Tag Archives: Japan

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!)


“Run, Son, Run!” – Why I’m returning to Japan after the death of my father

Yesterday was my father’s funeral, and a few folk have been asking me whether that has changed my long-term plans. Am I going back to Japan?

It’s a valid question. One that I have thought about myself. I spoke to my mum about it the other day and we decided that I will indeed go back to Japan, and soon. There’s a number of reasons why, but the one that feels most pertinent right now is this:

My dad would want me to.

Now we’ve had a lot of decisions to make these last couple of weeks, and many of them have involved trying to guess what my dad would have wanted. With many things it’s not easy to know. But in this instance I am without doubt (as is my mum): he would want me to go back.

You see throughout my life my dad was always my biggest cheerleader. He was unashamed in his support for me. Mostly in wonderfully embarrassing ways.

I shared at my the funeral about how he ran alongside me at races, screaming – and I mean screaming – at me to keep running. Even if it meant him running through – and I mean through – crowds, he’d be there cheering,

“Run, Son, run!”

That’s how he was: always encouraging me, in his unique and loud way.

And he was no different about my move to Japan.

On the day that I flew out he presented me with this T-shirt:

T-shirt with Japanese text

That’s Luke 3:22,

“You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.”

It’s an amazing sentiment (I may have choked-up a bit when he gave it to me). But it’s a slightly embarrassing T-shirt to wear, for 2 reasons:

1. The quote is God talking about Jesus, so it’s a bit awkward to have it referring to me.

2. My dad got the Japanese by using google-translate . . .

Yeah, it’s a little bit off. Not crazy amounts, but enough to be kinda wrong.

But again, that’s the way my dad was. He didn’t mind risking mistakes if it would encourage me to keep running. He didn’t concern himself with what others would think, he would always be there cheering,

“Run, son, run!”

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to keep running.

Because not only did my dad give me encouragement to keep running forward, he also gave me an example to follow after. The example of persevering in following Jesus wherever He calls us. As I mentioned before, my dad wasn’t perfect: he stumbled and he fell, but he kept running after his Saviour.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

My dad’s race has come to an end, but mine has not. So I look forward to a life in Japan, as I listen to my dad cheering,

“Run, Son, run!”

Yes, Dad, yes I will.

Which is harder: getting into a Japanese university or getting into the kingdom of God?

school girl looks up during an exam

Photo courtesy of OMF International

I have a friend here in Japan who is currently studying towards her university entrance exams. The pressure on her is visible. And it’s crazy.

University entrance works differently in Japan than in the UK. You do have different subjects that you study for and you have to pass exams for those in order to pass school. But to get into a university you have to take an exam specifically for that university―if you mess up on the day of that exam (or if you can’t make it for whatever reason) then that’s it, you’re not getting in.

I know that exams in any country result in pressure and stress. But seriously, Japan feels like a whole other level to the UK.

It’s no secret that the pressure to succeed in Japan can be crazy. It’s one of the reasons for the crazy suicide rate and other social problems such as hikikomori and ‘work death.’

One of the most common words in Japan is ‘ganbaru’ (頑張る) which is almost impossible to translate into English, but roughly means something like ‘do your best.’ So people who are studying for exams are encouraged to ganbaru. And you will often hear people saying ganbaranai-to “I must work hard.” The idea is that if you do mess up on that all-important occasion, then it is almost certainly because you didn’t practice/study/work hard enough in the build up to it.

Now I have nothing against people doing their best. But when you feel like you have to keep pushing yourself even when it’s crushing your body and soul . . . Then you know something’s gone wrong.

The thing is that I feel helpless in the face of this ‘ganbaranai-to’ culture.

Take my friend struggling under the pressure to do well in her exams: I can offer some sympathy and practical help, but I’m very limited since:

  1. The UK entrance system seems much more chilled out than here in Japan.
  2.  I can barely remember my high school Physics lessons (all I recall is that Mr Dugan had one of the world’s most impressive moustaches)
  3. I haven’t yet learned the Japanese necessary to discuss differentiation or thermodynamics.

