Tag Archives: Challenges in Japan

Do I Love Japan? Lust subverts our calling. Love fulfills our calling.

In my last post I opened the question of whether I love Japan or just lust after it. And I was surprised by the response. Not that my post went viral (or anything remotely close), but I had a fair few people message me to say that it struck a chord with them. So I’ve decided that I will unpack those points on the love/lust difference, trying to think about them in a wider sense.

So here we go,

Love for Japan

Courtesy of ku.sagi on Flickr. Original.

Lust subverts our calling. Love fulfills our calling.

Why? Because our calling is love.

We are designed to be in community. We were made to cultivate and care: for each other, for this planet, for culture. We are wired so that we get most fulfillment when we give, not when we get. And the world is wired so that it flourishes most when we live from love, not lust.

Now, look there are lots of things that I really enjoy in Japan. If you’ve been around here for any length of time you’ll be able to join me in reciting the list: onsens, soup curry, snowboarding, canned coffee . . . it goes on.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying those things. In fact I think I’m meant to. But love insists that such things are to be enjoyed in a way that befits a love for God and for people. Love recognizes that good things are to be enjoyed in such a way that others enjoy them too.

Lust differs from that because lust is about me. Lust doesn’t share. Lust is selfish, greedy, and uncaring. That’s why sexual lust is so devastating. It turns people into objects–literally–and then simply uses them. Lust takes something good and twists it to meet our self-centered desires.

Love serves others, but lust serves ourselves. And the results are really ugly.

But our lusts can be insidious. We can lust in a way that looks quite respectable, even admirable, to those on the outside. Lust truly does subvert, to the point that we might not even notice it ourselves.

A lust for fame or success can be just as subversive to our calling of love.

To quote from that apparently-soon-to-be-revisited classic Zoolander,

“Do you understand that the world does not revolve around you and your do whatever it takes, ruin as many people’s lives, so long as you can make a name for yourself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied along the way, just so long so you can make a name for yourself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied and dying along the way?”

OK, once you’ve stopped quoting the rest of Zoolander let’s continue. (I should also point out using that quote doesn’t mean I agree with the definition of love from that film.)

But in all seriousness, that kind of “I’ll make it whatever it takes” attitude can very easily lead to a lustful attitude where people who get in the way of our ‘success’ become obstacles to be avoided, pushed aside, or manipulated to meet our end. In other words, they become objects to used rather than people to be loved.

And the thing is that our original intention may have been noble. We might have drawn up our agenda with people in mind. But as D.A. Carson puts it,

“People don’t set the agenda. People are the agenda!”

Lust, in whatever form it takes, distracts us from both our specific callings, whatever they might be, as well as our general calling to love God and love our neighbour. You can’t build both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of self. Trust me, I’ve tried. Like, really, really tried. It doesn’t work.

Thoughts, questions, stories?

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Do I love Japan, or is it just lust?

Chase After Love

I mentioned in my last post the question of whether I genuinely love Japan or whether I simply lust after Japan. I get that’s a slightly strange statement so let me explain what I mean.

This is something I’ve been thinking about ever since a conversation I had with a Scottish friend last Summer. He’s lived in Japan for about nine years, so he’s seen a fair bit of life here.

We were hanging out in Starbucks (don’t judge me, it’s a convenient meeting spot) and on the table near us was another Westerner, chatting with a Japanese girl. My friend overheard him whilst he was waiting in line and afterwards told me that the guy had been boasting about how much he made teaching, and how he had lots of money for ‘play.’ The guy’s tone made it clear that he was talking more ‘playboy’ than ‘playmobile.’

Anywho, afterwards we were talking about that whole subject. Not so much the sex-industry in Japan, but more the fact that some people come to Japan with the sole purpose of getting what they can and then leaving when they’ve had their fill. In other words, they come to Japan driven by lust, not love.

