Yellow Tiles

“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.”  Isaiah 42:16a

Yellow Tiles

New visitors to Japan are initially puzzled by the bright yellow lines of tile that often line certain streets and intersections. They are even more common near train and bus stations. These lines are technically known as “tactile ground surface indicators” (TGSI); in layman’s terms, they serve as a hazard guide for the visually impaired.  These special tiles are designed to be used by blind people as a means to navigate crowded public places by feeling the texture of the tiles with the help of a cane or through the soles of their shoes.  Differences in the tiles help to indicate directions and potential hazards.  The bright yellow color also serves as a useful reminder to others to be considerate of those who may be visually handicapped.

A closer examination of the tiles reveals that there are two major varieties. One has straight raised lines and the other type has raised circular bumps. Tiles with straight lines indicate it is safe to proceed forward in the direction of the lines. However, when one encounters tiles with bumps, it is a warning to stop or to proceed with caution. Some form of obstruction or potential danger like an intersection, stairs or a train platform edge typically lies beyond this type of tiles. In addition to the yellow tiles, many intersections in Japan play set songs or sounds to indicate which direction is safe for crossing. Braille signage is also quite common for the visually impaired.

When one observes these tiles, it is only natural to recall the classic movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” where Dorothy and her traveling companions are instructed to follow the yellow brick road to reach the Emerald City, where all their problems will be resolved. While none of those famous characters were visually impaired, the purpose of the yellow bricks was the same as Japan’s yellow tiles… to help travelers arrive at their intended destination without incident.

Most of us do not need yellow tiles to aid us in our daily travels, but in a spiritual sense, we are all visually impaired. It is certainly a good thing to be aware of the physical handicaps of others and take measures to assist them, but more importantly, we must acknowledge our own blindness to the things of God that can potentially lead us down paths of destruction. From the Bible, we know that the nation of Israel had turned its back on God and in its blindness, fell into sinful thinking and behavior that invited the wrath of God. But thankfully, God also cares for the spiritually impaired and took extreme measures to assist them… He sent His Only Son Jesus, to die on a cross, in order to save them and us from eternal destruction. In this manner God “will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths…” (Isaiah 42:16a). God Himself became our “yellow brick road” to deliver us from harm. An eternal city awaits those who travel upon it.

Hikikomori

He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge;”             Psalm 91:4a

Hikikomori

Ichiro Takahashi* has not gone to school, held a job, met a stranger or left his house for over three years. He is one of a growing segment of modern day hermits known in Japan as “hikikomori.” This unusual phenomenon was first identified by Dr. Tamaki Saito in the 1990s when a number of parents whose children had dropped out of school and had gradually withdrawn from the world, sought his professional help. Observing this pattern, Dr. Saito coined the term “hikikomori” (引きこもり) to describe these individuals, which means literally, “pulling inward.”

Recent surveys of the Japanese population estimate that over half a million people can be classified as hikikomori, with the vast majority of them male and their average age is 31. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry now defines hikikomori as an individual who has remained isolated at home for at least six consecutive months without going to school or work and rarely interacts with people outside of their immediate family. Sociologists and psychologists point to a number of contributing factors that lead people to this withdrawn lifestyle. For some, it is the pressure to perform in school; for others, the demand to conform to various societal expectations. Overprotective parenting, particularly by the mother, often compounds the problem and serves to facilitate such behavior. An academic or social failure may be the initial trigger that causes many hikikomori to stray from conventional social circles. They then find it difficult to return to the path of normal life interactions. Many of these self-imposed isolationists may suffer from anxiety, depression, internet addiction or exhibit OCD tendencies that further complicate efforts to assist them.

Concerned about this growing trend, the Japanese government is taking measures to identify the scope of the problem and provide effective solutions. However, reversing such a widespread and deeply complicated sociological shift is proving to be no easy matter. With a steadily declining population, and fewer and fewer able bodies available for the work force, Japan desperately needs young men like Ichiro Takahashi to reengage with life and become contributing members of society. Research also reveals that there are countless more individuals who are not identified as true hikikomori, but are barely coping with routine social demands and are thus described as “functional” hikikomori.