And even if I could help Yukiko pass her entrance exams . . . What about the rest of Japan? I know the story about starfish on the beach, and sure it’s great to help those you can, but my heart still breaks for the millions of people in Japan broken by the pressure to ‘ganbaru’ to the bitter end.


Luckily I know a dude who is able to help. His name is Jesus.

He knows what that pressure to ‘ganbaru’ is like. He went through His whole live fighting temptation every day, and beating it, to win perfect obedience for us. And when the critical moment came, He didn’t fail. He wrestled through blood, sweat and tears and submitted Himself to betrayal, mockery, false-accusations, humiliation, torture and execution on a cross.

“It is finished”

Done. Passed. 100%

See, as far as I can tell, in Japan you don’t get a second chance. If you fail it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.

Sure you can wait till next year and try again. But the thing is that can simply amplify the pressure to succeed. What if you screw up the second time? Then what excuse do you have?

But here’s the punchline: the good news of Christianity is not that God offers us a second chance, but that He offers us His Son.

Because Jesus doesn’t just sympathise with our weakness―although He most certainly does that―He pays for (or rather He paid for) our failings at the cross.

This why Jesus is able to make promises like,

“Come to me all you who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

To be frank, without the death and resurrection of Jesus, this would be a meaningless claim. But with Jesus being seated at the right hand of God it is a promise that is as sweet and powerful today as it was the day He first spoke it.

And I’ve seen this verse enough in Japan to know that it resounds here loud and clear.

This then is why I’m in Japan as a missionary. I genuinely believe that the only hope for the broken people in Japan is Jesus. That’s why I’m committed to being here for the long-term: so that I can introduce people to Jesus. Jesus the great high priest. Jesus the perfect filial son.

Japanese food: the good, the bad, and the natto.

I’ve been in Japan for almost two weeks now, and I’m finally feeling like I’m actually here. One of the things that has helped me feel like I’m in Japan (you know, besides from the two million Japanese people who live in Sapporo) has been the food I’ve eaten.

I guess I’m a bit of a foodie, because lots of the key things that define Japan for me are foods. So let me share with you some of the foodstuffs that are making me feel at home in Japan.

Like most countries, some Japanese food is all-round amazing, some of it is not really tasty in itself but somehow is really good, and some of it should be eradicated from the face of the earth.

In other words, with Japanese food you have: the good, the bad, and the natto.


The Good

I guess one of the least well-known Japanese dishes is ‘curry rice’ (カレーライス). This is a shame, because it is almost incontestably tastier than the better known dishes such as sushi or even – dare I say it – ramen.

For me curry rice has a real home-made feel to it, even if it’s from a restaurant with a vending machine. But curry rice that is actually home-made is even more amazing. Especially when the person who makes your curry shapes the rice into a map of the island of Japan you’re staying in.

Check this out.

Japanese curry rice in the shape of Hokkaido


The Bad

You have probably picked up on this by now, but one of my favourite things about Japan is canned coffee. I love it.

The thing is that canned coffee is, if I’m honest, not very good in terms of being coffee. And yet it is somehow amazing.

And like the curry rice, part of the great thing about canned coffee is the way it looks. By which I mean, the insane over statements that get printed on the cans.

Check this out.

A can of coffee

In case you can’t read it the claim for this particular coffee is,

“Gold Is A Premium Coffee With A Radiant-like Beauty Perfected With Premium Beans.”

Not a single word of that is true. And yet somehow it’s still really good.


The Natto

Again, you may have heard me talk – or rather rant – about natto in the past. I do not love it. For the simple reason that it is nothing more – or less – than condensed foulness.

I would post a photo to prove that point, but it’s hard to convey the depths of the horrendousness of natto through a photo. So I’ve made a video.

However, I haven’t edited it yet, so you’ll have to wait a few days for that.

