Real Truth

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

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

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

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

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

Tree of Hope

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

Tree of Hope

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

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

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

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

Passing Zones

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

Magokoro Zone 2

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

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

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

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

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

Persecution

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

Persecution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt. Fuji

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

Mt Fuji

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

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

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

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

Protocol Priorities

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

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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

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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.