Monday, October 6, 2014

Work Ethic

I was working at a junior high school when I learned that the teachers there usually spend all week at school. One of the teachers I talked to came to school at 7:00am and left around 10:00 at night with Saturday and Sundays taken up by club activities like baseball and basketball. This is a typical schedule for Japanese teachers. In fact, this is typical for all of Japan.

During the latter half of the 1800’s, men in Japan often lived in the big cities, but had their wives and children living in the country. In old Japanese culture, the idea was that a father had an obligation to provide for his family, but because the rules were so clearly defined, there was latitude given. A man could have mistresses and other wives, but so long as he provided for them all, no one was allowed to complain.

In modern times, the Japanese father often lives in one of the major cities like Tokyo or Osaka, and commutes back home on the weekends. Part of this is cultural, but it is also part practical. The father’s family may have friends and relatives living in the smaller towns, but it is very difficult to find work in these smaller areas. So, in order to keep their family living comfortably within a strong community, it’s expected that the father will go out and work to keep their family happy.

You see, the Japanese work ethic is based upon obligation. A man is obligated to find work that provides for his family, even if he has to sacrifice that family to do it. A man is obligated to work twelve to fourteen hours a day because the company, or school, he works for asks him to.

Contrast that with the modern American work ethic, which involves the smallest amount of work with the greatest amount of benefits possible. At best, work is seen as a necessary evil. At worst, a waste of time that could have been spent having fun. One only needs to look at the service industry to see this philosophy. I was at an airport in San Francisco and wanted something to eat. I found a store and bought a candy bar. When I went up to the cashier, I found that she was chatting with someone. I put my candy down and waited for her to notice me. I looked at the covers of the magazines, noted how many American snacks contained massive amounts of sugar, and checked my phone. Finally, she picked up the candy and rang me up. Rather than telling me the total, she waited until I noticed the display. I paid and left. I’m not sure we exchanged more than two words. It seemed as if she was annoyed that I had come into the store, as if her responsibilities revolved around standing in front of the cash register until her shift was over.

The problem with these two philosophies is obvious. The Japanese philosophy of work puts the job above happiness. Japanese spend most of their time making money, but they rarely have time to spend it. On the other hand, Americans seem to want money, but are frustrated with the fact that they have to earn it. They put their own happiness over their job.

The middle way is the best. Not a balance, but a tension between Work and Play. One works hard and then rests. This has always been Christianity’s stance on work. Our God worked for six days creating the world and then sat down to enjoy it. The Christian, therefore, looks at Work as God-given, which is the only reason he needs to do his best at it. Work is what we do when God gives us something to do. Rest is what we do when God has given us nothing to do and this nothing is the hardest thing of all. Why not fill up your time with a part-time job, volunteering, and exercise? I have heard many people bemoan the fact that we have to sleep. This betrays a misunderstanding of rest. We need Sleep. We need Rest. We need to be reminded that we are not infinite. We are not omnipotent. We depend on God during times of rest not only to keep us safe, but to make sure that tomorrow will be manageable. We need not fear tomorrow because God is already there. He has already worked out tomorrow’s schedule and made the needed plans. Our job at night is to remember that.

Christians do not work to rest, nor do we rest to work. We work when it’s time to work and rest when it’s time to rest. And we work and we rest in the full knowledge that God has given us both to do.

