Different Deaths

 “Who can live and not see death, or who can escape the power of the grave?” Psalm 89:4

Different Deaths

Mr. Watanabe* was only 39 years old when he suddenly passed away, shocking everyone who knew him. In contrast, Mr. Suzuki’s* death at age 64 was not particularly unusual, but it shocked people for different reasons. Further details revealed that Mr. Watanabe probably died from karōshi (“death from overwork”) and the circumstances associated with Mr. Suzuki’s death classified it as a “solitary death,” or kodokushi. The common Japanese character in both of these terms for death is shi (死). It is often used in association with other characters to indicate the particular nature of a person’s demise, such as death from starvation, disease, suicide or battle.

The term karōshi, was coined in 1978 to describe the increasingly reported phenomenon of relatively young adults dying prematurely and the cause of their deaths being primarily linked to extreme overwork. Most of these individuals labored for long hours over an extended period of time with no days off until they eventually collapsed due to a combination of stress, exhaustion and poor dietary habits. Heart attacks and strokes were the most common results and many resorted to taking their own lives in desperation. Some surviving relatives began to file lawsuits against companies that were guilty of forcing impossible working conditions upon their employees. The disturbing trend of such deaths eventually came to the attention of public authorities and prompted government intervention. Karōshi hotlines were set up to offer help, laws were enacted to limit overtime and companies were educated to implement frequent health checks and better working conditions for employees. Workers were also encouraged to take their allotted days off and personal vacation time which many had previously foregone due to work pressures. 

Kodokushi, or “lonely death,” points to a different sociological problem where people become isolated from communities for various reasons and die alone in their residence with their bodies remaining undiscovered for long periods of time. This social anomaly was identified in the 1980s and came to the nation’s attention following the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, when thousands of elderly Japanese were relocated to isolated residences and many mysteriously started to die alone with their deaths going unreported. Further research reveals that this alarming trend is almost unique to men who are over fifty, unemployed, live isolated lives and have minimal contact with family. In some cases, the bodies of such individuals remain undiscovered for years until their bank accounts eventually become depleted, triggering a cessation of automatic payments for their rent and utilities. Toru Koremura, who operates a specialized cleaning company that deals with the unpleasant after effects from such deaths ironically commented, “Dead people have taught me how to live better.” Read the article “The Lonely End” by Matthew Bremner for a sobering account of this phenomenon.  

Regardless of the circumstances of one’s death or the cause of death, there is one common denominator of truth that is universally avoided: we will all eventually die. Some deaths may be unusually tragic, others heroic and some barely noticed, but no one is exempt. Everyone dies, but paradoxically, we generally live our lives pretending otherwise, as the alternative is too frightening. This approach explains why death is described as our ultimate enemy in I Corinthians 15:26, but the passage goes on to announce the glorious news that the power of death is eternally broken by the sacrificial death of God’s own Son (vv. 55-57). Koremura is correct in observing that we can learn much from death, but we need not fear it. I have stood before many graves and read the powerful words “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The answer? It has been defeated by the Cross.

*Both are fictional characters

Super Dads

“Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”            Colossians 3:21

Super Dad

The Japanese have an old saying that goes, “Jishin, kaminari, kaji, oyaji” (地震雷火事親父), which translated, means literally, “earthquake, thunder, fire, father.” The implicit concept behind this proverb is that we should fear our fathers just as we are naturally inclined to fear certain forces in nature. This was the manner in which fathers have been traditionally viewed in Japan, but the Japanese government is now determined to change this age-old perception. With this objective in mind, in 2010 the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare launched the Ikumen Project with the purpose of cultivating a radically new father figure for generations to come.  

Over the centuries, the Japanese father’s primary role was to provide financial security for his family. In modern times, this stereotype was embodied by the salaryman (sarari-man), or white-collar worker, who labored long hours while trying to climb the corporate ladder. This commitment, of course, required extended absences from the home and, consequently, placed an unduly large burden on the mother who was left alone to raise the children and manage the household. These traditional role patterns made it very difficult for married women who wanted to develop their own careers. As a result, many women became increasingly disenchanted with such an unequal division of roles, encouraging many to delay getting married or choosing not to marry at all. Japan’s birth rate, therefore, suffered a precipitous decline, prompting the government to intervene in the form of the Ikumen Project.

