Live Food

Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”   Mark 7:15


I had previously eaten sashimi, which is fresh raw fish, or meat sliced into thin pieces, but the bizarre culinary creation that now lay before me was an entirely new experience. Artfully displayed on the table where we were seated was a live fish still opening and closing its mouth. Observing the reaction of my fellow diners who were reaching for their chopsticks, I soon realized that this was the centerpiece of our meal. Now, I am no stranger to live fish as a fisherman, but this was something altogether different from my previous forays into the wonders of seafood. I soon learned that this Japanese delicacy is called ikizukuri (生き作り), which is roughly translated as “prepared alive.”

We had actually chosen our “victim” when we entered the restaurant from several tanks containing live fish, octopus, shrimp, lobsters and squid. I had naturally assumed that the fish would then be sliced into traditional sashimi, fried or broiled. Instead, a specially trained chef deftly removed the edible portion of the still living fish, sliced it into tiny bite-sized pieces and expertly placed it all back into its original location. The obvious objective of this culinary dish is to provide the ultimate experience in feasting upon fresh sashimi. This, of course, is evidenced by moving gills, tail, antenna or tentacles, depending on the creature being consumed.

As to be expected, this unique practice has invited a certain amount of controversy from critics who consider the custom barbaric and cruel to animals. In reaction, a few countries have even gone so far as to outlaw food prepared in this manner. However, ikizukuri advocates claim that the muscle twitching observed in the entrée is merely the residual response of the dead creature’s nervous system, rather than the labored movements of a dying victim. As for me, I thought the sashimi that evening was particularly delicious, but I was careful the whole time to avoid eye contact with the fish that became our meal!

The Old Testament contains numerous prohibitions of things not to be eaten, or how they were not to be eaten, as part of its ceremonial law. For example, some types of meat were declared to be “clean” and others were considered “unclean” and, therefore, to be avoided under all circumstances. These ceremonial laws were rigidly adhered to and enforced by many of the religious leaders in Jesus’ time, but their zealousness to preserve such practices caused them to lose sight of far more important matters. Jesus pointed this out when He said to them, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” In saying this, Jesus contrasted the huge difference between ceremonial defilement (what is outside a person) and spiritual uncleanness (what comes out of a person). The latter is called “sin” and all of us are under its dominion as evidenced by our proclivity to lie, lust, slander, judge, hate, boast, envy, etc. Judging from outward appearances, we may look appealing, like the ikizukuri fish on a plate, but no matter what we do, we are still dead in our sins. Our attempt to achieve righteousness through our own efforts is mere twitching on the platter. Only God can resurrect the dead and truly cleanse us.

Gods on a Shelf

“How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?”                Psalm 4:2b


We watched silently as the flames steadily consumed the butsudan (仏壇), or Buddhist altar that represented the gathered family’s dramatic break from the false gods they and generations before them had previously served. A butsudan is a shrine commonly found in temples and homes in Japan. It basically consists of an ornate wooden cabinet that typically houses a Buddhist religious icon and other accessories known as butsugu. These items are usually candlesticks, bells, incense burners and elaborate dishes where rice, tea or fruit are placed as an offering to deceased ancestors. A photo, memorial tablet (ihai), or ashes of a venerated family member are often placed within the butsudan, which represents a unique combination of traditional Buddhism and ancestral worship. Local Buddhist priests are usually called in to conduct periodic formal ceremonies in front of the butsudan, as determined by the date of the deceased’s death. Many households also maintain a simple daily ritual at the Buddhist altar of offering prayers, putting out food or burning incense; this responsibility usually falls on the wife.

Worship before the butsudan was traditionally viewed as an essential element in Japanese life, as it represented the center of a family’s spiritual faith and their historical heritage. While this practice is still quite common in the more rural areas of Japan, the responsibility of maintaining the family Buddhist altar is a burden modern Japanese are increasingly unwilling to bear as their religious convictions and lifestyles continue to evolve. The high price of these butsudan and the space they require in crowded homes are additional deterrents to owning one.

The butsudan is not to be confused with a kamidana (神棚), which is a Shinto god shelf and represents an entirely different religion unique to Japan. Many Japanese adhere to both Buddhist and Shinto practices. In contrast to the butsudan, kamidana are much more simplistic in appearance and are even sold as inexpensive kits at the local hardware store if you want to construct your own. The general purpose of a Shinto god shelf is to house a local Japanese kami or spirits, which are believed to inhabit all things. According to Japanese mythology, there are eight million of these quasi spirits who should be properly venerated.

