Passing Zones

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”   Psalm 133:1

Magokoro Zone 2

One of the various adjustments required of us in relocating to the Greater Tokyo area was getting used to the narrowness of many roads. Some streets appear to be little more than wide sidewalks, but they are actually intended to accommodate two-way traffic, which seems almost impossible. Driving on these extremely narrow thoroughfares requires a considerable amount of patience, anticipation and a willingness to yield to oncoming cars or gridlock will immediately occur. We’ve experienced such an impasse a few times where an impatient driver barges ahead and brings everything to a standstill with cars unable to move forward or backward. Such incidents can prove to be extremely frustrating.

To help prevent this from happening, we observed in our community the strategic placement of “magokoro” zones (まごころ/真心) to facilitate two-way traffic in some of the more challenging locations. Translated literally, this means “true heart,” which seems like an odd name for a road alteration designed to improve traffic flow. These zones encompass a short length of roadway (approximately 20 feet), creating a wider area enabling two cars to pass one another. Apparently, these are places where “hearts” figuratively come together as we all seek cooperation with the common goal to keep traffic moving. 

We had previously encountered a similar problem in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. During long, snowy winters, wide streets are often reduced to a single lane as massive walls of snow created by snowplows steadily encroach upon large portions of the roadway. Enormous snow removal machines would periodically reclaim this lost road space, but until then, drivers were forced to anticipate oncoming traffic and pull over into side streets so they could pass each other. This predicament requires the constant exercise of courtesy and cooperation so traffic can keep flowing, enabling everyone to arrive safely at their intended destination.

When one pauses to survey the current political, social and cultural landscape of America and in other places in the world, it is obvious that the “traffic” is not flowing smoothly. Varying perspectives, opinions and values now deeply divide a nation historically comprised of many diverse factions, bringing things to a standstill. Like angry drivers creating a bottleneck through their own inconsiderate actions, many are unwilling to yield to others on the road, such that no one can move forward. Government services are disrupted, judicial systems are overwhelmed, personal freedoms are restricted, economic structures fail to meet demands and in worst-case scenarios, destructive riots occur. Because there is no meeting of hearts, everyone loses. These bottlenecks now routinely dominate our daily news cycles, creating an ever-increasing atmosphere of fear, mistrust, anger, vilification of those holding differing opinions and even violence. Under such adverse conditions, we cannot move forward as a nation.

However, the people of God are to be guided by a different set of principles that have the power to break such bottlenecks. We are not to be driven by selfish motives or ambitions, but rather, we are called to unity. Unity, even in the most optimal circumstances, is not an easily achieved goal, which is why the psalmist marvels when he observes it in action (Psalm 133:1). The combining of hearts to attain such unity can only occur when one’s heart belongs to God and pursues His rules for the road. That is the magokoro zone where true peace can be found.

Persecution

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”      Matthew 5:10

Persecution

Protestant Christianity came to Japan in 1859, but Catholic missionaries arrived approximately three hundred years earlier, making a significant impact.* Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was a Jesuit priest who is historically credited for introducing Christianity to Japan and he was followed by many other Catholic priests and monks. These early missionaries encountered an initial measure of success as they baptized over 100,000 converts, including a number of local feudal lords. This new religious movement was initially unopposed by the ruling Shogunate, but the Japanese leaders eventually became suspicious of the outsiders who represented countries intent on expanding their colonial empires. Fearing a loss of power, the Japanese rulers proceeded to launch a ruthless persecution of Christianity and its followers.

To aid them in this endeavor, these Japanese despots developed an effective method called “fumie” (踏み絵), to help identify adherents to the new religion.  Fumie means literally “to stamp or trample on an image,” referring to a religious icon usually bearing a likeness of Jesus or Mary. Utilizing this devious scheme, suspected Christians (Kirishitan) were rounded up in each village and forced one by one to trample on the venerated image placed before them. If they refused to do so, the Kirishitans were turned over to the professional torturers to either recant or die for their faith. The commonly used methods of torment included immersing victims in scalding hot springs, burning some Kirishitans alive, hanging others upside down over pits full of excrement or attaching some to crosses in the ocean where they were slowly drowned by the incoming tide. Government authorities were so zealous in their persecution efforts that they continued the practice of fumie for several years, even to the fourth generation in their attempt to completely stamp out any remnants of Christianity in Japan.