The term ‘ikumen” is actually a newly coined term combining the word “ikuji” (childcare) and “ikemen” (hunk; good-looking) to capture the vague meaning of an “attractive man who does it all.” Since the English word “men” is also part of ikumen, that adds another subtle nuance to this increasingly popular expression. The Ikumen Project is basically a government sponsored advertising campaign to reinvent the role of the father. Instead of the traditional distant, workaholic dad, an image of a “new” type of father is proactively promoted through newspapers, magazines, commercials and even mangas. These fathers are smiling, handsome, caring and stylishly dressed. They are typically portrayed as happily helping with household chores and spending meaningful time with their children. Unlike fathers in the past, ikumen delight in cooking, housework and playing with their kids so the overtaxed mom can have more time for other important matters. Through a carefully coordinated campaign, ikumen have become the new super heroes in Japan as they strive to nurture the next generation of workers who will in time deliver Japan from its present economic doldrums. However, some men are starting to protest such expectations as being unrealistic and complain of “ikumen illness,” as they try to meet heavy demands at both work and at home.

The important role of the father is under siege or being redefined in many societies as mores continually change through various cultural influences. While it is taken for granted that the vast majority of fathers love their children and are filled with good intentions, it is not an easy role to consistently fill 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Perhaps the best summary in the Bible of what a dad should aim for is succinctly provided in Ephesians 6:4, where both a restriction and a responsibility are commanded. “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” While ikumen are a carefully constructed ideal, God’s blueprint for the father is a man who strives with all his might to help his children walk in the ways of God. Such a man should be admired, not feared.

Radio Exercises

 “Run in such a way as to get the prize.” I Corinthians 9:24b

Radio Exercises

One day while on an early morning walk through the local park, I stumbled upon a random cluster of people who appeared to have assembled for a specific purpose. The group consisted of mainly older Japanese, but among them was also a smattering of middle-aged members and even a few children. Someone had brought a portable radio and placed it on a nearby bench, which was obviously the focal point of the gathering. They all seemed to be waiting for something to happen. Then at exactly 6:30am, a jaunty piano tune boomed from the radio along with the pronounced chant “ichi, ni, san…” (1, 2, 3…). Mesmerized, I watched as young and old alike proceeded in unison to move their arms, legs, heads and waists in rhythmic motion dutifully obeying the commands blaring forth from the radio. From my vantage point, they looked like marionettes on strings controlled by an invisible puppeteer. I was witnessing rajio taisō (ラジオ体操) in action.

Rajio taisō means literally “radio exercises” and it is basically a series of warm-up calisthenics that are practiced routinely across Japan on a daily basis. School children, random groups of people and even employees at many companies gather daily for this brief three-minute exercise routine designed to promote good health and community relationships. Many others opt to do the program in the privacy of their own home by tuning in to the same broadcast by NHK on either radio or TV. Recent surveys indicate that approximately 27 million Japanese participate in this scripted morning calisthenics program more than twice a week.

The concept of rajio taisō, which was an imported idea from overseas, was introduced to Japan in 1928 following the commencement of Emperor Hirohito’s reign. As part of its advertising strategy, a well-known American life insurance program had just launched the idea of mass calisthenics by sponsoring a 15-minute radio broadcast in several major cities. In Japan, this novel idea was adopted and initially utilized to improve the health and morale of Japanese soldiers. This early manifestation probably explains why similar rajio taisō programs continue to exist in formerly Japanese-occupied nations of Taiwan and China. Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, these seemingly harmless exercises were deemed to be too militaristic in nature by the occupying powers so they were temporarily banned. However, NHK radio (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai—Japan Broadcasting Corporation) revived the custom in 1951 with some alterations under the guidance of the Ministries of Health and Education. It is now broadcast four times a day with the exception of Sunday.

Exercise is obviously a worthy goal as it promotes physical and emotional health as we seek to live productive lives for the glory of God. But there is a higher level of exercise or training that better equips an individual for something better than just athletic competitions. The Apostle Paul alludes to this in I Corinthians 9:24 where he exhorts the people of God to take their spiritual walk seriously, similar to a trained athlete competing for a prize. This daily commitment to the things of God demands training, purposefulness and discipline, just like an athlete striving to win first place in their respective competition. Like rajio taisō, both young and old can join in this worthy endeavor and the spiritual benefits are many. Ichi, ni, san

Watch this link for more information: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIW2PKqwXQc

Participate in rajio taisō by while watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM3d3QP3ylM

Parking

“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land…a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing.”  Deuteronomy 8:7-9

Parking

When one considers the many facets of parking a car in Japan, scarcity is probably the key concept that underlies all related discussion on the topic. Since land is a premium in overcrowded Japan, there is a scarcity of parking spaces in a country that increasingly depends upon the automobile. Despite Japan’s incredibly efficient mass transportation system, the number of cars on the road continues to multiply and this increase creates the problem of where and how to park these cars when not in use. This ongoing parking problem creates an environment where strict controls, parking manners and creative technological solutions work together to manage the situation.

