Funerals & Feasting

“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. “     Ecclesiastes 7:2

Overhead view family toasting wine glasses at candlelight Christmas turkey dinner at table

As a few of us solemnly gathered around the shrouded body of a church member who had just tragically taken his own life, I was asked, “Did you drive here in your van?” I thought it was an odd question considering the circumstances. Less than an hour later, I found myself driving that same van with a corpse wrapped in my old car blanket and a grieving widow sitting beside me in the front seat, numbly holding her husband’s death certificate. This unusual scenario launched my initiation into performing my first funeral in Japan.

My immediate education began with assisting the undertaker in preparing the deceased’s body for burial. The body had to be washed, dressed and the face even shaved as hair continues to grow for a while following death. Rigor mortis had already set in, which proved to be a problem as the casket was a bit small, requiring us to manipulate the limbs to ensure the body would fit. While my attention was briefly diverted by a few important phone calls, a well-meaning Buddhist neighbor had convinced the deceased’s wife, who was also a Christian, to surround her husband’s body with things that he would like to enjoy in the afterlife. Even though I was inexperienced in such matters, this arrangement didn’t seem right. A quick phone call to a local Japanese pastor confirmed my suspicions and gave me the confidence to persuade them to remove such objectionable items.

The next few days were a blur accompanied by minimal sleep as I undertook a crash course in Japanese funeral protocol and vocabulary, made countless funeral arrangements, prepared messages, and comforted grieving family and church members. As a young and inexperienced missionary, I felt completely overwhelmed by the situation. While struggling to pull my thoughts together for a message that would somehow convey hope in the face of so much loss, I was led to a previously overlooked verse in the Bible where Solomon advises: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2)

I lived in the house of mourning during those dark, distressing days. I mourned the loss of a member of my church plant who was under my care. I mourned my inadequacies as a missionary. I mourned my inability to comfort family and church members. I mourned my own sinfulness. If granted a choice, I would have greatly preferred to linger in the house of feasting, but that was not an option.

We live our lives trying to ignore the inevitability of death and its cold reality. We dress it up when forced to confront it at funerals. In our daily lives, we do our best to minimalize death and pretend it isn’t there, always waiting for us unseen around the corner. Some go out of their way to redefine death and somehow tame it with new age sentiment and terminology. But Solomon saw immense value in visiting the house of mourning in contrast to the house of feasting. For it is only when we come within proximity of death that we are able to gain a healthy perspective of eternity. In such moments, we are also given a glimpse of God’s heavenly purpose in whatever days He has allotted for us. While I reluctantly resided in the house of mourning, I was able to feast on who God is, what He has done, and most important of all, what He will someday do.

Real Truth

“Do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.”   James 5:12

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Every husband, who values his well-being, knows the correct answer if his wife asks him the paradoxical question: “How do I look?” The stock answer of “You look fine dear!” is certainly the safest reply, but it may not necessarily be the most truthful one. This is what the Japanese call a “tatemae” answer and they have elevated this form of communication to an art form that many foreigners find difficult to comprehend. Tatemae (建前) means literally “built in front” or “façade,” in contrast to its opposite term, “honne” (本音), which can be translated “true sound.” Honne, simply put, is one’s true feelings and opinions, whereas tatemae is what one perceives others want to hear. In this sense, honne is the real “sound” or voice of an individual, but for various social or personal reasons, the speaker deems it best to express a safer alternative, or tatemae, answer as a form of protection. This “safer” response could be intended to protect a personal or working relationship, and it is certainly common in diplomatic communication, which can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.

Some consider the use of tatemae as a subtle form of lying, but in reality, every culture employs a certain degree of such communication to avoid needlessly hurting or offending those around us. In English, we may call a slight stretching or distortion of the truth a “white lie,” but such falsehoods often stem from selfish, ulterior motives. In contrast, the Japanese propensity towards using tatemae responses is generally far more complex. In Japan, the group usually takes precedence over the individual so there is an invisible, but widespread pressure to ensure that things go smoothly. Therefore, great care is taken not to potentially disturb harmony in relationships. Avoiding possible conflict is a high value in Japan and tatemae answers can be very useful to that end.

