I love the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I call it Thanks-mas.
"Hey Joseph, what do you have to thank God for this Christmastime in Japan?" asked a famous American athlete who further whined, "I'm going back to California. The quality of life here stinks!"
Every Wednesday night Mainichi TV (TBS) has a weekly show pitting all kinds of Japanese-speaking foreigners against a different set of Japanese, with Beat Takeshi as MC. They argue loudly about all the main gripes surrounding any current subject.
Foreigners are usually full of venom, hatred, disgust and opposition to most of the Japanese on parade. This makes for good audience ratings because there are two ways to get a crowd: start a fire or start a fight, and this is a no-holds-barred fight.
So what am I thankful for this Christmas? Living in Japan ... it's so easy to live in here as a "landedgentry," not a "revolving door" transient. Example? While riding my bicycle to get to the local post office in two minutes before the 4 o'clock deadline, I slip in under the wire and give her my hanko to take out some money to process the paperwork for afurikae.
Meanwhile I mail my packages and letters at the mail counter. While waiting for the proper postage for each item, I walk five steps over to the ATM machine, using my postal Visa card.
Now, just press the English button on the ATM machines at any one of the 14,000 post offices and it talks English. I've done all three without missing a beat and thank the postmistress and the five girls who run more of a bank than a post office.
I hop on my bicycle to pick up my month's prescription drugs at the neighborhood hospital, which are now free since I've passed the 70-year milestone.. I need to see the doctor only every other month for the prescriptions. I pray, with genuine sadness, for my American peers who can't afford prescription drugs.
Next, I head to my dentist, also on my trusty bicycle. Our nice family dentist is just seven minutes away. On my way home, I shop for stuff for my simmering lamb stew soup. Lila, my wife of 45 years, flew to California for 30 days to take care of our newborn twin granddaughters. I really felt the pangs of bachelorhood as I returned to our dark, cold home.
But en route home, I also stopped for a bag of bread-ends to give to the sparrows that come regularly to our backyard feeder.
These errands done in less than an hour would have taken half a day in La Mirada, California, or Los Angeles, driving for hours.
I can see the sparrows from my recopy machine at our second floor office. It was here that I stood one day when one of our church members, Ms. Saito, expressed her worry about going on the Logos mercy ship for two years. This ship is loaded with 300,000 books, run by Operation Mobilization (OM). They sail to 20 countries with more than 300 young people who have raised their own monthly support for the term. Could she take the two years on a ship? Could she raise the monthly $600 for board and room? She worried out loud.
I looked out the window at the sparrows and challenged her to count them. She counted 20. Then I sang:
"Why do you let the worries of tomorrow
Bring sorrow to your heart and trouble, too;
For if your Father's eye is on the sparrow,
Then surely He will care for you.
He knoweth and careth;
Each burden He beareth;
For if your Father's eye is on the sparrow,
Then surely He will care for you."
She was encouraged and went, coming back two years later after visiting and evangelizing in 23 countries, besides her constant work on the ship. She was so happy to give a Thanksgiving report many Sundays to the little Grace Chapel group that meets in our home.
That little song was a favorite of the Youth for Christ era of 1945-55 to get young people going around the world-almost 50,000 born-again missionaries went not only from America, but also from Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland and other European countries.
This is unfathomable to marketing managers of companies or to the average Japanese tax authorities who can't understand what "living by faith" means. Yet Christian workers go on like sparrows: trusting, living from hand to mouth-from God's hand to our mouth. And looking back on 50 years of God's faithfulness, another song says:
"All I have needed Thy hand has provided, Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me."
We've seen more than 5,000 peers come to Japan since 1947 as foreign missionaries or short-term workers, heeding God's and Macarthur's calls. Now only eight remain. I impress on our four boys not to believe their own press releases-or prayer letters. A good dose of humor helps us keep going.
God has provided more than we've needed. Just today my wife stuck her head into my upstairs office and commented on how comfortable we are-warm in the winter, cool in the summer, with wonderful friends who drop by or come for the "church in the home."
And great e-mails from family and friends.
When a man said he was trying to live more "Japanesey" than the Japanese themselves, he was told that "it's not the size of your home, but the warmth of your heart, which Japanese need so badly." When Emperor Hirohito came to Macarthur and admitted his responsibility for the war, magnanimous MacArthur made one of the most magnificent mistakes ever made, as recorded in the book, Hirohito by Herbert Bix. He could have given one order proclaiming Japan a Christian country, just like a king in Norway once did. We believe it would have worked. But MacArthur said, "God says that it is an individual matter."
Jesus says, "If any man hear my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will meet with him and save him." So MacArthur said that it should be kept on a personal basis.
