Protruding Nails

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

protruding nail

Many years ago I took a number of Japanese visitors to an event in the United States where the performers on stage tried to recruit volunteers from the audience to participate in the action. Everyone around us eagerly thrust their hands into the air begging to be chosen, but my Japanese guests shrunk back, doing their best to become invisible. I was slightly amused as I witnessed this contrast in reactions and obvious clash of cultures. My Japanese friends were equally puzzled by the circumstances and later asked me, “Why are Americans so eager to rush on the stage and make fools of themselves?” To which I casually replied, “It’s the American way!” While my answer was rather shallow and primarily intended to draw laughter, it did partially capture the vast differences that often separate us as different cultures defined by different values.

The Japanese have a famous proverb that goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” *(出る釘は打たれる), which succinctly captures the previously described scenario. Due to Japan’s centuries of intentional isolation as an island nation and its mono-ethnic makeup, diversity is generally not encouraged. This serves as a stark contrast to the melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups that typically characterizes the United States, where individuality and the expression of it is considered a high value. However, in Japan, deviance from the norm is often met with resistance, like a protruding nail that is routinely hammered in so it will match the others. Group mentality and the pressure to “fit in” encourages conformity on many levels in Japan, so few are willing to face criticism and risk being singled out. This mindset can be a powerful tool to mobilize effort and energy into a cohesive direction for a particular objective, but it has the drawback of shutting down independent thought and action that sometimes might lead to better outcomes.

Of course, there are exceptions to this trend and nowhere is this more evident than the variety of street fashions in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, where young people express their individuality through unusual clothing and makeup combinations. In addition, some public figures may shun conformity in order to achieve success and are ironically admired for their boldness and innovation. But among the general masses, the desire for safety and tranquility continues to drive responses and few are willing to take the risks that come from being a nail that sticks out.

Jesus, however, essentially called His followers to be that protruding nail. While this presents unique challenges for Japanese believers seeking to live out their faith in a non-Christian culture, it is a problem that all true followers of Christ must wrestle with as the Kingdom of God inevitably clashes with the kingdoms of this world. As the people of God, we are to be actively engaged in a spiritual battle where our good deeds and testimony bear witness to the greatness and mercies of God to others around us. This way of life, of course, leaves little room for shrinking back into a self-protective mode for fear of criticism or rejection. Our light must shine as we become protruding nails within the cultural context where God has uniquely placed us. After all, the ultimate hammer resides in God’s hand and it is His judgment that matters in light of eternity.

* The proverb originally stated, “The stake that sticks out gets pounded,” which doesn’t significantly change the current nuance.

Population in Peril

“God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number.” Genesis 1:22

pop decline

Japan is shrinking. Not the land mass, but rather, the number of Japanese who live there. In contrast to other countries in the world, the population of Japan actually peaked in 2010 at roughly 127 million and has been steadily declining since then. At the current rate, experts predict that by 2050 the population will drop to 97 million people as the percentage of elderly continues to increase disproportionately to the number of births. As a sad testimony of this trend, the sales of adult diapers now exceeds the sales of diapers for babies. Another indicator of changing demographics can be seen in the annual closure of roughly 400 schools due to the lack of students. Many of these facilities are then repurposed to function as care centers for the elderly.

Japan consistently ranks at the top of the list for longevity among its citizens, but when this admirable trend is coupled with a steadily declining birth rate, it triggers significant concerns about the future of the country. A natural byproduct of an aging and shrinking population is a declining workforce which can in turn stymie economic growth, endanger the solvency of the national pension program and overwhelm healthcare services.

Sociologists point out a number of economic and cultural factors that are likely contributing to this decline in childbirth throughout Japan. Long working hours, a rising percentage of women in the work force, later and fewer marriages and the high cost of raising children are just a few of the many components to this multi-layered problem. This precipitous decrease in the population has of course alarmed the Japanese government, which has implemented a number of proactive measures to reverse this downward spiral. As part of this strategy, couples are encouraged to have children through the promise of generous subsidies, extended maternity leave and numerous other benefits. However, despite these incentives, many still continue to shun the perceived burdens of parenthood (in addition, marriage itself is on the decline). Another controversial solution is to promote immigration as a means to compensate for labor shortages and tax revenue, but such an approach raises other fears regarding the future of Japan.

