Rail Pass

“Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.”

Luke 8: 1

Rail Pass

Trains are widely regarded as the cheapest and simplest form of travel for newcomers when they visit Japan. This popular form of transport is greatly facilitated by the purchase of what is known as a rail pass that is only available for visitors to Japan. These passes are sold online at a reasonable cost in 1-3 week increments and are a tremendous bargain designed to maximize one’s time in Japan.

But before hopping on a Japanese train, it is good to be aware of what is considered to be good manners for passengers. For example, it is customary to wait for all the passengers to disembark from the train before boarding. Once on board, set your smart phone to silent mode and avoid talking on the phone while in transit. Eating on a train is generally considered to be impolite except on the bullet trains, which typically involve a longer journey. Courteous behavior calls for one to be mindful of their seating posture so as not to take up too much room or inconvenience other passengers. Any bags should be placed or carried in such a way to not interfere with the movement of others entering or attempting to leave the train. In addition, one should avoid using priority seats set aside for the handicapped, elderly or pregnant women.

It is good to keep these tips in mind, but one must also understand that riding on a train in Japan is much more than getting from one point to another and observing proper etiquette. While Japan is famous for the sheer volume of passengers its transportation system accommodates, and the amazing network of rail lines, it also offers a number of unique entertaining train experiences for all ages. In fact, a prime-time TV show, called the NHK Railway Journal, regularly features some of these fascinating train lines. For example, there is a “Pokémon with You” train line in Iwate Prefecture full of Pikachu images and hosts several creative play areas designed to please young fans of this famous cartoon. The “Toreiyu Tsubasa” bullet train, that travels between Fukushima and Yamagata Prefectures, offers artfully decorated footbaths for passengers to soak tired feet while enjoying the beautiful scenery on the journey. The “Sagano Romantic Train” near Kyoto features large glass viewing areas and one fully open car to enhance the breathtaking views of the picturesque countryside and exquisite foliage for which the area is famous. Children are thrilled to ride on the “Hello Kitty Shinkansen” bullet train, “Thomas the Tank Engine” train, and the “SL Ginga” steam locomotive or other “character trains” as they are commonly called. A popular train among adults is the “High Rail 1375” which runs through Nagano Prefecture and ascends to the height of 1,375 meters (4,511 feet). The route of this train includes panoramic mountain scenes or star gazing at night and even an onboard mini planetarium.

Travel seems to be a necessary element in biblical events, particularly in the Books of the Pentateuch, which feature the birth of the nation Israel, and in the Book of Acts, which focuses on the birth of the church. Jesus’ ministry was also characterized by extensive travel as he went from town to town to share the good news of the kingdom of God. (Luke 8:1) Of course, travel was much more difficult in those days without the convenience, comfort and speed of modern trains. Perhaps this is why the concept of travel is a common metaphor when applied to characterizing the people of God and how we are to relate to the world around us. Many Bible translations use the term “sojourner” to describe our position in our present life. The word melds together the ideas of foreigner, temporality and movement. A biblical sojourner then is someone who has been granted a “rail pass” to temporarily engage in this present world, fulfilling the purposes of God, while remembering that another, more perfect world is our final destination. All aboard!

Special Delivery

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  Galatians 6:2


Often unnoticed by the casual visitor to Japan, takkyūbin provides an amazing assistance in a country famous for its punctuality and efficiency. Takkyūbin (宅急便) means “speedy home delivery” and it furnishes a complimentary service to Japan’s outstanding public transportation system by offering a better alternative to transporting cumbersome baggage on trains, subways and buses. A customer simply fills out a standard form that includes the shipping address, and their luggage is promptly picked up at their home. It is then delivered the next day within a designated two-hour window for a very reasonable fee (roughly $17). This remarkable service is available throughout Japan to every major Japanese transportation hub and each individual residence. While the transport of luggage meets a huge need, people increasingly use takkyūbin to send all kinds of goods across the country because of its convenience, low cost and dependability.

The concept of takkyūbin originated in 1975 when Yamato Transport, an established shipping firm, decided to extend its services across the country to every address. Such a massive expansion was quite an ambitious undertaking, but due to its high standards and reliability, the company’s new services were enthusiastically received. Yamato now boasts of a workforce of almost 200,000 employees manning roughly 45,000 vehicles in hundreds of offices scattered throughout the country. Its distinctive logo is that of a yellow oval centered on a black cat carrying a kitten in its mouth, representing the company’s promise to take care of items entrusted to them. Therefore, the company is often colloquially referred to as “Kuroneko,” meaning “black cat.”

