Neighborhood Music

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”       II Corinthians 5:1

5pm chime2 Throughout Japan, usually at 5 pm, a standard melody is played over loudspeakers placed strategically within the local communities. Known affectionately as the 五時のチャイムor “5 pm Chime,” it is officially part of the Municipal Disaster Management Radio Communication Network (it is quite a mouthful in Japanese as well).

This network of speakers is part of a nationwide system designed to warn residents in the event of an emergency due to a natural disaster or even the launch of missiles from North Korea. These warnings almost became routine to us while working in a disaster zone where we experienced repeated aftershocks and tsunami warnings following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. In addition to emergency announcements, many communities utilize this system to notify residents of local events or to report the presence of suspicious persons and even wildlife. It was quite common for us to receive loudspeaker warnings of local bear sightings when we lived in a more rural area.

Some residents regard these daily announcements as an annoyance, particularly if your house is located within close proximity of one of the speakers and your neighborhood adds a 6 am “wake up song” to its repertoire. The 5 pm Chime song that is played most frequently is an instrumental version of “Yuyaku Koyake,” roughly translated as “Sunset,” and is a famous Japanese children’s folk song with the lyrics dating back to 1919. (Antonin Dvorak actually composed the song as part of his Symphony No. 9 and when words were added, it was given the title “Going Home.”) You can go here to listen to it as we would experience on a daily basis:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFWZ5-bd7nQ. Some communities play alternative songs, including well-known western tunes such as “Edelweiss,” “Auld Lang Syne” and “Moon River.”

The stated purpose of the 5 pm chime is to ensure that the broadcast system is working correctly, but it also serves to remind children that playtime is over and that they should return home with the setting sun. However, for people like us and for many Japanese as well, this melancholic melody that was once a part of our daily routine prompts feelings of nostalgia for days gone by full of friends and related activities.

It is actually quite normal to long for places, people and for circumstances that no longer exist when faced with unwelcome challenges and an uncertain future. We are naturally inclined to seek permanence and peace that somehow eludes us in the present, so we mistakenly convince ourselves that we possessed such things in the past. But God has created us for something else that is beyond our past and present experiences. Our permanent home awaits us in eternity. So the temporary joys of our present, as well as our past life, are only a dim shadow of things to come. The 5 pm chime is a reminder that we are just presently camping. We have yet to occupy our eternal home in heaven.

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)

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.

Convenience Stores

“But godliness with contentment is great gain.“                               I Timothy 6:6

konbini2

In recent years, Japan has assimilated many English words into its vocabulary, often altering them and then pouring a distinctive new meaning into the newly created term. A prime example of this is the word “konbini,” which is a derivative of the word “convenience.” Konbini are essentially the modern variation of local mom and pop stores, which used to service most of Japan but are now rapidly moving towards extinction. Numbering over 50,000 stores in Japan, konbini are still increasing at a torrid pace and these stores are aptly named as they truly provide a convenient service to the local communities.

In America, we are accustomed to a plethora of snacks and a few basic commodities being sold where we purchase gasoline, but the konbini stands on its own, offering a wide variety of services and products within its limited space. Did you forget your lunch? The konbini offers a wide selection of both hot and cold foods, with much of it prepared on site. Do you need to pay your utility bills? Just hand over your invoice and the required cash to the person working at the register. Traveling to the airport by public transportation and don’t want to lug your heavy suitcase on crowded trains? Drop it off at the konbini, pay the fee and your baggage will be waiting for you at the airport the next day. Need some extra cash or a copy of an important document? Every konbini has its own ATM and copy machine. Is there a movie, play or concert you want to attend? Tickets for upcoming events can be easily purchased at the konbini. Need a café latte and a pastry to get you through your day? No problem. The konbini is there to serve you. The staff at each konbini are well trained and immediately spring into action whenever a customer approaches the counter needing service.

For the weary traveler seeking a pit stop or for those walking in the neighborhood, clean toilet facilities are a standard and very welcome feature. For the local patron who walks or bikes to the konbini, most of the basic essentials found in a large grocery store are kept in stock and sold 24/7. Young neighborhood children are safe on their own to purchase last minute items for a busy mom while neighbors and groups of students mingle inside or outside of the store. The konbini is increasingly playing an important role within the local community.

A word somewhat linked to convenience is the word “contentment,” which is a virtue closely associated with godliness. While the konbini provides an invaluable service of convenience to individuals and the community, its popular emergence reveals our desire for a world where everything is readily available within reach of our fingertips and in plentiful supply. Convenience is normally a good thing, but in this life we will inevitably experience inconvenience, when we lack certain items or services. If we are not on guard, this disparity between our desires and reality can subtly lead to feelings of discontentment when we are inconvenienced. Contentment, not convenience, should be at the top of our “shopping list,” as it reflects a faith in God to provide whatever we need, whenever we need it. Such a perspective is not for sale at the local konbini, but is worth all we have to offer.

Sorting Out the Trash

 

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”             Philippians 3:7-8a

gomi3

Everyday life in Japan can present quite a few challenges for newcomers. For example, the correct separation of the trash (called “gomi” in Japanese) is a ritual that foreigners must learn in order to live in harmony with their neighbors and demonstrate cultural sensitivity.