The regulation of parking in Japan begins with the purchase of a vehicle. To obtain legal ownership of a car, everyone is required to have the local police confirm that you actually have a designated place to park it. To discourage illegal parking, fines are quite exorbitant and may cost over $200 plus additional fees depending on the circumstances. Paid parking lots tend to be rather pricey, which explains why some drivers are tempted to look for inexpensive or even illegal alternatives. In the more congested areas, some parking spaces may cost as much as one dollar for every ten minutes. This of course is in addition to the $100-300 a month one may already be paying for a personal parking space near their residence. When we moved to Tokyo and were looking for a place to live, someone tried to interest us in their apartment which had a “cheap” parking spot for $250 a month and was “conveniently” located only a half mile away!

The scarcity of land and potential parking places has given rise to a few innovations to ease this chronic problem. For example, modern parking garages that are typically several stories high will automatically place your car on an elevator for storage. Upon your return, it is easily located and retrieved through a computerized identification system. Unmanned local parking lots often feature a wheel lock device that rises from the ground, which is released when you pay your fee at the nearby machine. Some apartments come equipped with individual two-tiered parking lifts that double their parking capacity. Many who live in older neighborhoods not designed to house modern automobiles painstakingly park their cars in almost impossible tiny spaces. Major shopping complexes often offer two hours of free parking for customers who make purchases and then charge a set fee for any extra time. Parking spaces throughout Japan are generally narrower and designed to accommodate smaller cars.

To facilitate traffic flow in cramped parking lots, most drivers meticulously back their cars into an empty spot for easy exit and enhanced visibility when they pull out. All newer cars come equipped with a button to retract outside mirrors to minimize potential impediments for others trying to reach their parked car and these are routinely used. Here is a link to a video that captures most of these practices: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQj_a6ByEhA

While scarcity of parking is a common annoyance in many parts of Japan, we are often faced with other shortages in life that can be far more distressing. A lack of employment, housing, transportation, clothing, finances or education can invite a sense of desperation that all too easily leads to despair and hopelessness. But just as God led his people, the Israelites, to a “good land” where they “lacked nothing” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9), He delights in providing what we need as we learn to trust Him… even a parking space.

Security

 “It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure.” II Samuel 22:33

Security

I was running late to catch my flight from Sapporo to Tokyo, so I failed to take the usual precautions to prepare for my journey. This lapse became evident when I entered the airport security line and fumbled to remove the loose items in my pocket. To my chagrin, I discovered that I was still carrying my ever-present pocket knife. When I retrieved my laptop from my backpack, I noticed the bottled drink in an outside pocket that I had mindlessly purchased for the trip minutes earlier. No problem. I was in Japan. The security personnel took my knife, apologized profusely and proceeded to place it in a sealed envelope, promising to return it once I disembarked from my plane in Tokyo. The offending plastic bottle of water was removed, examined by a special machine, and put back in place by the efficient white-gloved agent. As I walked through the metal detector, my footwear apparently triggered an alarm. I was therefore politely asked to remove my shoes, step into the provided slippers, and quickly passed through the screening device a second time. Upon exiting, my shoes were placed neatly in front of me with additional apologies.

Following this incident a few months later, I was once again standing in an airport security line, but this time it was back in the States preparing to return to Japan. Like before, I had neglected to remove my treasured pocket knife. Without any evidence of pity, a TSA agent harshly instructed me to toss my keepsake into a nearby barrel along with the illicit possessions of other inattentive travelers. He also promptly declared my medium-sized tube of toothpaste and a freshly purchased can of shaving cream to be contraband, so I reluctantly fed them to the insatiable barrel, joining my knife. While I was still grieving the loss of these items, I hesitantly followed the example of all the other passengers in front of me who were routinely removing their shoes for inspection. I trudged behind them with great reluctance on the unsanitary floor before me in socked feet.