However, such a practice can lead to other challenges where one is constantly required to discern when an invitation, compliment or offer is genuine or just a tatemae response. This intentional vagueness is why sociologists classify Japan as being a high-context culture, meaning that communication is often implicit and relies heavily on context. Direct answers are often eschewed and ambiguous, innocuous replies like “daijoubu” (it’s all right), “omoshiroi” (interesting) or “yōji ga aru” (I have something to do) are frequently employed in everyday conversations. Most people are reluctant to state a contrary opinion and stand out, so they “build a wall” using tatemae, which serves to ward off unwanted scrutiny.

Because of people’s natural propensity to tell lies and not follow through on their promises, oath taking became a common practice to demonstrate the veracity or trustworthiness of an individual in both ancient and modern times. While culture can certainly complicate the best of intentions towards honesty, as a general principle, God’s people should be characterized as truth tellers. James exhorts (James 5:12) us to avoid the taking of oaths by simply being people of our word. This verse is almost a direct quote lifted from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37) where He challenged His listeners to strive for a higher, God-honoring form of communication. A “true sound,” or honne, flows naturally from a true heart that belongs to God.

Tree of Hope

“Such is the destiny of all who forget God; so perishes the hope of the godless.”            Job 8:13

Tree of Hope

On the shoreline of the small coastal Japanese town of Rikuzentakada, stands a lone, towering pine tree, which is all that remains of a once-flourishing forest of 70,000 trees. All the other trees were obliterated in a matter of minutes by a 42-foot tsunami that swept aside everything caught in its relentless path of destruction on March 2011. Local survivors of that terrible natural disaster were amazed by the resiliency of this one particular tree, and fondly began referring to it as the “Pine Tree of Hope” (希望の松). For many residents on the coast who experienced the tragedy of that fateful day, that single tree became a symbol of hope among those who had lost so much. We ourselves marveled at the seeming miracle of this solitary tree every time we passed through the area while engaged in relief work ministry.

Unfortunately, the extreme salinization of the soil caused by the onslaught of seawater eventually took its toll on the Pine Tree of Hope such that it began dying and, sadly, had to be cut down. However, thanks to Japanese ingenuity and generous donations to the project, the tree was restored and erected in its original location. As part of that process, this natural monument was carefully cut into sections using a giant crane and each portion was carefully treated over the course of months with special preservatives. Then the pieces were reassembled around a uniquely constructed carbon spine as the final stage to bring this powerful symbol of resiliency back to life.

Everyone understandably celebrated the restoration of the Pine Tree of Hope, but if one paused to reflect upon these matters, it seems rather ironic to note that a tree, which is supposed to offer hope, is actually a fake. This bit of irony may lead one to reasonably ask, “What is real hope and how can I obtain it?” Men can certainly replant a forest, but only God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, can make a tree and give men genuine, lasting hope in the midst of life’s most adverse circumstances.

The biblical patriarch Job, wrestled with such perplexing issues while suffering enormous personal loss. He came to the conclusion that hope is an exercise in futility if it is not grounded in the character and eternality of God (Job 8:13). Interestingly, the word “hope” appears in the Book of Job nineteen times, which almost seems incongruous with the massive setbacks in his life, like a fake pine tree in the middle of a disaster zone. But closer examination reveals that Job’s hope was not centered on the possibility of future positive outcomes, but on God Himself. Such a sure foundation of hope explains why the psalmist confidently declares “Blessed are those… whose hope is in the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them—he remains faithful forever.”  (Psalm 146:5-6) In the tsunamis of life, only God, not a tree, can provide real hope.

Tea Ceremony

“Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”     John 4:14

Tea ceremony

As a lesser evolved member of the human race otherwise known as a “guy,” I sometimes failed to appreciate the subtleties of Japanese culture and nowhere was this more apparent than the intricacies of the Japanese tea ceremony. Growing up in the South, my only experience with this common beverage was ice tea and its preparation was purely functional in nature. In contrast, the formal Japanese tea ceremony known as “sadō” or “chadō” (茶道), meaning literally “the way of tea,” involves a very precise ritual for the brewing and consumption of green tea.

It is believed that tea was first imported to Japan from China around the 9th century through a Buddhist monk and was enjoyed exclusively by the nobility before eventually gaining popularity among the masses. The Japanese tea ceremony that is commonly practiced today was greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism. Four key concepts capture the tea ceremony’s overarching objective. These are “wa” (harmony), “kei” (respect), “sei” (purity) and “jaku” (tranquility) and they are subtly cultivated throughout the sadō ceremony by means of ambiance and carefully orchestrated actions. This includes the construction of the tearoom, display of artful decorations, arrangement and handling of the utensils, specialized vocabulary, scripted etiquette and the formal attire of the tea ceremony master. There are several historical schools of Japanese tea ceremony that differ in procedures and it takes several years of diligent training to qualify as an instructor.

