Gods on Parade

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

Osaka,,Japan,-,July,25,2017:,The,Traditional,And,Historical

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

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

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

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

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

Presentation vs. Palate

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

Presentation-Palate

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Trees

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

Christmas trees3

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

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

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

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

Haircut Time

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

haircut

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

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

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

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

Kimonos

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

kimonos

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

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

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

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

When Yes Means No

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

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

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

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

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

Leading Meetings

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

Leading meetings

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

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

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

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

Outcasts

“’I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ declares the Lord, ‘because you are called an outcast.”  Jeremiah 30:17

Outcasts (2)

When we resided in Japan as foreigners, we had a pretty good idea of what it felt like to be outsiders (see previous blog on aliens), but centuries before we arrived, Japan instituted a class of people who were considered to be outcasts. They were known as the “burakumin” (部落民) which can be translated as “hamlet” or “village people.” This peculiar name stuck because the burakumin tended to live in segregated communities scattered throughout Japan performing what was then regarded as the dirty tasks needed by society. These jobs were typically associated with death and therefore included trades like butchers, tanners, executioners and undertakers. The burakumin were looked down upon as the “defiled ones”; the more derogatory name for them in the feudal era was “eta” (穢多) that meant literally “an abundance of defilement.” Therefore, the areas where they lived were distained and commonly referred to as “etamura,” or “defiled villages.”

This ancient social outcast system surprises many who admire modern Japan as a homogeneous society where equity under the law is a high value and a common practice. Indeed, this is largely true, but the dark strands of burakumin prejudice quietly continue to exist in various forms despite legal injunctions against it. Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) was historically responsible for creating this untouchable class in the 16th century when he divided the entire Japanese population into four hereditary castes in the descending order of samurai, farmer, artisan and merchant. The burakumin were then relegated to a category below this arbitrary caste system and their degraded status was not based on different ethnicity, but exclusively upon the tasks they were required to perform.

Burakumin continued to live for centuries under a cloud of discrimination within Japanese society but this prejudice was officially terminated in 1871 by a law that is now known as the “Emancipation Edict” that granted full legal status to all burakumin and their descendants. However, it took decades for the rights of this historically oppressed group to be fully recognized. Even today, some forms of subtle discrimination continue, particularly when it comes to marriage or in some cases, employment. Several studies indicate that there are over two million burakumin within Japan and 60 percent of the Japanese mafia known as yakuza (see previous blog), are comprised of burakumin. Due to the shameful and delicate nature of this subject, the existence and the plight of the burakumin is even now rarely acknowledged in Japan.

A common phrase in the Old Testament, particularly in the Pentateuch, is “outside the camp.” This phrase refers to a status of uncleanness where certain sacrifices, ritually unclean individuals and evil doers were deliberately separated from the community of God’s people with the goal of maintaining holiness within the community. When individuals were expelled to life outside of the camp, it was generally viewed as a temporary measure, not a permanent banishment or form of discrimination, as the ultimate objective was their full restoration to the community.

The author of Hebrews (chapter 13) picks up this complex theme and noted that “Jesus also suffered outside of the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood,” (v.12) and that we should “go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (v.13) Such an amazing response turns human contrived caste systems and prejudicial attitudes on their head as it declares that no one is outside the grace of God. We are all outcasts and defiled by our sins, but God loves us so much, He figuratively went outside of the camp to redeem us. Let us therefore join Jesus “outside the camp,” taking on the scorn of others, to minister to a hurting world.

Practice, Practice, Practice

 “This has been my practice: I obey your precepts.”  Psalm 119:56

Practice3

The teachers and parents at the local Japanese elementary school are hoping to pull off a flawless annual sports day. What do they consider to be the critical factor for success? Practice rehearsals!  The government wants to educate the public on proper responses to future possible disasters. Their solution? Practice drills! The university graduation ceremony is coming up in a few weeks so what is the number one focus for all the participants? Practice walk-throughs!

In a land that admirably strives for perfection, it often seems that the one-word solution to success for every endeavor is “practice.” While practice is certainly an important element in achieving anything of note, the Japanese seem to go beyond merely tolerating its necessity to the point of actually embracing it. This hyper focus on practice is readily apparent in almost all levels of Japanese society, ranging from business, athletics, hobbies, music, trade skills and ceremonial events. The Japanese word “renshū” (練習) is the most frequently used term to capture this idea of practice combining the actions of “repetition” and “learn.” It is believed that a particular skill or behavior learned through repetition fosters refinement in technique and, presumably, produces improved results. This emphasis on practice explains why an aspiring young sushi chef will unquestionably labor for five years as a lowly apprentice before being entrusted with the seemingly simple task of preparing the sushi rice. The same concept applies to a junior high student who joins the school badminton club, but has to practice their swing for several weeks before being introduced to an actual racquet.

