Indebtedness

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  Matthew 6:12

Debt2   Christmas was drawing near and as newcomers to our neighborhood, we thought it would be a nice gesture to take a gift of homemade Christmas cookies to each of our neighbors. We should have known better. Within hours of dispensing our holiday goodies, our doorbell started ringing. It was payback time. Through our unsolicited gifts, we had unintentionally obligated our neighbors to correspond in kind. Therefore, several of them responded to our meager gift by reciprocating with something of equal value. In Japan, no one wants to be put in the awkward position of indebtedness to someone else.

After many years of living in Japan, we were well aware of this value, but we didn’t think the rule would apply to a half dozen home made cookies that cost us almost nothing to produce. Instead, my wife’s cookies were received as works of art that were created through great personal sacrifice, so the principle of “kaesu” kicked in and each recipient felt indebted to match our gesture. Kaesu (返す) means literally “to return” or “give something back” to another person as there are other words that express the related concept of simply putting something back in place. In many cases, kaesu also has the underlying meaning of repaying a debt when you give something to return a favor.

Kaesu is a powerful force in Japan and accounts for much of the gift giving that is grounded more in the complex motives of obligation and duty, rather than uncomplicated generosity. The act of kaesu relieves one of lingering too long in the undesired position of being indebted to another person and serves to restores equilibrium in the relationship. This concept was vividly made real to me when I stopped one day to assist a woman who had been in a traffic accident and was desperately trying to retrieve her dog despite her own injuries. She profusely thanked me for my efforts and then I resumed my travel once the police and ambulance arrived. Less than 24 hours later, a package was delivered to our doorstep which contained some expensive cookies and a note of appreciation sent from the hospital. That was kaesu in action and a good reminder of the need for wisdom in walking the very fine line of genuinely helping people without unnecessarily placing the heavy burden of kaesu upon them. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but it is good to think through the possible repercussions of our well-intended actions.

Although the concept of indebtedness manifests itself differently from culture to culture, as a general principle, no one likes the idea of owing something to someone else for an extended period of time. Debts of both a financial nature and other forms can become a heavy burden that have the potential to harm relationships and restrict freedom. The most serious form of debt, though, is to sin against another person and God Himself. There is no simple kaesu in any culture for these kinds of deficits or transgressions. We may seek forgiveness of these debts through various means, but in the end, mercy plays a critical role in any such transaction. We certainly cannot easily erase our own personal debts and sins, but we have the power to offer forgiveness to others if we are so inclined. That is why Jesus taught His disciples to pray: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) This act is a much higher form of kaesu, where something of much greater value is given without merit or any expectation of reciprocation. In any culture, that is called grace.

Daruma

“So we make it our goal to please him.”  II Corinthians 5:9a   

Daruma

The one-eyed daruma (達磨) doll, with its unusual shape, appeared almost comical as it seemed to stare at me from its perch on the shelf. I later learned that when initially purchased, all daruma dolls have blank spots in the place of eyes, which are added later according to custom. The dolls are traditionally brightly colored, made of papier-mâché into a rotund shape, and are often weighted at the bottom so that they will return to an upright position when tipped over. Some say this tendency to remain upright symbolizes success and the ability to overcome adversity. The typical daruma has eyebrows in the shape of a crane and a beard resembling the vague form of a tortoise as both creatures represent longevity in Japanese culture.

Darumas trace their origin to Bodhidharma, who is recognized as the founder of the Zen tradition of Buddhism. Bodhidharma lived around the 6th century and several legends are associated with his ascetic lifestyle. For example, it is said that he stared at a wall in meditation for nine years without moving, which caused his arms and legs to atrophy and eventually fall off through disuse. This odd bit of folklore supposedly explains why daruma dolls have no arms or legs. Another legend connected to this famous Buddhist monk is that he once fell asleep during his meditation and became so angry at his failure to stay awake that he cut off his eyelids to prevent such a reoccurrence. Perhaps this fable accounts for the attention given to the eyes of a daruma.