Many believers understandably went underground with their faith and religious practices and were soon referred to as “Kakure Kirishitans” (隠れキリシタン) meaning, “hidden Christians.” In subsequent decades and even centuries to come, the Kakure Kirishitans continued to secretly gather for worship, using prayers modified to sound like Buddhist chants and retained portions of the Bible through oral transmission. The famous Japanese author, Shūsaku Endo, creatively captured the events of this dark period in Japanese history through his novel “Silence,” which was recently brought to life as a major motion picture by the same name.  Viewer discretion is advised for the following clips from the movie:

A Jesuit priest recants his faith: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOX8-c-_uVY

Martyrdom through drowning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uhqa8KylUM8

On a hill in Nagasaki now stands the Church of the 26 Martyrs, which was erected in 1962 to commemorate the lives of 26 Christians who were executed on that exact site on February 5, 1597. It stands as a solemn reminder that those who identify with Christ and take up their own cross to follow Him are not exempt from persecution. Like the early Japanese martyrs who forfeited their own lives by living for the kingdom of God, we are called to pursue righteousness and godliness, while living among the kingdoms of this earth. We must resist all evil influences that would sway us to trample on the things of God.

*There is some evidence that Christianity was actually introduced to Japan almost 1,800 years ago through early Nestorian missionaries, but failed to achieve a significant foothold in the country.

Mt. Fuji

“Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Psalm 90:2

Mt Fuji

The picturesque Mt. Fuji towers above the surrounding landscape in Japan and as such, has historically been a favorite subject for Japanese arts, ranging from paintings to poetry and, more recently, to photography. Mt. Fuji, known as “Fujisan” (富士山) in Japanese, is the tallest mountain in Japan, standing at 3,776 meters in height (12,389 ft.). Its volcanic crater measures 780 meters (2,560 ft.) wide with a depth of 240 meters (790 ft.). Its last eruption was in 1708 and on clear days, Mt. Fuji is visible over 60 miles away to the inhabitants of Tokyo who will often stop whatever they are doing, just to admire the iconic shape silhouetted on the horizon.

Since Mt. Fuji is located near a huge population base (over 40 million people) and poses such a dramatic presence in the changing seasons, it is indisputably the most photographed mountain in the world, even though it is relatively diminutive in size when compared to other famous mountains. Pictures of the world-renowned volcanic cone are often artistically framed by cherry blossoms, unique cloud formations, rice fields ready for harvest, snow-laden trees, local wildlife or autumn colors to heighten its majestic beauty. Over 300,000 people annually ascend Mt. Fuji during its short climbing season from early July to mid-September, utilizing five well-worn trails. The popular Japanese custom for climbing the mountain is to arrive at the summit before daybreak in order to witness a breathtaking sunrise over the surrounding countryside with a seemingly unlimited view. A trail of lights from hikers making their way up the trail at night is often visible from miles away, which adds another element of mystique to the iconic mountain. However, many will be disappointed as clouds frequently shroud the peak, impeding views of the scenery beneath them. The entirety of Mt. Fuji is often obscured as well to observers below by the same clouds, making its majestic appearances an even more welcome sight.

Mt. Fuji is the subject of many Japanese proverbs and one that is frequently quoted goes, “He who doesn’t climb Mt. Fuji once is a fool; he who climbs twice is a fool.”  (富士山に一度も登らぬバカ、二度登るバカ) Although I have done many foolish things in my past, my personal conquest of Mt. Fuji was a one-time event that I don’t care to repeat. However, I will never forget that otherworldly experience when I reached the pinnacle and enjoyed the awe-inspiring panorama below.