The hikikomori phenomenon is now extending beyond Japan to other countries and is manifesting itself in an array of behavioral patterns rooted in a variety of coping mechanisms. In many ways, the hikikomori represent the extreme end of a social spectrum where we all reside, but in varying increments. All of us are looking for security and safety in some form in a world where the rules are constantly changing and we feel like victims to things beyond our control. Most of us press on in life, despite these threats that can potentially unsettle us, but our conformity to normalcy doesn’t eradicate our longing for sanctuary in the midst of pain and chaos. Therefore, it is essential to recall that God does offer refuge to anyone who turns to Him, like the beautiful analogy where a mother hen shelters her chicks under her wings. While our natural response to the difficulties in life may be to “pull inward” like the hikikomori, we are invited to lean into God. There is no safer place.

*Fictitious name

Karaoke

“But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy.”  Psalm 5:11a

Karaoke

The distinguished members of the local Japanese Rotary Club had just finished their sumptuous meal which would shortly be followed by a mild case of indigestion. The source of their discomfort that evening was not what they ate, but was actually on stage holding a microphone doing a poor Elvis impersonation. The culprit was me, and that was my introduction to karaoke. As the token foreign guest for the occasion, I was obliged to “honor” the assembled members with a song. In a state of sheer terror, I chose to sing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” by the King of Rock himself, since it was the only song in English on the provided playlist. As an impromptu romantic gesture, I also dedicated the song to my lovely wife, who, understandably, was desperately looking for a place to hide!

Karaoke (カラオケ) is now a world-wide phenomenon, and the correct pronunciation is not “keh-ree-oh-kee,” as it is widely used in the West, but is instead, “kah-rah-oh-keh.” Karaoke is actually a blend of two words — kara (meaning “empty”) and oke (which is an abbreviation for “orchestra”). Taken together, karaoke means literally “empty orchestra,” or music that is missing the lead melody and vocals. That melody is provided by an amateur vocalist who sings along with a microphone to the recorded instrumental music following the lyrics provided on a video screen.

Daisuke Inoue, a Japanese musician, is generally credited with inventing karaoke in 1971 when he developed the equipment that helped launch its huge popularity. As a result, venues advertising “karaoke boxes” are now quite common throughout Japan. These are basically soundproofed private rooms rented by the hour that come equipped with karaoke machines, comfortable lounge furniture and refreshments available to order.

For many Japanese, karaoke is a great means to relief stress and enjoy relatively inexpensive fun with friends. We witnessed the unusual power of karaoke years later while doing relief work. We had gathered a number of people displaced by the huge tsunami that struck portions of Japan and facilitated an event centered on karaoke. Not wanting to destroy the ambiance of another public gathering with my vocal skills, I gladly refrained from joining the many performers. Instead, my wife and I enjoyed our front row seats to a magical evening of observing those who had lost so much, coming together as a community for a few moments of frivolity and much needed healing.

That event was a vivid reminder that we are designed by our Creator to sing. Music offers a unique opportunity to express deep feelings and thoughts that, in turn, can bring joy and healing to the participant. Heaven is described as a place where music abounds, but the focal point there is on God Himself as everyone offers up praise to Him. While our participation in such heavenly choirs still awaits us, we are encouraged to recall the greatness, mercies and deeds of God and express them in song while we linger here on earth. Instruments and skilled musicians can certainly help facilitate such singing, much like a karaoke machine, but the joy such music brings comes not through our expertise, but from a thankful heart. The Bible calls this worship and this is the kind of singing that brings delight to God (John 4:21-24).

God Spoke

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”  Hebrews 1:1-2a

Emperor Hirohito

On Aug. 15, 1945 a “god” spoke. When Emperor Hirohito of Japan directly addressed his subjects for the very first time, life came to a temporary standstill around the world. Hirohito’s announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender not only ended a war and brought peace, it ended the myth that the emperor of Japan was divine. He spoke and the world changed.

Because of this historical event, much changed in Japan as well. A new constitution was adopted and war was renounced. Democratic ideas took root in Japan and the emperor was reduced to a figurehead.  Japanese industries flourished and a new middle class rapidly emerged, resulting in a booming economy. The phrase “Made in Japan” stamped on manufactured goods was no longer derided as symbol of cheapness or inferiority, but esteemed as a mark of quality and success. Expensive vacations, quality education, designer clothes and the latest electronic gadgets could be purchased by the masses and it seemed the lone threat to a peaceful, prosperous society was the legendary Godzilla!

Certainly much changed after the emperor spoke, but in some regards nothing changed. The gods of war had only been replaced by the gods of materialism. At the same time, the traditional gods of Japan were still venerated through worship at Shinto god shelves or Buddhist altars in homes throughout the country. Japanese still made periodic pilgrimages to the local shrines or temples for various life events and relied on good luck charms for success and protection. An occasional church could be found in obscure corners of Japan, but temples and shrines remained the symbol of the country and retain a strong grip on Japanese hearts. Everything has changed and yet nothing has changed.