Although some consider daruma dolls to be just a toy, they are widely regarded as a sort of talisman that can bring the owner good luck. The general practice when purchasing an eyeless daruma is to paint in one of the eyes after identifying a desired goal. Once that goal comes to pass, it is customary to paint in the other eye. It is believed that this unusual process will motivate the daruma to grant one’s wish since he will regain full sight once the goal is achieved. This curious custom also serves to remind the owner of their intended goal every time they see the one-eyed daruma sitting on the shelf. It is no surprise then that people running for a political office often purchase a daruma and paint in one eye when announcing their candidacy and then paint in the other eye if they are elected. At the close of the year, people customarily return their daruma to the temple where it was purchased and then priests will burn it in a formal ceremony.

Darumas are associated with achieving a stated goal or desire, but such objectives are typically self-centered. These goals can include such things as success in the financial world, a favorable outcome in a desired relationship, good grades on an exam, a victory in a sporting activity or advancement at work. Such desires are certainly understandable and in many cases commendable, but as the people of God, we are called to seek something higher. Stated simply, our overarching goal should be to please God and everything else in life must be made subservient to this heavenly objective. This focus requires us to remove self from the center of our personal universe and let God take His rightful place as “we make it our goal to please Him.” (II Corinthians 5:9a) Such a recalibration of our heart and mind does not require us to purchase and reconfigure a talisman to achieve our goal. Rather, it involves the simple act of surrender of our will to the All-Seeing, All-Powerful God of the universe who does not need us to create eyes for Him.

Japanese/English

“In the beginning was the Word…” John 1:1a

Japanese.Eng3    Japanese has a reputation for being a very difficult language for native English speakers to master, but it actually incorporates a considerable number of English words in its vocabulary. Unfortunately, many of these words are often unrecognizable. Called gairaigo (外来語), meaning literally “words from outside,” these loanwords are usually written in the special katakana alphabet that is exclusively used for adopted foreign words. All such borrowed words undergo an initial form of transformation just to fit the standard Japanese pronunciation pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel which in itself tends to elongate the original word. An example of this is the single syllable word “desk” which becomes “de-su-ku” in Japanese. In addition to this adaptation, certain English sounds are not available in the Japanese language so this invites an even further departure from the original pronunciation. A good portion of this borrowed vocabulary is also truncated and often uniquely combined with other gairaigo to form an entirely new word not normally found in English lexicons. The now internationally used term “cosplay” (コスプレ), which is used to describe the practice of dressing up as a character in a movie or comic book, was created by the Japanese using a combination of the English terms “costume” and “play.” Perhaps the following story, using a number of gairaigo terms, will serve to illustrate how the Japanese curiously incorporate English into their everyday speech.

A day in the life

I left my apa-to1 and got on my baiku2 to go shopping at the depa-to3. On the way, I stopped at the gasorinstando4 to get gas and then pulled into the local konbini5 to pick up a snack and a carton of miruku6. After parking my baiku at the station, I purchased a chiketto7, waited at the correct ho-mu8 for my train, and along with the other sarari-man9, I was careful not to sit in the designated shiruba-shito10 located in every train car. At the depa-to, I found several ba-gen11 and bought some hankachi12 for my father. In the electronic section of the store, I briefly watched a show featuring my favorite aidoru13 and then using the rimokon14, I switched channels to an amefuto14 game on the large screen terebi15. So much shopping made me tired, so I went to the food court, ordered a sarada16, drank some ko-hi-17 and munched on some furaidopoteto18 while enjoying the eakon19 as it was hot outside. On the way home, I passed many biru20 and then went to work on my pasukon21 while enjoying a cold bi-ru22.