And that made me remember this post my friend wrote, based on teaching by Benjamin Nolot (one of the folk who head up Exodus Cry) on the difference between love and lust.

You should definitely read the whole post, but here’s the main points:

  • Lust subverts our calling. Love fulfills our calling.
  • Lust exploits. Love protects.
  • Lust consumes. Love pursues.
  • Lust seeks instant gratification. Love waits.

When it comes to human relationships these differences are devastating. And I think the principles apply more broadly as well.  I can be tempted to view Japan with lust, rather than love. I can be tempted to join the ranks of those who come to get their fill of Japan, when I’m meant to be here to pour myself out for Japan.

And so these last few months I’ve been wondering about my motives for being in here. Do I love Japan, or is it just lust?

Because I have to be honest here: I’m no better than that guy in Starbucks. As they say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And that’s a grace that I need to have continually pouring into my life. And a grace that I need to be continually working out in my life.

And so I think this is an important question to ask. And not just for me, but for all of us, wherever we are. Are our actions, our words, our plans driven by love for the people around us, or are we motivated by a desire to get what we can?

So in my next few posts I will go through those points, thinking through how loving Japan looks different to lusting after Japan, and hopefully also helping you think through how you can better love those around you.

Omiyage: the reason why travelling light in Japan is next to impossible

I’m heading down to Tokyo tomorrow for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, and after that I’m taking a break from study to meet up with friends. I’m only going for a week, and so I had planned to travel light. I’ve gotten fairly good at that over the last few years and was looking forward to cramming everything I need into a medium-sized shoulder-bag.

But then I remembered . . .

In Japan travelling light is near-impossible. For one simple reason:

Omiyage

If you don’t know much Japanese then you might be thinking I’m referring to some kind of mystical force barrier. Or maybe an offering you have to make to pacify the crows.

Not quite. Omiyage is kinda the Japanese equivalent of ‘souvenir’ or ‘gift.’ Except that there’s a whole load of culture tied up in that word. Culture that, to be honest, I still don’t fully understand.

So anywho, here’s what happened when I tried to do my packing.

lots of omiyage next to my bag

 

Nope, that’s not an optical illusion. My omiyage was the same size as all my clothes and stuff.

Looks like I’m going to need a bigger bag.

Because there’s quite a lot of expectations when it comes to omiyage. I remember one time hanging with some folk in Japan, talking about one of our friends who was on a 2-day trip to (if I remember correct) Korea for a conference. Someone said, “I wonder what omiyage he’ll bring back.” I suggested that maybe he wouldn’t bring any back. Like maybe he wouldn’t have time to buy any. The look I received in return was somewhere between pity, disdain, and utter confusion.

My understanding is that giving omiyage is part of how you express your thanks and appreciation to people. It’s a way of letting people join in with the experiences you have whilst you’re away from them. Kind of like saying, “I really wish you could have been there with me, and I’m sorry for not being around to help you when you needed me.” In a way that’s a very good thing for someone like me, because expressing all that stuff in Japanese is much harder than handing over a box a chocolates.

Plus some of the folk I’m meeting up with I haven’t seen for literal years. I’m really excited to see them, and I’d be bringing gifts anyway. So I’m not really complaining about the whole gift-giving culture. Except I do feel a bit unsure at times whether I’ve given enough (or possible too little, but on my budget I doubt it). Plus I know for some people it can become a real burden. Putting aside the need to double your luggage size, omiyage are often not very cheap, especially if you have to buy them for a whole bunch of folk.

Then there’s the fact that Japan can create trains that travel at 500kph and yet somehow still be one of the most inefficient countries on the planet when it comes to packaging. I guess the idea is, ‘If something’s worth wrapping, it’s worth wrapping twice.’ The problem is that makes it really, really hard to travel light. And I like to travel light.

But I guess that’s part of the point of moving to another culture. Sometimes I have to make compromises. And sometimes I have to make those compromises whilst I’m still working out how and why things work the way they do.