Mountains have a way of making us feel small as we look up at them and when we have opportunity to scale their summits, they provide a perspective of the world that we normally lack. Mt. Fuji is no exception to this pattern and its geographical separateness from other mountains tends to heighten this effect. In our earthbound existence, there is nothing larger than a mountain, so it is quite natural for our thoughts to transition to things greater than ourselves as we turn our gaze upwards. Our feelings of smallness and insignificance in light of such lofty views should turn our hearts towards God as they silently, yet powerfully testify of God’s immeasurable greatness and eternal existence. He who contemplates such matters is no fool.

Protocol Priorities

“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”        Hebrews 4:16

sports day2

We felt like royalty as we entered the large Japanese department store. All the staff and salespeople were formally lined up on both sides of the aisle, bowing low to welcome us. The store had just opened for the day, but it was standard protocol to greet the initial customers, even though we were accompanied by a dozen hyper children who seemed oblivious to the expected decorum. This experience was just one of many reminders that Japan is a country built upon proper protocol for various situations and everyone is expected to know and abide by these set guidelines to ensure a well-ordered society.

School graduations, admission ceremonies and sports days, in addition to funerals, weddings and company entrance events, are among the most common social occasions that have established procedures which everyone must dutifully follow. Underlying all of these activities are a multitude of other traditional protocols or values that facilitate smooth programs, constructive relationships and desired outcomes. Such protocols would include: being on time, extensive practice, multiple preparatory meetings, a flawlessly scripted schedule, a well-thought out seating plan, trained volunteers and recognition of all attending dignitaries. Of course, all participants would be appropriately attired and use honorific language befitting their social position. These values and expectations spill over into countless other daily routines that make Japan appear at times as one great well-oiled machine that always performs at peak efficiency.

This rigid adherence to proper protocol was once put to the test many years ago by an acquaintance at a local McDonald’s. It is customary for all McDonald’s employees working at the front of the premises to welcome every customer with a deep bow and extend a greeting of “irasshimase,” meaning, “welcome.” On this particular day, my somewhat mischievous colleague impetuously decided to exit the restaurant and immediately enter again. As expected, he received the same attention as if he had entered for the first time. Continuing with his somewhat rude social experiment, he exited and returned again, receiving the same treatment from the conscientious McDonald employees. After repeating this cycle several times, he finally gave up, realizing these meticulously trained workers could not depart from their established protocols for corporate behavior. These and other similar protocols are part of the unique underpinnings that hold Japanese society together.

In stark contrast, America can be generally regarded as a land of spontaneity and freedom where protocols can be much more easily dismissed or adapted to fit a particular situation. Perhaps because of this, the incredible significance of the invitation to approach the very throne of God (Hebrews 4:16) can be lost on a society where inviolable protocol is a lesser value. We are totally unqualified and unworthy to appear before an Almighty, Most Holy God, but the invitation is genuine and we are welcome not because of our position, but because of His grace. God’s protocol demands that we enter by means of the cross, where mercy replaces judgment and we are amazingly received as sons and daughters.

Getting it Right

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”            Matthew 5:48

Getting it Right4

The ringing doorbell surprised us as we were guests at a vacation home and there was a horrific blizzard howling outside. “Who could it be?” we wondered and opened the door to be greeted by a local postal worker covered in snow bowing in apology. Through his shivering explanation, we learned that the local post office had mistakenly overcharged us 30 yen (23¢) for a letter we mailed the day before. He asked us to accept their sincere apology for the error and dutifully handed over the money with additional bows. Thoroughly impressed, but slightly amused, we assured the conscientious civil servant that all was forgiven and that we were satisfied with the outcome. He then bowed several more times, before turning to trudge back to the post office in knee-deep snow. That little snapshot from our past serves to capture the Japanese value of getting it right.