One of the first commands given to mankind was to “be fruitful and multiply,” which is a verse loaded with meaning. Obviously, for the first man Adam and his wife Eve, this command had literal implications as mankind would quickly go into extinction if this initial couple failed to reproduce. Since that time, physical multiplication has been the natural order of things and has continued over the centuries with few exceptions. However, the biblical concept of fruitfulness extends roots beyond mere physical reproduction to a deeper, spiritual level indicating the type of people God longs for us to become. Therefore, the theme of fruitfulness appears repeatedly in the Old Testament and then Jesus brings it powerfully to the foreground through His famous analogy in John 15, where He instructs His followers to abide in Him as our Vine, so that we might produce fruits of righteousness. The Apostle Paul also teaches about fruitfulness in Galatians 5:22-23 where he identifies the “fruit of the Spirit” that should characterize our lives. While the Japanese are facing a potential population crisis related to physical multiplication, the Bible reminds us to seek spiritual fruitfulness, which is rooted in a relationship with our Creator. God’s original intent in creating us was that we should bear fruit, and by doing so, we honor Him with our lives.

Coming of Age

“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”                                                               Hebrews 5:14

seijinshiki

The young men and women were in a festive mood and looked resplendent in their formal attire as they gathered at the local public hall to celebrate their coming of age. The ceremony is known as a “seijinshiki” (成人式) and is held once a year to congratulate those who have entered into adulthood by turning twenty years old. Young ladies are typically happy to use the occasion as an excuse to dress up in an exquisite, rented furisode style of kimono that is considered appropriate for unmarried young women. Many of the young men may opt to don the traditional dress of a dark kimono with a hakama, but the majority now seem to prefer formal Western clothing such as a suit and tie.

Following the public ceremony, these new adults will often separate into groups with their friends to attend parties where they may celebrate their newly acquired legal freedom to drink alcoholic beverages. At some point in the day, many will accompany their families to a local shrine to pray for health and success as they pass this significant life milestone. It is also common to sit for a formal portrait picture to commemorate the occasion.

The roots of the seijinshiki are reportedly traced back to the eighth century, when a famous young nobleman sported new clothing and a hairstyle to mark his passage into adulthood. However, the formal holiday was not established until centuries later in 1948 when January 15 was set aside as “Seijin-no-Hi,” or “Coming of Age Day.” This annual holiday was recently changed to the second Monday of January to create a three-day weekend. Japan also recently lowered the legal age of adulthood from 20 to 18 years of age, which will take effect in 2022. This alteration in the law will grant the newly created younger class of adults permission to marry, sign contracts and take out loans without parental approval. However, smoking, drinking and gambling will still be prohibited until the traditional age of 20.

The Japanese characters for seijin (成人) are loosely translated as “coming of age,” but they mean literally to “become a person.” In a sense, we are all engaged in the daily act of “becoming,” regardless of our age, as none of us are what we should be, or eventually will be, because change is an integral aspect of life. Hopefully, such changes are of a positive nature where we are progressing in character, abilities and life skills to become contributing members of society. However, such progression to higher things and nobler character cannot be taken for granted in the physical world and the same is true in the spiritual world. As children of God, we are exhorted to press on to maturity where we can discern good from evil and increasingly choose the former as we move deeper into spiritual adulthood. Just as all parents long to witness progress toward adulthood in their offspring, God desires to see a movement towards spiritual maturity in all His children. In that sense, every day is a “Coming of Age Day” for the children of God as we aspire to become all that God intends for us to be.

Forget the Year Parties

“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”            Philippians 3:13b-14

bonenkai3

When I was invited to attend my first bōnenkai as a new missionary, I was rather flattered to be included, but I was clueless as to what would actually transpire. Immediately after my arrival for the event, my two Japanese friends seemed quite determined to ply me with alcohol while they got steadily plastered themselves and consequently, became increasingly silly. These friends also persisted in asking me quite personal questions that were rather out of character for these normally dignified businessmen. Previously, I had naively thought that a bōnenkai was a simple end-of-year party with close friends, but I later learned that the Japanese characters for bōnenkai (忘年会) mean literally, “forget the year gathering.” In other words, it is essentially a Japanese drinking party for co-workers or friends where everyone is encouraged to let their hair down through the consumption of alcohol and, in the process, collectively forget the troubles of the past year. Even the normal lines that separate the boss from his business subordinates are temporarily erased during the festivities and whatever is said or done under the influence of alcohol is conveniently overlooked the following day.

