Trusting Providence

An interesting thing happened as I was writing my previous post.  I realized that some of the feelings of goodness that I associate with Japan may be due to the fact that, throughout my early relationship with Japan, I was, without realizing it, trusting Providence to get me where I needed to go in life.  Since Japan seems to have a role to play in my vocation, naturally, pursuing Japanese studies gives me feelings of consolation.

But I think there’s something more to it, something that interacts with the first part in a cute way.  The Japanese, I think, are also good at trusting Providence.  They’re good at saying, “I don’t know where this is going, but it seems like for now I should be doing this.”  I actually have a postcard I picked up from a bunkasai in Japan that says nan to ka sureba, nan to ka naru–“try something, and it’ll work out somehow.”

In fact, I think this sense of trust in Providence was something I began to pick up from the Japanese before I ever went to Japan, back in my anime-watching days.  In a clever twist of, well, Providence, Japanese culture inspired me to trust in Providence, which led me to move to Japan to pursue my vocation, and living in Japan led me to believe in God, the One who provides.

So how about the Japanese, then?  How did they get so good at trusting Providence without even believing in God?

I can think of a few theories.  One is that, as I’ve written before, the Japanese are good at listening to reality.  The fact is that, if you throw away all your preconceived philosophy and listen to reality carefully, you will discern a benevolent hand in your life.  That’s exactly the experience I had as an atheist that led me to religion.

My second theory is that the Japanese penchant for creating eminently logical (and emotionally satisfying) systems with no room for exceptions gives them, from an early age, a sense of security that translates well into a later belief that “everything will be taken care of.”

My third theory is that the Japanese have a collective sense of destiny, perhaps based on the legends of the kojiki, which gives them a sense that things are headed in a good and purposeful direction.

Finally, I think that the humility of the Japanese may also allow them to be comfortable with not knowing how something will turn out, and their culturally-reinforced fortitude encourages them to keep trying hard regardless.  Moreover, as the plague of cynicism appears to be less advanced in Japan in general, the Japanese may retain more of the natural trust in Providence that any sensible person would normally have.

Whatever the reason for it, trust in Providence is a beautiful gift, and one that I have to thank the Japanese for.


The religion question

I’ll never forget the time I was sitting around the lunch table with my Japanese coworkers and someone asked me about my religion.

At the time, I subscribed to a New Age religion.  Nervously, I told them its name.

The reply?  “I’ve never heard of that before.  Where is it from, Europe?”

My religion wasn’t “from Europe” or anywhere else, really.  It wasn’t anybody’s tradition; it was a modern invention.  As I struggled to answer, I felt the dissonance between our worldviews.  To my Japanese coworkers, religion was as matter-of-fact as nationality.  Having a personal, pet explanation of how the world works, some kind of “ism” that one subscribes to, might be considered enlightened and fashionable in the modern West, but in Japan it makes you sound like you’ve given up on reality and gone off to live in la-la land.

Which, to be honest, I had.

I realized, in that moment, that my religion was something fragile that needed protection inside an accepting mind.  When it was exposed to the harsh light of reality, it was exposed as disconnected from that reality.

And I felt that the next time I was asked about my religion in a Japanese office, I wanted to give a different answer.

It was an opportunity I would be granted.

Some time later, my organization rented out the second floor of an Italian restaurant for the welcome party for our new coworkers.  As was the practice, we drew numbers to see where we’d be sitting.  My tablemates turned out to be my boss’ boss and his boss, two men each old enough to be my father.  They belonged to a  strict and serious generation with impeccable posture.

Just when it looked like things were about to get horribly awkward–they didn’t.  Both men turned out to be humble and fascinating, and we were soon deep in a conversation about Buddhism.  Then my boss’ boss turned to me and asked, “But you’re a Christian, aren’t you?”

I was still a New Ager.  But I knew what he meant.  I was your average white American.  It was safe to say that my family had Christian roots.  In the context of a conversation with a Japanese man of his age, the correct answer to this question was yes.  It wasn’t about my personal opinions.  It was about where Providence had placed me.

Then it struck me.  Looking into the grave but kind face of this man old enough to be my father, I got the feeling he wasn’t the one asking me the question.

I got the feeling things were about to get crazy.

“Yes,” I said.



Shin Godzilla: A question of approach

Today I went to see the movie Shin Godzilla.  It’s actually the first Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen, and was more thought-provoking than I expected.  Specifically, I think the movie is a nuanced critique of Japanese and Western decision-making processes.

The first part of the movie is a scathing–and hilarious–commentary on the frustrating ineffectuality of Japanese bureaucracy.  Godzilla wreaks destruction on the capital while the government squabbles over which department’s jurisdiction the monster falls under.  Entire neighborhoods are flattened while higher-ups bemoan their names being tied to the whole affair.  And of course, all decisions have to be approved by the Prime Minister via a maddeningly long chain of subordinates.  As someone who’s worked for the Japanese government, I’ll say . . . it was funny because it was familiar.

The hero is a young bureaucrat who’s frustrated with the system.  He warns his colleagues that wishful thinking policies are what lost the last war for Japan, and they need to stay rooted in reality.  He longs for a more results-oriented approach–something that’s generally seen as more Western.

