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 tricky business of forgiveness

Recently I saw the movie Unbroken.  This is the true story of Louis Zamperini, an American soldier who was shot out of the sky in WWII and survived on a raft in shark-infested waters for 47 days.  When he was finally discovered, it was by the Japanese, who took him to a POW camp.  There, he became the favorite victim of a sadistic officer called Bird, who took a special interest in torturing him until the end of the war.  The movie ends there, but I’m told that the book goes on to describe Mr. Zamperini’s struggles with PTSD after the war, and finally, his conversion to Christ.  He would eventually return to Japan to meet and forgive his captors.

As a matter of fact, one hears WWII reconciliation stories between Americans and Japanese fairly frequently (at least in my line of work).  It appears there’s been a great deal of healing and forgiveness on both sides, which is a beautiful thing.

But let’s be honest–forgiving someone who’s intentionally hurt you is not easy.  Even watching the movie, I found that Bird reminded me strongly of someone I know, and I began to feel angry and hateful until I reminded myself that, like Mr. Zamperini, I needed to forgive.

It’s a blurry line, sometimes, between forgiving and enabling, one that I’ve struggled to clarify since returning to the Church.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to acknowledge one’s pain, sadness and anger at being mistreated.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be assertive in order to put an end to abuse.  I think where the trouble starts is when the bitterness and desire for revenge creep in.

Isn’t it the most maddening thing to picture one’s enemy laughing gleefully and getting away with everything in the end?  But as a Catholic, I’ve come to realize that’s impossible.  Everyone will face their sins eventually.  Either they will repent of them and be forgiven, or they will be punished for them.  There is no gleeful “getting away with it.”

When I think of my sins, how I regret them, and how overwhelmingly grateful I am to God for giving me a second chance,  I find that I would sincerely wish for that same forgiveness to be extended to my enemies should they come to repentance.  And I would much rather see my enemies repent and become the loving people God intended them to be, than to see them choose evil and suffer for it.

These are the things I want to remember as I strive to become a forgiving person.


In search of faith

When I returned to the Catholic Church at the age of 29, I had a burning question:  What does it mean to be Catholic?

Every day after work, I went straight home and consumed the spiritual classics (which, alas, sailed right over my head).  I obsessively checked to make sure I wasn’t breaking any commandments.  As a result, for a long time, I utterly failed to understand what Catholicism is all about.

In the end, I realized, Jesus told us plainly:  the two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor.  Catholicism is basically about love.

My next question was, how do I become a loving person?

Faith, hope, and love are the three quintessential Christian virtues.  And I’ve heard it argued that they go in that order:  faith in God’s goodness allows us to hope for good things in the future, and when we have hope for ourselves we then have positive energy to spare for loving others.

So that meant I had to start with faith.  And, as I would come to realize, accepting a creed on an intellectual level wasn’t enough.  I had to really live my life as if I trusted God completely that even when things looked like a total mess, they were going to work out somehow.

As it turns out, I am really, really bad at that.  I’ve met people who wouldn’t call themselves Christians at all who seem to do that better than me purely on instinct.  But I’ve come to believe the important thing isn’t to compare and nitpick and intellectualize things.  I just have to point myself in the right direction and keep walking.

I have a little angel on my desk now that says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”  Throughout the day, whenever it catches my eye, I recognize that frustration, impatience and cynicism have crept into my heart, and I remember to return to a place of patient trust and peace.

It almost feels as if, three years after returning to the Church, I’m finally taking the first step in becoming Catholic.

The Malawi of Japan

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a diplomatic couple who had come to America after a posting in Malawi.  I just had to hear about it.

“Once I went on a trip,” the husband began, “and when I came back, I saw my security guard holding some radishes.  I asked him where he got them from and he said, ‘your garden.’  I mean, it was kind of ironic that the security guard was stealing things.  But he was so straightforward about it, it was cute.  I couldn’t get mad at him.”

As he went on telling stories, like how his cook scrubbed every speck of the “dirty” teflon coating off of a pan, I could tell what affection he had for the people of Malawi; how he admired their innocent and childlike nature.

“So tell me about your time in Japan,” he countered.

So I told him all about my experiences living in the little fishing village–how the men would spear a wild boar in the mountains and make a cauldron of stew in front of the community center; how strangers would recognize me, the village’s only foreigner, on the streets, and offer me bags of homegrown tangerines; the grand folk dance at the summer festival.

His eyes widened.  “I had no idea there were places like that in Japan,” he said with wonder.  “It’s like the Malawi of Japan!

Now it would probably not occur to most people to compare one of the least-developed and one of the most-developed countries in the world, but I knew just the sense in which he was doing so.  I believe, from the stories we exchanged, that we experienced something of the same nature.  We had both been awestruck by the beauty of a pure soul.