Still I shouldn’t complain too much. I am after all, going on holiday.

 

But how about you? Had any similar experiences? Or can you shed any light on omiyage-culture?

 

Running through the pain: on (half)marathons and missions

never again  . . . until next time

In my last post I shared some thoughts that I came up with whilst running a half-marathon a couple of weeks back. Well two hours is a long time and I had more thoughts than I could fit into a single post, so I decided to write another one. But this is not about mourning, it’s about missions.

Specifically, keeping on with a mission when you feel like you want to quit.

But I should explain what I mean by ‘missions,’ right? I think about it in three different categories. Let me illustrate from my own life.

In a sense I think of this blog as a mission. Or maybe it’s more like weekly mini-missions. I’ve set myself the task of writing one post a week. I also have a few other writing projects coming and going. These kind of missions have clearly defined parameters: e.g. write a certain amount by a certain date and try to make it not suck.

Then there’s Japanese. I have been for years and the end still seems nowhere in sight. Learning Japanese is definitely not a sprint. But you know what, it’s not really a marathon either. It’s a mission. Some days I feel like Frodo, trudging onwards, knowing every step takes me further into unknown territory where the only certainty is that something will try to kill me. These kind of missions have an end goal, but it’s harder to define and there’s no real deadline: you finish when you reach the level you’re after.

Then there’s my main mission that the others are a part of.  When/if I ever reach fluency in Japanese there will be no great eagles to fly me back to the happy comfort of the shire. Nope, mastering the language is just a smaller part of my main mission: making followers of Jesus in Japan. These kind of missions are life-long. They’re the ‘this is going to be my legacy’ type missions.

So that’s what I mean by ‘missions’ and here’s the thing they have in common with marathons:

Pain.

Not just that they both involve pain. But that you have to run through the pain.

See when you run a marathon, eventually it’ll start to hurt. And once the pain starts, it doesn’t tend to go away. Sometimes it shifts through different parts of your body, but whenever I’ve run a marathon the second half has been a continual battle with pain or some kind.

And with that comes the desire to quit. “If I just stop then the pain will too.” That thought pesters you like a spoilt, and yet sensible-sounding, child. Why keep running, when all it causes you is pain? Why not just quit the race and enjoy some comfort? Stop and the pain will stop.

Except it’s not true. The pain will remain.

OK it will go away, but it will be replaced . . . By a different kind of pain.

The pain of giving up. The pain of knowing that you could have kept going. That you could have done better. The target you were aiming for will remain. And all the training . . . Well that will have been for nothing.

No, the only way to really get rid of the pain is to keep on running. Run through to the finish line, and then the pain will stop (well stairs will hurt for the next couple of days, but after that it’ll stop).

In that way marathons are like missions. You can’t avoid the pain, you have to run through it. Running through the pain is the only way to make it stop. And it’s the only way to make it worth while.

There’s been a few times when I’ve been writing posts and I’ve got fed up with them and felt like throwing them aside. It feels like a waste of time and energy. Even now I’m sat at my laptop trying to bring thoughts together, feeling like I’m attempting to nail jelly to the wall, and wanting to give up. But if I stop now, I’ll have wasted the time I’ve spent getting this far. The only way to make that effort meaningless is to stay on thrashing out a stream of rubbish and sifting through it until I find some words that might make someone’s soul that little bit stronger.

The same is true of my Japanese study. I feel like giving up a dozen times most months. But giving up now would be like dropping out of a marathon at the twenty-mile mark (at least I hope I’m that far). So I keep on studying, some days feeling like my brain is actually melting, but knowing that every painful step is one step closer to the finish line . . . knowing that the way to make the pain worthwhile is to run through it.

And, above all, knowing the smaller missions––whether they be writing assignments, language study, building projects, or just regularly spending time with folk who need a friend ––they are all part of the bigger mission. They are each chapters of the book that God is writing in my life. 