Friday, August 1, 2014

As I Truly Am

I was at a Japanese café when I heard what is likely the most popular song in the world right now, “Let It Go.” I have heard Japanese school children sing the song in Japanese and, when I belt it out in English, they instantly recognize it. I have even carried on conversations with my adult students about the movie. It seems that everyone knows this movie, especially the song.
I wondered, though, why is it so popular in Japan. I can understand why it is in America. It’s catchy, up-beat, and un-apologetically individualistic. With lyrics like, “I don’t care what they’re going to say” and “No right, no wrong, no rules for me,” it is the perfect song to express one’s disregard of social and moral norms. It’s the kind of song that just about anyone can sing; atheists railing against religion, proponents of homosexuality who wish to see love break free of its millenia-long oppression, or your average teenager who feels alienated at school. It’s the battle anthem for an army of ones.
So, what could possibly be the attraction for Japanese people? To answer that question, I went to the lyrics and what I found surprised me, because it wasn’t very surprising. In Japan, the self is pushed down and individualistic behavior is discouraged all for the sake of homogeny, of sameness. One’s emotions are turned inward to the point that what a person is feeling and what a person says can be completely different. Is it any wonder that the Japanese version of “Let It Go” has lyrics like, “I’ll show you how I truly am” and “I’ll become my true self?”
In the American version, Elsa “turns away and slams the door” on the pressures that being a “perfect girl” puts on her. She is shedding her “good” girl veneer. She will begin to do explore what she can do without “car[ing] what [others] are going to say.” She no longer lives with rules. She’s free.
On the other hand, the Japanese Elsa wishes to be understood by others. She feels “confusion, hurt” and is “troubled” and “worried” because individual emotions are seen as wrong and it makes sense for her to lament that she’s “unable to open up to anyone.” So, she decides that she will become her “true self” by drawing her “feelings soaring up into the sky.” It’s a song born of a desire to be known, not simply free.
              These two songs speak volumes of their respective cultures of origin. American culture opposes all things collective. No one should ever be forced to feel obligated to someone else. That should remain a decision from themselves. That’s why things like organized religion and old institutions are seen as such backward things. They are understood to be intrusions into our personal lives from people who either have nothing to do with us or are dead. And rightly so. That’s exactly what they are. Organized religion, usually defined as Christianity, is an invasion of privacy, because Christianity understands that there is no such thing as a private life, just like there is no such thing as a private crime. What is done in private affects our public lives. Americans hate that fact and try everything they can do to lessen those consequences, but it remains that anything done in the dark will be brought to the light, because everything we do affects us and we affect everyone else.
              And we see exactly that in “Frozen.” Elsa thinks that she’s free because she’s alone, but even then her actions and attitudes affect everyone. She tried to live her life as an island, but no one is an island. No one can be. Just as real islands are connected in deep ways, so are we all.
              And that’s why Christianity has always been a religion of interconnected relationships. In the Old Testament, large groups of people were often punished for the actions of one, because the actions of one can have profound impacts upon others. Even in the New Testament, living in community is essential, but the trick is that the individual was never lost. Jesus dealt with large groups of people as individuals, without losing sight of either. He saw the forest and the trees.

How can we do this? We keep in mind John 3:16. It tells us that God loved the collective world so much that He sent His only Son to die in order to say every individual on Earth.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Superman and Goku: A Duel of Philosophies

Fiction is the reflection of a culture’s aspirations. In America, many stories focus on a single individual, the main character. Sometimes he is supported by others, but, by and large, the Hero of these stories is an island. Often, he is wholly formed, meaning that he has very little internal impediments to overcome. Perhaps he lacks a certain piece of information or a special object, but the Hero usually finds out that all he needed was always inside of him.

This speaks of the view of life the West holds, the view that a man is by himself, even when surrounded by friends. He is independent, self-sufficient, and is only found lacking because of an external situation. In his heart, he has all he needs.

The Japanese Hero is rather different. He tends to be the leader of the group, but dependent upon that group. Sometimes he is an outsider and soon discovers a group that he can belong to. When he wins, it is usually because someone helped him or showed him how. There are few times, if any, where the Hero wins by himself. He often faces his own short-comings, often leading to a tragedy, and must learn how to overcome them. His journey is often blocked by opponents stronger than he is. He succumbs to defeat before learning how to succeed.

Take for example a classic match-up that often pits comic book fans against manga (Japanese comic book) fans.

Superman is the last son of Krypton. When he came to Earth and was exposed to the light of our yellow sun, he began to develop amazing super powers; flight, heat vision, super speed, increased intelligence and strength, and last, but far beyond least, invulnerability. I say begins, because his powers only increase, as in the comics he lives for thousands of years and eventually becomes almost god-like. His only weakness is kypronite, a green rock from his home planet that strips him of his powers and could eventually kill him.

One of the interesting things to note is that Superman never had to train to develop his powers. They grew with him. They were innate and unbidden. He discovered his powers like a boy discovers his first chest hair.

