Tuesday, December 8, 2015

When it Comes to Christmas, Japan "Takes the Cake"

When Japanese in Tokyo dream of a “white” Christmas, it can only be made of cream frosting...over yellow sponge cake...with red strawberries on top. For Japanese, strawberry shortcake is the essence of Christmas. Here in Kawasaki, the Christmas cake order forms from local bakeries fill our mailbox from late October. For those who dislike the long December 24th pickup lines, home delivery is possible. Tiny brand name shortcakes can set you back $50 or more!

Blame it on Western influence. It’s said that the founder of Fujiya Food Service, Fujii Rinemon, first got the idea during a Christmas visit to the States in the 1920’s. Fujiya has sold the Christmas cakes ever since, although it’s only been the last 20 years when they fully took root in Japan’s Christmas psyche. Now, 75% of Japanese say they must eat Christmas cake!

Just think...if Fujii had visited a church instead of a cake shop, the Christmas story might be very different in Japan today. Missionaries like me often wonder why Japanese find the cake to be so compelling of a Christmas image, while the baby Jesus is so foreign (I challenge you to come and find Christ anywhere at Christmas in Kawasaki).

Japanese have long been eager adopters. They pick and choose from other cultures those elements they enjoy, and discard the rest. But who would discard the baby Jesus for cheap white frosting? If only Japanese knew the real value of each. But then again, do we? American Christmas values may not be so far behind the white frosting of secular Japan. Unless we decide differently.

My Christmas dream is that nativity sets will replace shortcake as Japan’s new Christmas craze. My prayer is that you and I, too, will treasure the baby Christ much more than just the “frosted” fun this Christmas.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Relearning Holiday Celebrations

July 4th went by without a single boom or bang. No hotdogs or patriotic concerts. Can you imagine July without a fireworks show? What about Labor Day without BBQ, backyard or beach? Or Thanksgiving without turkey or family gatherings? Something would be missing, wouldn’t it? What if Christmas or Easter weren’t even holidays? This is life in Japan. Yes, it does feel incomplete at times to this expat.

True, Japan has its own holidays. But to be honest, many of them lack appeal to me. I know I could probably learn a few things from Japan’s “Respect for the Aged Day” and “Physical Fitness Day.” But many holidays like “Sea Day,” “Mountain Day” and “Setsubun” (google it) have distinct Shinto values and make poor substitutes. And don’t get me started on Japan’s swapping of the Baby Jesus’ birthday with the emperor’s birthday in late December. That’s no celebration!

So, after 16 years here, we recognize that some things will remain a loss in our lives. I (Kevin) probably mourn this loss more than Kaori or Justen, both raised in Japan. But just when I start to feel like a martyr by settling for the skinny Japanese porkdog, in a top-cut bun, with the seaweed sprinkles and the horseradish mustard that clears my nose, I sense God asking, “How long will you mourn these small losses, Kevin? Whose kingdom’s celebration are you living for?” And I remember that I’m not at home in this world anyway, and look toward the eternal celebrations out of this world. Thank you, Lord, for good things to come!

(But next time we’re in the States, treat me to a decent Chicago hotdog.)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Rescue of Love (A Good Friday Meditation)

The pair of Japanese hostages are forever linked in our minds. We saw them in orange jumpsuits kneeling together in the Syrian desert sand. Behind them loomed a masked militant demanding a ransom in exchange for their lives. Tense days followed. Desperate negotiations and pleas for mercy. And then came the dreaded news of their horrific murders at the hands of their captors. Japan and the world were shocked and outraged.

But you might have missed the rest of their linked story. Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa were bound together far before their joint captivity. Yet the paths that led them to each other could not have been more different. One made a life in the midst of trouble. The other had a troubled life.

In Kenji, we see a glimpse of Christ’s love. Kenji was a Christian. (This in itself is remarkable considering the small number of Japanese believers.) As a journalist, he traveled to war-torn places to highlight the plight of persecuted groups and displaced refugees. He championed the cause of the weak and helpless, people in crisis and conflict who needed rescue from their circumstances. Kenji’s pastor stated that his Christian convictions influenced this selfless work.

Haruna was a very different man. If Kenji was a picture of Christ, Haruna was an apt picture of the world, mankind deformed by sin. Haruna was wounded deeply by life in ways that twisted his personality. A string of setbacks, including bankruptcy and the death of his wife, had damaged his psyche. He supposed himself to be a reincarnated Manchu princess. He became obsessed with right-wing nationalism and weaponry. His unstable behaviors ranged from suicide attempts to high-adrenalin risks. He had entered Syria for the self-motivated purpose of using the instability of the region to sell security services. Haruna clearly needed a rescue from himself.

Haruna’s rescue began when he met Kenji. In Kenji, Haruna found a friend who overlooked his faults and peculiarities, and cared for him even to the point of jeopardizing his own life.

When Haruna was first captured by the Free Syrian Army in March of 2014, Kenji was called by his contacts to help question this Japanese prisoner. Instead, Kenji was able to negotiate his release. The two returned to Japan together. In October 2014, Haruna returned to Syria and stumbled into trouble again. This time he was nabbed by ISIS. Kenji went after his hapless friend in a quest that resulted in his own capture. The rest of their fateful story together played out in media reports worldwide.

If Kenji is a picture of Christ, and Haruna a picture of the world, it’s not hard to see the gospel parallels in this story. Kenji determined to bring his wayward friend home. Christ came to seek and save his wayward people, and bring them safely home. Kenji looked past his twisted friend’s oddities. Christ’s divine love looked past the marred image of God to see the intrinsic worth of the soul. Kenji set aside his personal interests and risked his life to free his friend held hostage by militants. Christ set aside his deity and paid the ultimate price at Calvary to redeem mankind held hostage by Satan and sin.

If Haruna’s life had been spared by the sacrifice of Kenji, the redemptive illustration might have been complete. We wanted a different outcome for both of them. But what transpired in their final days of captivity together we may never know. Perhaps Kenji’s tender faith softened his heartless captors to consider the ways of Christ. Perhaps Kenji’s selfless testimony humbled Haruna to spiritual conviction. Perhaps the two safely returned to their true homeland of eternity in heaven together after all.

Heaven will tell their full story. This side of heaven, we can let their story inspire our own. We can drink in deeply that selfless, pursuing divine love that gives itself for selfish, wayward man. The cross shouts to us that we are loved more than we can know or understand. We can let that love motivate us into selfless ambition for our fellow man. Our own divine rescue of love constrains us.

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” 1 John 4:10-11