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.

Language Bloopers

“But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.”             Psalm 19:12

lang blooper
lang blooper2Before I traveled back to the States for a visit many years ago, the members of our Japanese church kindly made a number of decorative bookmarks (called “shiori”) for us to give out as gifts to our friends. Shiori was a new vocabulary term to me so it was not yet deeply entrenched in my language repertoire. This became rather obvious after I returned to Japan and stood up in church to announce how everyone was very appreciative of the derrieres (“oshiri”) from the church. Immediately realizing my mistake, I made a hasty retreat for the exit, but my loving colleagues would in the future sometimes refer to the infamous “bookmark incident” to keep me humble.

For anyone learning a new language, such bloopers are part of the inevitable and sometimes painful process of acquiring a totally different form of communication. Over the years, we have collected many such examples. Maybe one of the most commonly made mistakes in Japan is the confusion of the word “human” (ningen) with “carrot” (ninjin), which has led to many hilarious encounters. Running a close second to this frequent language blooper is probably the mistake of calling a baby “kowai” (scary) instead of using the intended adjective “kawaii” (cute). One time, upon hearing the news of the tragic death of friend’s relative, I sympathetically offered to pray for that person. Unfortunately, instead of asking God to comfort the family (nagusameru), I beseeched the Lord to knock off (nakunaru) the remaining members of the family. Since this blunder occurred in the course of a prayer, no one seemed to smirk, but I suspect a few were stifled with great difficulty. One of the better gaffes I recall hearing was that of a young single missionary handing out flyers at a train station. He passionately implored each recipient to “please become my bride” (oyome kudasai) instead of the well-rehearsed line “please read this” (oyomi kudasai). He did eventually get married, but probably not from using this technique!

However, sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. I’ll never forget wandering into a small town supermarket in which areas of the store were impressively labeled in English, but each sign was hilariously bungled. The meat section was identified as “MEET.” The fruit section was marked “FLUTE.” If rice was on your shopping list, you could find it under “LICE,” and so it continued as if someone had played a cruel joke on the unsuspecting storeowner. Following this gamut of bad English, one might be tempted to purchase an adult beverage in the “LICKER” section! The website engrish.com is dedicated to the collection of the butchering of English around the world, which only partially compensates for the extensive damage I did to the Japanese language in my early years. However, one of the challenges of learning Japanese is that the Japanese people are so polite that they will rarely point out even the most egregious mistakes we unwittingly force upon them.

Although language mistakes are annoying and at times embarrassing, they can usually be conveniently or politely overlooked. Such is not true of transgressions of the human heart and personal sin. We hurt others, bring shame upon our community, invite disastrous consequences, degrade ourselves and worst of all, rebel against a holy God. We may strive to live in denial of such misdeeds, but like a bad language blooper, everything will eventually come to light and much more than personal embarrassment is at stake. Perfect life fluency is not possible as we all sin, but amazingly, there is forgiveness available for every blooper imaginable. That is grace in any language.

Shinto Blessings

“From the Lord comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people.”  Psalm 3:8

shinto blessing2

While sitting in the office of the local Shinto priest, my gaze fixed upon a placard on the wall which advertised (in Japanese) set charges for services rendered:

  • ¥10,000 for a car blessing
  • ¥5,000 for a school entrance exam blessing
  • ¥10,000 for a baby blessing
  • ¥15,000 for a new home blessing
  • ¥10,000 for a marriage blessing

The whole concept stunned me on many levels and several questions came to mind as I chatted with my gracious host in a very unfamiliar setting. “How can mere mortal men place themselves in the position of dispensing blessings on behalf of the gods?” was something I asked myself. I did my best to politely nibble around the edges of this concept as I conversed with the Shinto priest. He explained, according to the Shinto religion, that nearly all objects, including both animate and inanimate, possess a spiritual essence known as kami (神). These kami are everywhere, but they are not regarded as omnipotent, omniscient, or even immortal. The term “Shinto” (神道) means literally “way of the kami” and they reportedly number over eight million. These spirits are duly venerated across Japan at various public shrines and private god shelves. It is believed by many adherents that kami have the power to dispense blessing on their devotees through rituals, good luck charms and designated intermediaries such as the priests.

