I sit writing and processing as my first workweek in Tagajo-ken Miyagi-shi, Japan is coming to a close. I am sitting outside of my small room enjoying the bright sunshine, crisp, fresh air, with the lingering feeling of knots in my stomach and fire in my legs that only result from a poorly timed, over-zealous jog.
What a week it has been. Between the jet lag, new culture, language barrier, and being over half a foot taller than everyone, time has simply flown by. If this is any indication of how the rest of this trip will be like, I’ll be back in Chicago before I can say “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu” one more time. My team and I have had back-to-back-to-back days of incredibly eye-opening experiences and, according to our boss, this week has been slow.
For starters, the morning after our arrival, Hannah and I hopped on a boat to one of 800 small islands off the Eastern coast of Sendai to help clean up a heavily-inundated area that used to be one of the ‘Four Sights of Japan’ before the Tsunami on March 11, 2011. We met a 2x Winter Olympic mogul skier, burned grass and weeds, and fellowshipped with elderly Japanese men who had traveled all over the world in their time. Despite the simplicity and general tediousness of the tasks, we learned so much from these men and had the opportunity to deepen relationships that will hopefully lead to Gospel-sharing and unions with Christ.
The following morning was a little busier. Having our third team member, Jenny, finally arrive after an even worse traveling experience than my own, we set out to one of the multiple temporary housing units the church here works with and visits. These housing units are for people who lost their houses and possessions in the tsunami four years ago. Imagine a room approximately 9-feet x 7-feet. That’s it. This is the space families of up to 5 or 6 share together as their entire house. The tiny space contains their kitchen, dining room, family room, and bedrooms. People who used to be wealthy and prosperous have had to cram themselves into this space for nearly four years now while they continue to pay off debts from houses and lives they no longer possess. We were able to simply sit, play bingo, laugh, and share Jesus with these hurting people and it was incredible. For those of you who don’t know, less than 1% of Japanese people claim Christianity as their religious affiliation. Listening to these people was both eye-opening and heart-wrenching. Most of the people were older and they began discussing what the most important thing in life was. The majority agreed on good health as their top priority. When asked “what about hope?” one woman responded with a solemn “I had hope until I turned 70. Now I no longer hope for anything. Maybe for my children and grandchildren to have better lives, but nothing for myself.” Hearing this said out loud was so hard to hear, especially in a country that is so well-developed and advanced. Understanding the depravity this country feels juxtaposed with their social and international advances has been a mental-hurdle to say the least. Thankfully, this offered an opportunity for us to sit and share the love of Jesus and how He alone brings hope to our otherwise hopeless lives. The group was very receptive but not tremendously moved. Thankfully we will have the opportunity to visit again in the weeks to come.
The following morning we visited another temporary housing unit where we enjoyed music from Jenny and fellowshipped over tea and interesting mountain vegetable snacks. The conversation followed a similar pattern, and the results seemed the same. Again, I am thankful we have the opportunity to continue visiting these people and deepen our relationships with them. After leaving the temporary housing unit we walked into the neighboring town, Shiogama-ken. Shiogama is a very populated town with many small businesses that have suffered immensely since the tsunami. Many of the people have struggled to get back on their feet and continue to slip into debt. Our missions leader brought us there so that we may have the opportunity to see the Shiogama Shrine. This massive, ancient shrine sits atop a hefty climb and looks out over the entirety of both Tagajo and Shiogama. This shrine/complex is home to the majority of the beliefs of the people in this area. As we were walking we saw multiple people giving offerings to their various Gods, then clapping or ringing a large bell to wake the god, and praying. We also saw a couple of families dedicating their babies to the Shinto religion and whatever gods they follow. While this was hard to watch, it gave an incredible view into how these people function here. This shrine is the identity of the surrounding area, and therefore, their religion is a part of their identity. To barge in with the Gospel and ask them to convert would be asking them to give up their identity as a culture and people. This helped our team understand that evangelism here looks a little different. We have to pour ourselves into the people both collectively and individually in order to share the Good News.
While our evangelism endeavors are only just beginning, our fun in going to the market and playing ‘food roulette’, learning as much Japanese as possible, and spending some time with the little kids in English classes has been great. I will admit, it is kind of fun watching adults try to be polite and not stare at the large bumbling Americans while their children blatantly stare, eyes bulging out of their heads, mouths agape. We’ll see how long that lasts. All in all, this week has been overwhelming and I’m still trying to put it all together in my head, but it has been incredible nonetheless. I can’t wait to see what God has in store for the next five-and-a-half weeks.