But if you could watch the video, then you would have picked up that I have a cunning plan to get myself to like natto. Well, I say ‘cunning’ .  .  .  stupid is probably a better word.

See I tend to be quite vocal in my hatred of natto (as with anything, really) and this has caused me to be reprimanded on several occasions by natto-lovers. I have been informed that natto is simply an acquired taste, and that to reach the necessary level of acquirement it is necessary to eat natto at least ten times.

Now I try to be a trusting, outgoing kind of person so I have decided that I will give this ten times natto thing a shot. By my count I have now clocked up five attempts at eating natto, leaving five more bowls of the slimy, smelly skunge before I am able to either eat natto with some degree of enjoyment or not eat it with a clear conscience.


And there you have it: Japanese cuisine making me feel at home in Sapporo.

What about you? Do you have foods that you love/hate about Japan, or anywhere else? Or foods that make you feel like, “Ah, now I am really here!”?

The East Japan Disaster: Three Years On (this is not the post I intended to write)

It was three years ago today that I heard those heart-stopping words,

“Have you seen the news about Japan?”

I hadn’t. And when I checked I almost wished I had remained in that ignorance.

The following weeks were a painful blur for me: Staring at my computer screen in disbelief; telling people with increasing numbness that yes, I had friends in the tsunami-hit area, but no, I hadn’t been able to make contact with them all yet; crying with relief as I slowly did hear from those I knew in Japan; wrestling through confusion and anger at the mixed reports on Japanese and Western TV stations; wishing I could do something, anything, to help.

And then visiting Japan and going back to staring in broken disbelief.

tsunami hit area

So many memories etched forever onto my heart. . . .

Among them are the government broadcasts that were run the whole time I was in Japan. All day, every day.

They were very basic. Japanese celebrities giving short speeches. In different ways they extolled the virtues of the Japanese nation and gave assurance that Japan would overcome this disaster.

But the tagline was always the same,

“I believe in the power of Japan.”

I was talking about this with a friend the other day. He made the astute comment that countries where there is a strong patriotic spirit have a tendency to downplay national problems or cultural weaknesses. The stuff they can’t clean up, they cover up.

I thought about this––whether it was true for Japan. I’m sad to say I think it is.

From the refusal to acknowledge responsibility for historical moral failings like the “Nanking incident,” to the denial that anyone in Japan has a problem with alcohol or gambling.

And then yesterday I read this article about the ongoing “clean-up” of the tsunami-hit areas.

The problem it seems is that many people in Japan––those not directly affected by the disaster––would be content with a cover up, rather than a clean up. People feel that their emotional needs are being overlooked in favor of the financial opportunities for the construction industry and the political gains to be had.

I had intended, therefore, to write a post about the failure of the Japanese government to provide the necessary care for the ongoing victims of the tsunami. Maybe if I added my voice to the shouts of protest it would work towards making a difference.

But like so many of my plans, Jesus came along and screwed that idea right up.

See, this month I am reading through Luke’s account of Jesus’ life. And two days ago I reached the point where he rebukes the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy,

 “You clean the outside of the cup and bowl, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”

It was a reminder that the tendency to cover up rather than clean up is not an especially Japanese trait––It’s a human one.

For me, at least, I have to confess this is the case. I wish I could point the blame at the Japanese government. Or anyone, for that matter.

It seems to me that’s the natural reaction to any such disaster. We want to find those who are responsible and criticize them for their failures. It’s understandable. But it’s also hypocritical.

Because the truth is that I don’t like to own up to my past failings, and I don’t like to acknowledge my ongoing faults. I re-name my sins. Call them “quirks” or rely on the fact that “I’m not as bad as them.”

So rather than bemoaning how the Japanese government lied about the extent of the nuclear disaster, or criticizing the Japanese culture for being overly patriotic, I’m going to use this anniversary of the tsunami as an opportunity to recognize my own tendency to cover up, rather than clean up––that is, my own need for a saviour to clean me up.