Perhaps this value of renshū is best illustrated by the life of the famous baseball player, Ichiro Suzuki, who set a number of records in the Major Leagues after he was traded from Japan. From the age of seven, rain or shine, Ichiro’s father enforced a daily, rigorous practice routine on him that included throwing 50 pitches, hitting 200 live pitches, fielding 100 balls and hitting 300 pitches from a machine. As Ichiro got older, this daily regimen began to include hurling car tires and hitting wiffleballs with a heavy shovel to increase his strength. Renshū certainly accounted for a large portion of Ichiro’s success as a baseball player, but he later admitted it came at a heavy price.

Practice can certainly have its onerous aspects, even when not taken to extremes, but it is usually a necessary component to success in any meaningful endeavor. One obviously, does not become a skilled musician, chef or athlete without the investment of many hours into polishing their craft. Renshū at its very heart, usually has this worthy objective in mind, but sometimes it is obscured by the oppressive daily grind that typically accompanies such practice patterns.

In the Bible, many uses of the term “practice” have an extremely negative connotation. On numerous occasions the practices of God’s people are described as “detestable;” other negative adjectives like “evil,” “unclean,” “worthless” or “corrupt” are also commonly juxtaposed with the term. However, to do the opposite and live in obedience to God, David testifies to the importance of a positive form of practice in Psalm 119:56. Even Jesus declared the importance of this kind of renshū if our objective is to live lives worthy of God. “But everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24) However, at the same time, we must never forget that while practice cannot make us perfect, the Cross redeems all our imperfections and failures.

Local Pubs

“That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”

 Ecclesiastes 3:13

Co-workers relaxing in Japanese restaurant with food and drink

I was a complete novice in what I was about to experience, but as a relative newcomer to Japan, it was a great opportunity to learn about a slice of Japanese culture that was previously hidden from me. With my Japanese friends leading the way, we entered a rather non-descript multi-story building located in an area of town known for its night life. Each floor hosted several business establishments and we chose one that didn’t particularly seem to stand out among any of the others, except that it was obviously well-known to my more experienced friends. We were about to enter what is known as an izakaya.

Translated literally, izakaya (居酒屋) means “stay-saké-shop,” so it is basically a place to consume alcoholic beverages. However, an izakaya is much more than that as it has more resemblance to a British pub where food is served and people gather for social interaction. Sometimes these izakaya are called an akachōchin, or “red lantern” as the proprietors traditionally hang decorative red paper lanterns outside to attract attention. Upon entering the establishment, customers are often seated on the floor at low tables placed on tatami mats, a traditional bar or at western-style tables and chairs. The busier izakayas may also offer a tachi nomi style of dining, which means to drink while standing.

Everyone is customarily given an oshibori or wet towel when they are seated to wipe their hands and this is usually accompanied by a small appetizer such as edamame (soybeans). Food items are generally shared by everyone at the table and many izakaya specialize in certain food choices such as yakitori (grilled chicken on sticks), sashimi, tofu, grilled fish and even french fries (called “furaido poteto”). Some of the larger izakaya offer the dining option of nomi hōdai (all you can drink) or tabe hōdai (all you can eat) at a set price for a determined length of time. The more innovative izakaya come with a particular cosplay theme where the staff wear costumes while waiting on customers. The word “kanpai!” is echoed often as customers lift their glasses and toast one another in merriment. Regular patrons sometimes purchase a particular brand of alcohol and the bottle is placed on a shelf with their name written on it for their next visit. Like the classic TV sitcom “Cheers” that centered on a group of regular customers at a local bar, an izakaya can be a safe place to relax where “everybody knows your name.”

Ironically, some of the purposes for attending an izakaya can also be reflected in the reasons people may attend a local church. Meeting with like-minded people for companionship, encouragement and sharing of information are some of the attractive elements of an izakaya that are usually unavailable at onerous, pressure-driven places of work. When viewed in these terms, izakaya represent for many a form of escape through shallow social interaction and the consumption of alcoholic beverages and food.

While such responses are understandable and even ordained in some circumstances (Ecc. 3:13), there is certainly much more to life. One can also make many bad choices if his or her sole objective is to merely escape from the day-to-day unpleasantries of life. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul advised new believers, emerging from previous dark cultural habits, to aim for something higher that would lead to more productive lives that honor their Creator. He said, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” (Eph. 5:18) Because God knows our name, our choices can lead to eternal blessings.