Hope for the Hopeless

“Where then is my hope—who can see any hope for me?” Job 17:15

Man leaning hands against wall

The train came to an unexpected stop and was shortly followed by the vague announcement: “We regret to inform you that this train has been delayed by a human accident.” While the passengers were annoyed by the sudden inconvenience that likely affected thousands of commuters, no one appeared to be surprised. They all instinctively knew that someone had chosen to take their life by jumping in front of a train. When I first experienced this, I didn’t know which was more shocking… that a person had committed suicide in close proximity to us, or that no one seemed to care. While one life came to a sudden end, life in Japan continued to move on.

Suicide has long been a national issue in Japan as it continues to rank towards the top among countries with high suicide rates. The root causes are many, such as the loss of employment, broken relationships, bullying in school, health issues and financial hardships. In most cases, varying degrees of depression are closely linked with these life calamities. Historically, the incidence of suicide is much higher among men than women in Japan. The high incidence of suicide in Japan may be partly due to a somewhat noble tradition associated with the act of taking one’s own life, particularly in military service. For example, samurai warriors would sometimes commit “seppuku,” using a short sword to avoid dishonor. In WWII, “kamikaze” pilots sacrificed their lives by crashing their planes into enemy ships, and ground troops sometimes launched suicidal “banzai” charges in the face of impossible odds for the higher honor of serving their country. In similar fashion, the modern “warrior,” or Japanese businessman, sometimes feels obligated to take his life in the face of personal failure or an exposed company scandal.

In present times, a large wooded area dubiously dubbed “Suicide Forest,” located at the base of Mt. Fuji, has become a popular place for many hurting souls to end their lives in a natural setting. Leaping onto railroad tracks is another venue frequently used in suicide attempts, but Japan Rail (JR) is implementing measures to curtail this trend. Track barriers are now installed in many stations, notices are posted on the platform urging those considering suicide to contact a special hotline and blue-tinted lights, which supposedly have a calming effect on people, are placed strategically throughout stations.

Research reveals that suicide rates in Japan have moderately declined in recent years, but this does not mask the many underlying problems that lead some to such a point of desperation. Several surveys indicate that Japanese in general, when compared to other people groups, have a more pessimistic outlook on life and therefore, lack a meaningful sense of hope. Despite being a country of affluence and safety, many seem to identify with the biblical character Job, who in the depth of his pain piteously cried out to his unsympathetic friends: “Where then is my hope—who can see any hope for me?”

The pain that flows from the inevitable hardships of life can destructively cause us to turn inward and lead to despair. But as the people of God we are called to turn outward in the midst of such challenges and look up to God, the true source of hope. This hope is not grounded in our feelings, the actions of others or altered circumstances, but in God Himself, who seeks our good and acts on our behalf for His eternal purposes. Therefore, we can genuinely pray with the psalmist “Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him.” (Psalm 62:5) In Him, there is hope for the hopeless.

Record Keeping

“However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Luke 10:20

construction record3

Japanese seem to have a particular affinity for record keeping. We first noticed this tendency at construction sites, where a worker would routinely pose in front of a project for a picture while holding a chalk board. On that board would be written the date and a brief description of the work they had just completed. The job might involve something as minor as repairing a pothole in the road, but photographic evidence of the completed project was duly recorded. The picture was then probably submitted with a report and filed somewhere with millions of other similar items within the black hole of Japanese archives.

Recording and keeping essential information is a mainstay of modern civilization, but Japan appears to have a particular penchant for this activity. For example, parents are expected to submit regular reports confirming that their children completed assigned homework. During the summer, such reports are expanded to include personal hygiene practices and chores around the house to ensure the maintenance of important routines during school holidays. Zealous new parents can purchase “baby diaries” to record essential information, such as the frequency of diaper changes, bottle feedings, daily temperatures, physical growth, appearance of teeth and the introduction of different foods into the baby’s diet.

Precise record keeping is considered essential for tracking even the most minor lost items. Upon being turned in, the items are routinely tagged, numbered, and documented with the hope of returning them to the rightful owner. Minutes are scrupulously taken at every meeting and there seems to be a form for everything that must be completed and then put on file. As a young church planter, I soon discovered that I was expected to keep a record of everything that took place at the church for future reference. In so doing, I also became a cog in the vast machine storing information for generations to come.