Because when it comes down to it, I’m just a guy who has been called to follow Jesus. And I want to go to Japan to call others to do likewise. He is the one who cleans up lives. Not me. I’m in no place to criticize people for failed clean-up efforts. My own efforts at cleaning up my life have tended to just create more mess.

Now of course there is a place to call for proper care for those who need it. Injustice and suffering should not be overlooked. When I get to Japan I will seek to help with the recovery of the tsunami as much as I can. And if I can think of a way to call the Japanese government into line on this I’ll do it.

But not as someone who has it all together. No, I will go to Japan as one who has been, and is being, cleaned up by the undeserved kindness of God in Jesus Christ.

Things I Love About Japan: Onsens

In my last post I made passing reference to onsen. In case you don’t know what onsen are, or Incase you do know and are wondering why I would be looking forward to them, let me explain myself. Or rather, let me explain onsen.

Onsen (温泉) literally translates as “hot spring” which is a very accurate description of what they are. But it doesn’t come close to conveying how amazing they are.

Japanese Macaque relaxing in a volcanic spring in Nagano prefecture, Japan

“Onsen Monkey.” Used with permission (Asteiner on Creative Commons).

Imagine you own a hot tub. Except this isn’t just a plastic tub surrounded by wooden decking in your back garden. This is a natural hot spring, made of smooth rock and overlooking a sun-kissed valley filled with prancing deer. It’s beautifully hot water.

In fact you own not just one hot tub, but half a dozen, each set to a different temperature. Some indoors, some outdoors. Some of them have jet streams. Some of them even have gentle electric currents to help you relax. And you have a couple of saunas.

It’s like you own the world’s most amazing bathroom.

And that’s what an onsen is like.

Except they’re open to the public. And so they tend to be filled with naked Japanese men (they are separated into male/female sections).

Now I get that this is where your enthusiasm may have just waned. The idea of being almost fully naked (you do get a small towel) in a room full of strangers is possibly your worst nightmare.

I understand where you’re coming from. I appreciate that our culture is so obsessed with body image that we judge ancient greek statues of Hercules for lacking muscle definition. But the point of onsens is not to compare your body to other people. It’s about being so relaxed that you don’t mind being naked.

Plus if you feel really self-conscious, you can go in the sauna and watch sumo on the TV.

Everything about a visit to an onsen is brilliant. The mini road trip out into the countryside (the best onsens are always out in the countryside), scrubbing yourself until you are painfully clean before you get on, the initial “ah ah ah” as you attempt to jump straight into the hottest bath, boldly claiming you’ll stay in the sauna for 5 minutes and then desperately willing the clock to go faster, spending an age slowly trying to lower yourself into the “weak” electric current bath and then having an 80 year old Japanese dude slump into the “strong” one with a loud, “Ahhh, that feels good!”

Oh, and of course there will be one random Japanese guy who decides to use you to practice his English.

Even the post onsen stuff is fun. You get out, quick shower down, get into clean clothes, buy yourself a bottle of milk, followed by some Mitsuya Cider (it’s actually lemonade but hey) and then you find a tatami mat to lie on whilst you watch whatever ridiculous celebrity panel show is on the TV.

Speaking of which, it because of the general lack of TV that I enjoy onsens so much. I know I mentioned it twice in my description, but for the most part onsens do not involve TVs or any kind of media. At their best, onsens offer simply hot water and some unspoiled nature.

Now I’m not about to start hating on people who watch TV. If that’s how you relax, then that’s fine. I’m aware that compared to my description of onsen an evening watching House of Cards might seem even more appealing to youEspecially if you’ve tried to go into an onsen before and been too freaked out to go through with it.

That’s cool. To each their own. Or, as the Japanese would say, “Ten people, ten colours.”

But I personally prefer to relax by removing myself from the stimulating world of TV, film, Facebook, etc. Even reading, which I love, can get in the way of my relaxing.