Perhaps this tendency is best summed up in the Japanese word “kaizen” (改善), which combines the two concepts of “change” (kai) and “good” (zen). Taken together, the equivalent translation comes out as “change for the better,” or “continuous improvement.” The application of kaizen then becomes an ongoing attempt to eliminate defects in a product or to improve a process with the ultimate goal to achieve better results. This requires an extreme attention to details, which can easily morph into a form of perfectionism in a ceaseless attempt to get it right. This approach can be seen on many levels within Japan, such as in the areas of food preparation, manufacturing, athletics, Japanese arts and transportation. Toyota has actually adopted the concept of kaizen as one of its core values, where all its employees are encouraged to constantly look for ways to improve their operations and products, which accounts for the company’s sterling reputation.

The extra effort it takes to build dependable cars, produce aesthetic masterpieces, achieve athletic success, or attain scholastic recognition is a highly commendable trait that generally produces good results. This is the primary reason why we personally purchase Japanese made vehicles. We want quality and dependability in a car that a commitment to kaizen principles is more likely to produce.

While such a lofty standard is understandably desired for inanimate objects and procedures, it is totally unrealistic when applied to human beings, including myself. Perfection is a worthy goal to aim for, but it remains forever out of reach no matter how hard we strive to attain it. Jesus taught His followers a new standard in His famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where He set the bar of God’s righteousness or perfection much higher than they previously imagined. This standard is what we are challenged to aim for, but no amount of commitment to kaizen can possibly take us there. We cannot “be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt.5:48), but there is One who was “once made perfect, and became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). That is Jesus. Because of Jesus’ perfect goodness (zen), we can be eternally changed (kai) and that is a kaizen work that only God can achieve, not through our efforts, but by His grace.

Sharp Swords

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Hebrews 4:12

katana2

As I stared at the beautifully crafted Japanese sword on display in the castle, I wondered about its history and the craftsmanship required to produce such a formidable weapon. A katana (刀) is the most well-known among Japanese swords as it was traditionally carried by samurai. A well-trained swordsmith may labor over a year to produce a single exquisite blade that can sell for over $25,000 to enthusiastic collectors in today’s market. Several craftsmen are typically involved in the process of creating a katana, including a metal worker, a polisher, a sharpener and other specialists to create the hilt, hand guard and sword sheath. The production of a typical Japanese katana was considered a sacred art with accompanying Shinto rituals. The bearer of the sword generally regarded it not just as a weapon for fighting, but also as a sort of talisman to ward off evil.

Around 700 AD, a craftsman named Amakuni is credited with creating the first katana, which is a single-edged, curved sword using a two handed grip, but Masamune (1264–1343) is widely recognized as Japan’s greatest swordsmith. Experts in ancient weaponry consider the katana to be among the finest cutting blades in military history and many legends exist regarding the capabilities of this renown sword.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912) that marked the collapse of Japan’s ancient feudal system and ushered in the rise of a modern industrialized nation under the emperor, the ancient samurai class was disbanded and their special privilege to carry swords in public was removed. But the rise of the military state leading up to World War II encouraged the manufacturing of swords once again. All Japanese officers were required to carry a katana in order to boost morale and as an attempt to connect them with the spirits of their ancestral warriors. Following Japan’s defeat, all sword manufacturing and even sword related martial arts were banned for several years. However, sword production was legalized again in 1953 and there are presently around 180 specially trained swordsmiths still working in Japan. They are legally allowed to produce only two long swords per month and all such weapons must be registered with the government.

An old myth still persists that a Japanese katana is so sharp that if a silk cloth were dropped on an upturned blade it would be effortlessly sliced into two separate pieces. However, the law of physics dictates that this is not possible without the application of some form of friction or force. The Word of God is aptly described as being sharper than the finest of swords (Hebrews 4:12), penetrating to a level that is unobtainable through a human crafted weapon. It goes beyond the physical dimension and cuts so deep into our hearts and souls that it reveals even our thoughts, attitudes and motives normally unseen by others. As such, the Word of God is certainly a powerful weapon in the hand of God’s Spirit, who applies the pressure of truth to the dark areas in our lives that need to be exposed to the light. Indeed, as the author of Hebrews goes on to point out in verse 13: “nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.” Unlike sharp swords that were designed to take lives, the Word of God is a sword that has the potential to bring life.