As I sat in the office of the local priest, other questions continued to fill my mind such as: “How can one charge money for a blessing?” From my perspective, such a practice seemed to reduce religion to a mere business transaction. This thought led naturally to another related question, which was, “Why would people actually participate in such obvious duplicity?” Perhaps the explanation to this conundrum resides in the standard practice of Shinto religious ceremonial procedures, where devotees have a sense that they cannot approach the kami with a request without some form of ritual purification to remedy their unclean state. This rite of purification is called harae (祓) and it usually begins with a symbolic washing using water near the shrine entrance. The next phase in absolution is conveniently performed by the priest (for a fee!), who rhythmically waves a large paper shaker called an ōnusa (also referred to as a haraegushi) over the object or person to be purified and blessed. Only after these procedures are performed can one approach the kami and hope to have their request granted.

Lying at the heart of the many intricate rituals of Shintoism is the basic human desire to be blessed by something or someone greater than one’s self. We want a healthy baby, success on a test, protection from infectious diseases, safety on the road, a good paying job, and a happy marriage, but such objectives often elude us because they lie beyond our control. Therefore, we are tempted to turn to a higher power to obtain them. Fortunately for us, there is a Higher Power who graciously dispenses such blessings on His people (Psalm 3:8) despite our unclean condition. We are beckoned to approach this God to request such favors, not because of our worthiness or the intercession of others, but because of the forgiveness provided through the cross by His Only Son. No fee is charged; God has paid it all. A few years later, this same priest reached the same conclusion and turned to Jesus for eternal absolution.

Counting Bowls

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

wanko soba

Iwate Prefecture has many cultural distinctives and I happened to witness one first hand while eating my lunch and waiting to board a bullet train bound for Tokyo. I silently watched as a waitress in the restaurant hovered over one particular customer who was rapidly slamming down bowls of buckwheat soba noodles in front of him as fast as he could consume them. This bizarre scene continued for a period of time with the bowls stacking up until the man eventually halted his eating frenzy by placing a lid on his final bowl as an obvious indication of surrender.

I later learned that this unique custom is called “wanko soba” where wanko means “bowl” and soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat noodles. At a recent eating competition, the winner consumed 383 bowls of noodles in ten minutes. Apparently many people who visit Iwate are eager to experience the wanko soba challenge and even leave with a certificate verifying how many bowls they ate as a souvenir of their unique experience. While the whole scene was rather entertaining, I was not tempted to participate, but rather, quietly ate my own lunch of noodles at an unhurried pace before proceeding on my journey without indigestion.

No one is quite sure of the origin of this unusual custom, although several theories abound. Probably one of the most common is that of a powerful lord whom locals were suddenly asked to entertain when he passed through their territory. Embarrassed that their local cuisine was not up to their special guest’s usual standards, they served the nobleman just a small portion of their common fare of noodles in addition to other standard dishes. To their surprise, he demanded more noodles so they kept providing additional servings in small bowls until he was finally satisfied.

We don’t know if this particular account is historically accurate, but at least it is an entertaining explanation of why the locals count bowls of consumed noodles. Of course, it is human nature to keep track of things by counting them, but it is important to remember that God has a different perspective, and therefore a different way of counting or evaluating things in certain circumstances. For example, we are told that with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day (II Pet. 3:8). He is also the Good Shepherd who zealously searches for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4) while our focus would more likely be on the remaining ninety-nine. God identifies trillions of stars by name and unerringly knows the number of hairs on our head and the grains of sand on every seashore. Yet, not even a sparrow falling to the ground escapes His notice (Matt. 10:29). God can amazingly see the vast whole and the intricate details of the most seemingly insignificant matter all in one glance without the constraints of time and space.

It is critical to bear such truths in mind when newscasters announce the latest numbers of COVID-19 cases. At the same time, we anxiously track the economic plunge of our hard-earned investments while worriedly taking note of our dwindling supply of goods needed for daily life. We are by nature prone to panic and anxiety about matters beyond our control, but God’s peace and provision in the midst of such extreme circumstances comes as we learn to lean into Him. We certainly need to count, but we would be wise to do so with a heavenly perspective. Like Moses, we should pray: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) Rather than counting bowls, we are called to count each day for eternity and trust the God who knows the very hairs on our head and loves each of us as the one lost sheep.