He is also entirely complete. The one thing that holds him back is his fear of destroying Earth, so he developed certain psychological blocks in his mind that suppress his powers, but get him away from innocent lives and he feels safe using his abilities to their fullest. He has no need of a mentor, no one to show him how to use his powers. He can defeat any enemy that arises and needs no one’s help.

This is a very Western, especially American, way of thinking. Our Heroes, the ones we look up to, seem like supermen. As children, we don’t see our sports heroes grow from amateurs to professionals who dominate their fields. We don’t see Hollywood stars start on their high school stages before seeing them rise to the big screen. They appear, fully-formed and awe-inspiring. And that’s how we see ourselves, complete individuals, needing nothing and no one, but taking friends and possessions merely because we want them. In her book “Anthem,” Ayn Rand lays out a world in which collectivism is taken to the extreme. In this world, names have been replaced with numbers, the government tells people what jobs they will have, and friendships are discouraged since it is wrong to treat one person better than another. Their life is controlled, from birth to death, by the government. In this story, the main character refers to himself as “we,” until he finds a book that uses the word “I.” He learns from this book that he does not need anyone, he does not need to rely on a group. His life is for himself only and he only adds to it as he sees fit. He is fine by himself, whole and complete. Just like Superman.

On the other side of the ocean lives another alien. He also hails from a planet that was destroyed when he was a baby. He also came to Earth and was raised by a human. As he grew, he also discovered that he was faster and stronger than others. But, then he learned that there were normal humans who possessed abilities and executed feats he found impossible. His trademark attack, the Kamehameha Wave, was taught to him by his mentor, Master Roshi, his martial arts teacher and a human. In fact, anyone with sufficient training could do it. It only took time. Eventually, he surrounded himself with friends, some of them being his defeated enemies. He was often defeated by his opponents, before finding a place to train or a master who could instruct him how to grow stronger. He even died three or four times, and was resurrected by his friends using the wish-granting Dragonballs. He loved fighting and although he often did it to protect his friends and the Earth, he sometimes allowed an enemy to gain power so that he could fight them at their strongest. He even once stopped a fight just so that his son could learn what it was like to fight for Earth. He usually defeated his enemy, but it was almost always a group effort. Even his greatest enemy, the demon Majin Buu, was only defeated because his friend bought him enough time to charge his ultimate attack. Victories in Dragonball are shared within the group.

This is because, in Japan, the group is the most important thing, even beyond the individual. In Japanese schools, if a student is asked a question, he is often reluctant to answer, even if he knows it, for fear of sticking out. In fact, the saying “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” has a completely different meaning here. When an American hears that phrase, he instantly thinks it means that if something is wrong, you fix it. But, in Japan, it conjures the image of a person rising above the group. The student who raises his hand to answer is raising himself above the group, and that makes him wrong. Another example from years ago involves students in certain smaller towns that were made to die their hair blacker if it was a lighter color than everyone else’s. In Japan, the group is everything.

On the other hand, Japanese people take care of one another. Teachers will often bring little pieces of candy or snacks for everyone to share. Students develop incredibly close ties with one another. They are eager to help those within their own circle, simply because that is the expectation. Crime is generally low here because of their insistences that anything that disturbs the group is wrong. But, that has been achieved by sacrificing the individual to the group.

The American individual, while being free to express himself, has done away with any obligations to the group, which has created a society in which no one is beholden to another and selfishness abounds. On other hand, the Japanese individual is often crushed beneath the feet of the group, leading to high suicide rates and burn-outs in certain professions, but has also helped to keep crime down and relationships strong.