When the seventy-two disciples Jesus sent out returned from their initial ministry experience, they were understandably excited to report the details of what they had seen and experienced (Luke 10). As we constantly engage with life, experiencing its highs and lows, we are naturally inclined to become preoccupied with the details of this world and, consequently, often fail to appreciate the significance of the world to come. This is where Jesus’ reply to His early followers (“do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” Luke 10:20) serves to put such things in perspective and helps us not to lose sight of the forest of eternity as we wander among the trees of daily life. While we may be inclined to get overly excited or overly disappointed with the details of this life, we should never forget that our names are recorded for eternity in heaven. This means that all that we do, all that we value and all that we experience is grounded in an eternal relationship with God that can never be erased. Our lives have meaning and all that we offer up to God in our worship of Him is recorded for eternity. That is certainly a cause for much rejoicing.

Aliens

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,”  Ephesians 2:19

Gaijin

When we arrived in Japan for the first time in 1984, airport immigration officials directed us, along with the other obvious foreigners, to proceed towards the sign marked “ALIENS.” Such was our introduction to Japan. While we were not creatures from another planet, it was abundantly clear to us from the outset that in Japan, we were different. We had expected to stand out in the crowds due to our size, hair color and speech (and my nose!), but we soon realized that we were permanently relegated to a class of non-Japanese known as “gaijin.” Everywhere we went, people typically stared at us, adults wanted to touch our kids’ blond hair and Japanese children excitedly pointed their fingers at us while declaring the obvious, that we were “gaijin.”

The term gaijin (外人) means literally “outside person” and since Japan is an island nation comprised of one predominate ethnic group speaking a uniform language, it is understandable why, historically, all non-Japanese were considered to be outsiders. The Japanese concept of group consciousness also factors into this perception, where one is either “in” or “out” when social and relational lines are routinely drawn within daily interactions.

However, globalization is rapidly changing such attitudes toward the outside world as Japan’s isolation is increasingly penetrated by the onslaught of modern communication and travel. The world has come to Japan. Foreigners are no longer considered a novelty and as a result, we are now rarely singled out as “gaijin.” The finger pointing has largely ceased and the more polite term “gaikokujin” has replaced the somewhat pejorative label of “gaijin.” Foreigners now comprise almost 2% of the population and that percentage will likely continue to increase as Japan becomes steadily more dependent on outside workers to supplement its rapidly shrinking labor force. This is good news for foreigners seeking employment and an improved social status within Japan.

One of the many amazing aspects of the gospel, or the Good News of Jesus Christ, is its power to break down the tribalistic tendencies of mankind that often lead to self-destruction. Our natural inclination is to splinter into warring factions along social, racial, cultural, national, economic and ethnic lines. But the good news is that God took on flesh through His Son and entered into a divided world to offer reconciliation between not only men, but more importantly, between God and men. All of us were gaijin, outside of the presence of God, but now we are offered citizenship in His eternal kingdom and welcomed as family members into His household. Through the cross, the lines that once divided us have been redrawn. We are aliens no more and that is truly Good News!

Business Cards

“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” Psalm 139:1

Meishi3

Following a subtle bow of acknowledgement, I pretended to study the information on the card I now held politely with both hands. As the situation demanded, I feigned proper interest in the card and the individual I received it from did the same with mine as we engaged in what I call the “meishi dance”. A meishi (名刺) is a Japanese business card which is routinely exchanged in initial encounters, particularly in business relationships. The work I was currently engaged in involved meeting hundreds of individuals, so over the course of time, I had accumulated quite a stack of meishi along with a jumbled collection of faces those cards represented.

Like many other customs in Japan, there is an established protocol for the exchange of meishi. To fully grasp the subtleties of the meishi dance, it is important to bear in mind that each card serves as an extension of the person whose information is recorded on it. Therefore, the meishi itself should be treated with respect which in turn, has bearing on how the card is received. For example, it is best to stand erect when receiving or presenting a meishi and the information on it must face the recipient, holding the card carefully in the corners so it can be easily read. A respectful bow should precede the passing of the meishi and the card should be received with both hands. The information recorded on the meishi should then be carefully studied, particularly noting titles or status. If you are in a meeting where everyone is seated, the card(s) should be placed in front of you on the table for reference. Upon receiving someone’s meishi, you should never treat it disrespectfully like jamming it into your pocket or writing notes on it. Many businessmen carry around mini cases for protecting their own meishi and for the temporary storage of those they receive.