Words are essential to effective communication no matter what language we use. This is why Jesus is called the “Word” (John 1:1) as God amazingly sought to communicate with mankind and freely offered redemption through His Son. In many ways, this form of communication seems like a foreign language to those of us who think we can earn God’s favor by our actions and efforts. Instead, God extends grace and truth through the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us to convey God’s message of love (John 1:14) for all people. This is truly an utterance that speaks to the desperate needs of our heart in any language.

 apa-to1 (apartment)

baiku2 (motorbike)

depa-to3 (department store)

gasorinstando4 (gas station)

konbini5 (convenience store)

miruku6 (milk)

chiketto7 (ticket)

ho-mu8 (home-platform)

sarari-man9 (salary men)

shiruba-shito10 (silver/elderly seating)

ba-gen11 (bargain)

hankachi12 (handkerchief)

aidoru13 (idol-singer)

rimokon14 (remote control)

amefuto14 (American football)

terebi15 (TV)

sarada16 (salad)

ko-hi-17 (coffee)

furaidopoteto18 (fried potato-french fries)

eakon19 (air conditioning)

biru20 (buildings)

pasukon21 (personal computer)

bi-ru22 (beer

Boasting

“In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever.”   Psalm 44:8

Boasting   Soon after our initial arrival in Japan, we were a little bewildered by some things we observed when we joined a Japanese family who had kindly invited us over for a meal. Before we even sat down to eat, the husband proceeded to demean his wife’s efforts in cooking and house cleaning. Unlike the typical American domicile, we didn’t notice any family photos capturing activities of the children or anything commemorating their individual achievements. Little mention was actually made of the children outside of our hosts’ minimal responses to our polite inquiries. We also thought it odd when they referred to their son as a “baka musuko” (stupid son). We went home that evening rather puzzled by our experience, but later learned that it is considered socially taboo to praise one’s own family.

This experience certainly cut across the grain of what we had been taught to do within Christian circles in the West, where praise and encouragement of family members is actively promoted. While it may be acceptable to directly compliment people you are close to, in Japan, it is perceived as boasting when you make such comments to others outside of your personal circle. One may have a beautiful wife, who’s a great cook, and intelligent children who excel in many activities, but it would be interpreted as bragging or arrogant to express such sentiments to others. This explains why many Japanese adopt a self-depreciating attitude and communication pattern when it comes to the accomplishments of one’s family and even employer.

This tendency to avoid self-promotion is enhanced by humble Japanese language patterns that are routinely used in certain social settings and one is expected to downplay any personal action that might have benefited others. It is quite common in Japan to give a gift when someone has done something for you, but we soon learned the appropriate phrases to be said when presenting such items are: “tsumaranai mono desu ga…” (“this is a boring, uninteresting item…”) or “sasayakana mono desu ga…” (“this is something very meager…”). There is obviously a very fine line between truth telling and false humility, but in Japan, we learned it is better to err on the latter end of the spectrum when communicating with others.

Boasting is usually associated with pride, which is frowned upon in most cultures and certainly condemned in the Bible. For example, boasting is an identifying characteristic of the beast (Daniel 7:11) who is the antithesis of all that God represents. When the Apostle Paul succinctly defines the nature of love in I Corinthians 13, he used a number of negative behaviors to describe what love is not, and among them is a propensity to boast (v. 4). Boasting about one’s own righteousness to claim good standing before a holy God is equally castigated (Romans 3:27-28) as we all stand impoverished in the presence of God because of our sinfulness.

The root motivation behind an inclination to boast is self-promotion, but there is another form of boasting that is actually encouraged in the Scriptures: the promotion of God instead of self. In taking up the topic of boasting again in the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, Paul advises: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (10:17) Such boasting is another form of praise as we ascribe credit to God for all His works and gifts on our behalf, instead of claiming anything for ourselves. This is not false humility, but rather, an honest declaration of who we are and what we have been given before a gracious and generous God.

Saving Face

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed.”