Bōnenkai do not take place on any specific day, although they are usually held in December. They are not to be confused with New Year’s parties, which are referred to as “shinnenkai” (新年会 ) and are celebrated in the new year. Companies often sponsor bōnenkai for their employees, but circles of friends frequently organize their own forget-the-year gatherings. This tradition is said to have originated somewhere around the 16th century when groups of samurai lords gathered locally to commemorate their achievements of the past year. Following the abolishment of the feudal ruling system in the late 19th century and the rise of lifetime employment in the business world, companies began to incorporate and revise this old custom. What was previously an event exclusively reserved for the ruling caste eventually became a routinely scheduled gathering for all company employees in the yearly calendar. The following popular song, 今夜はHearty Party (“Tonight, Hearty Party”), by the famous pop singer Mariya Takeuchi, captures the ambiance or atmosphere of a typical Japanese bōnenkai. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWlgvzXI8eY

Forgetting the past is often a helpful approach as we pursue a godly lifestyle and mindset that will honor God. The Apostle Paul alludes to the importance of sometimes “forgetting what is behind” (Philippians 3:13) because an unhealthy preoccupation with our failures in the past can impede God’s redemptive work in the present. Recognition of personal sin is certainly a healthy starting point, but a myopic focus on such matters can unintentionally blind us to the amazing truth of grace. This infatuation on past failures could in turn paralyze us with guilt, rather than motivating us to move forward in life as objects of God’s love. Everyone has committed acts of which they are ashamed, but through the power of the cross, we are released from the burdens of our past and set free to fulfill our eternal calling in Christ Jesus. Like a bōnenkai, we are exhorted to forget the troubles from our past, but as redeemed individuals, we must not neglect to celebrate in faith new and better things to come, while remembering where we came from. Our new life in Jesus compels us to forget, but at the same time, remember.

KFC & Christmas Traditions

For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.” Luke 12:23

KFC Xmas

The presence of a life-sized plastic statue of Colonel Sanders dressed in a Santa suit in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken store marked our initial realization that Christmas was celebrated differently in Japan. While we associate Christmas with many traditions in the West, dining on KFC chicken is not one them. However, in Japan, eating Kentucky Fried chicken is widely considered to be the meal of choice for Christmas. This unusual tradition began in 1974 when KFC promoted fried chicken as a Christmas meal calling it “Kentucky Christmas” (ケンタッキークリスマス) as part of a clever advertising campaign. Since Japan had few established Christmas traditions at the time, and turkey was generally unavailable, the idea quickly caught on and became part of the Japanese psyche of how Christmas should be properly celebrated. This custom became so popular that approximately 3.6 million Japanese families now order their Kentucky Christmas weeks in advance and then endure long lines to pick up their holiday meal. Perhaps this link to a KFC commercial with a popular Japanese Christmas song will make you want to rush out and order your own Kentucky Christmas! https://youtu.be/umHfb1JHovA

Christmas Day is not designated as a national holiday in Japan, which alters some of the rhythms we normally associate with Christmas. For example, the Kentucky Christmas, or some other substitute, is generally eaten on Christmas Eve after all the members of the family have returned from work or school. The meal is almost always followed by what is called a “Christmas cake,” which is traditionally a sponge cake decorated with strawberries and whipped cream. Some say this custom began when strawberries were difficult to purchase at that time of year, so they represented economic prosperity and the red color was associated with Christmas. In recent years, Pizza Hut has tried to start its own Christmas campaign and was successful to such an extent that pizza is now considered acceptable Christmas cuisine. With the passage of time and through increasing influence from the West, the concept of Christmas has become wildly popular in Japan, as evidenced by the presence of Christmas decorations and music in most stores, special Christmas light displays, and an exchange of presents. In addition, many families now purchase and decorate their own Christmas tree.

Lost in this commercialized holiday shuffle is a genuine understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. Thanks to Japanese merchants eager to capitalize on the event and misconceptions imported from abroad, Christmas in Japan has largely become a shallow celebration rooted in self-indulgence earmarked by food, fun music, appealing decorations and shopping. While these things may be enjoyed and none of them are essentially bad, an overemphasis on the trappings of Christmas can easily lead one to lose a balanced perspective that “life is more than food” (Luke 12:23). In reality, we have far greater needs that can ever be filled through commercial promises of food, festivities and even family. Christmas represents something much deeper that only God could provide. Rather than a Kentucky Christmas, God’s campaign to redeem mankind began with a Bethlehem Christmas, which is a story worth retelling and certainly celebrating. This is “food” that will satisfy for eternity.

Sacred Treasures

“for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”  Philippians 4:11b

Sacred Treasures

According to ancient tradition, whenever a new Japanese emperor ascends to power, he is entrusted with three sacred items as part of the enthronement ceremony. The presentation of these special objects by the Shinto priests serves to establish the new ruler’s authority and validates his right to reign. Historically, these items are referred to as the “three sacred treasures” (三種の神器) and consist of a mirror (representing wisdom), a sword (symbolizing valor) and a jewel (signifying benevolence).