Although Yamato now has other competitors, its popular services are so ubiquitous that the term coined by the company, takkyūbin, has largely replaced the previous term, takuhaibin, in everyday language. This changed usage pattern was further established when the famous Studio Ghibli anime film, “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” was released in 1985. Co-produced by Yamato, the popular movie used the word takkyūbin in its title and featured a black cat as one of the characters.

The business of takkyūbin was created to deal with the logistical problem of transporting physical burdens, but there are burdens of a vastly different nature that no commercial enterprise can ever resolve. In general, a burden can be simply defined as “a load that one must carry” and such encumbrances are considered to be heavy or challenging to bear. A burden can be physical in nature, but it can also be anything that invites stress, pain, anxiety, or hardship as we bear it for ourselves or for the sake of others. The Bible addresses quite a variety of such burdens offering different solutions.

The daily burdens of life are often very difficult, if not impossible to carry alone, as Moses himself recognized in his leadership role when he complained to God: “I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me.” (Numbers 11:14) The Psalmist spoke of another type of burden when he lamented, “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.” (Psalm 38:4)

Thankfully, God “daily bears our burdens” (Psalm 68:19) and Jesus invites us to lay our heavy load upon His shoulders that will in turn provide genuine rest of a spiritual nature that we all crave. (Matthew 11:28-30) But to the degree that we are able and available, we are exhorted to help carry the burdens of others, which exemplifies the heart of God and the nature of the church. (Galatians 6:2) We all need help with our baggage.

Unlucky #4

“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.” I Timothy 4:7

unlucky 4

When I occasionally ventured downtown with my parents as a child and entered an elevator in a skyscraper, I often noticed a curious thing: there was no 13th floor in many of the buildings. When I pointed out this anomaly to my parents, they explained that there was actually a 13th floor, but because many people considered the number to be unlucky, it was commonly omitted from the selection of buttons indicating floor levels. Despite this widely held belief, my grandfather, who was a bit of a contrarian, decided to name his ranch “Lucky 13.” We consequently used the brand L13 to identify all his cattle so this particular number was vividly branded in my memory.

Instead of the number thirteen, Japanese traditionally considered the number 4 to be very unlucky because it can be pronounced as “shi” (四), which is also used for the word “death” (死), even though the Chinese characters identifying them are quite different. Like America, where the number 13 was often omitted, many hospitals and hotels in Japan similarly skipped the number 4 when indicating floors in their buildings. “Tetraphobia” is an actual psychological term coined to describe the practice of avoiding instances of the digit 4 as this ancient superstition also exists in other parts of Asia. This unfounded fear can be applied in numerous ways, such as avoiding the mention of the number four around an ill family member, giving four of something as a gift or scheduling something important on April 4th, the fourth day of the fourth month.

Like other cultures, there are many other superstitions that linger in Japan. For example, whistling at night may invite snakes to come out. You should hide your thumbs if a funeral hearse passes nearby. Children are warned to cover their belly buttons in a thunder storm. Chopsticks should never be placed upright in a bowl of rice. A person’s name should not be written in red ink. It is not advisable to kill a spider in the morning, but it is expedient to do so at night. A person should avoid cutting fingernails or toenails in the evening. One should avoid sleeping with his head positioned towards the north. Food is not to be passed chopstick-to-chopstick. The list continues and each of these forbidden actions could possibly invite death or adverse circumstances due to their connections with other terms, mythological stories or current cultural practices. Go to the following link for a further explanation: https://www.cotoclub.com/16-common-japanese-superstitions/.

In mentoring his young disciple Timothy, Paul advised him to avoid dwelling on such myths and superstitions in the course of his ministry (I Timothy 4:7). Instead, he was encouraged to focus on godly character and truth in his own life and in shepherding others. As a mature believer, Paul understood that superstitions are essentially grounded in fear instead of faith and the proponents of such an approach to life cling to a faulty understanding of God that must be discarded. While God is certainly to be feared (Deuteronomy 10:12), He is not a whimsical, cosmic being who can be induced or manipulated to protect us from life’s calamities. This God is not limited by any temples we may erect to contain Him, idols we may form to worship Him or any silly practices we may promote to control Him. This was the message Paul preached to the superstitious Greeks on Mars Hill who needed to correctly understand the vastness, power and nature of God (Acts 17). This is the truth that needs to be branded on our hearts and heeded while living in a world full of misinformation and deceit.