The answer to the social problems that arise in both countries is neither more freedom nor less freedom, but a recognition that the individual is part of the group, and that the actions of the individual can affect the group, which affects the individual. It is actually in the individual’s best interest to treat others well, so that they may also be treated well. It was called “The Golden Rule” for a very good reason.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Tale of Two Churches: Foreign Versus Indigenous

To say it was a sea of grey-heads would be a drastic overstatement. It was more like a puddle. There were eight congregants in all, plus three foreigners. Eleven people in a church that could easily hold forty or fifty. The pastor was just as old as the rest. The age gap between me and the youngest Japanese person was at least thirty years.
The church had been founded by a missionary who had preached there for many years. He held Bible classes that the congregation would attend. But, when he left, there was no one to take over. No one was really qualified. No one had gone to seminary, or even a religious educational institution. So, a banker decided to take the reins of the church. Now, some years later, the average age of the congregants was well past sixty. Every once in a while a young family would come up for a special event or just to visit, but they lived in another town and came for nostalgic reasons. All in all, the church is dying today, almost literally.
There are several reasons for this. One might be that the average age of the town is old. As Japan has grown, its younger citizens have migrated from the rural areas into big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where jobs are plentiful and pay is higher. And with the population in active decline, young people are becoming scarcer. So, small towns are getting smaller and older.
But, there has to be another factor contributing to the age of this church. After all, these elderly people must have friends. In fact, the elderly in Japan are extremely active. There is a group of elderly woman in Tokyo who practice cheerleading. In mountainous regions like Nara, there can be seen groups of grandmothers and grandfathers wearing backpacks trudging up hiking trails. I've seen sixty and seventy year olds playing baseball, croquette, and power-walking, usually in groups. Surely, these people have friends that they can invite.
While that may be true, there's a bit of a problem. Japanese are very unwilling to change. And even that seems to be an understatement. I have worked in schools where the computers are still running Windows 98, students huddle around kerosene heaters in their classrooms, and nothing looks new or updated. It's not like they are unaware of these things. Teachers often complain about the age of the computers and the cold in the classrooms, but, you see, it's always been that way. There's no reason to change because this is what it means to work in this school. The school has its own personality, it's own struggles, and the more you struggle in Japanese society, the more admired you are, whether your struggling produces anything at all. It's called being a “gambaru-hito,” that is “someone who is making an effort.”

There's also an insistence on keeping traditions. Japan is a very traditionally minded society. For example, I once went to a temple with a couple of Japanese Christian friends. We had met them through work and had attended their church once. But, as we walked up to the temple, we stopped at a small well. They both dipped a little ladle into the water, touched it to their lips, and then washed their hands with it. They told us it was to purify themselves before going in. I was, well, more than a little confused. I wondered what they thought they needed to purify themselves from. Sin? They're Christians! Christ's blood took care of all of that. If there are any sins that this water washed away that Christ's did not or could not, then can we even call them sins?

I now realize why they did that; it was tradition.

Japanese people have this mindset that being Japanese means you do certain things. During New Year's, Japanese who call themselves atheists go to temple to pray. Very scientifically minded Japanese who believe in a mechanicalistic universe run around the house dressed as a goblin being chased by his bean-throwing children because it wards away bad luck. Obon is a time when the spirits return and families gather to send lit lamps down rivers to the sea to help their dearly departed cross into the afterlife. This is just what Japanese do. It's tradition.