Too Close for Comfort

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”               John 13:35

crowded train

Desperate for a distraction from my troublesome circumstances, and partially out of curiosity, I began to count under my breath. “One, two, three, four… eleven.” When I finished, I discovered that I was fairly close to my original estimate, but I was still off by two people. There were actually eleven people touching me in the jam-packed train, including the poor woman whose face was planted in my right armpit. Welcome to the Tokyo rush hour on severely overcrowded trains!

I chastised myself for not planning better as I usually managed to avoid this unpleasant press of people. Fortunately, I don’t commute by train to work, so I generally dodge such circumstances that many have to endure on a daily basis. But on this particular day, I had arranged to meet someone for an early appointment which required me to enter the unwelcome fray of rush hour madness. However, at the more crowded stations in Tokyo, help is available to assist desperate travelers like myself reach their destination on time. These special white gloved assistants are called “oshiya,” (押し屋) which means roughly “professional pusher.” Oshiya are employed part time during peak commuting hours to push people into train cars and ensure that nothing gets caught in the doors, thus enabling the train to depart on time.

The original oshiya were hired to work at the notoriously busy Shinjuku Station and were initially called “ryokaku seiri gakari” (旅客整理係), which meant “passenger arrangement staff.” A lot is certainly being arranged by these dedicated laborers as you can witness for yourself through the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7kor5nHtZQ. My most unforgettable train experience occurred when we were traveling through Tokyo as a family on a crowded train and I hoisted my youngest child above my head with outstretched arms to protect him. The train car suddenly became so packed with people that I was soon trapped in that awkward position, unable to lower my arms. However, my son didn’t seem to mind his lofty perch as he had a great birds eye view of the chaos below while I strained to hold him up for what seemed like an eternity until we finally reached our stop.

While we may not enjoy such close proximity with people when riding on a train, the Word of God teaches us that living in community with one another is actually an essential element in our spiritual growth. The New Testament repeatedly exhorts the people of God to practice the various “one another” commands that promote successful communal life. In so doing, we honor God, who calls us to abandon our natural inclination towards selfishness and beckons us to live together in unity. This is no small task.

Among the many “one another” commands are:                                                               Forgive one another                 Serve one another                                                                 Accept one another                   Comfort one another                                                                Pray for one another                Be kind to one another                                                             Bear one another’s burdens   Encourage one another                                                           Love one another

Like passengers on a crowded train, many of these injunctions seem a little too close for comfort as they demand actions and attitudes of us that run counter to our deeply ingrained sense of self preservation. But as Jesus pointed out in His final exhortation to His disciples, the implementation of these commands is what sets us apart from the world and its modus operandi (John 13:35). Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, we are rightly advised to temporarily practice social distancing to preserve physical health. But on the other hand, distancing ourselves from others long term invites other potentially deadly consequences. Only love for one another can bring genuine healing to a sick world.

My Hometown

“My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.”      Isaiah 32:18

Furusto

Our “choir” for that day featured no gifted singers, but what it lacked in ability was more than compensated for by the heartfelt participation of the predominantly older voices gathered in one of the many temporary housing areas scattered along the northeast coast of Japan. We were serving coffee, tea and homemade cookies to those who had been recently displaced by the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake. A team of volunteers then led everyone in singing the famous Japanese folk song “Furusato,” (故郷) translated “My Hometown.” As my wife and I listened to the well-known words to the song, we were emotionally unable to add our voices to those who had lost so much.

I chased rabbits in those mountains
I fished in that stream
I still dream now and then about those days as a child
How I long for and miss my hometown

How are my father and mother?
Are my old friends okay?
Whenever it is rainy and windy
I recall my happy childhood in my hometown

Some day when I've done what I set out to do,
I will return to what used to be my home
The mountains are green there in my hometown

Described as a song that reflects the heart of Japan, Furusato* is traditionally sung as a wistful contemplation of bygone days with the slight hint of hope that those happier times will someday be recovered. But the words on this occasion seemed empty as they were being mouthed by people who had lost their homes, loved ones, jobs and even their way of life within the span of a few minutes on March 11, 2011. The mountains and streams from their childhood memories still remained, but there would be no returning to the furusato they enthusiastically sang about.

