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.
New Year House Shopping
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.
Jesus Rocks in Aomori, Japan
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.
Superstition & Mission (Part 2)
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.
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.