Sometimes the pain involved in these mini-mission feels too much, like how can it be worth going through this much trouble for something so small? But then I remember that running through the pain takes me a step towards completing the bigger mission. The pain is worth it, because people are worth it. That’s my main mission: making followers of Jesus in Japan. Jesus endured the cross to bring me to know Him. He ran through that pain for me, so I can run through my pain to bring others to know Him.

OK as I finish there’s something I need to confess . . . I wrote this post for one person. You know who you are. You probably already worked out this was aimed at you. Anywho, keep running. Jesus runs with you. You will get there. The pain will be worth it . . . And it will stop! (^_^)

Fighting crows with cheddar (or how common grace helps me deal with culture stress).

This has been a week of the unexpected. Unexpected trials and unexpected joys.

None of them particularly huge, but that’s kinda the point of this post. Sometimes it’s the little things that make living overseas stressful, and sometimes it’s the little things that take that stress away.

OK, here’s what happened…

 

On Monday my friend Tre took me along to the nearby Costco store to stock up some essentials. We eat some freebies, buy super-sized goods and head to the car park. As we’re putting our shopping into the car I turn around to see a crow taking a big beakfull out of my minced pork multi-pack.

That’s right, a crow had swooped into the two of us, hopped into the trolley, and was eating my freshly purchased raw meat.

Then it flew off like an utter punk coward. I mean, if you’re going to steal a man’s meat, at least have the stones to fight him for it.

 

I have ranted about the crows in Japan a bit before. But it’s worth re-mentioning that they are quite simply living embodiments of everything wrong in this world . . . with wings.

Honestly, they drive me insane. They’re everywhere, squawking away, and they swoop down on you from behind and try to peck you in the back of the head.

A Japanese crow

Look at it, hiding there in the shadows . . .

In a way, Japanese crows represent the culture stress I experience in Japan.

I saw ‘stress’ rather than ‘shock’ because I think there’s an important difference there. Some aspects of living in Japan really are shocking when you first arrive. And they take a little while to get used to. But other tough aspects of living in Japan never go away. And I don’t think I’ll ever get fully used to them. It’s not that they’re surprising, or odd, it’s that they’re really annoying.

For instance, leading up to the crow incident, I had two days in a row where I was asked the same question by a Japanese person. It’s a question I am often asked when people hear that I’m from the UK.

“Is it true that British food is horrible?”

Because you know that’s an acceptable thing to say to a person you’ve just met.

My point is that by Monday afternoon my culture stress meter was on the rise.

 

But by the grace of God I was able to overcome that stress.

And by ‘grace of God’ I mean ‘mature cheddar cheese.’

Because Costco had cheese. Mature cheddar cheese.

A beautiful block of mature cheddar cheese

Yes, it was twice as much as it’d cost in the UK. No, I don’t regret buying it at all.

Because cheese is amazing. And mature cheddar is the undisputed champion of cheese. If I were to have to compare cheddar cheese to a Street Fighter 2 character (and I kinda have to in order to satisfy a promise I made), it would be Ryu. Sure occasionally you’ll play around with Blanka/Brie and there’s also that one weird friend who claims to genuine prefer Zangief/Red Leicester . . . but deep down we all know that Ryu/Cheddar is the only sensible choice. No pretense. No fanciness. Just straight-up-dragon-punch-you-in-the-mouth brilliance. (See Priss, told you I could do it).

Anywho, I’m aware that the cross-section of people who love both British cheese and 90s beat em ups is probably quite small, so I’ll get back to the whole culture stress point.

 

Here’s the thing. I believe that everything good in this world comes from God. He gives all of it to us. And we’re meant to enjoy it. It’s meant to de-stress us.

Laughing with friends until your sides hurt . . . kicking your way through piles of autumn leaves . . . getting giddy with excitement over the trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron . . . melting cheddar cheese over a bagel . . . all of these are good gifts from a good God. And all of them have helped me to deal with the stress of trying to live for Jesus in Japan.