There is, of course, a limitation as to how much information a person can include on a meishi, even if both sides of the card are used. In brief social or business interactions, our capacity for absorbing details and even caring about the individual standing before us is restricted by our time, energy, mood, circumstances and intellect. But not so with God. The psalmist marvels at the extent that God intimately knows us, not just through observable actions, but from probing our thoughts and intentions from the moment we were conceived up to the minute when we draw our final breath.

This means that I am infinitely more than just a few scraps of information recorded on a card collecting dust in someone’s file. I am a creation of the God of the Universe who knows me far, far more than my most faithful friend, closest relative or intimate love interest and He genuinely and passionately treasures me. Such knowledge and care should provoke me to respond, not in feigned interest, but to bow in adoration and obedience. Perhaps in response, it is best to observe the protocol modeled by the same psalmist in Psalm 139. This is a meishi dance worth emulating:

  • I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful. (14)
  • How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! (17)
  • Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. (23) 
  • See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (24)

Slipper Etiquette

“You hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”  Matthew 23:25

Slippers

Shame can occur in many forms in Japan, but a rather comical and fairly common shame-related incident is for a guest to absentmindedly wear slippers designated exclusively for the toilet area into other parts of the house. This is considered to be a significant faux pas in Japanese culture, but even though it is acutely embarrassing for the unwitting perpetrator, it is usually ignored by polite hosts. However, to grasp the import of this particular incident, one must understand the broader concept of slipper etiquette in Japan and the values that undergird it.

Every house and even the tiniest apartments in Japan have at their entrance a space called the “genkan.” It might be referred to it as an “entry way” or something similar in western culture, but the purpose of the genkan is very specific. It is the designated area that separates outside dirt or uncleanness from the interior of one’s living area because it is unthinkable in Japan to wear shoes used outdoors into a house. Therefore, shoes are customarily removed in the lower part of the genkan while being careful not to step on the “contaminated” floor in socked feet. Following this initial maneuver, one is then expected to step up to the elevated portion of the genkan into slippers that are provided by the host. Usually, the host will then proceed to turn your shoes to face the door in the lower half of the genkan for your eventual departure. However, all this is only the first phase of proper slipper etiquette.

A general rule of thumb for successfully adapting to different customs in a foreign culture is to observe and copy the locals. The same applies to entering someone’s house as a guest and knowing where it is okay to walk in your provided slippers, as there can be subtle differences in application. For example, the common practice is NOT to wear slippers on tatami mats (woven straw flooring), a porch, balcony or in the toilet area. Different slippers are usually provided for the bathroom since that area represents another degree of uncleanness that should not be carried into other parts of the house. Separate slippers for a porch area are usually conveniently located at the entrance should someone chose to venture from the “clean” area of the house.

While it is not practical for companies and businesses to restrict employees or customers from entering their premises in outside shoes, it is surprising to observe that public schools, churches, hospitals, public baths and some hotels typically maintain the practice of expecting people to take off their shoes at the entrance. To facilitate this on a large scale, an array of small lockers or cubby holes are located nearby for the temporary storage of outside shoes and a steady supply of clean slippers are provided for general use.

In the Old Testament, God’s chosen people, the Jews, were well drilled on ceremonial law and as a result, they were fastidious in their efforts to ensure cleanliness in the external aspects of their daily lives. However, as Jesus strongly pointed out, this emphasis on external cleanliness often failed to carry over to the far more important dimension of moral cleanness. In fact, Jesus was quite outspoken in his criticism of this hypocrisy because matters of the heart or soul always outweigh superficial, external activities. The prophet Isaiah was keenly aware of this inconsistency when he cried out “Woe to me. I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5) This verse is a vivid reminder that while it is a good thing to keep dirt out of one’s house, we should be far more diligent to avoid defilement in our lives.