II Timothy 2:15

Saving Face

Like many men, I am not inclined to linger long in front of a mirror for visual inspections. However, during the long, cold winters in northern Japan when I often let my beard grow, I became more preoccupied with my face as it required more attention. Most Japanese give a lot of attention to another kind of “face” that is sociological in nature. In this usage, “face” represents the honor, dignity, status or reputation of an individual that one strives to protect or maintain at all costs. This concept is somewhat similar to what we refer to as “having a good name” in western culture.

In Japan, one can save face (menboku o tomatsu—面目を保つ), lose face (menboku o ushinau—面目を失う), give face, show face, fix face and even loan face. All of these variations are centered on the personal goal of maintaining respect or the opposite incentive of avoiding shame and humiliation. Japan’s shame culture, which is also prevalent in other parts of Asia, is perhaps the main driving force that prompts this extensive preoccupation with one’s “face.” No one wants to lose face or be embarrassed in front of others, which also motivates people to be careful to maintain the face of others. Therefore, public disagreements are often avoided as someone could lose face in such an encounter. One might refrain from asking direct questions or making requests that may inconvenience the other person. It is also generally considered socially unacceptable to publicly declare someone has made a mistake. Personal relationships and social harmony are considered to be the bedrock of Japanese society, so great care is usually taken to protect each other’s face.

Such a concern for others is commendable in many regards, but taken too far, this kind of superficial interaction can lead to potential misunderstandings and fractured relationships. In the famous song “Eleanor Rigby,” the Beatles sang of a woman who “wore a face in a jar that she kept by the door,” that somewhat reflects the common practice in Japan to put on different faces for different situations. One’s “face” then, is not just what other’s see, but what we want them to see. This projected face may not be in true alignment with the feelings and thoughts that lie underneath, which in turn, makes the art of saving face and maintaining relationships in Japan a rather complex endeavor.

Behind the efforts to save one’s personal face or reputation is often a latent desire to earn the approval of others which can unwittingly invite other negative, or even sinful outcomes. While it is good to be considerate of others, taking into account their opinions and feelings, we must be careful as to who and to what extent we empower with such control over our lives. Our efforts to save face, or not to lose face, can lead us down a dangerous path where the approval of others becomes more important than the approval of our Creator. As the Apostle Paul reminds his young protégé Timothy, there is no shame if we have the approval of God (II Timothy 2:15). This “face” requires our utmost attention and should never be placed in a jar by the door.

Bamboo

“The life of mortals is like grass.”  Psalm 103:15a   

Bamboo

My first experience with bamboo was when I learned to fish as a child using a long cane pole. I will probably continue to associate bamboo with happy memories of fishing, but the Japanese have many more applications for this unusual plant. Called “ta-ke” (竹) in Japanese, bamboo was traditionally used for housing construction, weapons, utensils, musical instruments, various handicrafts, charms, furniture and food (the bamboo shoot, takenoko, serves as a staple in the Japanese diet).

There are approximately 1,400 species of bamboo in the world and although many varieties can grow as tall as a tree, it is actually classified as a grass. Bamboo is among the fastest growing plants on Earth and some species may grow as much as a yard (meter) within a 24-hour period, depending on local soil and climate conditions. The taller versions of ta-ke may reach thirty yards in height, with a diameter of eight inches. The stem of the bamboo, known as a culm, begins as a shoot from an underground network of roots that can be quite aggressive and difficult to control. This is why bamboo is considered an unwanted invasive plant in many parts of the world and measures are often taken to restrict its cultivation. However, the tensile strength of bamboo, combined with its light weight, makes it a popular building material throughout Asia. Although bamboo is a common and well-known plant, scientists remain baffled by its unique flowering patterns. The flowering intervals of bamboo are very unpredictable, occurring anywhere from every 60 to 130 years, which is usually followed by a massive die off of that particular bamboo grove.