So, when a missionary, who has established a routine in the church, leaves, the Japanese are very, very hesitant to change anything. It's the way it's done, after all. Why would they change it?
So, we take a look at this church. We see a beautiful building with space to spare, a bit out of the way, but in a residential neighborhood. Yet the church is actively shrinking. Why?
Because they haven't changed since the days of the missionary.
In Japan, Christianity is seen as a Western religion, something that only Westerners believe. It’s not for Japanese. Oh, they enjoy Western movies, clothes, and food, but only a kind of experience, something novel to be adored because it's so not Japanese. It's not a rebellion against their own culture; it's the newness, the strangeness of ours. So, when a missionary talks about Christianity to a Japanese person, the Japanese person nods and smile and thinks, "I'm sure this is great for a Westerner, but it's not really for me. I'm Japanese."
See, the church we went to didn't change from a missionary church to an indigenous church. The strange fingerprints of Western culture were still all over it. The hymns were Western melodies, the preaching in the didactic-story style. About the only non-Western aspect was taking your shoes off and donning slippers before entering. Everything else was very Western.
And when you're trying to engage a culture that sees Christianity as Western, it only re-enforces that feeling when it looks entirely Western.
Now, take another church we have attended. This one is a small branch of a larger church. The founding pastor was taught at a Japanese Bible school. While the preaching is still in a didactic-story style, it is from a foundationally Japanese perspective. Often times, our pastor’s husband will give sermons from a Bible written in Osaka dialect. It would be like a pastor reading something called the “New York Accented Bible.” Around the walls, the pastor's husband has hung his original paintings, semi-abstract works inspired by biblical imagery. The music mixes traditional hymns with contemporary praise and worship. It appeals to both the older and younger members. And it is growing. We recently had to move to a bigger location. There are grey-heads, to be sure, but also young families, single mothers, high school students, and older singles. Even though we rarely break forty people, the age range is much more balanced and we average twenty to thirty people every Sunday. We have babies, young children, and youth which are the life blood of any church. Why? Because they have started an indigenousness church.
Now, I just want to make clear that I am not getting down on missionaries. Churches started by foreigners are definitely needed. That's how the Gospel gets started in a country. But, it has to change. The people in that culture must take the reigns after a time and start talking about God in their own words, not simply translating what the Western pastor is teaching. Without contextualization, there can be no growth.
So, what does this contextualization, this talking about Christianity like a Japanese person, look like? I have no idea. I'm not Japanese. For me to offer my advice would be to counter the point of this post. But, I can say that it is up to the missionaries who are working in Japan, and in other countries, to be always thinking about the future of their mission after they are gone. They have to train leaders to stand up and own their faith, not just copy what was done before. This is especially important for Japanese missionaries, since the Christian culture here has copied so much of Western culture.

After all, Christ, as the embodiment of God’s message to us, was the ultimate contextualization.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Missions in a First-World Country: Am I a Missionary?

What is a missionary?

I once had a conversation with another American living here in Japan. He came here with his wife a year or two ago to work as a teacher in a private Christian school. Sometimes he and his wife sing at church services, special music events, that sort of thing.

We started talking about what we were doing here in Japan. I don’t think either of us ever considered becoming missionaries, but here we were; in Japan and heavily involved in a growing church. So, we asked ourselves, are we missionaries?

Our first response is that we were not. We don’t feel like missionaries.  We hadn’t really given up or sacrificed anything. We both have TV’s, jobs, apartments with air-conditioning; we go out to eat, we engage in our hobbies, and face no persecution. So, that means we’re not missionaries, right? As a consequence, I started to feel like I have no purpose here. It was like I moved to a foreign country to do exactly what I was doing in America. After all, all I do is work, go home, and go to church; everything I would do back home. That seemed so silly, so ridiculous. Why would I spend so much money and expend so much energy moving to Japan just to do the same things here that I could have done at home?

To be honest, I started feeling depressed and frustrated. If I’m not a missionary, what am I? What’s the point of me being here?

It wasn’t until recently that I began to understand a few things about missions and missionaries.

Having grown up in the American Church, I heard from a few missionaries about missions. They would come to our church to talk about their ministries and ask for money. They would show slideshows of the deprivations they proudly suffered of; no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing; giant insects, poisonous reptiles, and vicious animals. These things became synonymous with foreign missions and missionaries, so it’s no wonder that I was so confused about my being here. If a missionary, by connotation (if not definition), suffers from these things, then of course I’m not a missionary. But, doesn’t that then mean that no Christian in a first-world country can be a missionary?

That seems obviously wrong. How could suffering from giant insects in one country make you a missionary, whereas living in a country with (relatively) small insects doesn’t when you’re evangelizing in both?

Of course the answer is it doesn’t. The fact of the matter is, the idea I had that a missionary is only a missionary when he or she suffers from insects or persecutions was wrong. So, what does that mean for people like me; people who live, work, and minister in a first-world country?

Well, it turns out, I have actually suffered sacrifice. Because I have little skill in Japanese, I have given up independence for a humiliating dependence on both friends and complete strangers. When I first got here, I had nothing familiar, nothing of my own. I had sacrificed to get here and I still do. So far, I have missed around twelve family birthdays, a family wedding, the birth of a nephew, and the death of an aunt.