Language Bloopers

“But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.”             Psalm 19:12

lang blooper
lang blooper2Before I traveled back to the States for a visit many years ago, the members of our Japanese church kindly made a number of decorative bookmarks (called “shiori”) for us to give out as gifts to our friends. Shiori was a new vocabulary term to me so it was not yet deeply entrenched in my language repertoire. This became rather obvious after I returned to Japan and stood up in church to announce how everyone was very appreciative of the derrieres (“oshiri”) from the church. Immediately realizing my mistake, I made a hasty retreat for the exit, but my loving colleagues would in the future sometimes refer to the infamous “bookmark incident” to keep me humble.

For anyone learning a new language, such bloopers are part of the inevitable and sometimes painful process of acquiring a totally different form of communication. Over the years, we have collected many such examples. Maybe one of the most commonly made mistakes in Japan is the confusion of the word “human” (ningen) with “carrot” (ninjin), which has led to many hilarious encounters. Running a close second to this frequent language blooper is probably the mistake of calling a baby “kowai” (scary) instead of using the intended adjective “kawaii” (cute). One time, upon hearing the news of the tragic death of friend’s relative, I sympathetically offered to pray for that person. Unfortunately, instead of asking God to comfort the family (nagusameru), I beseeched the Lord to knock off (nakunaru) the remaining members of the family. Since this blunder occurred in the course of a prayer, no one seemed to smirk, but I suspect a few were stifled with great difficulty. One of the better gaffes I recall hearing was that of a young single missionary handing out flyers at a train station. He passionately implored each recipient to “please become my bride” (oyome kudasai) instead of the well-rehearsed line “please read this” (oyomi kudasai). He did eventually get married, but probably not from using this technique!

However, sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. I’ll never forget wandering into a small town supermarket in which areas of the store were impressively labeled in English, but each sign was hilariously bungled. The meat section was identified as “MEET.” The fruit section was marked “FLUTE.” If rice was on your shopping list, you could find it under “LICE,” and so it continued as if someone had played a cruel joke on the unsuspecting storeowner. Following this gamut of bad English, one might be tempted to purchase an adult beverage in the “LICKER” section! The website engrish.com is dedicated to the collection of the butchering of English around the world, which only partially compensates for the extensive damage I did to the Japanese language in my early years. However, one of the challenges of learning Japanese is that the Japanese people are so polite that they will rarely point out even the most egregious mistakes we unwittingly force upon them.

Although language mistakes are annoying and at times embarrassing, they can usually be conveniently or politely overlooked. Such is not true of transgressions of the human heart and personal sin. We hurt others, bring shame upon our community, invite disastrous consequences, degrade ourselves and worst of all, rebel against a holy God. We may strive to live in denial of such misdeeds, but like a bad language blooper, everything will eventually come to light and much more than personal embarrassment is at stake. Perfect life fluency is not possible as we all sin, but amazingly, there is forgiveness available for every blooper imaginable. That is grace in any language.

Manner Mode

“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Philippians 1:27a

manner-mode

Many mothers around the world battle incessantly to instill good manners in their children, so they should be impressed to learn that cell phones used in Japan include a “Manner Mode” or “Māna Mōdo” (マナーモード) button. Unfortunately, these same mothers will be disappointed to discover that pushing this particular button doesn’t eradicate all poor behavior by the user. However, it does prevent one’s phone from ringing or making other distracting sounds once it is activated. Passengers on public transport are frequently reminded through announcements and signs to put their phones on māna mōdo to avoid disturbing others. Loud talking, ringing phones and audible music are quietly frowned upon by those nearby, so everyone is expected to exercise good manners in such situations. While almost all the passengers are typically engrossed in their own cell phones, no one uses them for talking while riding on the train as it is considered to be very rude behavior.