Doing absolutely nothing: that is my idea of relaxing. And doing nothing whilst sitting in water that warms me to my very bone marrow… yup that’s pretty much my perfect evening.

So I am very much looking forward to doing some serious chilling out in onsens once I’m in Japan.


OK, sharing time. Have you been to an onsen? Loved it, hated it, or take-it-or-leave-it?

I’m Moving to Japan in May. How Do I Feel? Mixed.

It is now confirmed that I will be moving to Japan this May. A few folk have asked me how I’m feeling about that, and having had a week for the truth of my departure to sink in I have an answer.

(In case you’re new to this blog, a quick update: I’m heading out to Japan for my first 4-year term with OMF International. I’m going to Sapporo – in the far North – for the first 8 months. After that is still to be decided. I’ve previously spent a year in Sendai, and a couple of months in Sapporo, so Japan is not totally new to me, but it is my first time going out proper long-term.)

So, how am I feeling?

a girl looks out of a bus window

Photo courtesy of OMF International


This is the main emotion I’m feeling. Good thing really.

I’m mainly excited at the idea of staying there for a long time. When I first went to Japan it was for only 1 year and that meant that I had to return to the UK just as I was getting used to live in Japan. 4 years will be long enough for me to get stuck into the community, to make friends… to make Japan my home.

I’m then generally excited about Japanese food, onsen, catching up with old friends, canned coffee, etc.

I’m also excited (and this is a bit geeky) at the prospect of full-time Japanese language study. I’ve been learning Japanese for something like 6 years now, but always fitting it in around other stuff. The idea of being able to focus for 8 months purely on sharpening my Japanese is very exciting to me.



I have only made it to this point because of the help and support of many people. So my excitement is deeply coated in gratitude for the people who have helped me get this far.

Expressing thanks is honestly something I’m not very good at. I’m working at it, partly because I’m increasingly realizing the unavoidable link between expressing thanks and experiencing joy.

I believe that we are hardwired for fellowship with God and with other people, and that gratitude is a key ingredient in those relationships. Receiving help without giving thanks is like trying to breathe in without ever breathing out. Sure I could suppress the need to give thanks (acting as if I, and only I, should take credit for where I am and what I have) but that would only be to my own detriment.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is… thank you. Yes, even just for reading this blog. I appreciate it. I really do.



Well, not nervous. I just can’t think of the right word. Pensive, perhaps. What I’m trying to say is that I’m aware of the costs of going. I will miss family and friends. I will miss my nephews growing up. I will miss weddings and other celebrations. I will miss mature cheddar.

I’ve long been aware of these things of course. But with the date being set, I have started to feel it more acutely.


At Peace

Yeah, I know this contradicts the previous point. I guess that’s how these things go. I’d like to think it’s because I’m really deep and complex, but I giggled like a schoolgirl throughout the whole of Expendables 2 so probably not.

Anyway, I hadn’t thought of expressing it like this – “at peace” – until a friend said that’s how I seemed to be, and I realized she was right (thanks Sandra!).

I feel at peace. Not that I think it’s going to be smooth-sailing from here on, but I am convinced this is the right thing to do. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, but I am now sure that Japan is where God wants me to be. As someone somewhere once said, “The safest place you can be is the centre of God’s will.” I believe that. And so I am at peace.



OK, I take back what I said at the start. This is my main emotion.

Moving out to Japan long-term has been my plan for the last 3 years, and has been a vague idea for about double that. I’ve wavered on that slightly at times, but deep down I was never able to shake it. But I’d gotten used to Japan being an “one day” thing.

Even when I started to get more solid plans, it was “hopefully February” then “hopefully April.” It just feels weird to say, “I am going to Japan. I’m leaving on the 20th April and after 3 weeks in Singapore I’ll be arriving in Sapporo at the start of May.”


So that’s how I feel about moving to Japan: Excited, grateful, nervous, at peace, weird – in short, mixed.