There are many religious overtones to ta-ke in Japan and it is quite common for bamboo forests to be located near Shinto shrines, as they superstitiously serve as a barrier against evil. Bamboo is widely utilized in various religious festivals as it represents prosperity and good fortune. At the annual summer Tanabata festival, many Japanese write prayers on strips of paper and attach them to bamboo.

Grass is often used in the Old Testament as a sign of God’s blessing or on other occasions, to depict the temporal nature of life. For example, an abundance of grass to feed cattle and sheep is evidence of God’s blessing upon those who worship Him and follow His ways (Deuteronomy 11:15). Sometimes grass is used symbolically to represent God’s promise to an individual to bless him with many descendants like the grass of the field (Job 5:25), or more commonly, like sand on a seashore. Conversely, a shortage of grass or the withering of grass can be interpreted as a sign of God’s judgment or punishment (Isaiah 40:7).

Perhaps the most graphic and startling allusion to grass in the Bible centers on the temporary nature of man, and his life on earth, when compared to eternity. Like bamboo that can grow at phenomenal rates but eventually dies and rots, man’s physical existence is short-lived. Wise is the person who keeps this reality in mind. In the eternal scheme of things, we are like grass, which should prompt us to turn our thoughts to the unchanging God of eternity. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

Minister of Loneliness

“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”   Psalm 25:16

Loneliness

Japan has a parliamentary form of government where the chief executive, known as the Prime Minister, appoints ministers to assist him in his various responsibilities. These important officials traditionally include the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Defense, the Minister of Health and other well-known positions. However, on February 12, 2021, the media announced the surprise appointment of Tetsushi Sakamoto to fill a newly created cabinet position in response to recent troubling trends. In an attempt to reduce widespread loneliness, social isolation and increased suicide rates accelerated by the restrictions of COVID-19, Mr. Sakamoto now serves as the official Minister of Loneliness.

This new position is called kodoku mondai tantō kokumu daijin in Japanese, which is a rather lengthy title, but the key words in it are “kodoku” and “mondai.” Together, they mean “loneliness problem,” which is admittedly, an unusual title for a government official, but these are unusual times. Loneliness had already been identified as a growing problem among the Japanese populace in previous years, but the extreme measures recently taken to curb the spread of COVID-19 only served to hasten this harmful trend. For the first time in eleven years, there has been a rise in the number of suicides in Japan after several years of decline due to various public campaigns. In fact, more people died from suicide in one month than the total number of deaths associated with COVID-19 in all of Japan in 2020. Loneliness has also been linked to other serious health issues such as heart disease, eating disorders and mental instability to name a few. Women and the elderly have been particularly affected by recent job losses and the implementation of draconian social limitations. The prolonged depression of the Japanese economy and an alarming decline in birthrate are symptomatic of related social dysfunctions that seem to be eating away at the heart of the country. It can be said that loneliness is one of many elements contributing to these negative patterns.

While innovative government initiatives to reverse this destructive trend of loneliness are commendable, a sustainable and truly effective solution to such a deep-rooted problem lies well beyond the authority and power of political leaders. From the very beginning of time, when God created man in His own image as a relational being, He declared that “it is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) Recognizing this inherent need for relationship, God created the first woman to fill Adam’s social, physical and emotional needs and through them, mankind continued to expand while living in community.

However, such communities were chronically dysfunctional because of man’s fallen state which gave way to broken and imperfect relationships. Even though mankind was created for fellowship and relationship with others, the presence or risk of pain has prompted many to withdraw and restrict their social contacts with the purpose of self-preservation. For many, this withdrawal is a deliberate choice, but for countless others, such a response has been forced upon them by circumstances not of their choosing. The end result is loneliness, which if left unaddressed, can lead to a destructive, downward spiral in other critical areas. While there are no simple remedies for such heartaches, we would be wise, like the psalmist, to turn to the Creator of man’s heart when such burdens seem too heavy to carry alone. “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” (Psalm 25:16)

