“’I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ declares the Lord, ‘because you are called an outcast.”  Jeremiah 30:17

Outcasts (2)

When we resided in Japan as foreigners, we had a pretty good idea of what it felt like to be outsiders (see previous blog on aliens), but centuries before we arrived, Japan instituted a class of people who were considered to be outcasts. They were known as the “burakumin” (部落民) which can be translated as “hamlet” or “village people.” This peculiar name stuck because the burakumin tended to live in segregated communities scattered throughout Japan performing what was then regarded as the dirty tasks needed by society. These jobs were typically associated with death and therefore included trades like butchers, tanners, executioners and undertakers. The burakumin were looked down upon as the “defiled ones”; the more derogatory name for them in the feudal era was “eta” (穢多) that meant literally “an abundance of defilement.” Therefore, the areas where they lived were distained and commonly referred to as “etamura,” or “defiled villages.”

This ancient social outcast system surprises many who admire modern Japan as a homogeneous society where equity under the law is a high value and a common practice. Indeed, this is largely true, but the dark strands of burakumin prejudice quietly continue to exist in various forms despite legal injunctions against it. Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) was historically responsible for creating this untouchable class in the 16th century when he divided the entire Japanese population into four hereditary castes in the descending order of samurai, farmer, artisan and merchant. The burakumin were then relegated to a category below this arbitrary caste system and their degraded status was not based on different ethnicity, but exclusively upon the tasks they were required to perform.

Burakumin continued to live for centuries under a cloud of discrimination within Japanese society but this prejudice was officially terminated in 1871 by a law that is now known as the “Emancipation Edict” that granted full legal status to all burakumin and their descendants. However, it took decades for the rights of this historically oppressed group to be fully recognized. Even today, some forms of subtle discrimination continue, particularly when it comes to marriage or in some cases, employment. Several studies indicate that there are over two million burakumin within Japan and 60 percent of the Japanese mafia known as yakuza (see previous blog), are comprised of burakumin. Due to the shameful and delicate nature of this subject, the existence and the plight of the burakumin is even now rarely acknowledged in Japan.

A common phrase in the Old Testament, particularly in the Pentateuch, is “outside the camp.” This phrase refers to a status of uncleanness where certain sacrifices, ritually unclean individuals and evil doers were deliberately separated from the community of God’s people with the goal of maintaining holiness within the community. When individuals were expelled to life outside of the camp, it was generally viewed as a temporary measure, not a permanent banishment or form of discrimination, as the ultimate objective was their full restoration to the community.

The author of Hebrews (chapter 13) picks up this complex theme and noted that “Jesus also suffered outside of the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood,” (v.12) and that we should “go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (v.13) Such an amazing response turns human contrived caste systems and prejudicial attitudes on their head as it declares that no one is outside the grace of God. We are all outcasts and defiled by our sins, but God loves us so much, He figuratively went outside of the camp to redeem us. Let us therefore join Jesus “outside the camp,” taking on the scorn of others, to minister to a hurting world.

Practice, Practice, Practice

 “This has been my practice: I obey your precepts.”  Psalm 119:56


The teachers and parents at the local Japanese elementary school are hoping to pull off a flawless annual sports day. What do they consider to be the critical factor for success? Practice rehearsals!  The government wants to educate the public on proper responses to future possible disasters. Their solution? Practice drills! The university graduation ceremony is coming up in a few weeks so what is the number one focus for all the participants? Practice walk-throughs!

In a land that admirably strives for perfection, it often seems that the one-word solution to success for every endeavor is “practice.” While practice is certainly an important element in achieving anything of note, the Japanese seem to go beyond merely tolerating its necessity to the point of actually embracing it. This hyper focus on practice is readily apparent in almost all levels of Japanese society, ranging from business, athletics, hobbies, music, trade skills and ceremonial events. The Japanese word “renshū” (練習) is the most frequently used term to capture this idea of practice combining the actions of “repetition” and “learn.” It is believed that a particular skill or behavior learned through repetition fosters refinement in technique and, presumably, produces improved results. This emphasis on practice explains why an aspiring young sushi chef will unquestionably labor for five years as a lowly apprentice before being entrusted with the seemingly simple task of preparing the sushi rice. The same concept applies to a junior high student who joins the school badminton club, but has to practice their swing for several weeks before being introduced to an actual racquet.