Security was obviously the common goal in these two very diverse experiences, but cultural values and practices shaped it in radically different ways. People in general are understandably driven to pursue security, which is why it is often identified as being a basic human need. However, many of the forms of security we frequently seek easily lend themselves to becoming false gods that potentially lead us astray from the purposes of God. For example, our cravings for financial security, physical security, emotional security, relational security and political security in an unstable world are certainly reasonable, but God does not necessarily promise such things this side of eternity. King David exclaimed in praise that God “keeps my way secure” (II Samuel 22:33), but the events in previous chapters reveal the context in which this was said. They indicate that David had repeatedly refused to take certain measures in his own hands to ensure his personal safety against the schemes of those who sought to take his life. His personal security lay entirely in God’s hands, not his own devices.

Many terms are used to describe God as our source of security, such as our fortress, our rock, our strong tower, our shield, our refuge, our hiding place, and most poignantly, our shepherd. All of these descriptions center on the very character and power of God, without any of them being conditional on who we are or what we do. These are powerful truths we would do well to bear in mind while standing in airport security lines or on other occasions where we are reminded our lives are not in our control.

Inside/Outside

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”  Colossians 3:11

Inside-Outside (2)

In the natural world, it is common for similar species to congregate together for purposes of security and survival. There are quite a variety of names for these different animal clusters. For example, a group of cattle is called a “herd.” Wolves gather in a “pack.” A collection of lions is referred to as a “pride.” Fish swim together in a “school” and penguins huddle side-by-side in a “colony.” Birds fly in a “flock,” baboons live together as a “troop” and an infestation of caterpillars is called an “army.” Along a similar vein, the Japanese tend to identify themselves as belonging to certain social groupings that are described as being either “uchi” (内) or “soto” (外). Uchi means literally “inside” and soto means “outside.”

This uchi/soto distinction is a basic concept woven throughout Japanese society and is even reflected in Japanese language patterns. In contrast to the West, with its focus on the individual, in Japan, inter-social relations and group consciousness take a much higher priority. People generally view themselves as either uchi or soto depending on the particulars of their immediate circumstances and their self-perceived identity within a given setting.

Nowhere is this more evident nor more complex than in the workplace. For example, within a division of a company, one typically regards his or her boss as soto and everyone on their own level as uchi. This perception determines the language patterns one would use when addressing someone considered above you and therefore outside of your group. However, in the case where you are speaking to a person from another company, then you would regard all the personnel of your company as being uchi, which would correspondingly affect your mannerisms and speech patterns. The general idea is that those who are outside of your group should be honored, and those within your group should be humbled. Such patterns of perception and behavior are also evident within schools, clubs, various social circles and even within churches. Obviously, such self-classifications are not static due to ever-changing circumstances, but they do serve to provide one’s need for identity and security within a hierarchical environment.

The concept of uchi and soto is evident on a macro level as well, shaping Japan’s national perception in relation to other countries. It is therefore common practice for the Japanese to refer to themselves as “we Japanese” and all foreigners are classified as “gaijin,” translated literally as “outside person.” While this tendency towards nationalism is common throughout the world, the uchi/soto concept adds another layer of separateness that can make it even more difficult for foreigners to fully integrate into Japanese society.

Such social and ethnic distinctions are certainly not unique to Japan, as the world is rife with divisions based on numerous factors. The message of the Gospel, though, and the establishment of the early church cut across these ancient and discriminatory lines in an unprecedented manner. Even the old barriers between the Jews, or God’s adopted people, and those on the outside known as “Gentiles,” were forever broken down through the power of the cross (Colossians 3:11). More importantly, we were all outside of the grace of God, regarded as “soto,” but in Christ, we are now eternally “uchi.” This stunning change is the miracle of the church and an amazing testimony of the mercy of God.

Neighborhood News

“And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29b

Kairanban

We had not lived in Japan very long before we discovered that community is an important value and good communication within the local neighborhood is considered a critical element for a healthy community. To facilitate this worthwhile objective, we paid a “voluntary” monthly fee to the local neighborhood association for the privilege of membership. This membership kept us in the information loop through a periodic circular notice folder, called a kairanban (回覧板), that is dutifully passed on from neighbor to neighbor. The contents of this folder varied each time, touching on a number of different topics. Some examples of this are local road construction news, dates for public health screenings, information on the neighborhood cleanup day, safety precaution advisories, any changes in garbage collection procedures, notification of local festivals, appeals for charities, local school news, reports of unusual criminal activity, scheduled senior events, and advertisements for local businesses. Most important of all was the routine announcement of the next neighborhood association meeting and the not-so-subtle reminder to attend.