Unlike a butsudan, a kamidana is typically placed high on a wall above eye level in a place where people will not walk under it. The Shinto god shelf contains a variety of items, but the most important one is the shintai. This is an object designed to house a particular kami, by providing a physical form to enhance worship. A shintai is usually a small circular mirror, but it can also be a stone, jewel or some other object with symbolic value. Worship at a kamidana is believed to invite success or good fortune, so is it is quite common to see Shinto god shelves on prominent display in places of business.

Idolatry actually comes in many forms and is not limited to images or objects commonly condemned in the Bible and currently present in Japan. The Ten Commandments begin with a prohibition of placing any other gods before the One True God where one constructs images of such gods or bows in worship before them. While very few of us place such obvious idols in our homes and worship them, our hearts are unfortunately inclined to value people, things, or objectives ahead of God and wrongfully give ourselves to them. Such “gods” should have no place on the shelves of our lives.

Protruding Nails

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

protruding nail

Many years ago I took a number of Japanese visitors to an event in the United States where the performers on stage tried to recruit volunteers from the audience to participate in the action. Everyone around us eagerly thrust their hands into the air begging to be chosen, but my Japanese guests shrunk back, doing their best to become invisible. I was slightly amused as I witnessed this contrast in reactions and obvious clash of cultures. My Japanese friends were equally puzzled by the circumstances and later asked me, “Why are Americans so eager to rush on the stage and make fools of themselves?” To which I casually replied, “It’s the American way!” While my answer was rather shallow and primarily intended to draw laughter, it did partially capture the vast differences that often separate us as different cultures defined by different values.

The Japanese have a famous proverb that goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” *(出る釘は打たれる), which succinctly captures the previously described scenario. Due to Japan’s centuries of intentional isolation as an island nation and its mono-ethnic makeup, diversity is generally not encouraged. This serves as a stark contrast to the melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups that typically characterizes the United States, where individuality and the expression of it is considered a high value. However, in Japan, deviance from the norm is often met with resistance, like a protruding nail that is routinely hammered in so it will match the others. Group mentality and the pressure to “fit in” encourages conformity on many levels in Japan, so few are willing to face criticism and risk being singled out. This mindset can be a powerful tool to mobilize effort and energy into a cohesive direction for a particular objective, but it has the drawback of shutting down independent thought and action that sometimes might lead to better outcomes.

Of course, there are exceptions to this trend and nowhere is this more evident than the variety of street fashions in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, where young people express their individuality through unusual clothing and makeup combinations. In addition, some public figures may shun conformity in order to achieve success and are ironically admired for their boldness and innovation. But among the general masses, the desire for safety and tranquility continues to drive responses and few are willing to take the risks that come from being a nail that sticks out.

Jesus, however, essentially called His followers to be that protruding nail. While this presents unique challenges for Japanese believers seeking to live out their faith in a non-Christian culture, it is a problem that all true followers of Christ must wrestle with as the Kingdom of God inevitably clashes with the kingdoms of this world. As the people of God, we are to be actively engaged in a spiritual battle where our good deeds and testimony bear witness to the greatness and mercies of God to others around us. This way of life, of course, leaves little room for shrinking back into a self-protective mode for fear of criticism or rejection. Our light must shine as we become protruding nails within the cultural context where God has uniquely placed us. After all, the ultimate hammer resides in God’s hand and it is His judgment that matters in light of eternity.

* The proverb originally stated, “The stake that sticks out gets pounded,” which doesn’t significantly change the current nuance.

Population in Peril

“God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number.” Genesis 1:22

pop decline

Japan is shrinking. Not the land mass, but rather, the number of Japanese who live there. In contrast to other countries in the world, the population of Japan actually peaked in 2010 at roughly 127 million and has been steadily declining since then. At the current rate, experts predict that by 2050 the population will drop to 97 million people as the percentage of elderly continues to increase disproportionately to the number of births. As a sad testimony of this trend, the sales of adult diapers now exceeds the sales of diapers for babies. Another indicator of changing demographics can be seen in the annual closure of roughly 400 schools due to the lack of students. Many of these facilities are then repurposed to function as care centers for the elderly.

Japan consistently ranks at the top of the list for longevity among its citizens, but when this admirable trend is coupled with a steadily declining birth rate, it triggers significant concerns about the future of the country. A natural byproduct of an aging and shrinking population is a declining workforce which can in turn stymie economic growth, endanger the solvency of the national pension program and overwhelm healthcare services.

