Punctuality

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” Ecclesiastes 3:1

Punctuality

Japan has a well-earned reputation as a country where things run on time. For example, thousands of trains every day across the country, routinely pull into their assigned stations exactly on schedule. Customers send packages or luggage through a nationwide delivery service and then choose a date and four-hour window in which they want their item delivered, which usually occurs without fail. At construction sites for buildings or roadwork, signs are posted notifying when the job will be completed and they are seldom wrong. Fast food service seems effortlessly fast in Japan and repairmen show up as promised on time, if not early.

In the rare cases where a scheduled appointment is broken, service is slow or a train pulls into a station late, extensive apologies are usually expressed with the promise to do better in the future. When a train is unavoidably delayed due to an earthquake or a tragic suicide on the tracks, causing thousands to be inconveniently delayed, rail officials will diligently hand out “late notes” to affected commuters to cover their tardiness at work. One train recently departed from the station 25 seconds early, which became quite a scandal in Japan and called for new measures to prevent a repeat of such a disastrous scenario.

This seemingly obsessive focus on punctuality drives employees to arrive, not just on time at their place of work, but to actually get there early, so they can begin their job precisely as scheduled. No one quite knows when this meticulous focus on time began in Japanese culture, but it was certainly invigorated when Japan joined the family of nations in the 19th century and later took on even greater importance as part of the rebuilding process following WWII. However, companies are discovering that an emphasis on punctuality doesn’t always correspond with increased efficiency. Others who endure endless mind-numbing meetings wonder why there is such a preoccupation with starting on time, but almost an indifference with ending such meetings on time.

To the outsider, Japan seems like a well-oiled machine, where everything works and runs as planned, which for the most part, is a really admirable characteristic. It is a helpful reminder that God is a God of order, who has created a universe that is governed and measured by time. Although He Himself is not bound to the restraints of time, it is one of many resources placed at our disposal and we are expected to be wise stewards as to how we use it. This does not excuse an imbalanced obsession with time, but should rather encourage us to treat each hour, each day and each year as a gift from God that we should use for His eternal purposes and not for our own. We serve the Master of the Universe, and as such we are not slaves to time but rather, time exists to serve us. May we use it wisely.

 

The Virtue of Gaman

“Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”   James 1:4

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My wife was in extreme agony from labor pain as we anticipated the imminent arrival of our second child. Desperate for relief, we called the nurse for assistance and she simply replied “gaman dekinai?” The word gaman was new to us, but judging by the nurse’s response, we could tell she wasn’t going to do anything. Later, we learned that gaman (我慢) means “to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” Sometimes it is translated as “perseverance” or “patience, but these words don’t do justice to the complexity of the concept in the Japanese context.

Gaman is considered a virtue in Japan, as it is an indicator of maturity and strength in the face of difficult circumstances. The objective is to bear hardship without complaint and thereby cause minimal inconvenience for those around you. This admired character attribute is evident when Japanese silently squash themselves into packed trains, work extremely long hours, endure brutal sports drills or sit in unheated classrooms. When one perseveres in a negative relationship at home, work or school, he is exercising gaman. When one waits patiently in a long checkout line or in a queue to board public transportation, she is demonstrating the power of gaman. Visitors to Japan may observe these responses in action and mistakenly assume Japanese lack assertiveness or initiative. In so doing, they fail to understand the value of gaman which undergirds all of Japanese society, enabling it to function in an orderly manner. This is why gaman is a common character trait among Japanese heroes who typically overcome huge obstacles while stoically enduring injustice and pain to ultimately triumph.

But gaman does have a dark side. It can impose unrealistic pressure on individuals to conform to expectations at the expense of their own physical or psychological health. It can squash self-expression and the free exchange of ideas that may facilitate corporate or personal growth. Japan’s orderly society comes with a cost and if the virtue of gaman is allowed to reign unchecked, other problems inevitably emerge.

Perseverance is extolled as a godly characteristic in the Scriptures and its practice is also a gateway to other virtues that should characterize God’s people. There is much to be admired in the similar concept of gaman, but we must be careful not to let it falsely shape the nobler attribute of perseverance. Their respective goals and the means for achieving them can be significantly different. Biblical perseverance has God at its center and the goal is to glorify Him through our faith-filled responses regardless of our circumstances. Although gaman promotes the worthy goal of maintaining an orderly community or company, it often comes at the expense of the individual and tends to neglect God altogether. The Bible character Job is perhaps the greatest example of perseverance (James 5:11) and how it eclipses the lesser virtue of gaman. Through his powerful testimony, we learn how Job endured the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity but his actions are not to be confused with gaman. While Job’s amazing perseverance did bless those around him and generations to follow, his ultimate goal was to worship God through his faith filled response. That is worth emulating.