Yes, I absolutely believe in the power and importance of prayer. I believe in the need to be reminded of the simple amazing truths that make up the good news of Jesus Christ. And I believe that the main battles I face are battles of my own heart. That’s a large part of writing this blog: to encourage folk like you to encourage folk like me.

Yup, words have the power to strengthen souls.

And so does cheese.

No seriously. Because cheese is a physical reminder of the fact that God cares for me and that He provides good gifts. And when I’m stressed that’s the truth I most need to remember. When it feels like the world is against me mature cheddar says, “God is for you.” It reminds me not to focus on all the negative stuff, but to enjoy the good stuff. To give thanks. Be grateful. Smile.

 

So there you have it. When crows attack, I fight back with cheese!

 

****

OK I’m feeling a bit vulnerable having exposed all my crazy, so it’s sharing time.

What are the little things that help you to battle stress? What is your equivalent of mature cheddar? (And don’t say Red Leicester!)

The hardest part of learning Japanese? Having Love.

My last post was about applying lessons from Rocky to language learning, and whilst there is much more the Italian Stallion has to teach about learning Japanese, today I want to share a language learning principle from the Bible that has been impressed on me these last few weeks.

It’s fair to say this is the most difficult aspect of learning Japanese (or any language), and it also happens to be the most important:

Having love

For folk like me, fighting away in the hope of becoming fluent in a foreign language (or at least close enough to blag it), there is a verse in the bible that hits like a brutal sucker punch to the gut,

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Or to paraphrase:

A Japanese gong, is still a gong.

A Japanese bell

Photo by Suguru Yamamoto on Creative Commons (original)

Which means that all of my endeavours to master Japanese –– all the hours I pour into memorising vocab, all the ink I spill practising kanji, all the Rocky movies I watch dubbed into Japanese (hey, it counts as study!) –– it will be totally useless if I don’t also work on having love.

Actually that’s not true. It won’t be useless. It’ll be really useful for doing stuff like offending people and screwing up friendships.

Because if I’m honest, I’m pretty much a master of using words to negative effect. Sarcastic snipes? Expert level. Jokes that get a cheap laugh at someone’s expense? Nailed it. Twisting words so that I don’t have to listen to a genuine grievance against me? Piece. Of. Cake.

And none of that is caused by a lack in my English abilities. It’s not like I mean to speak kind, affirming, encouraging words and get mixed up. No, I say what I mean, and I mean what I say. And often what I mean to say is mean.

And at those moments I am a nothing more than a resounding gong.

I can trick myself into thinking that the main thing hindering me from making a positive difference in Japan is my lack of language skills. When in fact the main hinderance is the same thing that hindered me back in the UK:

Not having love

The gong quote comes just before the famous ‘Love is…’ passage, where Paul explains what having love looks like. It makes for quite an unexpected set of criteria for assessing language ability.

Love is patient

Love is kind

Love does not envy

Love does not boast

Love is not proud

Love does not dishonour others

Love is not self-seeking

Love is not easily angered

Love keeps not record of wrongs

Love does not delight in evil

Love rejoices with the truth

Love always protects

Love always trusts

Love always hopes

Love always perseveres

Now listening to a recording of myself speaking Japanese, and having my teacher dissect all my faults was pretty painful. But reading through that list of the attributes of love, and reflecting on how I use my words . . .

Seems like I need another training montage!

And like Rocky I also need a good team to encourage me in my training (seriously, you could write a book on lessons in Japanese learning from the Rocky films). And not just me, but anyone who is trying to master a foreign language. Especially if we’re doing it in order to tell people about the love of God.

So if you’re studying Japanese, etc then don’t forget this key principle. And if you’re encouraging folk in their studies make sure you remind us of the foundational lesson we need to be mastered by.

Don’t be a gong: have love.