To the untrained eyes of an outsider, the slow, deliberate, yet graceful protocol of a formal Japanese tea ceremony may appear boring and incongruent with the normal pace of life, but the ceremony’s unhurried pace actually serves to highlight its purpose. Some tea ceremonies may last up to four hours, providing participants a rare and needed escape from the noise and demands of everyday life. The following video provides a condensed visual portrayal of the stylistic intricacies that compose a Japanese tea ceremony. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wQVxj_0Mdo

To my knowledge, Jesus never hosted a Japanese tea ceremony, but He did offer liquid refreshment of a different nature to a spiritually thirsty woman. That well-known encounter is recorded in John 4 where Jesus wearily paused by a local well on His journey through Samaria. There Jesus surprisingly initiated a conversation with a Samaritan woman addressing His physical need (water), which He gently turns to her greater spiritual need (salvation). While this encounter was not scripted like a Japanese tea ceremony, the subtleties of God’s passionate love for all manner of people is evident throughout this simple, but profound story. Jesus came to offer us life eternal so that we may never thirst again. That is the overarching objective of Jesus’ life that no tea ceremony, no matter how perfectly executed, could ever provide. Living water is freely available for all who are thirsty.

Humor

“He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.”     Job 8:21

humor

A hush settled over the room as I concluded my first Japanese speech. Instead of the expected response of laughter, I was greeted with dead silence. I had just made the painful discovery that Japanese humor was significantly different from American humor. Our assignment that day was to speak on a subject familiar to us, so being raised in Texas, I chose deer hunting. That was a huge mistake, and I compounded the problem even further by using a satirical approach. I thought I had cleverly titled the speech “How I Killed Bambi’s Mother,” but this vain attempt at humor was entirely lost on my horrified audience and as a result, went over like a lead balloon. My effort was doomed from the start as satire is typically not used by the Japanese and the imagery of a missionary bearing weapons to slay cute forest creatures was certainly not a laughable matter.

While the Japanese sometimes like to think of themselves as a serious people (majime ningen), they definitely have a sense of humor. Slapstick forms of humor are often seen on TV, which accounts for Mr. Bean’s huge popularity a number of years ago. Comedy team acts known as manzaishi are quite common in Japan. They are composed of a straight (serious) man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke) and their fast-paced jokes are usually centered on misunderstandings, puns and other verbal gags. Interestingly, many of these jocular performers are from the Osaka area of Japan, which has a reputation for comedic wit. Rakugo (落語, meaning literally “fallen words”) is another much subtler form of Japanese humor where a lone storyteller wearing Edo era clothing sits cross-legged on the stage with a paper fan as his only prop. This performer typically shares a gently amusing tale based on the dialogue of two or more characters and it is designed to entertain a more sophisticated audience.

After several failed attempts at humor when preaching in Japanese, I eventually learned that the safest form of joking was to make fun of myself using self-deprecating humor. Japanese may be unsure when a joke is intended, so they will refrain from laughing to avoid possibly embarrassing the speaker. Humor is one of the most subtle and demanding forms of communication as it requires not only refined linguistic skills, but also an in-depth understanding of the culture and one’s immediate context.

Although we know that Jesus wept as He shared the pain of those grieving Lazarus’ death (John 11:35), the Scriptures do not explicitly record that Jesus ever laughed. Yet, Jesus frequently told stories that must have provoked laughter among his listeners as He often used absurd life scenarios to highlight a spiritual truth. Laughter is often portrayed as an indication of God’s blessing (Genesis 21:6) and an expression of joy, which is listed among the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Of course, not all laughter is equal, as some forms are coarse and vulgar, and some so-called entertainment comes at the painful expense of others. This type of laughter does not honor God nor His creation, but the misuse of humor does not diminish our calling to live joy-filled lives that are often evidenced by laughter. True joy that comes from God can powerfully transcend our circumstances and our cultures.