And I wondered again, as I sometimes do, just how accurate it is to say that I fell in love with Japan.  I have been to places in Japan quite different from that fishing village, and my diplomat friend, apparently, had been to a place somewhat similar on another continent.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I fell in love with something I encountered in Japan–something that even now, as then, I am not sure I have a name for.



Nine months ago, I started this blog.  If it were a baby, it would be due.  And strangely enough, after wandering in the desert for 40 blog posts, I’m starting to feel ready to draw some conclusions from this project.

I started this blog with a question:  How did living in Japan turn me from an atheist into a Catholic?  I explored this question from different angles, pondering the virtues I witnessed in Japan and researching Japan’s religion, history, and relationship with Christianity.  I interviewed ordinary Japanese people and consulted with Catholic nuns.

And after all that, the conclusions I’m being led to are startlingly simple.  Japanese society is united by a “dream” of its origin and destiny, perhaps based on the Kojiki and never fully renounced, even after WWII.  In pursuit of this dream, the Japanese people choose to live virtuous lives.

And ultimately, it is the witness of a life lived with humility and love that changes people’s hearts.

At first, I simply felt a desire to assimilate into Japanese culture.  Strangely enough, it was the Japanese themselves who pointed me in the direction of Christianity.

This is where you come from, they told me.  This is where you belong.  Christendom is beautiful–we think it’s beautiful, too.  The spirit that inspired General MacArthur to have mercy on Japan was beautiful.  Why don’t you live it?


The weight of words

Once upon a time my Japanese manager said to me, “Print me out yesterday’s newspaper article about [a prominent politician] and Japan.”

Lamely, I googled it.

Eventually, through sheer dumb luck or divine intervention, I found a newspaper article dated the previous day in which [a prominent politician] said something about Japan.  Triumphantly, I laid it on my manager’s desk.

“Wrong newspaper,” he said.

So ESP is important when you work in a Japanese office.  But that’s not why I’m telling this story.

The point is that a politician, during a campaign, said something negative about Japan.  Now in America, when a politician says something negative and possibly untrue during a campaign, you can bet that either 1) Nobody cares; or 2) Someone will retaliate with an insult.  What doesn’t happen in America is what happened next in this case.

“What she said about Japan isn’t true,” my manager said.  “We’re going to contact her to correct her mistake.”

It seemed to me a touchingly naive response.

But the Japanese are very touchy about their image–and about other people’s, too.  In Japan, people go to great lengths to avoid saying anything negative about someone else, even when that person isn’t in the room.  Even when that person is someone they’ve never met.  Even when that person has obviously done something really wrong.

There’s a lot of beating-around-the-bush and looking-on-the-bright-side when it comes to talking about other people in Japan.  It’s almost comical, until you realize that it’s actually really nice.

So I imagine American politics carry a lot of culture shock for the Japanese.

After I returned to the Catholic Church, I read the Catechism and learned words like “calumny” and “detraction” and how it’s of grave importance that we tread lightly around the reputations of others.

Oh, I thought, it’s like that thing they do in Japan.

Silencing my inner two-year-old

I once translated a child-rearing guide from Japanese into English.  It was an interesting project–not only because I had to figure out an appropriate way to translate baby-talk, but also because the down-to-earth, loving advice it gave was so thought-provoking.

One page of that child-rearing guide that’s stuck with me was the advice on how to handle a two-year-old’s tantrums.  Apparently two-year-olds in any country don’t like to be told what to do.  The guide talked about giving the child time to calm the voice in his heart crying, “IYA!” (“I DON’T WANT TO!”)

When I read that, I realized I totally have a voice in my heart that cries “IYA!”

As a matter of fact, I’ve encountered it a lot since returning to the Church.  I’ve learned that there is my will, and then there is God’s will, and no, they’re not the same thing.  As they say, He doesn’t grant all our requests in the same way that parents don’t grant their kids’ requests to eat chocolate every day for breakfast.  In the end, God’s will is what will make me happy, although that can be hard to accept in the moment.  The challenge is getting past the “IYA!”

I’m still working on that, but observing the obedience of the Japanese led to a major breakthrough for me.  The way they would rush to obey orders with a military-crisp “Understood!” must’ve made something click inside me.  Perhaps I realized the beauty–the romance, even–of obedience.  To be obedient is to pledge oneself wholly to something greater than oneself.  It is to become a knight.

At any rate, I remember clearly when, after returning from Japan for the first time at the age of 25, my mother asked me to put away the dishes.  I was surprised at myself to find that the voice that cries “IYA!” was silent.