Group Photos

“I will remember the deeds of the Lord.”   Psalm 77:11a

1888-Team-James-Hudson-Taylor-300x300    Long before the term “selfie” carved out a unique niche in our lexicons, the Japanese used an alternative word that eventually became a part of our personal vocabulary and history. It is called “kinen shashin” (記念写真) and it is roughly translated as “commemorative photograph.” Whenever a group assembles for a particular occasion, someone inevitably calls for a kinen shashin to be taken to commemorate the event. If you browse through our personal photo albums (back in the day when we collected physical photographs), you will discover quite a few of these kinen shashin scattered among other pictures portraying family and friends in various locations and activities.

A few of these kinen shashin are now framed and hang on our walls, or sit on our shelves, reminding us of days gone by and God’s grace in our lives. Such events may include baptisms, church anniversaries, a farewell of a coworker, training events, a church dedication, a wedding, an induction of a pastor, a graduation, conferences, the launching of a new church plant, a special concert or a group reunion. Each kinen shashin speaks volumes about God’s faithfulness throughout a jumble of times and circumstances as we walked through life and our paths crossed with those of many others.

But this is where the nuance of kinen shashin departs from our typical preoccupation with selfies. A selfie is generally photographic evidence that you did something, ate something, went somewhere or were with someone in particular. The focus is centered more on ME and things that are related to ME at the time the picture was taken. That is undoubtedly why the term “selfie” was coined to capture the essence of this particular form of photography. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this approach and we ourselves frequently take selfies. However, if given a choice, I would much rather be included in a kinen shashin, where my face may be lost in the crowd, but something much greater than me is being recorded as part of my ongoing faith journal.

In the days before the invention of cameras and cell phones, the psalmist testified “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” (Psalm 77:11a) which is how we are prompted to respond when we view some of the kinen shashin from our past that depict various people and ministries. When we take the time to peruse through such photos, they serve to remind us of the many “deeds of the Lord” that have transpired over the years, but may have slipped from our memories. We would do well to fondly remember such people and events with thankfulness, but also with expectation for the things yet to come that we can only see now through eyes of faith. While it is sometimes unwise to linger too long in the past, we should certainly learn from it and apply those lessons to new challenges ahead. Kinen shashin can serve such a purpose as they beckon us to focus on community and God, which a selfie often fails to capture.

Omotenashi*

Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” I Peter 4:9

Omotenashi

Upon our arrival in Japan, we were initially surprised by the many small extras that were routinely extended to customers, reflecting a level of service and care we had previously not experienced in the States. For example, upon entering a large department store elevator, a perfectly coiffed woman in a smart uniform politely greeted us with a bow and pushed the button of the floor we wanted. Whenever we pulled into a gas station, attendants scurried around our car offering various forms of service and bowed in unison as we departed. When invited over for a meal, our hostess unfailingly laid out slippers for us and then proceeded to quietly turn our outdoor shoes around to easily step into in preparation for our departure.

All such efforts are part of what the Japanese loosely call “omotenashi,” a word usually translated as “hospitality.” However, such a simple summary does a huge injustice to the deep complexities that underlie the concept of omotenashi. The term itself is very unique in that different Chinese characters (kanji) are employed for the same word, adding subtly different nuances to the meaning. For this reason, omotenashi is most commonly written in the alphabetic hiragana as おもてなし, and avoids usage of the kanji. In its most basic translation, omotenashi means “not having two sides,” implying that one must be wholehearted and single-purposed when offering hospitality or a service to others. But “omote” can also refer to one’s public face or the way you present yourself to the world and “nashi” means “nothing.” This aspect of omotenashi then suggests that you are to serve others without public pretense, where ego doesn’t get in the way. This idea takes hospitality to a much higher level that goes beyond the expectations of the person being served and perhaps, even beyond the personal preferences of the one doing the serving. This form of omotenashi requires you to pay close attention to the needs of a guest or customer to the exclusion of your own.