Gods on Parade

“No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among humans.” Daniel 2:11b


The festival crowd cheered enthusiastically at the sight of the local shrine’s mikoshi as it snaked its way along the town’s designated parade route. The uniformly clad bearers of the mikoshi swayed in a set pattern as they chanted in unison “wasshoi” (和緒一), which aptly means “together in harmony.” With rhythmic precision, they shouldered an ornate miniature replica of the nearby Shinto shrine, known as an omikoshi (the additional “o” is honorific) on two long poles for transport. According to tradition, a mikoshi temporarily houses the local deity of the area who will, hopefully, ward off any potential misfortune or evil and invite happiness to the local residents.

The word mikoshi (神輿) is a combination of the Chinese characters for “god” and a “palanquin,” which was historically used to transport people of noble rank. But in this case, the occupant of the palanquin is considered to be a god, who is being taken for a tour of his community. Shintoism is the indigenous, pantheistic religion of Japan where gods are regarded as being everywhere and in everything. This ancient religion teaches that there are roughly 8 million gods who watch over Japan (that number is specifically chosen because it is similar to the term used for infinity). Since these gods, or spirits known as kami (神), are believed to be everywhere, they are usually venerated in shrines scattered throughout Japan in scenic locations where such gods are believed to dwell.

The typical mikoshi may weigh as much as a ton and is typically carried by a team of around 30-50 people who are specially trained in how to transport it. The bearers follow a traditionally prescribed choreography unique to their area, stopping at key points along the route, which in some cases includes entering a nearby body of water such as a river, lake or ocean. One or two scantily clad men often stand on the palanquin with the omikoshi shouting out instructions to the transporters below adding to the overall spectacle. A carving of a phoenix, as an ancient symbol of good fortune, hope and peace, usually occupies the top of a mikoshi. The heaviest omikoshi on record weighs 4.5 tons and requires a massive team of 300 people to carry it.

From the beginning of time, mankind has superstitiously sought the favor of gods through numerous means shaped by their varied perceptions of the gods they worship. A low or inaccurate understanding of God perceives Him as someone who can be bent to one’s will through prescribed acts or rituals in order to receive favor in the form of wealth, power, health, influence or progeny. Such gods often come in the form of idols constructed by men who then absurdly bow before these objects, pleading “Save me! You are my god!” (Isaiah 44:17) Such foolish thinking and actions are mocked repeatedly in Scripture and stand in contrast to the God who made the heavens and earth, who “does whatever pleases Him” (Psalm 115:3) and exists far beyond the attempted manipulations of men who strive to limit Him to their own advantage.

The wise men of the Babylonian court in Daniel’s era had a partially correct view of God (Daniel 2:11) as they perceived Him as beyond their control, but they erred in regarding God as disengaged from the activities of humans. In contrast to this, the entire Book of Daniel testifies of a transcendent but involved, all-powerful, all-knowing God who cannot be confined to a mikoshi and moved at a whim to incur blessing. This God dwells above the nations, all history and the universe itself, moving according to His counsel alone. This means that we are merely bystanders, and at best worshipers, but never transporters.

Presentation vs. Palate

“On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”  Matthew 23:28


The slice of cake carefully set before us by our kind hostess looked exquisite. It was decorated with luscious, flawless strawberries and topped with artfully applied whipped cream on a precisely cut piece of cake displayed on beautiful china. My wife and I felt like royalty as we gazed upon the delicacy offered for our consumption. “This is going to be amazing,” I thought to myself as I eagerly took my first bite. However, I soon discovered that the taste did not quite match the anticipation. While it was tasty, the edible artwork before me served as evidence that presentation often takes precedence over palate in Japan.