Following the devastation of World War II, most Japanese were left destitute and longed for a better life. Therefore, members of the media spoke of the “new three sacred treasures” that everyone was seeking to obtain as a symbol of status and improved living conditions. These “treasures” were identified as a washing machine, a refrigerator and a television, since very few Japanese could afford such luxuries at the time. For example, in the early 1950s, a young salaried worker only earned about ¥10,000 per month, but a small fridge cost around ¥85,000 and a black/white TV was generally priced at ¥140,000. Such everyday conveniences were well beyond the reach of the vast majority of Japanese. However, as the economy steadily improved with prices going down and wages going up, many more people were soon able to purchase these once unobtainable “sacred” objects. This trend increased to such an extent that by 1964, almost 90% of all households in Japan owned these items. As to be expected, new luxury items were sought after, so an automobile, an air conditioner and a color TV were soon identified as the “new three sacred treasures” everyone longed to possess. These in turn gave way to newer or bigger “treasures” such as luxury vacations, expensive cameras, computers, designer goods, cell phones and the list goes on and on. Life became increasingly easier in Japan, but did such treasures bring genuine satisfaction?

Obviously, the answer is “no,” as true happiness does not originate from the quantity or quality of our possessions. Rather, genuine contentment and satisfaction stems from something much deeper, beginning with a heart set on the things of God. The Apostle Paul hinted at this truth when he shared part of his testimony in Philippians 4, where he declared he had learned contentment that wasn’t dependent upon his circumstances. In the course of his life, Paul had experienced both abundance and scarcity, but because God was the ultimate “treasure” that he sought, he was able to find contentment in either situation. This is the opposite approach of the world around us, which erroneously pursues a contentment grounded in things or activities rather than the person of God. This is why Jesus advised His followers not to store up treasures on earth, but instead, store up treasures in heaven. Jesus then went on to wisely note that our hearts are closely linked to whatever treasures we value. (Matthew 6:19-21) In reality, there is only one “sacred treasure” worth pursuing, and that is God Himself. Nothing else is deserving of our devotion, time or energy in comparison.

Getting Clean

“Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?” Proverbs 20:9

onsen

Japan is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 2,500-mile geographic arc notorious for destructive volcanic activity and earthquakes, but it is accompanied by a major benefit… a preponderance of onsens. Onsens (温泉) are geothermally heated springs, found throughout Japan, and they are widely used for bathing. Because of the abundance of such naturally heated water, the act of bathing is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and has become a popular form of relaxation, not just a utilitarian exercise in hygiene. The entire economy of some small towns is driven by the availability of onsens in their area, attracting thousands of tourists eager to test the local waters. Large onsen hotels draw customers by offering a variety of baths in an attractive venue and serving a special meal. Almost all of the onsens, whether they are large or small, feature an outdoor portion called a “rotenburo,” which is usually situated in a peaceful, natural setting to enhance relaxation.

Onsens are not to be confused with a sento, which is also a public bath, but the water in a sento is heated artificially and therefore doesn’t contain any local minerals which onsen operators eagerly advertise to attract customers. The universal symbol for hot springs in Japan is the simple mark ♨, but as alternative, the Japanese characters 湯 or more simply ゆ are frequently used. These symbols guide eager patrons searching for a place to unwind from the stress of everyday life while serving the dual purpose of getting clean.

The procedure for using such bathing facilities is universal in Japan and instructions for the inexperienced foreigner are often posted. Bathing stations come equipped with stools, showers, faucets, a portable basin and usually, soap and shampoo, although many customers choose to bring their own, along with a small hand towel for washing. The ritual of bathing MUST be performed before entering the pools shared with others and many bathers discretely use their personal hand towel as a form of modesty. Once a popular practice, mixed bathing has almost disappeared in Japan, but many places still prohibit tattoos in an effort to discourage members of the yakuza (Japanese mafia) from coming. Some older Japanese apartments did not have their own bath or shower, so people who resided in such places routinely used the neighborhood “mom and pop” onsen or sento to get clean. These, too, are rapidly becoming relics of the past as the trend is towards larger venues offering a variety of options, including a restaurant and shops selling local merchandise.

People frequent onsens for a variety of reasons, but the basic objective remains the same: to get clean. However, there is an essential form of cleanliness that is not available at the local hot spring or through any human endeavor. That is a cleansing of the heart. No amount of scrubbing, soap or hot water can rid us of our sinful thoughts, words and actions before a holy, righteous God. Recognizing this conundrum, the author of Proverbs 20:9 wrote in despair: “Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?” The obvious, yet unsettling answer to his question is: “no one.” But fortunately, there is one exception to this rule. That is Jesus, the Son of God, who alone lived a sinless life and through His sacrificial death, provided cleansing and forgiveness for all. Therefore, the Apostle John could declare with boldness: “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify (cleanse) us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9) That is real cleansing.