Story Telling

“Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll.” Psalm 40:7

Manga

Perhaps you can guess what the following titles have in common: Bleach, Full Metal Alchemist, One Piece, Dragon Ball, Slam Dunk, Sailor Moon, Death Note, Nausicaä and My Hero Academia. If you haven’t guessed already, these are all famous Japanese manga series. Manga (漫画) are Japanese comics or graphic novels and the word means literally “whimsical or impromptu pictures.” Although the concept of manga is centuries old, the present form originated in the 19th century and is now available in a variety of genres, including adventure, comedy, drama, history, science fiction, mystery, sports and fantasy. The popularity of these Japanese comics exploded in post-war Japan and the early series of Astro Boy and Sazae-san were the initial best sellers in a rapidly expanding market. People of all ages now read these graphic novels as an increasing variety of manga series are written to appeal to diverse demographic groups.

The popularity of such simple pictorial stories has given rise to the establishment of manga cafes throughout Japan where customers leisurely sip on their drinks and enjoy the vast inventory of mangas provided for their reading pleasure. These Japanese comics are typically printed in black and white on low quality paper to make them more affordable and range from 200 to 800 pages in length. The more popular manga series are often animated into TV shows or full-length movies and several have worldwide appeal. The term “manga” is now fully incorporated into the English language to describe this unique genre of Japanese literature.

A prevalent theme in many manga is that of a hero who overcomes incredible obstacles and challenges to achieve some noteworthy objective. This common heroic motif often found in manga recently served to spur a Japanese Christian publisher to develop and produce a pictorial Bible series based on the life of Christ, entitled “Manga Messiah.”

Many hints of God’s coming Chosen One are scattered throughout another written record now familiarly known to us as the Bible. In one of Jesus’ early public appearances in his hometown of Nazareth, we are told that he stood up in the local synagogue and deliberately selected and then proceeded to read a well-known messianic prophecy recorded in Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) Upon the completion of this reading, Jesus handed the scroll back to the synagogue official and shockingly announced to the assembled audience that, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (v.21)

Jesus’ journey from that point on was marked by triumph and trials and at first glance, his story seemed to end in tragedy as he followed the lonely path ordained for him by his Heavenly Father. Though recognized by few and reviled by many, Jesus heroically conquered death and sin through His selfless sacrifice on the cross. In so doing, this became the greatest story ever told that ended not at a cross, but with an empty tomb. Even better, this is no mere fanciful tale recorded by a creative mind for a new manga series. In this story, God is both the author and the principal character who achieved the supreme goal for all mankind–forgiveness of sins. That’s a story worth retelling.

Counting Cars

“Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”  Isaiah 40:26

Counting Cars

One day, while making our way to our office in Tokyo, I noticed a man oddly sitting in a chair beside a busy intersection engaged in some mysterious activity. As I looked up, I spotted another person seated on the opposite corner who seemed to be equally preoccupied with the same task. Having witnessed this oddity before, I had a pretty good idea as to what these people were doing. They were manually counting the cars that passed by in order to determine the volume of traffic at that particular intersection. Over the next few days as we bicycled along the same route, we noticed different teams of people engaged in the same exercise at numerous major intersections. This practice always strikes me as a very labor-intensive method to gather knowledge and, on top of that, it is often performed in adverse weather conditions. Hopefully, someone will use that painstakingly collected data to make well-informed decisions that will later improve the flow of traffic in those respective areas.

Japan’s penchant for organization and details never ceases to amaze me, but I am still surprised whenever I wander through a city park or stroll along a sidewalk and note that every public tree is numbered. This phenomenon indicates that somewhere in the bowels of local Japanese government bureaucracies, someone is tracking each of these individual trees, just like counting cars. I suppose such information could be useful when it comes to identifying and locating a particular tree that needs attention or to be removed. However, the sheer logistics of maintaining this extensive database of knowledge and making it available for practical purposes is rather mind numbing. This practice indicates that some civil servant, or more likely, a team of government employees, are apparently charged with counting, marking and recording each one of those trees. In some aspects, it is a rather impressive undertaking when one pauses to reflect on this overarching objective.

However, much more impressive is the fact that God’s knowledge is unlimited by time and encompasses our most individual, intricate details, extending to the furthest expanse of the heavenly hosts. (Isaiah 40:26) God not only counts His creation, He amazingly cares for it, which is a tremendously comforting thought. Some days, the traffic of our lives seems to be moving by so fast with such volume that we cannot begin to count the endless stream of cars that whiz by as we strive to keep up and deal with the many demands of life. Perhaps this is why Moses prayed that God would “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) This verse is a great reminder that true wisdom comes not from counting our activities, but by counting the quality of our lives as we strive to align our days with God’s purposes. No matter how much we count or what we count, the numbers only make sense when we include God in our mathematical equation.