However, according to the Book of Genesis, everything changed when the God of the Universe spoke and the world as we know it came into being. The sun, moon, stars, oceans, dry land, vegetation, life and mankind itself were created by the mere voice and directive of God. But God didn’t stop there. He continued to speak to the hearts of men, as the author of Hebrews explains, calling them to repentance and into a relationship with Himself. This God who speaks ultimately provided eternal reconciliation to mankind, not through superior weapons of war and powerful armies, but through the death of His Son. This ultimate act of love and sacrifice brought eternal change to the world. Through the cross, God offered peace, not just between men, but more importantly, between God and man. The Living God has spoken, and hopefully, people in Japan and around the world will listen.

Traffic Mirrors

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

Curved Mirror

The urban sprawl of Tokyo has grown slowly over the centuries on top of an ancient network of roads, hilly terrain and even encompasses over a hundred river and canal arteries. Many of Tokyo’s streets were originally little more than footpaths and presently bear more resemblance to a wide sidewalk or an alley rather than a conventional thoroughfare. These minor roads snake through residential areas and many of them are reduced to a single lane, allowing passage for only one car at a time. On top of this, they are generally fraught with numerous curves, severely limiting vision of what lies ahead. This makes navigation quite challenging and even dangerous at times as drivers can’t anticipate oncoming cars, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Because of these difficult conditions, Japanese traffic engineers have developed and implemented an ingenious, yet simple device to help facilitate safety. It is called a “kābu mirā “(カーブミラー), which is basically a large convex (curved) mirror mounted at the top of a pole. These special mirrors enable drivers to literally see around the blind corner or sharp bends in the road to determine if it is safe to proceed. We relied on these mirrors daily when bicycling or driving to the office from our home and I’m sure they prevented countless accidents for us and many others.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of such mirrors to help us navigate the inevitable unknowns of life. There are no kābu mirā that reveal the coming of major health problems, employment setbacks, relationship breakdowns, financial challenges or natural disasters such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, our lives often seem to be unpredictable, chaotic and without purpose as we feel victimized by one crisis after another.

But this is not what the Bible teaches. The God who created life is depicted time and time again as the same God who knows, sustains and directs our lives and the affairs of this world (Psalm 139:1-18). God reassures His own people of this truth while they were living in exile in a foreign land as a result of their disobedience. “’For I know the plans I have for you. ‘declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”  This verse is not a promise that all their problems will immediately disappear, but rather, an offering of hope in the midst of despair. That hope is not placed in the possibility of coveted changed circumstances, but instead, in the very person of God. A God who loves us. A God who will do what is best for us. A God who reigns above the forces of evil and calamities that sometimes seem to dominate this world.

God has a plan for the nations and He has a plan for us. That plan is good. But saints of old were only provided glimpses and hints of how those plans would unfold. Like us, they could not see beyond the curve in the road, so they just continued to drive forward in faith. Fears of turmoil, dire consequences and impending economic collapse currently dominate the news cycles and social media, but as people of faith, our well-being and future are not dependent on the affairs of this world. Therefore, we would do well to emulate the Psalmist and pray in this way: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24) If God is visible in your kābu mirā, that is all you need.

Unseen Danger

“For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world,”                                      Ephesians 6:12a (NLT)

radiation monitor

A shroud of silence hung eerily over deserted streets, homes, businesses, schoolyards and other public places that once bustled with activity. Outside of a few lonely security guards wearing protective clothing, there were no normal signs of life. No people, no pets, no stirring. Wherever we looked, nature appeared to be taking over each vacant town as greenery and wildlife seemed to be flourishing unchecked by human interference. It was as if all human life had been squeezed out of the area by an invisible, deadly force. Temporary gates now barred entrances to every street and driveway.

Entering the vicinity, we passed massive dumps filled with radioactive waste and radiation monitors posted along the road flashed cryptic numbers warning us of unseen dangers. We were driving through the Fukushima radiation exclusion zone that had once been the thriving home of 150,000 inhabitants. They had been suddenly forced to flee following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 and the resultant tsunami that compromised the local nuclear plants.