Passing Zones

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”   Psalm 133:1

Magokoro Zone 2

One of the various adjustments required of us in relocating to the Greater Tokyo area was getting used to the narrowness of many roads. Some streets appear to be little more than wide sidewalks, but they are actually intended to accommodate two-way traffic, which seems almost impossible. Driving on these extremely narrow thoroughfares requires a considerable amount of patience, anticipation and a willingness to yield to oncoming cars or gridlock will immediately occur. We’ve experienced such an impasse a few times where an impatient driver barges ahead and brings everything to a standstill with cars unable to move forward or backward. Such incidents can prove to be extremely frustrating.

To help prevent this from happening, we observed in our community the strategic placement of “magokoro” zones (まごころ/真心) to facilitate two-way traffic in some of the more challenging locations. Translated literally, this means “true heart,” which seems like an odd name for a road alteration designed to improve traffic flow. These zones encompass a short length of roadway (approximately 20 feet), creating a wider area enabling two cars to pass one another. Apparently, these are places where “hearts” figuratively come together as we all seek cooperation with the common goal to keep traffic moving. 

We had previously encountered a similar problem in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. During long, snowy winters, wide streets are often reduced to a single lane as massive walls of snow created by snowplows steadily encroach upon large portions of the roadway. Enormous snow removal machines would periodically reclaim this lost road space, but until then, drivers were forced to anticipate oncoming traffic and pull over into side streets so they could pass each other. This predicament requires the constant exercise of courtesy and cooperation so traffic can keep flowing, enabling everyone to arrive safely at their intended destination.

When one pauses to survey the current political, social and cultural landscape of America and in other places in the world, it is obvious that the “traffic” is not flowing smoothly. Varying perspectives, opinions and values now deeply divide a nation historically comprised of many diverse factions, bringing things to a standstill. Like angry drivers creating a bottleneck through their own inconsiderate actions, many are unwilling to yield to others on the road, such that no one can move forward. Government services are disrupted, judicial systems are overwhelmed, personal freedoms are restricted, economic structures fail to meet demands and in worst-case scenarios, destructive riots occur. Because there is no meeting of hearts, everyone loses. These bottlenecks now routinely dominate our daily news cycles, creating an ever-increasing atmosphere of fear, mistrust, anger, vilification of those holding differing opinions and even violence. Under such adverse conditions, we cannot move forward as a nation.

However, the people of God are to be guided by a different set of principles that have the power to break such bottlenecks. We are not to be driven by selfish motives or ambitions, but rather, we are called to unity. Unity, even in the most optimal circumstances, is not an easily achieved goal, which is why the psalmist marvels when he observes it in action (Psalm 133:1). The combining of hearts to attain such unity can only occur when one’s heart belongs to God and pursues His rules for the road. That is the magokoro zone where true peace can be found.

Persecution

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”      Matthew 5:10

Persecution

Protestant Christianity came to Japan in 1859, but Catholic missionaries arrived approximately three hundred years earlier, making a significant impact.* Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was a Jesuit priest who is historically credited for introducing Christianity to Japan and he was followed by many other Catholic priests and monks. These early missionaries encountered an initial measure of success as they baptized over 100,000 converts, including a number of local feudal lords. This new religious movement was initially unopposed by the ruling Shogunate, but the Japanese leaders eventually became suspicious of the outsiders who represented countries intent on expanding their colonial empires. Fearing a loss of power, the Japanese rulers proceeded to launch a ruthless persecution of Christianity and its followers.

To aid them in this endeavor, these Japanese despots developed an effective method called “fumie” (踏み絵), to help identify adherents to the new religion.  Fumie means literally “to stamp or trample on an image,” referring to a religious icon usually bearing a likeness of Jesus or Mary. Utilizing this devious scheme, suspected Christians (Kirishitan) were rounded up in each village and forced one by one to trample on the venerated image placed before them. If they refused to do so, the Kirishitans were turned over to the professional torturers to either recant or die for their faith. The commonly used methods of torment included immersing victims in scalding hot springs, burning some Kirishitans alive, hanging others upside down over pits full of excrement or attaching some to crosses in the ocean where they were slowly drowned by the incoming tide. Government authorities were so zealous in their persecution efforts that they continued the practice of fumie for several years, even to the fourth generation in their attempt to completely stamp out any remnants of Christianity in Japan.