That single moment, among the many we experienced doing relief work, captured for us the uniqueness of the Japanese and their amazing, resilient response to unmitigated, personal disaster. All that remained of many towns and neighborhoods along that coast were vast fields of empty foundations that eerily resembled ancient archeological ruins. Those who remained continued to press on, clinging to the memories of their furusato with little hope of livelihood, and many were still struggling to pay off loans on houses that no longer existed.

Although the song “Furusato” is known by all Japanese, very few are aware that the tune and lyrics were actually written by Christians. As such, the composers used the metaphor of furusato to portray the people of God as sojourners on earth waiting for their eternal, heavenly home. This theme comes out clearly in the last verse where it says “Someday when I’ve done what I set out to do, I will return to what used to be my home.” It is good to keep this worthier objective in mind as we seek to point the way to our eternal furusato to others, while standing shoulder to shoulder with those who have lost their earthly furusato.

*You can listen to the song Furusato through the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcmcXrCihrA 

 

Tokyo Trains

“Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.” Psalm 25:4

Tokyo Train

 

I stared intently at what looked like strands of multi-colored spaghetti thrown on the wall, which were somehow supposed to help me find my way through the labyrinth of Tokyo. I felt utterly lost and confused, and those feelings only intensified as I continued to vainly scrutinize the “helpful” map of Tokyo’s train lines.

Welcome to the world’s most extensive rail network, consisting of 158 separate lines, fed by 2,210 stations, running along 2,930 miles of operational track and servicing roughly 40 million passengers per day. And these figures don’t include Japan’s famous bullet trains that rapidly crisscross the Greater Tokyo area. Over 3.6 million people pass daily through Shinjuku Station, which makes it easily the busiest train station in the world, consisting of 36 platforms with over 200 exits to accommodate the masses of people. The Yamanote Line, which makes a giant loop through the urban sprawl of Tokyo, is one of the most important lines. It connects most of Tokyo’s major stations, operating roughly 20 hours every day with train intervals as short as two minutes during peak usage. Particularly exhausted travelers on the Yamanote frequently fall asleep during their commute, but they can easily disembark and head back in the opposite direction if they miss their stop.

This maze of train lines is also supported by an additional network of buses, trams and monorails, adding thousands of more miles to an already incredibly complicated transportation system. What makes it even more impressive is that it all actually works! Trains flawlessly run on time. Public and private train lines somehow seamlessly cooperate. Equipment operates efficiently with minimal breakdowns. Passengers move from one point to another with few complaints.

To facilitate this daily mass movement of people, most passengers use different variations of what is called an “IC card,” which stands for “integrated circuit.” These are prepaid cards that are simply scanned when passing through the turnstiles on one’s journey. Gone are the days when passengers had to rely on printed train schedules using microscopic print to guide them to their destination. They have been replaced (thankfully) by convenient cell phone apps that remove most of the panic for novices as they bravely venture into the Byzantine network of Tokyo’s rail lines as I experienced many years ago.

Even though it can be intimidating to grasp and utilize the complexities of Tokyo’s transportation system, this difficulty pales in comparison to the greater challenge of navigating through life. How do I determine the best response when presented with many options? What will be the most helpful recourse to take for myself and others affected by my decision? When should I make a commitment to a plan of action even though many elements continue to elude my complete grasp of possible outcomes?

Unlike the map of Tokyo’s train lines, the answer to this question is surprisingly simple: turn to God for guidance. It is almost embarrassing how little we actually do that when confronted by the complexities of life. Far superior to the most sophisticated transportation apps, God asks that we turn to Him throughout the day, and seek His counsel as we travel through life. He delights in showing His ways and revealing the paths that will bring blessing for both us and others. All aboard!

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

ikizukuri2

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.