teamwork is so much greater in just about any Japanese sport.

When asked what fun sport we can do as a church next, someone in our group suggested a marathon run. Hmmm. Not quite sure on that, but I am sure it would be done in a group-oriented Japanese way.


Jesus Buried in Japan?!

Shingo, a remote northern town in Aomori, Japan, has a strange and unlikely tale to tell! Jesus Christ did not die on the cross, but lived there among the mountains and rice fields. His previously unknown younger brother was crucified in his stead.

After escaping the Romans, so the legend goes, He fled across Siberia to Japan. He settled near the northern end of Honshu, married a local woman and fathered three daughters before dying peacefully at the age of 106!

“I don’t exactly think it’s true,” Mr. Sawaguchi, a farmer in the area said. “But I don’t exactly think it’s false either.” His old house has a symbol resembling the Star of David carved into its wooden rain shutters!

A peculiar local belief is that making a sign of the cross on a baby’s forehead will prevent illness.
Source: Yomiuri Newspaper, 1999-07-05

We know that there are many counterfeit Christs in the world! How fantastic it is to be liberated to know the real Christ.

For we did not follow
cunningly devised fables
when we made known to you the power
and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ
(2 Peter 1:16).


"Post" Evangelism

You may have heard the term "pre-evangelism" before, but have you ever heard of "post" evangelism?

In November, our church hosted an outreach made for Japan. One of our ladies in church is a gifted calligrapher. She taught a class on how to prepare the traditional yearend POSTCARDS using Japanese brush design! This type of Japanese calligraphy is very hard to emulate, much less read, when it is done correctly. But it is a respected and beautiful part of Japanese culture and tradition.

Kaori spoke on the Biblical roots of some of these letters, giving a good gospel message that was well-received by the group. We had a good turnout: 22 people, including 14 unbelievers.

Many of the Japanese letters contain Christian ideas. For example, the Japanese character for "righteousness" pictures the symbol for lamb covering the symbol for myself. The character for "forgiveness" includes the symbol of beating and the symbol for red (blood). The character for "tree" includes a person and a cross. There's a story to be told that dovetails with the gospel message.

Why are these ideas in the language? It is thought that the Apostle Thomas brought the gospel into Asia, including parts of China. Japanese borrows heavily upon the Chinese writing system.


The Gulliver Complex

I'm a giant again. Well, not really. But it sure feels like it again since returning from the States.

The first sign was bumping my head in the shuttle bus from the airport. By habit, I normally duck my head through any doorway in Japan. Three weeks in the States eased the need for ducking, but now it looks like it is time to restart.

The second doubletake was the size of the streets. I found myself holding my breath as the shuttle bus wove WITHIN INCHES through pedestrians, motorcycles, and oncoming traffic. A few days later I'd no doubt find myself thinking nothing of if -- doing it myself, in fact, down our tiny-street neighborhood -- but right now it still shocks me.

The third reminder was at the hotel. The room was, well, large enough to turn around in. The bathroom shower required me to slouch in order to wash my hair. And the bathroom mirror gave me a great reflection...of my upper chest and neck. Gulliver complex.

But the final bit of convincing came the next morning. At the Denny's near the airport hotel we ordered breakfast. Pancakes served were each the size of a silver dollar, cutely piled on top of each other. The coffee was poured into mugs the size of an expresso cups. And the table came all the way up to just slightly above my knee level. Yes, I'm a giant again. But the great thing about eating in Lilliputan restaurant is that the giants don't need to leave tips -- actually even "average" size people don't need to leave tips in Japan!

So as I walked out of the restaurant smiling to myself about the money saved (spent many times over on the price of food), I forgot where I was, and bumped my head again. Good show, Gulliver!


Reverse Culture Shock?