Many believers understandably went underground with their faith and religious practices and were soon referred to as “Kakure Kirishitans” (隠れキリシタン) meaning, “hidden Christians.” In subsequent decades and even centuries to come, the Kakure Kirishitans continued to secretly gather for worship, using prayers modified to sound like Buddhist chants and retained portions of the Bible through oral transmission. The famous Japanese author, Shūsaku Endo, creatively captured the events of this dark period in Japanese history through his novel “Silence,” which was recently brought to life as a major motion picture by the same name.  Viewer discretion is advised for the following clips from the movie:

A Jesuit priest recants his faith: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOX8-c-_uVY

Martyrdom through drowning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uhqa8KylUM8

On a hill in Nagasaki now stands the Church of the 26 Martyrs, which was erected in 1962 to commemorate the lives of 26 Christians who were executed on that exact site on February 5, 1597. It stands as a solemn reminder that those who identify with Christ and take up their own cross to follow Him are not exempt from persecution. Like the early Japanese martyrs who forfeited their own lives by living for the kingdom of God, we are called to pursue righteousness and godliness, while living among the kingdoms of this earth. We must resist all evil influences that would sway us to trample on the things of God.

*There is some evidence that Christianity was actually introduced to Japan almost 1,800 years ago through early Nestorian missionaries, but failed to achieve a significant foothold in the country.

Mt. Fuji

“Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Psalm 90:2

Mt Fuji

The picturesque Mt. Fuji towers above the surrounding landscape in Japan and as such, has historically been a favorite subject for Japanese arts, ranging from paintings to poetry and, more recently, to photography. Mt. Fuji, known as “Fujisan” (富士山) in Japanese, is the tallest mountain in Japan, standing at 3,776 meters in height (12,389 ft.). Its volcanic crater measures 780 meters (2,560 ft.) wide with a depth of 240 meters (790 ft.). Its last eruption was in 1708 and on clear days, Mt. Fuji is visible over 60 miles away to the inhabitants of Tokyo who will often stop whatever they are doing, just to admire the iconic shape silhouetted on the horizon.

Since Mt. Fuji is located near a huge population base (over 40 million people) and poses such a dramatic presence in the changing seasons, it is indisputably the most photographed mountain in the world, even though it is relatively diminutive in size when compared to other famous mountains. Pictures of the world-renowned volcanic cone are often artistically framed by cherry blossoms, unique cloud formations, rice fields ready for harvest, snow-laden trees, local wildlife or autumn colors to heighten its majestic beauty. Over 300,000 people annually ascend Mt. Fuji during its short climbing season from early July to mid-September, utilizing five well-worn trails. The popular Japanese custom for climbing the mountain is to arrive at the summit before daybreak in order to witness a breathtaking sunrise over the surrounding countryside with a seemingly unlimited view. A trail of lights from hikers making their way up the trail at night is often visible from miles away, which adds another element of mystique to the iconic mountain. However, many will be disappointed as clouds frequently shroud the peak, impeding views of the scenery beneath them. The entirety of Mt. Fuji is often obscured as well to observers below by the same clouds, making its majestic appearances an even more welcome sight.

Mt. Fuji is the subject of many Japanese proverbs and one that is frequently quoted goes, “He who doesn’t climb Mt. Fuji once is a fool; he who climbs twice is a fool.”  (富士山に一度も登らぬバカ、二度登るバカ) Although I have done many foolish things in my past, my personal conquest of Mt. Fuji was a one-time event that I don’t care to repeat. However, I will never forget that otherworldly experience when I reached the pinnacle and enjoyed the awe-inspiring panorama below.

Mountains have a way of making us feel small as we look up at them and when we have opportunity to scale their summits, they provide a perspective of the world that we normally lack. Mt. Fuji is no exception to this pattern and its geographical separateness from other mountains tends to heighten this effect. In our earthbound existence, there is nothing larger than a mountain, so it is quite natural for our thoughts to transition to things greater than ourselves as we turn our gaze upwards. Our feelings of smallness and insignificance in light of such lofty views should turn our hearts towards God as they silently, yet powerfully testify of God’s immeasurable greatness and eternal existence. He who contemplates such matters is no fool.

Protocol Priorities

“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”        Hebrews 4:16

sports day2

We felt like royalty as we entered the large Japanese department store. All the staff and salespeople were formally lined up on both sides of the aisle, bowing low to welcome us. The store had just opened for the day, but it was standard protocol to greet the initial customers, even though we were accompanied by a dozen hyper children who seemed oblivious to the expected decorum. This experience was just one of many reminders that Japan is a country built upon proper protocol for various situations and everyone is expected to know and abide by these set guidelines to ensure a well-ordered society.

