Japan is quite a unique place. Especially as an American coming for a visit, I enjoyed learning about cultural differences and the various things that make Japan what it is. For me, a basic idea this trip helped reinforce is that everyone is a person with a soul. The temptation can be there to not care about people because you can’t speak their language or they do things in a weird way sometimes. But that is not the picture I get when I think of Jesus’ words, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). Granted, difficulties that otherwise would not be a problem do arise in foreign countries; however, we are still called to love the people around us. Below are a few observations about both the people in Japan and my time here.
Three big differences in Japanese culture (as opposed to America) would the convenience of most things (food especially), the politeness or indirectness or borderline dishonesty people tend to have, and the religion. Convenience stores and vending machines are everywhere; and even the items sold tend to be better packaged or more easily accessible than the standard American I’m-going-to-rip-this-bag-apart-and-hope-nothing-goes-wrong. This is quite handy as a foreigner; I am not used to walking into a 7-11 and buying raw fish on rice or a roll of sushi. A bonus is that those types of foods are actually safe; so one does not have to worry about dying (or being in extreme discomfort) from some random disease caused by rotten fish and the suchlike. The unfortunate reason behind all this is that Japanese people work too long; they can’t afford not to be convenient. Even the children have long hours; they will be walking home in their uniforms at 5:30 in the evening, or making their way to school at 8:00 on a Saturday morning for extra-curricular activities.
Another main difference I have seen is the politeness factor; I think it is spoiling me a bit. People always say thank you when you buy something, and they often repeat it a couple times throughout the process of buying something. I felt rude the other day when I walked out of a cafe after having a drink (honey milk latte, for the curious ones) and neither I nor the cashier thanked each other. This politeness, however, has a downside. People tend to not say what they actually think. I was trying to think of American desserts (ended up making banana bread) to make for a culture day for one of Brian’s classes, and he told me that one idea would be too sweet for them. “They will lie in your face and tell you they love it, but they won’t like it at all.” That is the downside of the politeness people have.
Christianity is not a popular choice for religion (less than 1% of the population). The two biggest religions are Shinto and Buddhism. Unfortunately, I don’t think they think about what they believe on a regular basis. Japan places heavy priority on respect for elders, and I think that people tend to believe what their parents tell them without actually thinking about it. The result is that few people have hope. The suicide rate is higher than it should be because of that lack of hope and the workload being too much. Overpasses over railroads will have chainlink fences on the sides so people can’t jump over the side. It would be too convenient to do it there. It’s quite sad.
While the differences can be glaring at times, there are definitely some similarities between America and Japan. Both are first-world countries with a large amount of modern technology. Both are educated, with an emphasis on going to university. English is somewhat cool over here, so there are definitely English signs and names sprinkled about (for better or for worse; some English is laughably awful). Food seems to be about the same or cheaper here, but the overall cost of living is higher than in most places in America.
I would say this trip was a vacation, work trip, and educational experience all at the same time. I did my share of touristy things, and I saw some fascinating things as a result. For example, I just recently went to Tojinbo. Tojinbo is a gorgeous set of cliffs by the ocean; unfortunately, it is known partially for the number of people who commit suicide there. So beautiful, but so sad at the same time. It seemed to be that way with many of the places I went. Eiheiji is a beautiful Buddhist temple complex; while it is a great spot to take pictures, it is also a place where many people are in spiritual bondage. Those are just two of a plethora of places around Japan that are great to visit but sad to think about.
The work I did wasn’t exactly what I was used to, but I mainly did various small things that helped out Brian and Mia. Water the garden, label tracts, do dishes occasionally, make powerpoints, hand out tracts, etc. I did do some pretty unique things at times; I recorded conversations with Brian for an English class, I played ocarina at a nursing home, and I helped a native Japanese gentleman teach an English class for elderly folks (youngest one was approximately 66 years old). The trip didn’t lack in variety, at least in the work department.
I felt like I learned a good amount about some different things this trip. I learned a bit of the Japanese language and culture, which I found to be quite an enjoyable experience. The fact that everyone is a person with a soul was another concept that I felt like I learned a bit more about. Something I feel Brian and Mia exemplified and welcomed was honesty. I learned rather quickly that they would prefer my actual opinion instead of a polite but mildly dishonest answer. Having been given the opportunity to share my testimony multiple times, I thought quite a bit about my own experience as a Christian. What things has God taught me? What is He trying teach me now? How can I encourage these people who live on the other side of the world and have never been in contact with a community like the Mennonite culture? I don’t think about these things as often as I should; therefore, I appreciated the opportunity this trip gave me to leave what was normal and go off “into the wild.” It made me think outside of my standard thought patterns, and it gave experiences I didn’t ever think I would get. An introverted homebody like me gets to go off for five weeks and live in another country with people I have never met in a place I have never been? Not what I thought would happen a year or two ago. Then again, had I seen what God had laid out for my future a couple years ago, I probably would have laughed and said, “That’s never happening.” But God has a plan; thankfully, it’s better than my own.
I will be a little sad to leave Japan. I greatly enjoyed my time here, both in the country and with the Spratts. I had some awesome experiences here, but I know it will be good to be back home again. I will see things a bit differently, and I know I will be thankful to be able to read things in my own language again. But part of being away from your own culture is realizing what you do have. It can be hard to know what you have until it’s gone. Anyway, before I ramble on too much longer, huge thanks to Brian and Mia for hosting some kid they had never met before. Thank you to those who supported this trip, whether through monetary means or messages of support or prayers. All were very much appreciated. Thanks be to God as well, for He made everything work out. Arigatou gozaimasu, Japan, arigotou gozaimasu (imagine me bowing slightly awkwardly and leaving).