So, how does this apply to people back in America? It should always be remembered, any Christian living in a foreign country is a foreign missionary, just as any Christian living in their home country is a local missionary. The distinction is so slight (that is, a difference of location) as to not even be worth considering. A Christian is an evangelist, no matter where they are, no matter what they are doing. The command to go and make disciples rests upon every one of us.

So, whether he is sweltering in southeast Asia or typing from his couch in Japan, support your foreign missionary; through prayer, through money, through whatever means God asks you to. They have given up a lot for the sake of the kingdom.

Monday, February 24, 2014

An Excuse: Part 2

When I was a kid, I was terrified of becoming a missionary. I shuddered at the thought of, and prayed fervently against, being sent by God to a place like Africa. Hot, humid, full of dirt and dust. No Nintendo. No T.V. Just miles of bushes, trees, and self-sacrifice. I was resolute that I would stay in America, where things were familiar and easy. As I grew, the future seemed set and my anxiety faded.
Then I was walking through my house one day. I was twenty-seven years old, married, and working with my mother. My sister had contacted me about a possible job teaching English in Japan. My wife and I talked about it for a while and decided that if God wants us to go, He'll make it happen. If He doesn't, He won't. So, we sent in our applications and within a week we were hired to teach in small cram school in a small town on the western coast. Liz and I talked about what we would do there. We were excited about getting involved with a church, ministering and witnessing the best that we could. Our jobs were simply a means of support. 
I was thinking about all these things when I suddenly stopped cold (I can see the spot vividly in my mind) as a dreadful realization clenched my throat. I'm a missionary!
Needless to say, it hasn't been that bad. In fact, I have been struggling with whether I am a missionary or not - and will write at length about it someday. It's been much simpler than I thought it would be. We have every modern amenity, access to everything we had in America, jobs that pay well, and plenty of people around to hang out with.
Now here am I, four years, three jobs, and two cities later, teaching English and working with a close friend to support a local church by using what limited talents and skills I have. It's not much though. I don't have the Japanese language skill to help with ministering or evangelizing. I can't preach or sing. So, what's the point of me being here?
There's only one thing that I can do that might be of help - and that is writing this blog. I can stand in between the Japanese and American churches and share the insights of one with the other. This offers a unique perspective on both. Comparing the two, one can see just how much American culture the Church has truly absorbed, and just how Japanese the Japanese Church is. In the past few years, I have come to realize that some things I held to be universal to the Christian is really rather provincial, a quirk, an idiosyncrasy of Christian Americans. And it's on these topics that I'll be writing about.
But, I have one other reason for writing.
About one percent of the population of Japan, or 1,276,000 people, claim to be Christian. Remarkably, our neighbors to the West (China) boast between 40,000,000 to 100,000,000 Christians. There is almost no modern persecution in Japan, missionaries can come and go, there is no totalitarian government and yet there are at least four times as many Christians in China. Is that not staggering?
I'll write about why I think this is the case later on, but as to how that relates to me reasons for writing this blog , it is simply that we need more long-term missionaries here. It's that simple.
So, my reasons for blogging is so that the American Church can benefit from an outside perspective and, maybe, more people will come to Japan to stay, for that's the most effective way to do missions here. It not as straightforward as it would be in Mexico or Africa, where you can talk to a complete stranger and lead them to Christ. Here, it takes investment, tenacity, and such a level of sensitivity that I have yet to reach. It is hard, tiring, and (at least in this life) not very rewarding. Yet, it must be done. This is a country wherein I have experienced two or three train delays in the past two years alone due to someone committing suicide on the tracks. Young men sequester themselves in their houses out of fear and young women eschew romantic relationships because they're too difficult. This is a nation in deep, severe pain and it needs people to come and show them there's hope, there's light, and there's love.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An Excuse: Part 1