Bushidō

“The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.” Exodus 15:3

Samurai

When I was a member of Boy Scouts, part of the routine of our weekly meetings was to stand at attention and recite the Boy Scout Oath. The oath was basically a list of virtues that we aspired to implement in our lives. Although bushido is far more complex and historically much older, it roughly served the same purpose for several centuries in Japan among the warrior class. Bushidō (武士道) is translated literally as the “way of the warrior” and it is a vaguely defined ethical code for samurai that instructed them on how to live lives characterized by honor and virtue. It has many parallels with the more familiar concept of chivalry, which was common among European knights in the Middle Ages.

Going far beyond the normal fighting skills typically demanded of a warrior, bushidō is essentially an unwritten moral code of conduct that seeks to inspire a samurai to aspire to something much higher in his actions and attitudes. Bushidō has religious undertones as it draws influence from three major schools of thoughts associated with Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism. The earliest written record of the term “bushidō” appears in 1616. Over the centuries, variations of what it actually means have been propagated by its adherents. A common list of the virtues normally associated with bushidō includes righteousness, courage, compassion, respect, honesty, honor, loyalty and self-control.

The Edo Period (1603-1867), which was characterized as a time of peace, stability and economic growth in Japan, created an atmosphere that fostered the advancement of bushidō among the warrior class and refined many of its tenets. Following this, the Meiji restoration (1868-1912) brought an end to the military rule of the shogunate and with it, the abolishment of the samurai. However, the precepts of bushidō survived in the new geopolitical conditions and continue to manifest themselves in corporate, political and military behavior even to this day. When the military reemerged with even greater influence on the political landscape prior to World War Two, bushidō was overtly encouraged with special emphasis given to the virtues of loyalty and self-sacrifice for the empire.

Many of the historical events recorded in the Old Testament center around warfare, a theme that has largely fallen out of favor in modern societies that often value peace above all else. According to this overly simplified line of thinking, warfare is frequently equated with barbarism, brutality, inhumanity and violence so it should be rejected in all forms. However, such a simplistic approach tends to naively ignore the biblical metanarrative of the conflict between good and evil in both earthly and spiritual domains. While it is good to seek peace and other virtues, such worthwhile goals are often not obtained without struggle and even bloodshed. Nothing illustrates this clearer than the Cross, where evil was conquered through great sacrifice and personal conflict. This truth is why God is repeatedly described as a “Warrior” (Zephaniah 3:17) who fights on our behalf and why the deeds of “mighty men” who stand against evil forces and authorities are highly extolled (I Chronicles 11). God does call us to engage in battles in the spiritual realm and sometimes, even in the physical realm, but thankfully He goes before us, equips us (Ephesians 6:10-17) and ultimately, leads us to victory. “The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.”

Mixed Ingredients

“Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread.” Exodus 12:20

pizza    After a few months in Japan, I was starving for some familiar American junk food. McDonald’s (pronounced “Makudonarudo”) was already fairly common at that time, but my friends and I were particularly hungry for pizza. When someone informed us that there was a Shakey’s Pizza located downtown that offered an all-you-can-eat buffet for only ¥500, we immediately organized an expedition to satisfy our pent-up cravings. Upon arrival, we strategically located ourselves at a table closest to the serving counter so we could be the first to pounce on the fresh pizzas as they were brought out. A couple of minutes later, when a pizza was pulled out of the oven and sliced up for the waiting customers, we sprang into action. To our dismay, the main topping on this particular pizza was corn, so we reluctantly returned to our table to wait for a better offering. Shortly afterwards, we leapt into action when another pizza was served, but this one was covered with octopus tentacles so again, we took a pass. The next one looked like a cheese pizza which we hungrily scooped up, but one bite revealed the “cheese” was actually mayonnaise! We were eventually rewarded with some pizzas that looked and tasted more familiar, but that day served as a reminder that common foods back home may be mixed with some uncommon ingredients in Japan.

We really weren’t in a position to complain as Americans back home were guilty of similar culinary infractions upon Japanese food. For example, when sushi was first introduced in the West, it suffered all kinds of abuse by innovative chefs and inexperienced customers. On occasion, I enjoyed observing the horrified response of my Japanese friends when I informed them that some Americans liked to put ketchup on their sushi before eating it. Perhaps this was a petty form of revenge for what the Japanese had done to my beloved pizza. Thankfully, after a few years of culinary experimentation on both sides of the ocean, recognizable forms of both pizza and sushi are now readily available for traditional diners like myself.

Before partaking in the First Passover (Exodus 12), God instructed the Israelites to prepare bread, but it was not to include the usual ingredient of yeast. The purpose of this curious omission was to drive home the powerful point that they were to be a people set aside for God, living consecrated lives in line with His purposes. Centuries later, the New Testament picks up on this theme using the concept of yeast synonymously for sin, because it can spread into our lives affecting everything it touches (Galatians 5:9). This is why the Apostle John calls for us to exercise discretion in what we crave in this world while we continue to live in it (I John 2:15-17). Our fondness for particular foods is certainly understandable and often culturally driven, but our appetite for things or activities that are diametrically opposed to the will of God can lead us astray and set us on a path of destruction. Mixed ingredients can be acceptable when it comes to culinary matters, but in the spiritual realm, it can give us a bad case of eternal indigestion.

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.”