Japan’s Spiritual Change Over the Past Fifty-five Years

Today there are many seminars and books on the “mysterious mystique of the peculiar Japanese people and their country.” I learned all about this during my fourteen days on the American President Line's ship, the Wilson, while sailing from San Francisco, California, USA to Yokohama, Japan in April 1951. We could bring 350 pounds of baggage plus everything we could fit in our bedrooms aboard the ship. There were twelve passengers.

My Own Journey to Japan
In the fourteen days I was aboard the ship, my tutor, Kiyoshi Togasaki, a Christian businessman and publisher of The Japan Times of today, educated me on the state of Japan.

He also learned of my own history. My parents were from the city of Nineveh (now Mosul, in Iraq), where Jonah went to preach God's judgment upon the Assyrians. After Jonah’s plea, the king of Nineveh repented and made every living thing, human and animal, fast and pray for forty days to avert God's impending judgment. It worked. To this day, the Assyrians call themselves the “only Christian nation in the world.” Four million Assyrians worldwide have no country today.

Mr. Togasaki soon said in response to my history: “Persians, Assyrians, Nestorians? Your people brought over to us three priceless treasures: the Bible's gospel, democracy and medicine.” After telling me some of Japan's oral history, he said, “Japanese history is fairy tales, 'his story' (setsu) versus 'my story.' You must become a lifelong student of true history and a proponent of this magnificent unwritten Christian testimony. Yale University's Kenneth Scott Latourette called Nestorians 'the greatest missionary movement the world has ever seen.'” Dr. V. R. Edman, former president of Wheaton College (Wheaton, Illinois, USA), wrote the same thing.

In the course of eating and being aboard the ship with Mr. Togasaki for two weeks, I learned what it meant to be a true, upright Japanese individual. He told the gripping story of how he, as an important export businessman, or boeki, lost everything in the tragic San Francisco earthquake of 1928.

Because all records were burned, there was an amnesty that you did not have to pay anything you could not find the bill for. However, Mr. Togasaki said proudly, “I'm a Japanese Christian! I got in my horse drawn buggy and went to every single company or person I owed a dollar to. We wrote from memory all the bills and I paid every last penny. How could I do anything else before an all-seeing, all-knowing God?”

Then he showed me pictures of himself as an evangelist preaching to thousands of people before, during and after World War II. He hand-printed lengthy song sheets one by one.  After the singing at each event, he preached the gospel. His favorite message was from John 14:6: “Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father in heaven except through me.'” Mr. Togasaki asked, “How could I preach God's pure gospel with an impure heart?”

To understand the deep significance of my meeting with Mr. Togasaki is to understand the background from which I came. My Assyrian Christian father and mother escaped a holocaust in 1917 when more than 180,000 Christians were massacred by Kurdish Turkish Muslims. They were “boat people” who ended up in Chicago where I was born. I grew up hearing horror stories from cousins and family friends.

When I told my parents that God had called me to Japan, my father fumed, “You're crazy! Those Japanese men walk around in kimonos with two swords, one big and one small. If they get mad, they'll kill you. Don't go near that place!” When I met this stately, godly gentleman, Mr. Togasaki, I was not fearful. I was overwhelmed.

We led two joint Sunday morning services aboard the ship. He led the singing and I preached. He also took the offering and dedicated it to my future work in Japan. That was the first offering I had ever received from a Japanese hand. This is how I have lived for fifty-five years—by faith, from “hand to mouth.” From God's hand to my mouth. I learned many things from Mr. Togasaki, among them:

–    Punctuality (jikan genshu)
–    Neatness (kichin toshite)
–    Frugality (setsuyaku)
–    Integrity (shinyo)
–    Knowing and repaying obligations (giri-ninjo and on)
–    Filial piety (oyakoko)
–    Respect for elders (sempai sonkei)
–    Tighten your belt and go one more notch (gambare)
–    Honesty (shojiki)
–    Reality and phony spirituality (honne and tatemae)

These qualities were evident in all he said and did. He was a man at peace with himself and with God.

Those ten lessons have stayed with me since I first stepped on Japanese soil in 1951. They have helped me through the ups and downs of living, working, loving, suffering and surviving. This type of person is what a born-again Japanese Christian believer can become.

The Japanese Culture and Christian Ministry
Daily someone in Japan can read about and see on television the scandals of politicians, bankers, doctors, real estate agents, presidents, public servants, teachers, professors and more. This is what we see when looking at Japan with the naked eye. However, put on the “Bible's binoculars” and we can see something different. We can see past the outward and into what the inner person can become. We can then see the miracle of six million Christians in Japan. And if there are more Mr. Togasakis around, there will be more Christians. There is a saying that to tell if a stick is crooked, put it alongside a straight one. Mr. Togasaki was a “straight stick.”

The sad truth is that what we see today in society does not mirror the characteristics of Mr. Togasaki. How could we explain to him what is happening to the 14 and 15-year-olds who are selling their bodies to dirty old men for a Gucchi bag? Their guiding ten commandments are reduced to one: “Everybody's doing it, so what's wrong?” To combat this trend, I frequently give a one-hour PowerPoint message on “True Love Waits,” using fifty slides. It ends with asking viewers to make a pledge to be a born-again Christian. Then, before God, parents, friends, future spouses and myself, they say, “I will keep myself pure until marriage.”

After one such presentation, one mother in the audience said, “That's fine that you can use the computer to describe this, but you must also put something in our hands that we can use.” So with the help of artist Madoka San and the International Chapel Ministries of Nara, we produced a 32-page colored manga (cartoon) titled, “True Love Waits” in English and Japanese. These are cheap enough (¥50) to distribute in front of schools. Already 100,000 have been passed out.

Every time I am discouraged or disappointed in a situation or a person, I remember Mr. Togasaki. I also remember the early Assyrian-Nestorian missionaries of the second century who spent six months on horseback, slept under the stars and ate the mutton—all in order to share the gospel with the Japanese.

So I carry on in my fifty-fifth year of bringing God's good news to Japan. My wife Lila and I have together accumulated 110 years of our labor of love (muryo hoshi) for Japan's wonderful people. Our son Ken also works in Japan with a helpline that sends volunteers to needy areas. Our other three sons, Bobb, Jim and Mark, and their wives are involved in various ministries as well.

Indeed, less than one percent of the people in Japan are baptized Christians; however, I am heartened by a survey that showed that thirty-five percent of Japan's youth (between the ages of 16 and 24) would choose Christianity if they had to choose a religion.

Only eleven percent would choose Buddhism and three percent Shintoism. I am encouraged that Bridal Industry News Weekly said that up to eighty percent of Japan's future brides choose a Christian wedding instead of a more traditional Shinto one. Why is this so? The future bride will answer, “Because it's trendy, bright (kakko ii), happy (tanoshi), light (akarui) and positive.” She will also add, “I can understand the preacher when he says, 'Husbands, love your wives as you love your own body, and respect her.'”

This is Japan's bright future, to follow the Amaterasu (the “light that brightens heaven”), another name for the “luminous religion” (Ten shu) preached by Nestorian missionaries. Both are another name for the Lord Jesus Christ, “the light of the world,” brought by the Nestorians all the way from seminary in Ctesiphon, Iraq, to Japan's Sakoshi, Kyoto and Nara some 1,800 years ago.

That “light of the world” is Japan's only hope for the future.

Reverend Kenny Joseph heads up Reinforcing Evangelists and Aiding Pastors (R.E.A.P. Mission), a ministry based in Tokyo.