All authors are demanding. When we write something, we expect it to be read, which means we are expecting people to take a part of their day and give it to us. Therefore, when we write something, it should be worth reading.
Unfortunately, that is really hard to do. I don't know you personally. I don't know you at all. So, my first post to this blog will be an argument for you wasting some of your time on me.
Like all children, I was born with that annoying habit of asking 'why.' Why does the sun come up? Why do I have to clean my room? Why do I have to stop hitting my sister? As I grew up, that question became a rebellious battlecry. Why should I go to bed early? Why should I wake up early? Why should I listen to you at all? Now, as an adult, that battlecry has changed back into what it was when I was a child, a sincere search for answers.
College was when I first started experiencing the reversion. I was an art major striving hard in my classes and doing poorly. During my sophomore year, my life was thrown into a bit of a crisis. I had had it with my art major. I was stressed and had lost all enjoyment in it. I simply could not relate to my fellow classmates, or my teachers. The classes I excelled at were Psychology and Scriptwriting. I wanted to be an animator, so I was glad my scripts were compelling, but my understanding of art was so infantile, that everything I produced was sub par. During that time I was taking an Introduction to Philosophy class. 
I loved that class. It was eye-opening and challenging. We covered Western philosophical thought and the professor exposed us to so many new ideas. It was then that I began to feel the pull towards philosophy. However, the college I was attending didn't have a philosophy major, only a minor. So, I took the next best thing; theology. I studied Christian thought, contemporary religious movements, and a host of biblical passages. I took Greek, biblical exposition classes, and a fair amount of Bible study classes. I graduated with a degree in Biblical and Theological Studies, a few credits shy of a Philosophy minor.
So, I figured what my life was leading to. I'd work for a bit, get used to being married, and then start in on my Masters, probably in Theology. Then I would do my doctorate in either Philosophy or Theology. I hadn't decided on which.
And then we moved to Japan. So, there went that plan.
I had always wanted to see Japan, not as a tourist, but as a resident. I didn't want to see the things everyone sees. I wanted to understand the culture, the people, the language. After college, however, getting a house, a car, and a good, steady job shoved all those thoughts aside. That is, until my sister heard about a position opening up in a small Japanese town. She said my wife and I should at least send in our applications. We thought about it for a bit and decided it couldn't hurt. We sent in our application and two months later we were experiencing a sweltering Japanese summer.
There were a lot of surprises in store for us. We've all heard of "cultural shock," but we don't really know it until we've experienced it. I'll give you an example of it with something I still struggle with to this day and probably will for years to come.
I am not a stupid person. I am actually gifted. I read about quantum mechanics and relativity when I was 12, long before it was cool. I was reading at a high school level in the third grade. Once I could wrap my head around math, I rocketed from the back of the class to the front. Concepts, even difficult ones, weren't just easy, but enoyable for me.
I tell you all this so that when I say I'm  stupid and illiterate in Japan, you understand my full meaning. Because, here in Japan I can neither read nor write. Beyond counting, colors, and saying which fruits I like, I could not communicate anything else. Now, at least, I can get basic concepts across, but not like I could in America.
I used to be able to speak with adults on an equal footing. Now children laugh when I open my mouth.
However, the biggest surprise about Japanese life for me is also the most painful one; no one really cares about philosophy (from here after used to refer both itself and it's twin sister, Theology). The Japanese people are not highly philosophical. Oh, I know we have the image of an Asian aesthetic sitting atop a mountain doling out wisdom to anyone who is able to brave the climb up to his cave, but that's not it at all.
The Japanese people are surprisingly, and sometimes frustratingly, pragmatic. To give as stark a contrast to it as I can, they would rather lie to your face than disagree with you. I'm not kidding. There are two words for it. "Tatamae" translates to "facade" or "public stance." For example, if you're with a group of Japanese people at a restaurant everyone will say the food is "Oishii," that is, "delicious," regardless of their true feelings ("honne") about it. They do this to keep the group happy. Arguments are completely out of the question. Engage the average Japanese person in an argument and they will agree with you entirely, no matter what they really think about the topic. Oh, they may disagree with you for a bit, but if you are a part of their group, it will not be for long.
So, here I am, having a passion for truth and a longing for spirited debate, in a country that looks away from it. I used to think that my degree was barely useful in America. In Japan, it's completely useless! There's always the missionaries, I suppose, but I imagine missionaries who care about soteriological topics are in the minority. They're more interested in effective witnessing tools than debates on the topic of God's exhaustive knowledge viz-a-viz the future. So, what the heck am I doing here?!
That's what I'll talk about in the second part of this post.