The concept of omotenashi extends throughout Japanese society, including the manufacturing of cars. A great example of this is the circumstances that followed the launch in 1989 of the Lexus luxury vehicle model LS-400. After thousands of this particular car were rolled off of the assembly line and sold, Lexus received two very minor complaints from a couple of disgruntled customers. The company’s response? Lexus recalled all the cars and issued every owner a detailed letter of apology. In that letter, Lexus offered to come to every customer’s home, pick up their car, leave them a free loaner car, repair the car for free, wash it and then return it with a full tank of gas and an expensive gift. That’s omotenashi. Such incredible service closely aligns with the old Japanese proverb, “Okyakusama wa Kamisama,” which means, “the customer is god.”

While the values and practices of hospitality vary widely from culture to culture, we should remember that omotenashi is something all Christians are commanded to do. (Romans 12:13) On top of that, we must keep a close guard on our attitudes that accompany such acts of service as the Apostle Peter warns they are to be offered “without grumbling.” (I Peter 4:9) Biblical hospitality is not driven solely by an absence of self, like omotenashi; rather, it is spurred by higher motives: love of God and love of others. For a good example of this, we need look no further than the precedent Jesus laid down for His disciples when He washed their feet shortly before He was taken away to be tortured and crucified. That is God’s version of omotenashi.

*The idea for this blog comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast “Go and See” on March 5, 2020.

Know Your Place

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Galatians 3:28

sumo

America is generally, a land of informalities as evidenced by our dress, speech and lack of class distinctions. Therefore, the somewhat hierarchical nature of Japan was a new experience for us when we first arrived. This distinction became obvious once we commenced language study, where we learned that communication patterns in Japan vary according to one’s social position and the person with whom you are speaking. There are respectful language forms (sonkeigo 尊敬語), humble language patterns (kenjōgo 謙譲語), and polite language forms (teineigo 丁寧語), that, together, reflect a person’s social standing in relation to their conversational partner.

When we made our first visit to the city ward office, this tendency towards hierarchy was also conspicuous in the working world as we observed the unusual layout of the employees’ work places. In typical Japanese fashion, there were no partitions or cubicles, but instead, everyone’s desk was neatly positioned among rows of other desks facing the manager’s working area so he could easily monitor them. We also learned that it is common to use both name and title when addressing superiors within one’s company, where everyone knows their place. This ranges from the chairman, or the kaichō (会長), who is often an elderly figurehead, down to the lowest staff member known as a shain (社員). In between these two extremes, you have the president (shachō), general manager (buchō), section manager (kachō), team leader (kakarichō) and supervisor (shunin) with many additional sub categories. These positions are clearly indicated using nametags, desk name plates and personal business cards.

This proclivity towards ranking is particularly noticeable in the traditional sport of sumo. There are six divisions of sumo with multiple ranks within them. Life in the sumo world is akin to a commune where all the wrestlers live, work and eat together. However, there are huge distinctions in privileges and duties between higher and lower ranked wrestlers. The differences are evident in the clothing they are allowed to wear, free time allotted to them, required chores, the degree of privacy they enjoy and training opportunities. These distinctions reflect the general sense of senior (sempai) and junior (kohai) relationships that permeate all levels of Japanese society.

In ancient cultures and still in many countries, the tendency to draw lines between people based on factors such as economics, ethnicity, power, religion and gender is not unusual, and sometimes, it is even necessary. But it becomes a problem when individual rights are violated and those deemed to be at the top of this artificially constructed pyramid take advantage of those considered beneath them. Jesus came to break down such biased barriers that can disrupt relationships and lead to divisiveness. Of course, the greatest barrier of all is the one that existed between men and God, which Jesus broke down through His sacrificial death on the cross. In so doing, He also offers healing to the nations, the removal of prejudicial classifications and the redemption of damaged relationships. While it is important to know our place in this world, it is far more important to know our place in the world to come.