We normally skimmed through the enclosed sheaves of papers, making sure we weren’t missing anything critical in nature, and then stamped our personal seal on it along with the date. This verified that we received the neighborhood news before passing it on to the next person on the list. Although it could be bothersome at times, the kairanban did serve as an additional reminder that we were not just a collection of individuals, but were part of a community.

Since we frequently moved, we were members of many communities in Japan over the years. The strength of our bonds within these communities varied, depending on how long we lived in a particular place, the age of our children and our time availability. In time, we increasingly came to appreciate this structured sense of belonging where neighbors were encouraged to look out for each other and personally invest in the community. We also realized that as foreigners, we were probably under the neighborhood microscope more than the typical Japanese resident. This reality was brought to our attention when a neighbor expressed her sadness at our impending departure, noting that we always put our trash out on the correct days, were diligent in our snow removal, kept our garden up and spoke politely to everyone!  This interaction confirmed what we had long suspected, that as foreigners in the neighborhood, we lived in a goldfish bowl with many people observing us. While this was somewhat intimidating, it was also reassuring that members of the community genuinely cared about us.

 In hosting his long running children’s TV show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Fred Rogers always opened the show with a corny song titled “Won’t You be My Neighbor?”  Through this simple ditty and for the duration of the show, Mr. Rogers emphasized the importance of being a good neighbor. But when another man, from a different era, asked Jesus a similar question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29b) we are told that his real intent wasn’t to promote neighborly behavior, but rather, to justify himself. (v.29a) In response to the man’s question, Jesus proceeded to tell the famous parable of “The Good Samaritan.” (vv. 30-37) This seemingly simple story took the concept of being a neighbor to a much deeper level, revealing the compassionate heart of God and the natural inclination towards self-centeredness in man. Now that we live in the States, a kairanban is no longer delivered to our door but we still have abundant opportunities to practice community on a daily basis. The good Samaritan and Mr. Rogers serve to remind us that our love for God should be reflected in our love for others. This truth is not just a lesson for children. Won’t you be my neighbor?

Empty Foundations

For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”   Hebrews 11:10

Empty FoundationsFollowing the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, a familiar sight along the 500-kilometer (310 miles) stretch of devastated coastline were empty foundations in field after field where bustling towns and villages once stood. Over several months, mountains of debris caused by the tsunami were painstakingly removed and the only remaining evidence of prior human habitation were thousands of vacant concrete slabs. Vegetation slowly took over and the seemingly empty fields eventually begin to appear like ancient archeological ruins lingering from a previous civilization. Long stretches of collapsed sea walls usually accompanied these sites, offering muted testimony of their failure to protect the inhabitants against the destructive forces of nature.

Most of the survivors from this massive disaster were relocated to hastily assembled temporary housing units that were tucked further inland on higher ground. There, the survivors stoically waited for months and then years for the return of normalcy and some form of permanence in their lives. Each community worked with government officials to develop master plans for rebuilding and renewal as they struggled to recover from the past and yet still dreamed of future prospects.

This process understandably took time, and transpired in phases as mammoth machines moved earth and rubble to give way to a new infrastructure, hosting new communities. As part of this transition process, temporary buildings sprang up everywhere, almost like weeds, providing a variety of badly needed services. Temporary grocery stores, gas stations, drinking establishments, restaurants, local shops, business offices, clinics, police stations and even a public bath dotted the landscape, reminding everyone of past and present hardships while fostering hope of a better future. Some businesses managed to reopen on the top floors of badly damaged structures that would later be demolished. All of this served as a constant reminder that we lived in the midst of a deeply stricken community desperately struggling to survive.

Living in such a prefab world only served to increase our thirst for things of a permanent and even eternal nature. As we tread carefully among the rubble of people’s lives, our thoughts were often lifted heavenward and we began to “look forward to a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10) Much like our spiritual father Abraham and other heroes of the faith, many of whose lives are chronicled in that same chapter, the incompleteness or temporary nature of things characterizing our lives reminded us daily of heavenly realities that yet awaited us. As we often pondered on what those empty foundations represented in the past, they also served as a powerful reminder of much greater things that were only visible through eyes of faith. That’s the city we should seek in the midst of life’s storms.

Sumo Ring

“Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.”  Psalm 77:19

yobidashi

If you ever watch or attend a sumo tournament, your attention will be naturally drawn to the behemoth wrestlers in the center of the ring. There, the two contestants skillfully grapple with one another until one wrestler loses by either stepping out of the ring or touches the dirt with any body part besides his feet. Often unnoticed in the midst of this exciting activity are assistants hovering attentively off to the side. These are the yobidashi (呼び出し), the handymen employed by the Japan Sumo Association to perform a number of key tasks essential to the success of every sumo event.