Bonsai

“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.”                    Psalm 1:3

bonsai

To celebrate our ten-year wedding anniversary a number of years ago, my wife and I decided to purchase a bonsai tree as a gift to ourselves and as a symbol of our marriage. Thirty-two years later, I’m happy to report that our marriage is still intact, but the same cannot be said for our bonsai, which suffered from neglect and had an untimely death. Through that experience, we learned the hard way that bonsai trees require a considerable amount of care and expertise in order to thrive.

Bonsai means literally “tray planting” as it is planted in a portable, ceramic container (i.e. “tray”) in order to control its growth. Bonsai care is actually an art form that involves cultivating a miniature tree to mimic the shape and scale of a full sized tree. This process requires pruning and root reduction using special tools under optimal water, nutrient and light conditions. Visiting a quality bonsai exhibition is like attending a famous art display. The artistic effects are stunning and the variety of trees that can be successfully cultivated as bonsai is equally impressive. One of the oldest known living bonsai trees, believed to be over 500 years old, was cared for by the Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu and is now kept as part of the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection. Obviously, this ancient Japanese ruler knew far more about bonsai care than we did!

In the natural world, trees need a steady supply of water and nutrients in order to grow and produce fruit. The same is true for God’s people who are to grow spiritually and in turn, produce spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). Quality time in God’s Word, fellowship with other like-minded saints, meaningful worship and an active prayer life are the essential elements to cultivate godliness, much like a tree strategically planted by a flowing stream.

However, bonsai are purposefully removed from their normal environment as they require intentional nurturing under the hands of a skilled gardener. The natural propensities of the bonsai are shaped and redirected by outside forces, while life giving nutrients, water and sunlight are meticulously provided in carefully measured amounts. Under the watchful eye and care of the bonsai master, a common tree can become a unique object of beauty bringing glory to its creator. This is not unlike the analogy in John 15, where Jesus compared us to branches that must abide in Him as the vine, but are meticulously nurtured by God. Ultimately, like a carefully maintained bonsai, we are to submit to the purposes of our Master and in turn, produce fruit to honor Him.

Bowing

“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;”                 Psalm 95:6

Bowing

The scene was almost comical as I observed two men greeting each other at the airport. Wanting to adapt to Japanese ways, the foreigner bowed awkwardly, but the Japanese businessman, seeking to accommodate his guest, thrust out his hand expectantly waiting for a handshake. As that brief encounter unfolded before me, I reflected on how much culture had shifted in modern Japan.

Bowing, known as “ojigi” (お辞儀) in Japanese, is still the primary form of greeting throughout Japan. It looks rather simple, but there are actually a number of subtleties involved. The timing, degree and length of the bow depends upon the nature of the relationship. The position of the hands is also different for men and women. A general rule of thumb is that an inferior typically bows longer, deeper and more frequently than the superior.

There are actually three main types of bowing that have specific names with set angles (15˚, 30˚, 45˚), which are determined by the depth of respect one intends to demonstrate. But there is one additional extreme form of bowing known as “dogeza” (土下座) for very serious circumstances where one shows utter acquiescence by getting on his hands and knees and placing his face to the ground. Mastering the finer nuances of these bows is no small task, which is why many companies in the service industry include correct bowing procedures in their training regimen for new recruits.

But with the opening of its doors to the West, Japan has also incorporated some western greeting customs. This now includes handshakes, even between Japanese in some situations, but the closer physical contact of hugging is still not common practice. My wife and I have become so used to the custom of bowing that we have often caught ourselves bowing to people in phone calls, even though they can’t see us! Bowing is essentially a sign of respect that conveys a simple greeting, an expression of gratitude or the acknowledgement of an apology. The very act of lowering one’s head in bowing indicates humility and a recognition of your appreciation for the relationship.