Some lists during our Stateside stay:

Pleasant surprises:
* Being able to get out of either side when parked
* Understanding 100% of a radio or TV program
* Grass (lots of it, in front of almost every house!)
* Trees (with beautiful colored leaves to boot)
* Banana cream pie
* Clothing sizes that fit
* Parking in front of a store, instead of on top

Oddities:
* Self-checkout at the grocery store (when did that start?)
* Machines are strangely quiet (nearly everything from the gas pump to the escalator talks to you in Japan)
* Drink sizes, serving sizes and people are strangely large (possible correlation here)
* Foods are incredibly sweet, salty or fatty (much more so than I seem to remember)
* No bicycles or motopeds on the streets!
* Television programming increasingly unfit for most human life
* Thousands of choices for just about everything

Caught myself doing:
* Saying sorry to someone I bumped into...in Japanese by mistake (that got me an odd look)
* Standing in front of a store waiting for the door to open (Japan is the land of automatic doors)
* Getting in the front passenger seat and preparing to drive...and wondering why the steering wheel was gone (its on the right in Japan)
* Driving on the wrong side of the road (just briefly, mind you)
* Gaping at the aisles of cereal and snacks
* Wondering why US currency suddenly looks like monopoly money


How Not to Iron Your Clothes

No, this is not a new way to press your clothes, it is a daily reality for those who commute into Tokyo from our neighborhood station.

We're sometimes asked by you, "Are the Tokyo trains as bad as we hear?" If you have a Japanese definition of personal space, then no they are not so bad. But for most Americans who are used to a wider circle of empty space about them, it is pretty hard to adjust to this part of the Japanese culture. What you do not see in the photo is what no doubt happened about 10 seconds prior to this: the white-gloved station platform attendant literally pushing, squeezing, and otherwise using force to get this man, and others into the train car.

Our train line (and neighborhood in general) is changing. They are lying new track to expand the capacity from 2 tracks to 4 tracks. In the process a lot of housing and businesses along the existing line have needed to be demolished. It looks like a war zone in our neighborhood on most days. But when it is finished it is supposed to alleviate some transit capacity problems like this. They promise that trains will only need to be packed to 150% capacity. Yikes!


Only in Japan

Here's a photo of something you're likely to only find in Japan (okay, perhaps also in another East Asian country). What do you suppose it could be? Hint: it was taken at the doorway of our mission's recent 60th Anniversary where several hundred attended. Look closely before clicking to enlarge. If you still can't figure it out, post a comment.


Bicycles: the Family Car

Today Justen got a much needed new bicycle. Call it a belated birthday present. See the smile on his face? (Click the photo to enlarge)

I was reminded of how big a role the bicycle plays in Japan's "mass transit" system. In urban Japan where having a place to park a real car would be a luxury for most, the bicycle is not unlike the family car. It hauls groceries, little kids, pets, you name it! I have grown accustomed to seeing the mother taking her kids to school or preschool by bicycle with the baby seated strapped in front of her behind the handlebars, and an older child strapped in back of her in a child seat. This "bicycle-for-three" is a common sight.

What happens when it rains? The mother shelters the baby and herself with an unbrella in one hand, while steering with the other. The child in back holds his own umbrella. Add a few sacks of groceries to this situation--one in the basket in front of the baby, the other in the lap of the child behind--and the bicycle begins to look like part of a travelling caravan. Still, this is not an uncommon sight. But the other day I saw one that surprised even me: on a rainy day a mother and two children each with their own umbrella were mounted on a bicycle with groceries in their laps. Okay so far. But wait! With one hand steering the bike and the other holding an umbrella, the mother was talking on a cell phone cradled under her chin! Remember this is drippy, wet pavement weather! And there are pedestrians, cars, and scooters to contend with as well! Don't believe me? Oh how I wish I had my camera with to show you what it looked like!


You Give me a Bat; I Give you a Drink

Today we went to visit the home of one of Justen's classmates. Getting lost, we pulled into the parking lot of a small industrial business to turn around and check our directions. Apparently we didn't turn around fast enough for the gentleman who owned the business. He came out to our van with a bat, a bad attitude and a big mouth. Perhaps he saw me and suspected this foreigner was up to no good. Perhaps he was just having a bad day.

On the way back home, I decided that the "missionary thing to do" (the Christlike thing, more like), would be to show him a little grace. It was a hot day, so I bought a nice cold drink from the vending machine and, being careful to park a distance away, walked it up to his office. He froze when he saw me come in. I think he actually wondered if I came back with my own bat. It felt great to graciously apologize for using his parking lot, and place the drink on the counter in front of him. Christ's words in Romans 12:20 are always good advice.


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We serve with WorldVenture, an evangelical faith mission. Our sending/home church is First Baptist Church of Lansing, Illinois.
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