Folded with a Purpose

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”             Psalm 139:14

Origami2

A basic handicraft enjoyed throughout Japan by both young and old is origami (折り紙). Originating from the words ori, meaning “fold,” and kami, meaning “paper,” origami is simple enough for an unlearned novice or child, yet sufficiently challenging for the most trained expert. The goal of origami is to transform a simple piece of paper through a series of folds into a finished sculpture. Before it is manipulated into a work of art, all origami begins as a square sheet of paper which is sold in packages at most local stores.

Modern origami procedures generally discourage cutting, gluing or marking the paper, unlike older Japanese versions that permitted such actions. When Japan began to import ideas and technology from the West in the 1800s, the present style of origami gradually became common practice. This pattern came largely through German influence, which had its own style of art and rules connected with paper folding.

Japanese origami dates back to at least 1680 when it was briefly referred to in a short poem by Ihara Saikaku. Since then, it has evolved into various types, with some actually having moving parts. Another category is called “modular origami,” which requires assembling multiple origami creations to form a larger object. The practice of paper folding has even been applied to currency: “moneygami” converts ordinary paper money into intricate works of art.

Perhaps the most beloved origami model is the Japanese crane, which is traditionally associated with mythical powers of health, luck or long life. According to Japanese legend, the gods will grant extended life or good fortune to anyone who folds a thousand cranes. Literally hundreds of these thousand-crane-strands are typically hung in the atomic bombing peace memorial sites, representing a desire for peace and prayers for the souls who perished nearby.

The skill and craftsmanship required to produce the more intricate forms of origami is stunning, but it doesn’t begin to compare with the incredible creativity and power on display in the life of every human being on this planet. The psalmist marveled at the work of God when considering his own mortal frame and in turn responded in praise of His Creator. We were “folded” with a purpose, and that is to honor God in the unique way that He has created each one of us. We are His works of art, demonstrating God’s favor upon us.

A High Place

“He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights.”            Psalm 18:33

high ground 2

The importance of being located near a high place or “takadai” (高台) in a tsunami prone area became vividly real to us shortly after we arrived to assist with relief efforts following the cataclysmic Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. At the bottom of one particular set of stairs leading up a steep hill in a tsunami ravished town, we were puzzled to discover a jumble of carts typically used for transporting small children. When we raised our eyes to survey the landscape below us, we soon noticed what remained of a Japanese preschool that had been obliterated just a few days earlier by the massive onslaught of water. Then we understood the mystery of the jumbled carts. Following the siren warnings of a coming tsunami, teachers at that school had obviously snatched up all the children in their care and fled to the nearest takadai for safety. Later, we were thankful to learn that only one child from that particular school perished that day, but stories up and down the coast were far more sobering.

As many of the towns and villages in that part of Japan are forced to hug the coastline due to adjacent mountains, inhabitants can become easily trapped by an incoming tsunami. Therefore, it is important to know where a nearby takadai is located and how to access it. Evacuation signs to higher ground are common place in these areas and sets of stairs that often seemingly lead to nowhere are part of the proactive measures taken to save lives in the event of another disaster.

Much of the energy on those ravaged coastlines continues to be focused on ensuring the safety of residents against future calamities. In some localities, major construction projects are raising the level of towns while leveling nearby mountains for fill dirt, that in turn become alternative sites for rebuilding on higher ground. Crumbled seawalls are also being demolished and reconstructed according to taller specifications, as the general aim is to move everything higher. The quest for a takadai understandably seems to be the preoccupation of most surviving local residents who seek to rebuild their homes, businesses, schools and hospitals on higher ground. There they would have assurance of safety, security, normalcy, and more importantly, a measure of control over their lives which they dramatically lost on March 11, 2011.

Under such circumstances, one can easily understand the desire to obtain a takadai, but an imbalanced pursuit of safety and security in a world full of potential threats can actually lead us astray. As we struggle with the inevitable challenges of life, we may be tempted, apart from God, to seek “higher ground” upon which to build our lives, with safety and security being our sole objectives. God does not guarantee such things in our present life but instead, we are exhorted to flee to Him when life seems dangerous or out of control. He alone is our takadai or higher ground. There is no place safer.