Food presentation, known as moritsuke (盛り付け) in Japanese, means literally “arrangement of food on a dish.” The objective is to engage the aesthetic senses of the diner and draw them in, much like someone admiring a work of art. In the Western world, this is often referred to as “plating,” where the symmetry of food on a plate is the primary focus in meal presentation. However, in Japan, moritsuke points to portions of a meal artfully placed in a variety of dishes and embellished with decorative garnishing. These presentations often have a seasonal theme and the decorations, known as mukimono, are typically intricate creations of flowers, animals, fish or dragons carved from various vegetables and fruits that are not necessarily intended to be eaten, but exist as one aspect of the overall culinary picture.

This emphasis on the appearance of food is most often evident in the display of sushi and sashimi in the more extravagant Japanese meals that serve to make one’s dining experience a memorable occasion. The Japanese language certainly has words to cover a whole range of tastes such as sweet (amai), spicy (karai), bitter (nigai), sour (suppai) and salty (shoppai), but the appearance of food is also an important element in food preparation. After a few months of living in Japan, we started to wonder how the vegetables and fruits for sale in the stores always seemed to be perfectly shaped and colored. This mystery was solved one day when we discovered a number of misshapen, but perfectly good potatoes being sold by a local farmer for a pittance of their normal value as they could not sell them in the open market. Appearance is valued in all stages of the food preparation process.

Focus on appearance is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, we routinely give a great deal of attention to image over substance in a number of areas. This focus on image can be seen in the clothing we wear, the manner in which we style our hair, the diets or exercise we endure to achieve a certain body shape, the material goods we accumulate or the manner in which we communicate. We want to look good in front of others and consequently, we devote a considerable amount of time, effort and resources to that end.

But how we appear before God, who sees beyond external trappings, should compel us to examine ourselves so that we might live lives guided by a higher standard, a heavenly standard. Jesus saved his harshest criticisms for the religious leaders because they valued rules over people, physical practices over spiritual presence and religion over relationship. He compared them to whitewashed tombs full of decay or dirty dishes that had only been cleaned on the outside. (Matthew 23) Hypocrisy may be rampant in the world around us, but heavenly moritsuke calls for aligning our lives with the heart of God who is not distracted or deceived by appearances. In the spiritual realm, presentation should never take precedence over palate.

Christmas Trees

“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.”  Galatians 6:10a

Christmas trees3

It was a bit of a challenge to procure our first Christmas tree in 1984 in Japan, but we had the opposite problem 27 years later when we almost had too many Christmas trees. Let me explain. Over the years, Christmas has steadily grown in popularity in Japan. Therefore, Christmas decorations, presents, and Christmas music have now become quite common, particularly in the more urban areas. But for many who lost everything in the 2011 tsunami, things looked pretty bleak as December 25th drew near. Most people in the area were unemployed and lived in temporary housing units with minimal possessions in very cramped quarters. Morale was understandably low, so the Japanese government decided to do something in an attempt to improve the situation. They provided Christmas trees. Literally dozens of Christmas trees were placed in each of the makeshift community rooms located among the many temporary dwelling sites scattered along the devastated coastline. While their intentions were good, this presented a problem. No one knew what to do with these trees. That is where we entered the picture.

Just a few months earlier, we had spearheaded a relief work along a significant stretch of the affected area but increasingly, we sensed God was calling us to limit our efforts to a particular location. But we wondered how we could possibly gain acceptance within this shattered community and earn their trust that would in turn, enhance our effectiveness. The unexpected solution… Christmas trees! The local governmental agency in charge of the area had heard of our work and knew we were Christians. Therefore, they asked if we would be willing to help with the decoration of these trees that were languishing unattended in all the community rooms. Recognizing an amazing provision by God, we leapt into action and along with many volunteers, initiated a frenzy of Christmas tree decoration activities.

We quickly put a serious dent in the local supplies of Christmas decorations from still-existing stores and immediately sent out a call for volunteers from across Japan to bring more when they came to help. We organized Christmas parties at each location and disaster victims eagerly embraced the opportunity to experience community again while decorating a tree. They chatted with neighbors while Christmas music played in the background and consumed the hundreds of Christmas cookies volunteers also brought with them. We distributed small gifts, played fun games, sang Christmas carols and hundreds heard the amazing story of God’s provision of a Savior for the very first time. Light entered into their darkness and it all began with a simple Christmas tree. Sometimes we did three to four parties a day racing from one location to another in what felt like an endless loop. But in the midst of our exhaustion we were awed and humbled to be part of these unexpected developments. It was a powerful lesson that the God who dramatically interjected Himself into history in a manger continues to intervene in human affairs through something as mundane as a Christmas tree. Each of those trees served as a vivid reminder that God loves people and cares passionately for the brokenness of our world.