Among their many assigned chores, yobidashi play taiko drums outside to attract customers, display banners before the match, attend to the various needs of the wrestlers and judges, hand out prizes and make certain announcements. However, their chief responsibility entails the proper construction of the elevated sumo ring (dohyō) and they must diligently maintain it throughout the tournament. As part of the maintenance routine, the yobidashi frequently sweep the ring to remove all marks so the judges can readily determine if a wrestler has touched the dirt when the outcome of the contest is uncertain.

The term yobidashi means “to call, or to summon,” which can refer to their role of calling out the wrestlers for a match or to their position of being “on call” for various tasks associated with a sumo tournament. The yobidashi, like the wrestlers themselves, operate within a strict hierarchy, often entering their unique occupation as teenagers and steadily working their way up through the ranks. No more than 45 yobidashi are employed at any given time and they are carefully trained in their techniques with the goal of becoming almost invisible on the sideline as they carry out their duties.

Other sports around the world similarly employ an army of workers and tools for a variety of tasks related to sporting events. Consider the instant replay booth, which helps verify a wide range of actions that take place on the field of competition. Like marks left in a recently swept sumo ring, these technological advances provide additional evidence of what actually transpired, even when such actions escape notice of the human eye in real time. In the same way, the works of God and His activity in the affairs of the world around us, often remain unseen to us. This does not mean that God is not proactively engaged in the things that concern us, but rather, we often fail to perceive it. Therefore, we are instructed to “live by faith and not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7); evidence of God’s handiwork is often not readily apparent to us.

Sometimes, the absence of such “marks” can lead us to speculate as to what God may or may not be doing as we seek to faithfully fulfill His purposes here on Earth. But every once in a while, we are provided glimpses of God’s power and grace in our lives like a mark left in the sumo ring before the passing of time sweeps it away. Such “footprints” (Psalm 77:19) serve as reminders of God’s presence and power as we journey by faith in a world full of uncertainties.

New Year Money

“…though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” Luke 11:13a

Otoshidama2

Christmas was over for our children, but they soon reaped an unexpected, additional windfall with the onset of the Japanese new year. They would receive otoshidama. Over the next few days, several of our Japanese friends kindly gave our kids small envelopes of money that they were to use for themselves. This custom supposedly dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), when wealthy individuals gave mochi (rice cakes) to others at New Year’s and presented some as offerings at the local Shinto shrine. These treats were called “toshidama” (年玉), which meant literally “rice ball/treasure.” Over the course of time, these presents of mochi were replaced by small toys to children which eventually were substituted by cash gifts.

Otoshidama is typically given to school age children by immediate relatives, close family friends and in some cases, even neighbors. The amount of money generally varies upon the nature of the relationship with the child and the child’s age. For example, elementary children average ¥2-3,000 ($20-30) per envelope, junior high kids ¥5,000 and high school students ¥10,000. The money is traditionally placed in a miniature envelope called a puchibukuro that is decorated with a popular anime figure, cartoon character or an animal matching that year’s Chinese zodiac. Only new bills of money are included and it is neatly folded into thirds before being placed in the envelope.

Surveys indicate that most children use these monetary gifts to purchase video games, manga, or toys, but some set part of the money aside for future purposes. It is considered impolite for children to open the puchibukuro in front of others and the majority of parents carefully monitor the otoshidama to ensure it is spent appropriately. We certainly did so with our children as we helped guide them with purchases that were usually beyond our limited resources and we also encouraged them to save a portion of this special new year money.

In teaching His disciples about prayer, as recorded in Luke 11, Jesus used the simple analogy of a father giving good and appropriate gifts to his children to drive home an important point. Just as parents are eager to provide for their children, God delights in providing for us as His children. Therefore, we are to confidently approach our Heavenly Father to ask, because it will be given to us. To seek, and we will find. To knock, and the door will be opened to us (v.9). However, like children entrusted with sizable sums of cash, we are also obligated to use the bountiful gifts of God wisely, in line with His eternal purposes and life-giving guidelines. We may not get all the toys and trinkets that this world has to offer, but God places into each of our envelopes exactly what we need. Otoshidama come only once a year and end altogether when one reaches adulthood. But the gifts of God come unexpectedly in many forms and without limit. Every day is a new year with God.