School graduations, admission ceremonies and sports days, in addition to funerals, weddings and company entrance events, are among the most common social occasions that have established procedures which everyone must dutifully follow. Underlying all of these activities are a multitude of other traditional protocols or values that facilitate smooth programs, constructive relationships and desired outcomes. Such protocols would include: being on time, extensive practice, multiple preparatory meetings, a flawlessly scripted schedule, a well-thought out seating plan, trained volunteers and recognition of all attending dignitaries. Of course, all participants would be appropriately attired and use honorific language befitting their social position. These values and expectations spill over into countless other daily routines that make Japan appear at times as one great well-oiled machine that always performs at peak efficiency.

This rigid adherence to proper protocol was once put to the test many years ago by an acquaintance at a local McDonald’s. It is customary for all McDonald’s employees working at the front of the premises to welcome every customer with a deep bow and extend a greeting of “irasshimase,” meaning, “welcome.” On this particular day, my somewhat mischievous colleague impetuously decided to exit the restaurant and immediately enter again. As expected, he received the same attention as if he had entered for the first time. Continuing with his somewhat rude social experiment, he exited and returned again, receiving the same treatment from the conscientious McDonald employees. After repeating this cycle several times, he finally gave up, realizing these meticulously trained workers could not depart from their established protocols for corporate behavior. These and other similar protocols are part of the unique underpinnings that hold Japanese society together.

In stark contrast, America can be generally regarded as a land of spontaneity and freedom where protocols can be much more easily dismissed or adapted to fit a particular situation. Perhaps because of this, the incredible significance of the invitation to approach the very throne of God (Hebrews 4:16) can be lost on a society where inviolable protocol is a lesser value. We are totally unqualified and unworthy to appear before an Almighty, Most Holy God, but the invitation is genuine and we are welcome not because of our position, but because of His grace. God’s protocol demands that we enter by means of the cross, where mercy replaces judgment and we are amazingly received as sons and daughters.

Getting it Right

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”            Matthew 5:48

Getting it Right4

The ringing doorbell surprised us as we were guests at a vacation home and there was a horrific blizzard howling outside. “Who could it be?” we wondered and opened the door to be greeted by a local postal worker covered in snow bowing in apology. Through his shivering explanation, we learned that the local post office had mistakenly overcharged us 30 yen (23¢) for a letter we mailed the day before. He asked us to accept their sincere apology for the error and dutifully handed over the money with additional bows. Thoroughly impressed, but slightly amused, we assured the conscientious civil servant that all was forgiven and that we were satisfied with the outcome. He then bowed several more times, before turning to trudge back to the post office in knee-deep snow. That little snapshot from our past serves to capture the Japanese value of getting it right.

Perhaps this tendency is best summed up in the Japanese word “kaizen” (改善), which combines the two concepts of “change” (kai) and “good” (zen). Taken together, the equivalent translation comes out as “change for the better,” or “continuous improvement.” The application of kaizen then becomes an ongoing attempt to eliminate defects in a product or to improve a process with the ultimate goal to achieve better results. This requires an extreme attention to details, which can easily morph into a form of perfectionism in a ceaseless attempt to get it right. This approach can be seen on many levels within Japan, such as in the areas of food preparation, manufacturing, athletics, Japanese arts and transportation. Toyota has actually adopted the concept of kaizen as one of its core values, where all its employees are encouraged to constantly look for ways to improve their operations and products, which accounts for the company’s sterling reputation.

The extra effort it takes to build dependable cars, produce aesthetic masterpieces, achieve athletic success, or attain scholastic recognition is a highly commendable trait that generally produces good results. This is the primary reason why we personally purchase Japanese made vehicles. We want quality and dependability in a car that a commitment to kaizen principles is more likely to produce.

While such a lofty standard is understandably desired for inanimate objects and procedures, it is totally unrealistic when applied to human beings, including myself. Perfection is a worthy goal to aim for, but it remains forever out of reach no matter how hard we strive to attain it. Jesus taught His followers a new standard in His famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where He set the bar of God’s righteousness or perfection much higher than they previously imagined. This standard is what we are challenged to aim for, but no amount of commitment to kaizen can possibly take us there. We cannot “be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt.5:48), but there is One who was “once made perfect, and became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). That is Jesus. Because of Jesus’ perfect goodness (zen), we can be eternally changed (kai) and that is a kaizen work that only God can achieve, not through our efforts, but by His grace.