Sociologists point out a number of economic and cultural factors that are likely contributing to this decline in childbirth throughout Japan. Long working hours, a rising percentage of women in the work force, later and fewer marriages and the high cost of raising children are just a few of the many components to this multi-layered problem. This precipitous decrease in the population has of course alarmed the Japanese government, which has implemented a number of proactive measures to reverse this downward spiral. As part of this strategy, couples are encouraged to have children through the promise of generous subsidies, extended maternity leave and numerous other benefits. However, despite these incentives, many still continue to shun the perceived burdens of parenthood (in addition, marriage itself is on the decline). Another controversial solution is to promote immigration as a means to compensate for labor shortages and tax revenue, but such an approach raises other fears regarding the future of Japan.

One of the first commands given to mankind was to “be fruitful and multiply,” which is a verse loaded with meaning. Obviously, for the first man Adam and his wife Eve, this command had literal implications as mankind would quickly go into extinction if this initial couple failed to reproduce. Since that time, physical multiplication has been the natural order of things and has continued over the centuries with few exceptions. However, the biblical concept of fruitfulness extends roots beyond mere physical reproduction to a deeper, spiritual level indicating the type of people God longs for us to become. Therefore, the theme of fruitfulness appears repeatedly in the Old Testament and then Jesus brings it powerfully to the foreground through His famous analogy in John 15, where He instructs His followers to abide in Him as our Vine, so that we might produce fruits of righteousness. The Apostle Paul also teaches about fruitfulness in Galatians 5:22-23 where he identifies the “fruit of the Spirit” that should characterize our lives. While the Japanese are facing a potential population crisis related to physical multiplication, the Bible reminds us to seek spiritual fruitfulness, which is rooted in a relationship with our Creator. God’s original intent in creating us was that we should bear fruit, and by doing so, we honor Him with our lives.

Coming of Age

“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”                                                               Hebrews 5:14


The young men and women were in a festive mood and looked resplendent in their formal attire as they gathered at the local public hall to celebrate their coming of age. The ceremony is known as a “seijinshiki” (成人式) and is held once a year to congratulate those who have entered into adulthood by turning twenty years old. Young ladies are typically happy to use the occasion as an excuse to dress up in an exquisite, rented furisode style of kimono that is considered appropriate for unmarried young women. Many of the young men may opt to don the traditional dress of a dark kimono with a hakama, but the majority now seem to prefer formal Western clothing such as a suit and tie.

Following the public ceremony, these new adults will often separate into groups with their friends to attend parties where they may celebrate their newly acquired legal freedom to drink alcoholic beverages. At some point in the day, many will accompany their families to a local shrine to pray for health and success as they pass this significant life milestone. It is also common to sit for a formal portrait picture to commemorate the occasion.

The roots of the seijinshiki are reportedly traced back to the eighth century, when a famous young nobleman sported new clothing and a hairstyle to mark his passage into adulthood. However, the formal holiday was not established until centuries later in 1948 when January 15 was set aside as “Seijin-no-Hi,” or “Coming of Age Day.” This annual holiday was recently changed to the second Monday of January to create a three-day weekend. Japan also recently lowered the legal age of adulthood from 20 to 18 years of age, which will take effect in 2022. This alteration in the law will grant the newly created younger class of adults permission to marry, sign contracts and take out loans without parental approval. However, smoking, drinking and gambling will still be prohibited until the traditional age of 20.

The Japanese characters for seijin (成人) are loosely translated as “coming of age,” but they mean literally to “become a person.” In a sense, we are all engaged in the daily act of “becoming,” regardless of our age, as none of us are what we should be, or eventually will be, because change is an integral aspect of life. Hopefully, such changes are of a positive nature where we are progressing in character, abilities and life skills to become contributing members of society. However, such progression to higher things and nobler character cannot be taken for granted in the physical world and the same is true in the spiritual world. As children of God, we are exhorted to press on to maturity where we can discern good from evil and increasingly choose the former as we move deeper into spiritual adulthood. Just as all parents long to witness progress toward adulthood in their offspring, God desires to see a movement towards spiritual maturity in all His children. In that sense, every day is a “Coming of Age Day” for the children of God as we aspire to become all that God intends for us to be.

KFC & Christmas Traditions

For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.” Luke 12:23

KFC Xmas

The presence of a life-sized plastic statue of Colonel Sanders dressed in a Santa suit in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken store marked our initial realization that Christmas was celebrated differently in Japan. While we associate Christmas with many traditions in the West, dining on KFC chicken is not one them. However, in Japan, eating Kentucky Fried chicken is widely considered to be the meal of choice for Christmas. This unusual tradition began in 1974 when KFC promoted fried chicken as a Christmas meal calling it “Kentucky Christmas” (ケンタッキークリスマス) as part of a clever advertising campaign. Since Japan had few established Christmas traditions at the time, and turkey was generally unavailable, the idea quickly caught on and became part of the Japanese psyche of how Christmas should be properly celebrated. This custom became so popular that approximately 3.6 million Japanese families now order their Kentucky Christmas weeks in advance and then endure long lines to pick up their holiday meal. Perhaps this link to a KFC commercial with a popular Japanese Christmas song will make you want to rush out and order your own Kentucky Christmas!