The radiation exclusion zone was initially off limits to everyone, but several years later, it was now possible to drive through portions of the formerly forbidden region. With the passing of additional time, residents were eventually allowed to return to designated areas that were declared safe for human habitation. As part of a massive decontamination effort, a literal army of government workers had laboriously scrubbed down the more effected areas of those previously deserted towns and even removed thousands of tons of radioactive topsoil and vegetation. The nuclear reactors were also decommissioned and together, the resultant cleanup attempts had served to lower some of the radiation markers. However, despite these large scale endeavors, the majority of the local residents were understandably hesitant to return to their homes and businesses. To lure them back, the government had rebuilt or reopened schools, shopping areas, sports centers, hospitals, housing complexes and offered additional financial incentives. But the scars on both the land and in people’s hearts still stubbornly remained; such wounds will likely take decades to fully heal.

Now, around the world and a couple of years later, silent city streets, daily news postings of COVID-19 related deaths and accompanying fears have an uncanny similarity to that unique experience in Fukushima. Interestingly enough, on that day when we drove through those modern Japanese ghost towns, my thoughts were drawn to other unseen dangers besides the flashing numbers on the radiation monitors. Since we live in a physical world, it is natural to become preoccupied with matters of physical safety. However, the Apostle Paul warned the Ephesian Christians (Ephesians 6:12) that ever present dangers of a different nature were potentially far more lethal. These dangers are the radioactive seeds of pride, selfishness, anger, apathy, strife, slander, lust and greed that are sown unseen by the Evil One himself, silently destroying healthy lives and communities. This form of pandemic can be far more destructive than any physical terror we might have to face in the present or in days to come. Fortunately, God has graciously provided His Word, His Spirit and His people to serve as warning monitors to assist us as we travel through life facing seen and unseen perils. Our safety and well-being are, thankfully, in His hands, but we must give heed to the warnings posted for our protection.

Shinto Blessings

“From the Lord comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people.”  Psalm 3:8

shinto blessing2

While sitting in the office of the local Shinto priest, my gaze fixed upon a placard on the wall which advertised (in Japanese) set charges for services rendered:

  • ¥10,000 for a car blessing
  • ¥5,000 for a school entrance exam blessing
  • ¥10,000 for a baby blessing
  • ¥15,000 for a new home blessing
  • ¥10,000 for a marriage blessing

The whole concept stunned me on many levels and several questions came to mind as I chatted with my gracious host in a very unfamiliar setting. “How can mere mortal men place themselves in the position of dispensing blessings on behalf of the gods?” was something I asked myself. I did my best to politely nibble around the edges of this concept as I conversed with the Shinto priest. He explained, according to the Shinto religion, that nearly all objects, including both animate and inanimate, possess a spiritual essence known as kami (神). These kami are everywhere, but they are not regarded as omnipotent, omniscient, or even immortal. The term “Shinto” (神道) means literally “way of the kami” and they reportedly number over eight million. These spirits are duly venerated across Japan at various public shrines and private god shelves. It is believed by many adherents that kami have the power to dispense blessing on their devotees through rituals, good luck charms and designated intermediaries such as the priests.

As I sat in the office of the local priest, other questions continued to fill my mind such as: “How can one charge money for a blessing?” From my perspective, such a practice seemed to reduce religion to a mere business transaction. This thought led naturally to another related question, which was, “Why would people actually participate in such obvious duplicity?” Perhaps the explanation to this conundrum resides in the standard practice of Shinto religious ceremonial procedures, where devotees have a sense that they cannot approach the kami with a request without some form of ritual purification to remedy their unclean state. This rite of purification is called harae (祓) and it usually begins with a symbolic washing using water near the shrine entrance. The next phase in absolution is conveniently performed by the priest (for a fee!), who rhythmically waves a large paper shaker called an ōnusa (also referred to as a haraegushi) over the object or person to be purified and blessed. Only after these procedures are performed can one approach the kami and hope to have their request granted.

Lying at the heart of the many intricate rituals of Shintoism is the basic human desire to be blessed by something or someone greater than one’s self. We want a healthy baby, success on a test, protection from infectious diseases, safety on the road, a good paying job, and a happy marriage, but such objectives often elude us because they lie beyond our control. Therefore, we are tempted to turn to a higher power to obtain them. Fortunately for us, there is a Higher Power who graciously dispenses such blessings on His people (Psalm 3:8) despite our unclean condition. We are beckoned to approach this God to request such favors, not because of our worthiness or the intercession of others, but because of the forgiveness provided through the cross by His Only Son. No fee is charged; God has paid it all. A few years later, this same priest reached the same conclusion and turned to Jesus for eternal absolution.