Over the course of many months, we learned that the nature of relief work centers on opportunities to do good for people, which is actually a biblical command (Galatians 6:10). Good works come in many forms, almost always demanding some kind of sacrifice from us, but they all begin with an opportunity that is uniquely provided by God to accomplish His divine purposes. Our willingness to respond in faith and obedience is all He asks of us. He will provide the Christmas trees.

Haircut Time

“Even the very hairs on your head are numbered.”  Matthew 10:30


After being away a few years from our adopted home of Japan, I was very much looking forward to our recent visit. High on my priority list were of course spending time with friends and family, visiting a Japanese hot spring, eating all my favorite foods, riding on Japanese trains, taking trips to scenic locations and… getting a haircut. Despite our packed schedule, I was able to squeeze in an outing to the barber our second day back in Japan and again on the day of our departure. I settled into the barber chair, gave a few instructions and then proceeded to enjoy my much-anticipated experience. Wanting to maximize this unique opportunity, for a few hundred more yen, I even allowed myself the extra luxury of a shave.

The feathery touch of the barber seemed almost imperceptible to me as the quiet rhythmic snipping of his scissors, uninterrupted by mechanical devices, was like a sleep-inducing drug. I faintly recalled in my semi-comatose state that Japanese hairdressers pay exorbitant amounts of money for quality scissors made from the finest German or Japanese steel. Considering the cost, the scissors are regarded among their most prize possessions. Content to let me doze, the barber spoke only when necessary as he knows that I’m not there for just a haircut, but also to relax. In addition to cutting my hair, he silently moved on to removing other unwanted hair as part of the routine. Unibrows are divided into two equally matched eyebrows. Nose hairs are discreetly trimmed. Unsightly ear hairs are efficiently clipped into submission. Even one’s forehead is shaved as the barber leaves no stone unturned or any stray hair neglected in his never-ending quest for perfection.

The proprietor of the shop and chief barber was busy with another customer during my visit but he kept an eagle eye on his young apprentice attending me. Every few minutes the boss leaned in, inspected the ongoing masterpiece, and snipped a single hair as a subtle rebuke to the novice. All kinds of hair tonics, creams and gel were then offered to complete the experience. On occasion, concerned barbers in the past would kindly suggest a temporary remedy to help disguise my ever-growing bald spot. As I can’t see my own barren patch, I have little concern for this supposed flaw, but instead, I prepare to enjoy the climax of my Japanese haircut experience: a soothing scalp and shoulder massage. When money was tight, I sometimes frequented the much cheaper 10-minute express haircut establishments. Among other shortcuts, they literally vacuum the customer’s head at the end to save on time. But over the years, I learned to appreciate the traditional barber as one of life’s little luxuries.

When I eventually arose from the barber’s chair, I was surprised to notice the preponderance of gray hair scattered on the floor beneath me and the increasing scarcity of what was just removed. Both are a testimony of my advancing years, but the clumps of discarded hair also serve to remind me of the intricacies of God’s knowledge and amazing concern for me. (Matthew 10:30) The God of the universe, the Maker of Heaven and Earth (Psalm 121:2) who calls out each star by name (Isaiah 40:26) knows exactly how many hairs still remain on my head. Jesus used this powerful illustration to comfort his disciples when they were inclined to worry about circumstances beyond their control or things beyond their knowledge. He assured them, and us, that absolutely nothing escapes God’s notice and no one is beyond His care. He knows my hair and he knows my heart. The reminder of this precious truth was the best part of my haircut. 


you are clothed with splendor and majesty.” Psalm 104:1b


We hadn’t been in Japan long when I summoned up my courage and ventured forth to find a suitable birthday present for my wife. Shopping is not one of my favorite activities, but I was rather pleased with my eventual purchase: a stylish yukata. A yukata is an informal (and inexpensive) kimono, consisting of a single layer of cloth that is usually made from cotton. It is particularly popular among young women on festive occasions during the warmer months of the year. Being new to Japan, I thought a yukata would make an excellent gift for my wife, but we were both surprised when she opened her present. The item was advertised as a yukata, but closer inspection revealed that it was just a bolt of cloth.

