Better for having met you

I once, at my job in Japan, had the pleasure of meeting the great-great-grand-nephew of Commodore Perry.  (Quick history lesson:  Commodore Perry was the man who, in the 1850’s, anchored a fleet of warships outside the Japanese capital and demanded that Japan open its ports to foreign trade, or else.)

As it turned out, the gentleman I met was also named Matthew Perry.  He was an officer in the Navy, and had a special interest in Japan.  How funny is that!

Mr. Perry was a humble and personable man, and the Japanese loved him.  Clearly there were no hard feelings over historical events.  In fact, the way people would exclaim in delight, “Commodore Perry!  With the black ships!” when they met him made me curious.  Just how did the Japanese view this episode in their history?

So I asked.  To summarize, the general feeling was, “Yeah, people might have been scared of the black ships at the time, but now we’re glad we opened the country, so it’s all good.”

What a beautiful spirit, to look past past offenses and say, Yes, but I’m better for having met you.

Looking back on my time in Japan and how it has shaped who I am today, I feel I can wholeheartedly say the same:  I’m better for having met you.

 

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Thank you, Your Majesty

When I think of the boundless mercy of the emperor,
I feel I should give all of myself.
His mercy is deeper than the sea and higher than the mountains.
How sad, I cannot repay my debt to him.

This is an excerpt from a poem enclosed in a letter to General MacArthur during the Occupation, as quoted in the book Dear General MacArthur:  Letters from the Japanese during the American Occupation by Sodei Rinjiro.  It was one of many letters from the Japanese people pleading for the Emperor not to be tried as a war criminal.  Some even wrote letters in blood, offering their lives in exchange for the emperor’s immunity.

The intense devotion of wartime Japanese to their Emperor–who was worshiped as a god–is well-known.  What struck me about the letters, though, was what sort of god the Emperor was supposed to be.  The Japanese seem to characterize the Emperor precisely as God as he is known to Christians.  “His mercy is deeper than the sea and higher than the mountains”?  The author could easily have been quoting a Psalm.

I find it interesting that the Japanese have a sense of gratitude to a benevolent father figure.  But of course, they aren’t just thankful to the Emperor.  I once had a heck of a time trying to teach an elementary school English class on the topic of “Thanksgiving.”  The kids were thankful TO their houses, not FOR them–that’s pantheism for you.

Still, that may bring them closer to the Christian spirit than someone who doesn’t feel grateful at all, who thinks the world is “out to get them,” or at the very least owes them something, as we so often see in America these days.

The Japanese have reminded me that we can’t be too grateful for the simple blessings of each day.  There is a sense of contentedness with what Providence has bestowed, even perhaps a pride in having just the things that were specially meant for oneself, instead of grasping for more.

Moreover, the Japanese take real delight in the smallest things.  Recently I had the honor of attending a talk by Gil Garcetti about his new book of photographs, Japan:  A Reverence for Beauty.  My favorite was a photograph he took of an elderly woman with a radiant smile holding a leaf.  He recounted how he had spotted this woman strolling along a path, bending down to pick up a leaf and hold it up to the sun to admire its beauty.

Where else other than Japan, he argued, could you observe someone take such delight in something so ordinary?  In fact, I have been inspired by more than one elderly Japanese woman just like the one Mr. Garcetti described, who seem to find such bliss in the things that the rest of us take for granted.

I think the experience of living among people with this sense of gratitude is one of the real treasures I brought home with me from Japan.

 

 

Japan’s ‘Christian century’ failed to blossom | The Japan Times

Recently The Japan Times ran an article on the topic of Japan’s failure to convert to Christianity.

“What are the Christian themes?” the article begins.  “Love.  Forgiveness.  Meekness.  Turn the other cheek.  The kingdom of heaven.”  It goes on to summarize some of the historical topics you can find on this blog:  St. Francis Xavier’s appreciation of the Japanese; the Keicho Mission; the Hidden Christians.

The article then proposes that the reason for Japan’s rejection of Christianity can be found in Endo Shusaku’s fictionalized account of the Keicho Mission, The Samurai.  Endo’s view of Catholicism, as suggested by the excerpts from the novel printed in the article, sound for all the world as if he had put down the Gospel in disgust after the Crucifixion and never read so far as the Resurrection.  He seems to think that not only do the Japanese not believe in the supernatural, but are incapable of believing in it.  Furthermore, he seems to suggest that Rome might share this view and have given up on Japan as hopeless.  I’ve written about my encounters with a similar attitude in Japan, that of “We can’t know that.”

According to Endo, where the Christians and Japanese differ is that Christianity proposes eternity as the solution to evanescence (talk about reductionism!), whereas the Japanese simply celebrate evanescence.  And the article ends there, suggesting that the Japanese decided they have no need for their twisted Gospel-minus-Resurrection view of Christianity, because they “already have cherry blossoms.”

