Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What I Learned in Japan

In July I traveled to Japan with my youngest daughter, Jill, to see her sister, my oldest daughter, Annie. (Here we are in Hiroshima, at the Peace Memorial Park; me, Annie & Jill.)I haven't traveled overseas since I was a 'military brat' and lived outside Madrid, Spain for four years (1970-74).

So it was interesting to visit another culture again, and it was much more interesting, even fruitful, to travel around with our daughter, Annie, who has lived there for a year (she is teaching English in three elementary schools). We definitely got a much better 'taste' of the culture because Annie was our tour guide!
(Thank you, Annie, for being such a wonderful host! You've learned so much and you've already made a lot of progress with the Japanese language!)

Visiting another culture always has some 'shock value' if our eyes are open, and I'm going to share a few rambling observations about differences between Japan's culture and ours.

First of all, Japan is both very 'eastern / traditional' and very 'western / modern.' They have managed to synthesize their culture and values with modern technology fairly successfully...for the most part; I'll say a little more about that later.

Second, because Japan is a very densely populated nation - 130 million people sharing a thin land mass about the length of our east coast - they don't waste real estate the way we do - trying to grow nice green yards of grass that only create unnecessary labor and expense, but nothing of any real value (okay, except for some unquantifiable amount of 'property value').

No, the Japanese people use the land around their homes to plant gardens...rice (if they have enough flat land for it), grapes, vegetables, fruits (grapes and peaches are abundant where Annie lives); anyone who lives outside of the large cities and has a little patch of yard is a farmer of sorts.

Also, because Japan is densely populated, and people are literally almost on top of each other, they have to get along with each other. People everywhere were polite, and they are careful not to make waves or do things that would disturb those around them...for this reason alone, I'm convinced the Japanese invented headphones! People everywhere have their Ipods - with headphones - on; I didn't see any boom boxes or hear loud, obnoxious music in public.

On the bus from Tokyo to Hiroshima (which we rode all night!) after our first stop, around 10:30 p.m., it was lights out: curtains closed, no talking, and everyone slept. Again, a few had on their Ipod/headset, but no one seemed to be trying to read with a book light on or anything; that would not be polite.

Fourth, looking around at the size of the typical Japanese person, I realized - I am big. Not just tall; I saw some Japanese men taller than, I mean BIG. Heavy. Gravitationally challenged. A chub. Mister Blimp. Godzilla without the teeth, scales and tail. I finally got used to this and stopped thinking about it - until I arrived at the airport in Tokyo (Narita) for my flight home, when I started seeing other Americans again. Big Americans, heavy get the idea. It was embarrassing...

The Japanese diet is very different from ours, as is their lifestyle. They do a LOT of walking and bike riding, even though there are an abundance of cars in Japan (nice cars, too). They climb lots of stairs (and escalators - many Japanese don't 'ride' escalators, they walk up and down escalators; you stay to the left so they can pass you on the right) on their way to the trains and subways. They climb stairs even to get to McDonalds...everything in Japan is built 'up' so even a McDonalds has three floors; you order on one floor and go upstairs to level two or three to sit down and eat.

So, yes of course, they've been invaded by McDonald's and other western fare (we also ate at Subway and even Shakey's Pizza while we were there!), but their traditional diet consists of lots of rice - also fruits, vegetables, fish, pork, soy products (tofu and sweet bean spreads) and some breads and pastries (the Japanese have their own way of doing pizza - even at Shakey's!).

And our diet? Our American diet consists of way too much soybean and soybean/products and corn/corn products, including high fructose corn syrup and lots of foods fried in corn oil (not to mention all our corn-fed beef, chicken and pork!). And way too few fruits and vegetables. I'll blog about this more later, but I'll just mention one informative and eye-opening book about our diet, by Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Pengiun Press, 2008). Ironically, I happened to take this book with me to Japan, and was convicted of the need for a drastic overhaul of my eating habits, which I'm working on. But I'm still big...way too big...

Fifth (I think we're on fifth!), I discovered how jaded I am in my view of other human beings, particularly other races and nationalities. When we first started walking the streets and riding the subways of Tokyo, all the Japanese people looked alike to me...just a massive blur of people with a darker complexion than mine, brown eyes and black hair.

But after about two days, I noticed something. Like Paul the apostle after his road to Damascus experience of blindness - it was as though scales fell off my eyes, and I saw the amazing richness and variety of the Japanese people! Everyone different, every one an individual, every person exhibiting their own mannerisms and habits and personality - extroverts, introverts, some smiling, some serious, everything, everyone.

I don't know how to say anything more about this without sounding like a shallow American tourist, but that's what I was. God helped me to see the uniqueness and God-image (imago dei) in every Japanese person, and they are truly a beautiful people.

After 10 days in Japan, I understand the love my daughter Annie has for these people and their nation and culture, and the deep desire and calling she feels to serve Christ there and reach out to them with the gospel.
I need to add that it was a humbling experience, being reminded that we Americans (we Yanks) can learn so much from others, and the Japanese people have certainly been good stewards of their natural resources and their people resources in growing an amazing economy that has given the world many wonderful new technologies, while reminding us that some 'old ways' are worth keeping and sustaining.


Yes, they are an amazing people who have assimilated much of our western technology and values while maintaining their rich, traditional culture...for the most part. But there is also darkness among these beautiful people: they do not have the hope of Christ. Many of them struggle in a very competitive society; competitive schools, universities, and professions. Japan has a very high suicide rate; and it has gone even higher in the past few years with their bad economy (about a decade ahead of our recent downturn).

For whatever reason, the Japanese people have been very resistant to the gospel. The most recent statistic I've read is that about 9% of the Japanese people are Christians - and this is actually much higher than I thought ( I remember it being 2-4% Christian), so the gospel is gaining ground!

Join me in praying for them to be able to hear and receive the gospel message. Pray for persons like Annie, and those in her church (and other churches) that are reaching out to the Japanese people with the love of Christ. They are hungry for this love in a culture that does not outwardly demonstrate love and acceptance, even though they are certainly polite and gracious. May God's grace make them truly gracious, and change the hearts of these amazing people!

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike


  1. DADDIO!! I laughed out loud, alone in my apartment, just tickled as I read your blog. I love it! Your writings are excellent; I feel like we are sitting down over chips and salsa, "chewing the fat." Thank you for your encouragement in the Japan blog. I can't tell you how much it means to read your words, and know you mean every one. And yes you may be a "big" American, but I love you no matter what!! (that was the part that tickled me so much! HA!) I LOVE YOU DADDY!!

  2. Thanks, Hon! Love you! Have a great week! Love, Dad