In Japan, gomi is classified into many different categories. Herein lies the immediate challenge for a novice. First of all, it is essential to know the basic genres of gomi, which are burnable, unburnable and recyclable. In addition, there is often a separate category for clean plastics and another one for hazardous waste items like batteries, thermometers etc. Additional fees are charged for the pickup of larger stuff ranging from furniture to refrigerators. Collection days for differing categories of gomi, using specific collection bags, vary according to one’s local neighborhood and city regulations. The list of rules defining such matters is endless. For example, aerosol cans must be carefully punctured, newspapers and clean milk cartons should be tied up with a specific string, fluorescent tubes must be placed in their original boxes and branches must be bundled in tidy piles not exceeding a certain length etc. etc.

The classification of certain items can differ from area to area and the breakdown of recyclable categories can be even more complicated. Thick pamphlets are produced and duly distributed to insure compliance and protect well-intentioned people from folly. Any gomi that is incorrectly prepared or deposited on the wrong day is rejected by the trash collectors with a large X sticker, with the expectation that the gomi transgressor will shamefully haul it back home. As a consequence of all these regulations, everyone maintains multiple garbage cans in their homes designated for different types of gomi. All members of the household are well drilled on what gomi goes out on what day and everyone (incredibly) cooperates.

In Philippians 3, the Apostle Paul gave great advice about sorting out “trash” of a different sort that we would do well to heed. He testified that there are many things this world has to offer that we may be tempted to value or collect, but we must constantly evaluate them with a heavenly perspective. Upon closer inspection, they pale in value when compared to the eternal worth of knowing Jesus. Like sorting out the trash, we need to be good stewards of what has been entrusted to us while also exercising diligence in disposing of anything in our lives not closely aligned with God’s purposes.

Toilet Technology

“…they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”         Genesis 3:7b

Toilet 4

Japan had a problem, so researchers and innovators solved it in a uniquely Japanese way—they invented the Otohime (Sound Princess) toilet accessory. Back in the 1980s, Japanese environmentalists were alarmed when they discovered that women across the country were wasting water in public restrooms by flushing the toilet multiple times in order to mask bodily noises. Initially, an education campaign to save on water was launched to solve this problem, but it had minimal impact. In response to this crisis, Toto, a major Japanese toilet manufacturer, developed a toilet noise masker, which helped women preserve their dignity and the country to conserve water. These simple electronic devices were initially mounted in bathroom stalls where the occupant could easily activate it by simply pressing a button, producing the equivalent sound of a flushing toilet. Soon, pocket-sized versions were sold that could be taken anywhere, which are now being replaced by a phone app that serves the same purpose.

This is only one example of how Japan remains on the cutting edge of toilet technology as the traditional “squatty potty,” once commonly used throughout the country, heads towards extinction and gives way to the multi-faceted “washlet toilet.” These modern bathroom marvels exhibit several functions, ranging from seat warmer, pulsating water jets for bidet and posterior wash, automatic lid opening, automatic flushing and a blow dryer. Some versions even play relaxing music for the user. It is predicted that more advanced models will soon include medical sensors that will be able to measure blood sugar, pulse, blood pressure and even the body fat of those sitting upon them. Talking toilets that greet the occupant and accept verbal commands are also in the development stage. Fortunately, most buttons on these ceramic wonders are now identified by pictograms, as earlier Japanese only models led to some rather comical situations for foreigners unable to decipher the instructions.

While we may admire such technology that deals with unpleasant situations, it certainly has its limits. Like Adam and Eve who vainly tried to hide their disobedience to God through makeshift clothing, all attempts to cover our sins before our Maker are comparable to a toilet noise masker. He is not deceived by what goes on behind the closed doors of our lives while we make futile efforts to preserve or promote a false virtuosity to others. Improved technology can certainly help prevent the wasting of water, but only full obedience and an open heart to the things of God can avert the wasting of our lives.

A Dangerous Morsel

“The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.”                                                                                                                                                                Proverbs 18:8

Diners at the sushi restaurant admired the paper-thin slices of raw pufferfish sashimi artfully arranged before them on the platter in the shape of a chrysanthemum, while naively ignoring its potential danger. One tiny mistake by the highly trained sushi chef could result in the death of those enjoying this popular Japanese delicacy. A poisonous neurotoxin, located primarily in the liver and ovaries of the pufferfish, is 1,200 times more lethal than cyanide, with no known antidote. More than one hundred people die annually from eating improperly prepared pufferfish, known as “fugu” in Japanese.

Some fugu aficionados actually choose to dine at specialty sushi restaurants where microscopic portions of the poison are purposefully not removed by the chef so that the consumer can experience a bit of a buzz or tingling sensation. As a precaution in such cases, the chef is required to sample the sushi to verify that it is safe. Due to its deadly toxicity, the government has banned the sale of whole pufferfish to the general public and it is the only food the emperor of Japan is forbidden by law to eat in order to ensure his safety.

The Scriptures point to the existence of other dangerous morsels parallel the peculiar culinary habits of eating fugu. The Book of Proverbs compares gossip or slander to a delicious morsel that can be appealing to our sense of taste or sight, but produces deadly effects when consumed. It begins when our sinful nature tempts us to listen to the reports of others’ misfortunes or misdeeds in the form of gossip, which may or may not be grounded in truth. The ingestion of such morsels can produce deep wounds in both the listener and the person who is the center of such malicious gossip. Like a deadly toxin, it has the potential to penetrate one’s inmost being and as a consequence, destroy relationships and reputations. This is why we are instructed to put a guard on our hearts, restricting our diet to things that are true, right, holy and honoring to God. Just as there are healthy and unhealthy food choices we must make every day, gossip has harmful effects on the lives of those who choose to consume it.