Although the forms varied, bowing was common practice in ancient cultures where there was a significant difference between the superior and the subordinate. For example, when one approached a king, emperor or feudal lord, he did so with eyes lowered and head bowed as an outward sign of reverence and obedience. The same should be true as we approach the Living God, who created the universe and holds our lives in the palm of His hand. This is why bowing is so closely associated with worship. According to Scripture, all the families on earth (Psalm 22:7) and even kings and nations (Psalm 72:11) will one day prostrate themselves in dogeza form before God, acknowledging His majesty and authority over them. If we bow before the sovereigns of this earth, how much more should we humble ourselves before the King of Kings and offer Him our full allegiance and worship.

Convenience Stores

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the Air

“The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.”  Proverbs 20:5

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The Japanese have a phrase空気を読む (kūki o yomu) which translates literally as “reading the air.” It means to have an accurate perception of a given situation despite minimal verbal communication. In other words, a person who is good at reading the air has the ability to grasp what is left unsaid. This obviously presents quite the challenge to westerners who are more accustomed to direct communication patterns and are already significantly handicapped by having to operate in a language that is not their own.

The usage of the seemingly simple Japanese word for “yes” orはい (hai) reflects this concept. “Hai” in Japanese can mean anything, ranging from “Yes, I agree with you” to “Yes, I hear you.” Obviously, there is a world of difference between these two nuances, so one must read the air of the context in which it was said in order to discern the speaker’s intended meaning. I recall my initial struggles as an inexperienced missionary leading meetings in Japanese where I often failed to read the air. For example, I might mistakenly interpret everyone’s silent response on a particular topic as meaning they either had no opinion or that everyone was in agreement with me (I wish!). This inevitably led to a few misunderstandings, but people were generally very gracious and forgiving in such situations.

Someone who doesn’t read the air very well and misunderstands a particular social situation is conversely labeled as being a 空気読めない (kūki yomenai) person. Such people typically fail to take a hint, lack common sense, or neglect to read a person’s body language, which causes them to respond inappropriately. Younger Japanese now commonly use the abbreviation KY (Kūki Yomenai) in text messages and social media to describe such individuals. If someone is particularly bad at reading the air, he or she might be called a SKY, which stands for Super Kūki Yomenai!

Communication patterns and language naturally vary from culture to culture, but discerning matters of the heart, calls for a different set of skills that can be quite difficult to master. The desire to be fully understood by others is a longing we all have in common, but the harsh reality is that we often fail to understand ourselves, much less others. Motives, intentions, thoughts and feelings run much deeper than mere spoken words and actions, and are consequently, harder to interpret. Nonetheless, they are essential components in the communication process that we dare not neglect. As the writer of Proverbs points out, great insight is required to discern these deeper matters of the heart and such skills ultimately come from God. Therefore, we would be wise to turn to Him for help. Without His enablement, we would all be SKY people.

A Healthy Ascent

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…”                     Deuteronomy 30:19b

Escalator

When we regularly navigated the labyrinthine transportation system of Tokyo comprised of trains, subways, monorails and buses, we were faced with a frequent choice: take the stairs or the escalator. We seemed to be always going either up or down as we traversed the Tokyo underground, scurrying to make our connections. The stairs are obviously the healthier choice and some stairways are even clearly numbered with the amount of calories one burns with each step as a clever attempt to promote more exercise. However, escalators are generally quicker and require minimal effort so they are usually the more attractive option for most commuters.

Japanese escalator etiquette gives one further choices as users are expected to obediently stand on the left side of the escalator as it goes up so others in a hurry can climb unimpeded on the right side. However, this unwritten rule is only true for East Japan, as inexplicably, escalator users in West Japan dutifully stand on the opposite side. But now this standard practice of escalator manners is being called into question with an increase of accidents and injuries. New public campaigns are currently instructing users to simply stand still and hold onto the rail after boarding the escalator. If the previous combination of riding/climbing comes to an end, we may have to reconsider our choice in the stairs versus escalator dilemma and take the slower, but healthier, stairs alternative.

As we all know, life is routinely full of choices and they are usually of a much weightier nature than Japan’s stairs versus escalator quandary. Moses spoke of such decisions at the end of his life when he summoned the nation of Israel one final time before his impending death. After reviewing their poor choices in the past that led to disastrous consequences, Moses exhorted the people of God to reflect on such things and from that moment forward, to choose life over death. Such crucial decisions can unwittingly incur the wrath of God or in contrast, invite His blessing, which is what we truly desire. Therefore, Moses entreated them to “choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord your God is life.” That is indeed a healthy choice.