Christmas Day is not designated as a national holiday in Japan, which alters some of the rhythms we normally associate with Christmas. For example, the Kentucky Christmas, or some other substitute, is generally eaten on Christmas Eve after all the members of the family have returned from work or school. The meal is almost always followed by what is called a “Christmas cake,” which is traditionally a sponge cake decorated with strawberries and whipped cream. Some say this custom began when strawberries were difficult to purchase at that time of year, so they represented economic prosperity and the red color was associated with Christmas. In recent years, Pizza Hut has tried to start its own Christmas campaign and was successful to such an extent that pizza is now considered acceptable Christmas cuisine. With the passage of time and through increasing influence from the West, the concept of Christmas has become wildly popular in Japan, as evidenced by the presence of Christmas decorations and music in most stores, special Christmas light displays, and an exchange of presents. In addition, many families now purchase and decorate their own Christmas tree.

Lost in this commercialized holiday shuffle is a genuine understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. Thanks to Japanese merchants eager to capitalize on the event and misconceptions imported from abroad, Christmas in Japan has largely become a shallow celebration rooted in self-indulgence earmarked by food, fun music, appealing decorations and shopping. While these things may be enjoyed and none of them are essentially bad, an overemphasis on the trappings of Christmas can easily lead one to lose a balanced perspective that “life is more than food” (Luke 12:23). In reality, we have far greater needs that can ever be filled through commercial promises of food, festivities and even family. Christmas represents something much deeper that only God could provide. Rather than a Kentucky Christmas, God’s campaign to redeem mankind began with a Bethlehem Christmas, which is a story worth retelling and certainly celebrating. This is “food” that will satisfy for eternity.

Sacred Treasures

“for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”  Philippians 4:11b

Sacred Treasures

According to ancient tradition, whenever a new Japanese emperor ascends to power, he is entrusted with three sacred items as part of the enthronement ceremony. The presentation of these special objects by the Shinto priests serves to establish the new ruler’s authority and validates his right to reign. Historically, these items are referred to as the “three sacred treasures” (三種の神器) and consist of a mirror (representing wisdom), a sword (symbolizing valor) and a jewel (signifying benevolence).

Following the devastation of World War II, most Japanese were left destitute and longed for a better life. Therefore, members of the media spoke of the “new three sacred treasures” that everyone was seeking to obtain as a symbol of status and improved living conditions. These “treasures” were identified as a washing machine, a refrigerator and a television, since very few Japanese could afford such luxuries at the time. For example, in the early 1950s, a young salaried worker only earned about ¥10,000 per month, but a small fridge cost around ¥85,000 and a black/white TV was generally priced at ¥140,000. Such everyday conveniences were well beyond the reach of the vast majority of Japanese. However, as the economy steadily improved with prices going down and wages going up, many more people were soon able to purchase these once unobtainable “sacred” objects. This trend increased to such an extent that by 1964, almost 90% of all households in Japan owned these items. As to be expected, new luxury items were sought after, so an automobile, an air conditioner and a color TV were soon identified as the “new three sacred treasures” everyone longed to possess. These in turn gave way to newer or bigger “treasures” such as luxury vacations, expensive cameras, computers, designer goods, cell phones and the list goes on and on. Life became increasingly easier in Japan, but did such treasures bring genuine satisfaction?

Obviously, the answer is “no,” as true happiness does not originate from the quantity or quality of our possessions. Rather, genuine contentment and satisfaction stems from something much deeper, beginning with a heart set on the things of God. The Apostle Paul hinted at this truth when he shared part of his testimony in Philippians 4, where he declared he had learned contentment that wasn’t dependent upon his circumstances. In the course of his life, Paul had experienced both abundance and scarcity, but because God was the ultimate “treasure” that he sought, he was able to find contentment in either situation. This is the opposite approach of the world around us, which erroneously pursues a contentment grounded in things or activities rather than the person of God. This is why Jesus advised His followers not to store up treasures on earth, but instead, store up treasures in heaven. Jesus then went on to wisely note that our hearts are closely linked to whatever treasures we value. (Matthew 6:19-21) In reality, there is only one “sacred treasure” worth pursuing, and that is God Himself. Nothing else is deserving of our devotion, time or energy in comparison.