A kimono (着物), which means literally a “thing to wear,” is a traditional Japanese wrap around, T-shaped garment with large, square sleeves. Kimonos have disappeared from everyday life in modern Japan, but they are still commonly worn at weddings, funerals, graduations and other formal occasions.  A broad sash, called an “obi,” holds the kimono together at the waist and it is further accessorized by special socks called “tabi” that are worn with “zori” sandals. Kimonos were originally introduced from China into Japan many centuries ago and since then have undergone various transformations to the present form. The formal versions are almost always made from silk and the more expensive kimonos may sell for more than US $50,000. While the usage of this traditional Japanese garment steadily declines, the expensive, colorful cloth of older kimonos is often repurposed for other fashion designs.

As I belatedly discovered at my wife’s birthday, kimonos are usually sold as a single bolt of cloth which is shaped, without cutting, and stitched together by an experienced seamstress to a desired size. In the past, when the garment became dirty, the stitches were removed to clean the kimono and then it would be sewn back together to its original shape or to another size. Patterns and styles of kimonos differ according to the age, gender and marital status of the wearer or the season of the year. Women’s kimonos come in a variety of styles, colors and decorations, whereas men’s kimonos are generally much more subdued, using darker colors with minimal patterns. Those who are inexperienced in wearing a formal kimono may pay a professional to help them correctly put the entire kimono ensemble in place. The left side of the kimono is always wrapped over the right side, except in the case of a funeral, where the deceased’s garment is wrapped right over left.

Appropriate clothing that reflects one’s particular status or a specific occasion is a common topic in the Scriptures. For example, the ornate clothing of royalty or the priesthood is sometimes described in great detail, but the same is true for the garments of the contrite or those in mourning who choose to wear sackcloth as an expression of their grief. The subject of clothing is also frequently used in a figurative sense to describe the majesty of God (Psalm 104:1b) or the spiritually impoverished state of man who is depicted as wearing “filthy rags” before a holy God. (Isaiah 64:6) Sometimes a double and deeper meaning is intended, such as in the case where God clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins following their disobedience (Genesis 3:21). This same God mercifully clothes us with His righteousness (Isaiah 61:10) through the death of His Son. Revelation 3:19 testifies that the people of God will one day be clothed in white but while we linger here on earth, we are exhorted to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:12b) This godly fashion will never go out of style.

When Yes Means No

“our message to you is not ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’” II Corinthians 1:18b

YesNo2Still a stranger to the unique ways of Japan, I visited the largest ski shop in Sapporo, completely unaware of the rabbit hole I was about to enter. It all began with a simple question: “Do you have any men’s ski boots in size 29 centimeters under ¥20,000?” (around $200) Much to my surprise and satisfaction, the salesman immediately replied “hai,” which I understood to mean, “yes.” I was then instructed to sit down while he disappeared in the back to retrieve the boots.

A few minutes later the salesman emerged triumphantly bearing a nice pair of men’s boots in the correct size, so I started to quietly congratulate myself on my successful shopping foray. But my premature celebration came to a screeching halt when I noticed the price tag dangling from one of the boots: ¥85,000! After catching my breath, I reminded the salesman of my meager ¥20,000 budget. Seemingly nonplussed by my intransigence, he proudly told me that they were willing to make the boots available at a special price of only ¥70,000. After a few more enquiries and direct negotiation with the manager, I soon learned that this was the ONLY pair of men’s ski boots the store had in my size. I was now trapped in a quasi life and death struggle as the bargaining continued. The price soon dropped to ¥60,000, and then ¥50,000 as I kept politely insisting that I only had ¥20,000 for the purchase. The store personnel probably thought this was a clever bargaining ploy on my part and didn’t fully grasp that I actually had only ¥20,000 for the purchase. By now I was just looking for an avenue to escape my predicament as all the salesmen repeatedly huddled together to discuss their strategy. Approximately one hour later and exhausted by the experience, I eventually walked out the front door with my new pair of ski boots purchased for only ¥20,000. I was completely befuddled as to what had transpired inside.