“Love, forgiveness, turning the other cheek–one scans the native tradition in vain for examples,” says the article of Japan.  Well, hmm.  You don’t suppose there’s more to Christianity than cherry blossoms after all?

You can read the full Japan Times article here:

Christmas approaches. Christian or not, the mind turns to Christian themes. What are the Christian themes? Love. Forgiveness. Meekness. Turn the other chee

Source: Japan’s ‘Christian century’ failed to blossom | The Japan Times

General MacArthur’s Christian influence in Japan

In his book Soldier of God:  MacArthur’s Attempt to Christianize Japan, Ray A. Moore details General MacArthur’s plan to transform Japan into a democratic nation following World War II–and, as a necessary prerequisite in the General’s mind, into a Christian nation.  MacArthur perceived that there was a “spiritual vacuum” in Japan after its defeat, and he was eager to fill that vacuum with Christianity–especially before it got filled with something else, like Communism.  “Send me one thousand missionaries!” he commanded.

Needless to say, very few Japanese converted to Christianity.  However, MacArthur’s leadership did have a profound effect on the Japanese, as evidenced by the nearly half-million letters they wrote to him during the five-plus years he headed the Occupation.  Sodei Rinjiro collected a sampling of these letters into a fascinating book called Dear General MacArthur:  Letters from the Japanese during the American Occupation.

The forward to this book notes that to the Japanese, who during the war had suffered such devastation as the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bomb, slogans such as “Construct a nation of peace” and “Construct a democratic nation” were no mere lip service to their conquerors.  Many people were angry at their authoritarian rulers for leading them into such a destructive war that had ended in defeat, leaving many starving and homeless.

Enter MacArthur, who brought with him relief shipments of food and the return of family members who had been stranded overseas by the war.  The revered Emperor was permitted to retain his position rather than being tried for war crimes; at the same time, a new constitution was drafted guaranteeing human rights that the Japanese had never before enjoyed.  Even the American soldiers, who the Japanese had feared would come looting and raping, instead became famous for handing out candy to children!

The letters Japanese people wrote to General MacArthur during the Occupation are full of characteristic humility and gratitude for these benefits.  More than that, they seem to address the General almost as a father, confident in his benevolence and concern about their problems.  One passage from a letter, in particular, jumped out at me, because it seemed to me very nearly a Christian prayer.  It went like this:

Your Excellency!  Please take pity on Japan.  No, you have already forgiven Japan’s crimes and are being merciful.  Your Excellency!  I beg you to save pitiful Japan from the roots up.  No, there is no need to beseech you, you already intend to help Japan from the roots.  Your goodwill is evident in the directives you issue every day.  We Japanese people, who battled your country as our enemy until now, can find no words to express our gratitude for the compassionate guidance we are receiving today.  This is only possible because of the extraordinary generosity that is your national character.  It is embarrassing to say so, but I wonder what attitude Japan would have shown if the outcome of the war had been reversed.  The thought makes me shudder.  The Japanese are truly barbarians.  We must repent and reform ourselves.

Just replace “Japan” with “me,” and you’d have something fit to be read in church.

Perhaps General MacArthur didn’t succeed in bringing Christianity to Japan in the institutional sense.  But he did bring mercy, forgiveness and respect for human dignity–the heart of Christianity–and these the Japanese graciously accepted.

The Christian samurai

Today I learned that Japanese feudal lord Takayama Ukon (1552-1615), who had his lands confiscated and was exiled due to his Catholic faith, is set to become the first Japanese person to be individually beatified (that’s one step away from being declared a saint).

In fact, there was no small amount of interest in Christianity among feudal lords in Japan before 1614, when the shogun decided the religion was a threat, banned it, and sealed off the entire country to foreigners.  (Those Japanese Catholics who weren’t martyred or exiled were able to survive underground, practicing their faith in secret and passing it from generation to generation for over 200 years until the country was opened to the world again and they were reunited with the Church.)

One of the most fascinating stories from this period occurred straddling the 1614 divide.  Just a year before the shogun banned Christianity, feudal lord Date Masamune, who was also interested in the religion, sent one of his samurai, Hasekura Tsunenaga, on a mission to Rome to meet the Pope and request missionaries to be sent to his domain.  It was one of Japan’s first diplomatic missions to Europe.

Hasekura set sail on what would become a seven-year voyage in which he visited Mexico, Spain and Rome.  Along the way, he himself and many of the samurai in his 180-man crew converted to Catholicism.  They were granted an audience with Pope Paul V, and Hasekura hand-delivered a gilded letter from his lord.  However, during the time it had taken the mission to reach Rome, Christianity had been banned in Japan.