Good manners in Japan come in many different forms. For example, returning to the theme of train etiquette, priority seating is provided in every train car for the elderly, handicapped and pregnant mothers that should be strictly observed. Passengers waiting to get on a train are also expected to dutifully line up in an orderly fashion on the station platform and allow people to disembark before attempting to board. When riding an escalator, it is good manners to stand on the left side so others in a hurry can move past you. If you are dining with others, it is considered impolite to pour your own drink. You must also refrain from picking up food from a common plate using the end of the chopsticks that you use for eating. Below are some other cultural blunders to avoid:

  • Don’t eat or drink while moving around.
  • Avoid chewing gum in the company of others.
  • Try not to blow your nose in a public setting.
  • Resist using your car horn unless absolutely necessary.
  • Avoid pointing at others or objects.
  • Don’t treat another person’s business card with disrespect.
  • Refrain from public displays of affection.

Every culture has it peculiar lists of do’s and don’ts that subtly demand our adherence, but sadly, many Christians mistakenly import such a simplistic approach to their spiritual walk. The Christian life, when viewed in such terms, is reduced to a mere list of rules that focuses on the prohibition of certain behaviors. History teaches us that many of these ideals of Christian “manners,” fall by the wayside over time, only to be replaced by other rules that will in turn eventually give way to a new set of injunctions.

While rules are certainly necessary, and there are several lists of obvious sins laid out in the Bible, the whole concept of what constitutes “good manners” spills over into gray areas that are not so easily defined. As citizens of earthly kingdoms, we must be mindful and respectful of cultural manners, but as citizens of a heavenly kingdom, we are bound by a higher set of “manners” that must not impinge upon the nature or intent of the gospel. Rather than rules, the chief characteristic of the gospel is grace, which should be our life māna mōdo.

Visas for Life

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  John 10:10b

Chiune Sugihara

Most people have heard of the World War II German industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who was made famous by the award-winning movie “Schindler’s List.” Schindler was credited for rescuing 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust, but few realize that he had a Japanese contemporary who played a similar key role by saving many Jewish lives during those tumultuous times.

Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who served in Lithuania from 1939 to 1940 as a vice-consul for the Japanese Empire. At the time, Lithuania was occupied by Russian forces. Many Jews already resided in the tiny Baltic country or had fled there from other parts of Europe to escape persecution. Sugihara had been stationed in Lithuania because of his expertise in Russian affairs, his military background and his command of the Russian, German and English languages. As a student at the famous Waseda University, Sugihara joined a Christian fraternity and later openly converted to Christianity (Russian Orthodox Church) when he married. Later on, while carrying out his assigned governmental duties, Sugihara began to experience conflict between some of his ingrained cultural values and his growing Christian conscience when he observed injustices perpetrated by the Japanese. This inner turmoil eventually led Sugihara to actually resign his position as the Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchuria in 1935 as a protest against the inhumane treatment of local Chinese by the occupying Japanese army.

 

Sugihara’s radical and rather risky action seemed to set the stage for the chain of events that later unfolded in the summer of 1940. In direct disobedience to his orders from Japan, Sugihara san issued transit visas to Japan for Jews stranded in Lithuania and seeking safe passage from war-torn Europe. For a period of one month, he and his wife tirelessly worked twenty-hour days to painstakingly handwrite and grant visas for long lines of desperate refugees begging for help. When Sugihara was ordered to leave his post on September 4, he still continued to issue visas in route to the train station and even tossed them out the window to eager recipients as his train departed. Towards the end of the war, Sugihara and his family were cruelly imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp for 18 months before finally returning to Japan where he lived out the remainder of his days in obscurity and poverty. Although it is impossible to confirm how many visas Sugihara issued, conservative estimates place the number at around 6,000, which means roughly 40,000 descendants of those original refugees owe their existence to Sugihara’s heroic efforts. In 1985, the State of Israel finally recognized Chiune Sugihara, bestowing upon him the title “Righteous Among the Nations” for his selfless and sacrificial actions on behalf of the Jewish people.