First of all, hai can simply mean “I hear you,” or “I acknowledge what you said.” So, the salesman never actually promised that the store had what I was looking for at the price I had requested. Secondly, to complicate things even further, it is considered impolite to tell a customer “no,” implying that they can’t help you. Unknown to me, I had unwittingly placed the store management in an awkward position of being unable to refuse my request. Upon further reflection, I think we all learned something that day as I was possibly the first foreigner to ever shop at their store. As the years went by, I continued to use those boots, which served as a reminder that “yes” can sometimes mean “no” and that I had much to learn about communication in Japan.

I seriously doubt that the Apostle Paul ever tried to purchase ski boots and was faced with a similar quandary, but he was charged on one occasion of inconsistency in his messaging. It appeared that his “yes” and “no” were in contradiction with one another as Paul had previously stated his intention to visit the Corinthian church on his way to Macedonia (II Corinthians 1). However, for reasons not stated, Paul was forced to cancel those plans which led to unfair criticisms of his character. After rebuffing these somewhat trivial arguments in his letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul used this theme to emphasize the surety of the promises of God in Christ. “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.” (v.20) This is a great reminder that there can be confusion among people in communication, and there may even be confusion regarding one’s character, but God’s message and His plan of redemption through His Son are unequivocally clear. God’s “yes” in Christ is an eternal game changer for all who believe.

Leading Meetings

Moses’ father-in-law replied, ‘What you are doing is not good.” Exodus 18:17

Leading meetings

As I surveyed the blank faces of the people assembled around the room for a church meeting, I wondered how to proceed. It was challenging enough leading a meeting in a language not my own, but it was also evident that the rules of engagement within a Japanese context were very different. Obviously, I would need to employ a different leadership style that did not come natural to me. Moments earlier, in what now seemed like an eternity, I had presented a topic, asked some questions, and then waited for a robust discussion that was apparently not forthcoming.

In retrospect, after many years of experience, I can more readily identify the different dynamics that typically characterize a Japanese meeting. I’ve also come to understand that the bedrock value that seems to drive many of the distinctives of such meetings in Japan is the primary objective of striving to achieve a clear consensus among all the participants. With this in mind, it is helpful to remember that people are often reluctant to express individual opinions that might interfere with the unstated, but overarching goal of unity. Therefore, the leader must be careful not to unnecessarily single out people and put them in an awkward position while encouraging them to voice their opinions. Meetings also tend to be rather lengthy in Japan because it often takes an inordinate amount of time to arrive at a consensus and ensure that everyone is in agreement. To facilitate this process, the leader must be careful not to interject their opinion inappropriately or prematurely, but instead, allow sufficient time for diverse views to emerge among even the most reluctant participants. The leader’s wife or husband must also exercise restraint in the same manner as their opinion is considered inseparable from their spouse’s and could carry a disproportionate amount of weight in the discussion.

Ambiguity, which is a commonly used pattern in Japanese conversation, makes communication even more complicated in a group setting, particularly if the leader is not a native speaker. Of course, copious minutes that capture the details of each meeting must be duly taken and preserved as an integral element to this whole process. Through trial and error, I also learned that the most essential factor towards a successful outcome in any given meeting is probably the concept of nemawashi (根回し), which means literally “going around the roots.” This refers to the process of transplanting a tree where one must carefully dig around the roots to enhance sustained growth once it has been relocated. Sometimes nemawashi is loosely translated as “laying the groundwork.” When the concept is applied to meetings, it means that the leader will discretely talk to influential people on the committee prior to meeting for the express purpose of gathering their support and feedback.

Effective and godly leadership in any cultural situation can be difficult to define and even harder to implement. In the Old Testament, Moses struggled with this objective. Some helpful advice from his father-in-law (Jethro) to compensate for his limitations as a leader is recorded for our benefit in Exodus 18:13-26. But the Scriptures are full of examples of leaders who did not lead well and the one fault they all have in common is their failure to purposefully lean into the wisdom of God. Skillful leadership certainly requires sensitivity to the nuances of the culture in which it is exercised, but a godly leader never forgets that “every decision is from the Lord.” (Proverbs 16:33b) As we are called into leadership roles, we must constantly seek to allow God the freedom to do the work of nemawashi on our heart before we attempt to lead others.