The Pope was forced to conclude that this was not a good time to send missionaries to Japan.  The mission tried to wait things out, but to no avail.  Some of the samurai chose to stay behind in Mexico and put down roots rather than face persecution back in Japan.  But Hasekura returned and converted his family and servants to Catholicism, for which several of them would be martyred.

To a Catholic, it’s easy to see the romance and adventure in this story.  Interestingly, Japanese retellings often fall flat, concluding that “after many difficult trials, Hasekura’s mission failed, and he was forgotten by history.”  Once, while discussing this episode with a coworker, I tried to explain to her that martyrdom is a heroic and happy ending, but I’m not sure she believed me.  At any rate, the Japanese have a different sense of what makes a story than the West, something I may write about in a future post.

For now, suffice to say that Catholicism has a surprising and colorful history in Japan.  I wonder if we will discover more saints here in the years to come.

The two keys to history, or, how I joined a cult

After taking that trip to Paris and tromping through Marie Antoinette’s estate (isn’t one of the wonderful perks of our age that commoners can tromp through the palaces of the world?) I was inspired to read Marie Antoinette:  The Journey by Antonia Fraser.  (If you haven’t yet read this excellent biography, I highly recommend it.)  When I did, there were two things that struck me:

1.  The world had a special something in Marie Antoinette’s age that it seemed to have lost since.

2.  No matter how far back in history one looks, women seemed to get the short end of the stick.

This seemed to provide a focus for a lot of the things that had been floating around in my mind up until that point.  It seemed to me that if I could come up with a theory that explained these two observations, I would have finally figured out what makes the world tick.

So I was mulling over these observations, trying to make sense of them, when I stumbled upon a book that seemed to address everything I was thinking about.  In fact, it was a book published by a New Age cult that claimed humanity’s golden age was in the prehistoric period, when society was ruled by women, who are naturally the more spiritual sex.  As time went on, the book argued, the world shifted from an emphasis on the spiritual to an emphasis on the material, and at the same time from matriarchy to patriarchy, and nothing has been right since.

It should be noted that at the time I read this book, I had just moved from Japan to America for a man who did not actually want to get married after all, and was perhaps feeling less than charitable towards men in general.

The book’s theory was outlandish, but it did seem to neatly fit my two observations, and besides, I was already thinking that I wanted to return to religion.  So, in a dazzling display of superior intelligence and judgment, I shrugged, said, “seems legit,” and joined the cult.

Needless to say, the more I studied the cult’s beliefs, the less they seemed to align with reality.  Eventually I would become very uncomfortable with it, and when I finally read in a New Age book about the importance of revealed religion (after all, if we want to know God, shouldn’t we listen to what He has to say about Himself?) I knew I couldn’t stay.  I just didn’t believe it was true anymore.

But I still wasn’t aware of any other feasible explanation for my two observations.  Until I started reading Catholic books, and realized:

1.  The Catholic Church was a huge influence in European culture in Marie Antoinette’s time, and not so much now.

2.  Women may arguably suffer more than men, but suffering can have redemptive value when united with Christ’s suffering on the cross.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, indeed.

Japan, the time machine

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the interesting things about living in a traditional Japanese village was the sensation of having traveled back in time–and to multiple time periods, at that.  I taught in classrooms heated by coal-burning or electric stoves and received my teaching schedules by fax from the Board of Education.

Sometimes, though, I felt as if I were seeing not Japan’s past, but America’s.  You see, there is a dichotomy in Japan between things Japanese and things Western.  A traditional Japanese kitchen with a cooking pot hanging over a fire pit at its center is called a daidokoro.  A Western-style kitchen is called a kichin.  A traditional Japanese dance is called an odori, while a Western-style dance is called a dansu.  When I carelessly mixed these up, I was corrected.  They were not variants of the same thing–they were different things.

Slowly I began taking notice of which things around me were Western.  The quaint old-fashioned school buildings did not have tiled roofs and tatami mat floors–they were actually built in an old Western style of architecture, and for that matter, the students’ uniforms were Western-style as well.  I remember visiting a music box museum in Kyoto that displayed gorgeous, elaborate European music boxes from the 1800s.  The curators wore white gloves and turned the golden keys of the music boxes with a gentle reverence that seemed to belong to another world.

At some point I asked myself the question, “How much of what I like about Japan is uniquely Japanese, and how much of it is the history of my own culture being reflected back at me?”

I’m not sure I would have fallen in love with Japan as it was before any Western influence whatsoever.  If the many-layered kimono and courtly poetry exchanges of the Heian period are attractive to me, there is also much about the strange rituals and dark, wandering stories of that time that I find alien and unsettling.  But modern Japan does seem to have a special something that I don’t see in modern America, and strangely, at least part of that would seem to be due to the pieces of Western history preserved here.