Perhaps this value of renshū is best illustrated by the life of the famous baseball player, Ichiro Suzuki, who set a number of records in the Major Leagues after he was traded from Japan. From the age of seven, rain or shine, Ichiro’s father enforced a daily, rigorous practice routine on him that included throwing 50 pitches, hitting 200 live pitches, fielding 100 balls and hitting 300 pitches from a machine. As Ichiro got older, this daily regimen began to include hurling car tires and hitting wiffleballs with a heavy shovel to increase his strength. Renshū certainly accounted for a large portion of Ichiro’s success as a baseball player, but he later admitted it came at a heavy price.

Practice can certainly have its onerous aspects, even when not taken to extremes, but it is usually a necessary component to success in any meaningful endeavor. One obviously, does not become a skilled musician, chef or athlete without the investment of many hours into polishing their craft. Renshū at its very heart, usually has this worthy objective in mind, but sometimes it is obscured by the oppressive daily grind that typically accompanies such practice patterns.

In the Bible, many uses of the term “practice” have an extremely negative connotation. On numerous occasions the practices of God’s people are described as “detestable;” other negative adjectives like “evil,” “unclean,” “worthless” or “corrupt” are also commonly juxtaposed with the term. However, to do the opposite and live in obedience to God, David testifies to the importance of a positive form of practice in Psalm 119:56. Even Jesus declared the importance of this kind of renshū if our objective is to live lives worthy of God. “But everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24) However, at the same time, we must never forget that while practice cannot make us perfect, the Cross redeems all our imperfections and failures.

Local Pubs

“That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”

 Ecclesiastes 3:13

Co-workers relaxing in Japanese restaurant with food and drink

I was a complete novice in what I was about to experience, but as a relative newcomer to Japan, it was a great opportunity to learn about a slice of Japanese culture that was previously hidden from me. With my Japanese friends leading the way, we entered a rather non-descript multi-story building located in an area of town known for its night life. Each floor hosted several business establishments and we chose one that didn’t particularly seem to stand out among any of the others, except that it was obviously well-known to my more experienced friends. We were about to enter what is known as an izakaya.

Translated literally, izakaya (居酒屋) means “stay-saké-shop,” so it is basically a place to consume alcoholic beverages. However, an izakaya is much more than that as it has more resemblance to a British pub where food is served and people gather for social interaction. Sometimes these izakaya are called an akachōchin, or “red lantern” as the proprietors traditionally hang decorative red paper lanterns outside to attract attention. Upon entering the establishment, customers are often seated on the floor at low tables placed on tatami mats, a traditional bar or at western-style tables and chairs. The busier izakayas may also offer a tachi nomi style of dining, which means to drink while standing.

Everyone is customarily given an oshibori or wet towel when they are seated to wipe their hands and this is usually accompanied by a small appetizer such as edamame (soybeans). Food items are generally shared by everyone at the table and many izakaya specialize in certain food choices such as yakitori (grilled chicken on sticks), sashimi, tofu, grilled fish and even french fries (called “furaido poteto”). Some of the larger izakaya offer the dining option of nomi hōdai (all you can drink) or tabe hōdai (all you can eat) at a set price for a determined length of time. The more innovative izakaya come with a particular cosplay theme where the staff wear costumes while waiting on customers. The word “kanpai!” is echoed often as customers lift their glasses and toast one another in merriment. Regular patrons sometimes purchase a particular brand of alcohol and the bottle is placed on a shelf with their name written on it for their next visit. Like the classic TV sitcom “Cheers” that centered on a group of regular customers at a local bar, an izakaya can be a safe place to relax where “everybody knows your name.”

Ironically, some of the purposes for attending an izakaya can also be reflected in the reasons people may attend a local church. Meeting with like-minded people for companionship, encouragement and sharing of information are some of the attractive elements of an izakaya that are usually unavailable at onerous, pressure-driven places of work. When viewed in these terms, izakaya represent for many a form of escape through shallow social interaction and the consumption of alcoholic beverages and food.

While such responses are understandable and even ordained in some circumstances (Ecc. 3:13), there is certainly much more to life. One can also make many bad choices if his or her sole objective is to merely escape from the day-to-day unpleasantries of life. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul advised new believers, emerging from previous dark cultural habits, to aim for something higher that would lead to more productive lives that honor their Creator. He said, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” (Eph. 5:18) Because God knows our name, our choices can lead to eternal blessings.

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


“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


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.


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


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.


“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


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?