 

Some people have referred to Sugihara’s coveted transit visas as “visas of life” for those fortunate recipients. In the Bible, Jesus frequently affirmed that He is the ultimate source of life for those who follow Him (cf. the Gospel of John) and as such, Jesus offers us the only available “transit” to heaven. Through Chiune Sugihara’s sacrificial advocacy for others, he provided “visas of life” for those who would otherwise perish. But through the cross, God provided the far more important “visa of eternal life” to escape the coming judgment of sin. Therefore, God has bestowed upon Jesus the title, “The Righteous One” (I John 2:1), who brought salvation to His people.

Pachinko

Direct me in the paths of your commands, for there I find delight.”          Psalm 119:35

pachinko

Out of curiosity as a relative newcomer to Japan, I cautiously opened the door to the gaudily decorated establishment and peeked in. I was harshly greeted with an immediate sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells (cigarette smoke) that encouraged me to make a hasty retreat to the comparatively quiet sidewalk. That was my first and only direct experience with the infamous Japanese parlor game known as pachinko (パチンコ). Pachinko is often compared to the arcade game of pinball since it is a mechanical entertainment device that involves the manipulation of steel balls. However, pachinko is significantly different from its Western counterpart in a variety of ways and, on top of that, it is deeply rooted in Japanese gambling culture.

The word “pachinko” is derived from the onomatopoeic sound “pachin,” which is a clicking or snapping noise the machine makes when the balls drop through and this sound is combined with the suffix “ko,” which means “little.” These machines were initially developed in the 1920s as a children’s toy, but within a few years evolved into a popular adult pastime. A pachinko resembles a vertical pinball machine but it utilizes multiple small steel balls that can be slightly directed by the player as they fall through a series of steel pins or nails. The objective is to capture as many balls as possible in the small openings along the course before they reach the bottom.

These balls can then be exchanged for prizes which can in turn be discretely converted into hard currency in compliance with Japan’s prohibition of gambling for cash. As such, these so-called pachinko parlors are a Japanese version of casinos where guests play slot machines. It is estimated that roughly a tenth of the Japanese population frequents one of Japan’s 10,600 pachinko parlors once a week and that the annual gambling revenue from pachinko is thirty times the yearly gambling earnings of Las Vegas. To maintain this delicate balance between winning and losing, pachinko parlors employ “kugushi” (釘師), or “nail adjusters” who expertly adjust or bend the pins within the pachinko machines. This fine-tuning serves to protect profit margins, but at the same time provides a sufficient number of favorable outcomes to attract customers. Some customers will line up at the pachinko parlor entrance several hours before it opens in order to gain access to their favorite machine.

If you closely examine a pachinko machine, you will soon discover that there are countless courses a ball can take as gravity takes over and it makes its way to the bottom. The goal of the player is to manipulate the course or path of the ball to his advantage. In the game of life, most of us would like to be in the position where we can influence the path ahead of us for a favorable outcome. Even though such power lies beyond our means, this limitation fails to quench our ever-present desire to control our own destiny where we naively believe happiness awaits us. Scripture tells us that such joy or delight is certainly available, but it only comes as we follow the commands or course laid out for us by an all-knowing, all-powerful God. (Psalm 119:35) As our heavenly kugushi, God lovingly and flawlessly adjusts the various “nails” in our lives in line with His desired outcome. Our only response therefore should be faithful obedience as we submit to the course uniquely laid out for us. Our reward is not a cheap trinket or even a cash prize, but rather, a meaningful and purposeful life that brings glory to God and delight to us. When we obey, we come out winners.