The Emperor then asked one of the missionaries, Mr. Vories, who married into the royal family with the name "Hitotsuyanagi" (Lonesome Pine) to please meet him as he walked in the Imperial Garden. So at a set time the Emperor appeared and asked Mr. Vories, "What do you Westerners believe by 'God'?"
Mr. Vories said, "Well, Almighty God created the heavens and the earth and the entire universe in six days and then rested."
The Emperor said meekly, "well, I didn't do that. So then I can say I'm not that God."
Thus his Ningen Sengen (Proclamation of non-divinity). This was taken back in 1972 by the Shinto Shrine Association of Priests.
Recently I spoke at "The Bible and Japan Forum" and distributed my 350-page Japan's Jizo and Jesus book. The reason the conference was held in Suwa, Nagano, was that it's the home of the Shinto Issaku Matsuri. "Issaku" is Isaac from the Bible. The Shinto priest explained the story of a man named Abraham who was told by God to sacrifice his own child Isaac. He led him up Mount Moriah (the nearby mountain is named Moriya) and strapped him to the chopping block. As he takes out his dagger to do God's will by sacrificing his son as a peace offering to God, just then out comes a lamb. Only in Japan a beautiful deer (shika)-a Bambi- appears to be the sacrifice for Isaac.
What a marvelous prophecy of the future as God's Son, the Lamb of God, came at Christmas to take our place as a sacrifice for our sins. Thank you, Jesus'
As I gave my OHP presentation among Japanese scholars who presented papers and reports, I wondered why Japan is only 1% Christian, while Korea is more than 45%, Taiwan 12% and Hong Kong 15%. What is it? Why? Japan has empty form, katachi and ceremonies, but no content, no substance. Forms, etiquettes, correct delicate ceremonies void of spiritual meaning. All leave the heart empty, without God, the Bible, salvation, hope and eternal life.
So how can you be such an optimist? We've heard of teachers raping students, doctors taking out the wrong cancerous breast, schoolteachers and professors taking large bribes, archeologists planting false evidence of Japanese being 600 million years old, bank failures caused by greedy men. Popular stores such as Sogo going under because of greedier men, the boss receiving million-dollar salaries from five different stores.
A Christian lawyer explained that "Japan is a country built on a deck of cards that could fall down at any moment ... a giant Ponzi Scheme, each interacting company depending upon a bank that is paying to another company to get some more money to prop it up as the word is, 'Don't worry, be happy and keep smiling!"'
But what other country takes care of its senior citizens so well? Anyone over 70 in Tokyo can ride buses and some subways free. And they provide Social Security here. One couple said they couldn't afford to retire in America.
I think of the Kuroneko delivery man who came to our door to pick up 25 packages prepared for the 50 American, Filipino, Canadian, Norwegian and Korean missionaries that we sponsor.
Having spent 22 years in Chicago and 50 in Japan, I am asked by Japanese, "What are you?" I answer, "Doko no uma no hone desu ka? " ("Who does this horse's bone belong to?") Japan or America? And the answer is both and neither. I am an Assyrian. My ancestors came all the way from Baghdad in 52 A.D., to India bringing the Christmas Gospel in 91 A.D. to China, and 198 A.D. to Korea and Japan. You could walk on the Silk Road from Jerusalem in eight years or ride on a horse in four years.
They were completely self-supporting with tents set up at a moment's notice. They would go on their merry way teaching and preaching not only to the natives, but also to their own children in home schooling. They built a church in Kyoto in 603 ... then it was burned down. I've researched historical sites where more than a million Japanese Christians were massacred for their faith by ruthless Buddhist, Shinto and thought police. They were made to stomp on the fumie (a raised picture of Christ) and they were asked to spit on it or stomp on it with their feet. By doing that they were renouncing Christ.
Most who didn't renounce were women and children. The big strong men ran away. Artifacts, churches and Christian evidences were decimated by evil forces. I've spent 49 years trying to dig out and pick up the pieces, put the crossword puzzle together. We're thankful to have finally put together a bi-lingual, illustrated 350-page book entitled Japan's Jizo and Jesus on this 50th anniversary of our staying here. By Christmas, Tokuma Publishers will print the Japanese version (by me and my son Ken) which they've titled, Japan, the Country of the Cross. (In Japanese: Jujika no Kuni), available at 14,000 bookstores or on the web: [email protected]
Thankful this Thanks-mas? Yes, "Thanks be unto God for His indescribable, free Gift: Jesus Christ." And for the thousands who have received that Gift ... as you can this Christmas.
*Available for \2,000 from the author at:
7-39-6 Higashi Oizumi, Nerima Ku, Tokyo 178-0063
Tel: 3922-6402; Fax: 3922-7655