I believe Japan can change . . . because I can see the moon

The other day I was hanging out with my good man Ross. We spent our time doing our normal activities: reminiscing about growing up in the 80/90s, searching for somewhere that sells UK-chip-shop-quality-chips, and ranting a bit about Japanese culture.

Now as two Brits (at least for the time being: we’ll see what happens with Scotland) we do quite well at ranting about the differences between Japan and the UK. Often we focus on fairly trivial stuff, like how hard it is to find good chips here, but this time we also talked about more serious issues. Like how many Japanese children experience bullying (and how extreme that bullying can be) and how the pressure to work drives people to emotional and physical breakdowns.

At one point Ross turned to me and asked,

“But do you think Japan will ever change?”

Now let me just interject here (is it still an interjection if it’s your own words?) and say that I love Japan. Love it to bits. I love the people. I love the natural beauty. I love (most of) the food. I love the language (though it drives me crazy some times). And I think there’s a lot that the UK (and elsewhere) could learn from Japan’s culture.

But . . .

There is a dark side to Japan. Problems that I am unashamed to say I want to see changed.

I’ve already mentioned the school bullying, and the work pressure. But there’s more:

  • Pornography that is frighteningly available (as in, you can see it through the window of convenience stores).
  • Homelessness that seems to be largely ignored by the authorities.
  • Countless men who spend all their spare time and money drinking and gambling.
  • Family breakdowns.

It’s no surprise really that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

And now I know it’s popular to say that all religions essentially teach the same thing (or at least the same ethics) or/and that principles such as “love your neighbour as yourself” are common sense. But honestly I would say that Japan is an example of what happens when you have an advanced nation that has a morality not based on the gospel of grace that Jesus brought.

The first protestant missionary came to Japan over 150 years, proclaiming forgiveness and freedom in Jesus name. And yet (if my maths is correct) you are still more likely in Japan to commit suicide than you are to trust in Christ.

But the other night I saw something that reminded me to have hope. To believe that yes, Japan can change.

I saw the moon. 

We went up to mt. Moiwa and looked out over Sapporo. It was a clear night and the moon was shining beautiful and bright in the sky. A lot like this:

 

Photo of the moon

Photo courtesy of Tre McKee, an up and coming photographer who just so happens to also be an all-round great guy.

As I admired the moon I remembered a sermon I had heard a couple of months ago where the preacher mentioned something I had never really appreciated about the moon before–something moon tells us:

Morning is coming.

Because the moon itself is just a rock, right. It doesn’t produce any light of its own. It simply reflects the light of the sun. The sun that is temporarily blocked from our sight. And as it does, the moon proclaims,

Yes, now it is night, and darkness covers the land. But morning is coming. The sun will come back into sight. Indeed I can see it now. Don’t lose heart. Have hope.

Japan is known as the land of the rising sun. But to be honest, it often feels more like the land of perpetual night. I sometimes feel like, when is the sun going to really rise on Japan?

But I believe the morning is coming.

I believe that because I’ve experienced the overwhelming power of the kindness and grace of Jesus in my own life. I don’t have time to go into detail here, but I sometimes think that Jesus saved me because He wanted a challenge. My heart was so messed up you wouldn’t believe. And yet the light of the Son of God has shone into my life, burning up old desires and changing the culture of my heart. So I believe He can do the same for the people of Japan.

There’s a quote by C.S. Lewis that I love,

“I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun. Not only because I have seen it rise, but because by its light I see everything else.”

That’s the same reason I believe in Christianity. I’ve seen the sun rise and give light to my life. In that way (and I know this sounds weird) I want to act like a moon in Japan. Not that I’m a source of hope in and of myself, but I want to reflect the light of Jesus so that people will see me and know that the Son of God has risen.

Morning is coming.

on the beach at midnight but it looks like day

‘Midnight on Dream Beach.’ Photo courtesy of Tre McKee. (This was taken at about 11pm. We had to stand still a long time!)