My sister and I just returned from a sister holiday in Japan. During our ten days away, we saw and experienced many things – all kinds of animals, a variety of celebrations, food and best of all, a real sense of the country’s culture. We met lots of people, made new friends, caught up with old friends, and spent much time praying together – for the country, for people, and for each other. During our time in Japan, we were also aware of how the spiritual atmosphere in the country was different from that of our own Australia. The Christians in Japan faced challenges we seemed less familiar with, and we appreciated this opportunity to see how our same God and Saviour helped them to overcome these challenges, just as He helps us to overcome our own ones. Here are just a few thoughts and snapshots from our time in Japan.
1. The Church, the Light
On the first evening of our trip, having finally arrived in Osaka, my sister and I visited a local church. Meeting in the basement of a building, joyful young people crowded into the room. When worship started, everyone came to the front and there was dancing, and a great joy in praising God. Throughout the service, we had a sense of how alive this church was – vibrant with passion and joy in Christ, vibrant with a zeal to bring others to the eternal life they had found. Afterwards, we had dinner with a few of the people from this church. As each one shared their testimony, we praised God for them. Here were people coming to Christ through friends – friends who loved them, friends who were persistent, people who loved God and could not keep Him to themselves. We loved how they served with whatever gifts they had, how they seemed to seek God’s kingdom first, how they encouraged one another, and how they welcomed us as sisters in Christ. God’s family is one, and we have the same Spirit within us.
[1 Corinthians 10:13] – “For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.”
One image I got of the church is Japan, is how the earth looks via satellite when night falls. The surface is filled with darkness, but one by one, families turn on their lights at home, and the earth’s surface sparkles. Christians may be a minority in Japan, but the church is alive and growing. One by one, more people are holding out that light of Christ’s eternal life.
2. Shrines and Festivals
Every country has a history, and Japan’s has strong ties with the religions of Shinto, and Buddhism. The Shinto religion involves worship at shrines, and the subset of Buddhism mostly commonly practiced in the country can involve temple worship. We visited Japan during festival season and expected to see some of the shrine celebrations as we explored various cities. During Gion Matsuri, masses of people admired tall floats which were also shrines. During the festival, a young boy is selected to be a “divine messenger”, unable to set foot on the ground until the celebrations are over. The festival originated as a ceremony aimed at pleasing gods in the wake of an epidemic. We also accidently stumbled across the Toronagashi shrine festival in Mishima where throngs of people lined up to place their lanterns in the river, making a pilgrimage along its banks to the end, where they would file past a bridge and offer incense to respect the dead.
Traditions of honouring ancestors, offering incense and partaking in shrine-associated festivals are deeply entwined in Japan culture. Many people we met suggested that the majority of those participating were not “strictly religious” but had been brought up engaging with such activities from a young age as part of their culture. One question we continually pondered was this – with this history of shrine worship, how do Japanese Christians stand firm in Christ, yet also practice their culture? In Australia, the church often warns against idols of wealth, greed, pleasures and self-gain. We do not really have a mainstream culture of traditional shrine, temple, or idol worship (although the Aboriginal people do have their own unique traditions). In Japan, however, offering incense and visiting shrines are a common part of their lifestyle; there are shrines, and temples wherever you look.
Here are a few verses we found:
- [1 Corinthians 8:1-13] – Paul writes concerning the eating of food offered to idols. He suggests that some might eat such food in the knowledge that the idol is nothing, but others might eat it to the detriment of their conscience. He also warns that we should not stumble our brothers or “wound their weak conscience”.
- [Titus 1:15] – “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled…”
- [Exodus 34:13-15] – “But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they play the harlot with their gods and make sacrifice to their gods, and one of them invites you and you eat of his sacrifice.”
From these verses, I see the following things we should think about when making a decision about whether to attend, or participate in certain activities:
- Do our actions worship God, or do they worship an idol?
- Will we stumble fellow believers?
- Will our actions make way for compromise in our faith?
3. Purpose in Intricate Creation
When we were in Kyoto, my sister and I stumbled upon an owl forest. Here, we came up close with over ten different owl species. Each one was so unique and beautiful. At the Fuji safari, we saw even more wonderful animals. As we admired them, we thought about how creative and awesome God is – to be able to make each animal so uniquely, to colour them so perfectly, to breathe life into them. How much more then, if God created the animals like this, does He create us to live. We are beautifully and wonderfully made in His image. Furthermore, the trees and flora of the country were completely different from those of Australia. It was just incredible to see and appreciate it all.
Looking at the landscape of tall, tidy apartments on our train over to Osaka, my sister remarked, “You know, there are so many people living here, and the probability is that very few of them know Jesus.” Just then, we passed what seemed to be a church, its cross rising up from between the neatly packed streets. God is omnipresent, ever-present wherever we are. [Psalm 139:7-8] says,
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.”
During our travels in Japan, we knew God was with us. It wasn’t just the numerous times He made things work out perfectly when we had not planned it, but it was tangible sense of His presence. One song which I kept singing throughout the trip was “God will make a way.”
“God will make a way
When there seems to be no way
He works in ways, we cannot see
He will make a way for me.”
The creator God never gives up on us, He never gives up on anyone. [Psalm 139:16] says,
“Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.”
Every detail in the make-up on an owl, a lion, a cheetah, has its purpose. It allows them to have night vision, speed, to catch their prey, to camouflage and much more. Every detail in our being has its purpose, because God has given us purpose. As we fondly remember our adventures in Japan, we remember our God who is always with us, always at work, always preparing the way before us. We remember that He works and builds His kingdom, even in ways we cannot see. We remember that the Spirit of God is always with us, that it is always with His church, and that it is alive and working in the country of Japan.