But the movie doesn’t blindly sympathize with the West, as we see when, inevitably, the rest of the world gets involved in the Godzilla situation.  When the UN decides that it must drop an atomic bomb on Tokyo in order to defeat the monster, the characters struggle for the space to come up with a less destructive solution, complaining, “What do they care if a bunch of people in Asia lose their homes?”  Contrast this to the scene earlier in the movie when the Prime Minister calls off the first attack on Godzilla when it might endanger the safety of even one or two citizens.  One can see both the Japanese stereotype that foreigners tend to overuse the brute-force approach, and the strength of belief in the benevolence of the Japanese government toward its citizens.

What’s very foreign to the Western mind are the glimpses we get of Japan’s nature-worship when characters muse that perhaps Godzilla is a kami (roughly, god) and ought to be left alone, and again when the hero states that “humans and Godzilla will have to learn to coexist.”

But this is, in the end, an American-style action movie, and just when I was bracing myself for some contrived scene in which the (Japanese) hero gets the (American) girl, I was surprised when instead, she says that maybe he will become Prime Minister around the same time she becomes President, and he remarks in disgust that that would make him her puppet.

Well, wow.  At least we know how you feel now, Japan.

If beauty makes you sad, what makes you happy?

A Japanese coworker once told me that he wasn’t happy.  He didn’t want more money or a better position.  He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.

“You need a vacation,” I told him.  It was an objective fact–I’d never actually witnessed the man leave the office.

Knowing that he liked camping, I added, “Why don’t you go camping and think about the meaning of life or something?”

“No, then I would get depressed,” he said.

That broke my heart.  I’d always thought of spending time relaxing in nature as an uplifting and spiritual pursuit.

Then I remembered a T.V. show I’d caught a snippet of once in a Japanese dentist’s office.  On this show, a group visited different tourist attractions and restaurants in Japan, and gave a witty running commentary.  One joke, in particular, made an impression on me.

After a particular experience that everyone was raving about, one man quipped mournfully, “But this will fade into oblivion too someday!”  I felt it was a particularly revealing joke, as the sincere emotion that he was making fun of was that Japanese wistfulness at the transience of things.

And I wondered if sometimes Japanese people look at beautiful things and feel sad.

Fast-forward to today, when I visited a particularly beautiful garden.  It was one of those gardens that somehow feels like a map of the heart.  It felt like a place I’d longed for–remembered or dreamed about long ago–and I couldn’t believe it was real.  It occurred to me that maybe such a place is a spiritual symbol for Heaven.

Then my mind wandered back to that coworker, and I wondered if it would do him good to spend some time in such a garden.

Or would it make him sad?

There, there, child

I had an interesting conversation with my sister today about a certain politician.

“I agree that he says things that are unacceptable,” I said.  “But I don’t want to attack him personally.  I just think of what the Japanese would do.”

“What would the Japanese do?” she asked.

“Well, in Japan, when someone says something that demonstrates emotional immaturity, people don’t attack that person.  They treat him like a child.  I mean, like a child that they love.  They just say, ‘Okay, this is the level of emotional maturity that this person is at.  Let’s help him get to the next level.'”

In fact, the Japanese will often indulge a person who is demonstrating emotional immaturity by agreeing with them, giving them what they want, or at least sympathizing with them.  This can have the effect of embarrassing the person into acting their age when they realize they’re being condescended to.

Of course, sometimes the only result is a pampered adult.  Ultimately, change has to come from within; the most other people can do is encourage it.

But in the end, I don’t think the Japanese would vote for someone they viewed as childish.

In my opinion, it’s actually a brilliant system that combines compassion with prudence.  Help the child grow, but leave adult society to the adults.

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

The known and the unknowable

The first time I picked up the Japanese Catechism, I was struck by the way the first chapter title had been translated.  In Japanese, it said, 人間は神を「知ることができる」, or, to translate directly back into English, “Humans can ‘know God.'”  It was a punchy title, but seeing the idea expressed so simply, I found myself wondering why, of all the things the Catechism could have started with, it started with this.  I mean, it almost seemed kind of obvious.

Some time later, I was sitting at my desk at work when out of the blue, a coworker blurted out to me, “You’re lucky.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you believe in Heaven,” she told me.

“Okay,” I said, not really seeing what luck had to do with that.  I mean, anyone can believe in Heaven, right?

She explained that she had been thinking about whether she would ever see her parents again after they passed away.  She thought it would be nice if she could see them again in Heaven.

“So do you think Heaven exists?” I asked.

“I don’t think we can know that,” she said, sounding confident in her resignation.  It was heartbreaking to me to see her striving for hope in her heart while embracing defeat in her mind.

Another time I was riding in a car with a Japanese friend, who proudly showed me the sonograms of her first grandchild.  After we exclaimed how cute they were, she said, “You know, I don’t believe in God, but when I see my granddaughter, I feel like I want to thank Him anyway.”

I suppose the next logical question would have been, “So why don’t you believe in God, then?”  (I mean, it’s kind of bizarre to be thankful to someone who doesn’t exist, right?)  But I got the feeling, from the way she said it, that it was one of those things.  One of those, “We can’t know that” things.

The Japanese have a penchant for logical thinking that can lead to some refreshingly sane practices.  But I think they may also have a tendency to confine themselves to the known.  In fact, I think part of the unique atmosphere of Japan is the cocoon-like sensation that there is no unknown.  From a population density that doesn’t allow for a whole lot of wilderness, to “set phrases” that allow you to have entire conversations on autopilot, to inflexible protocols at work, a whole lot of things here belong to the known.

But that may also make it tempting to conflate the unknown with the unknowable.

Perhaps to a Japanese person, “Humans can ‘know God'” isn’t obvious at all.  It might even be a revolutionary idea.