Why did you doubt?

About thirteen years ago, I was halfway through undergrad and the question of what to do with my life was becoming more pressing.  I was dry of inspiration and getting frustrated.  Then one day I was sitting in my mother’s car, reading an issue of Newtype magazine (yes, I was a total anime geek) when my eyes fell on an ad that said “Translators Wanted.”  And I had an epiphany:  I wanted to be a translator.

So I signed up for Japanese 101.  That’s right, I decided I wanted to be a translator before I spoke any Japanese.  I was fearless back then.

As it turned out, in that class I would meet a friend who aspired to join the JET Program.  “If you want to be a translator,” she told me, “you can’t just study Japanese in school.  You really have to live in Japan and be immersed in the language.  Why don’t you apply for the JET Program, too?”

It had literally not occurred to me that I might need to live in Japan to get my language skills up to snuff, but now that she mentioned it, it made sense.  “Okay, good idea,” I said.

A few years later, with four semesters of Japanese classes under my belt, I arrived in Japan with a vague plan to get really good at Japanese so I could be a translator.  There I happened to meet another friend.  “If you want to get really good at Japanese,” he said, “you should study for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.  That’s what a lot of people here do.”

Again, it had never occurred to me that I might want to formally measure my language ability, but now that he mentioned it, it didn’t seem like a bad idea.  “Cool, how do I sign up?” I said.

Back then the test was only held once a year, and I pretty much already knew enough Japanese to tackle Level 3 that December.  How I might go about studying for the subsequent levels hadn’t really crossed my mind until another new friend mentioned that she was getting a Japanese tutor.  “You should sign up for lessons, too,” she said.

So I did, and in the two years that followed, I would pass Level 2 and Level 1, respectively.  At this point I had spent five years studying Japanese–three of them in Japan–all without putting an ounce of thought into any kind of plan, or worrying about what would happen if things didn’t work out.

Then I moved back to America, and things got real.  I couldn’t find any job openings for translators, and actually, for all of my success in studying the language, I realized I had trouble following conversations at native speed–and there were still a lot of kanji I didn’t know.  I started to doubt whether I was on the right path, after all.  I fiddled around with other things.  I went to grad school.

But when the opportunity to go back to Japan presented itself, I jumped on it.  This time, finally, I was able to do translation work, although the specter of all the Japanese I didn’t know still loomed over me.  For once I wasn’t running into any helpful friends who were handing me my next step on a silver platter.

Then a lot of things happened at once.  My mother passed away, and I returned to the Catholic Church.  I learned there was a thing called “discernment,” and I tried praying about my path in life.  I got the feeling it would be a good idea to move back to America, but I had absolutely no idea what to do after that.  I was actually a bit angry about that fact, but the Bible furnished examples of times when God said to people, “Go to this city and wait for further instructions,” so apparently that was a thing.

I moved back, and was actually surprised at the ease with which I found a Japan-related job.  But I was at another impasse.  Where was this all leading?  I wasn’t getting any younger.

Then, the other day, I met with my spiritual director, and after greeting me, he immediately asked, “So what are you doing with your Japanese?  Are you keeping up with that?”  It’s not like my spiritual director to be very forceful about things.  I got the feeling he and God had been talking about this.  Listening to myself answer his questions (“Well, I might be more inclined to study if I had a clear goal . . . I’m not really sure if I’m going to keep up this connection with Japan or not . . .”) I realized he’d hit the nail on the head.  I’d been running away from my Japanese studies.  As if to add an anvil to a piano, that night, my Gospel meditation was on the Parable of the Talents.

And so, here I am, ready to tackle Japanese one more time.  I don’t know where this will lead, or even what the next step is, but that’s okay.  God has a plan.



Anatomy of a Japanese barbecue

Recently I had the chance to work at a Japanese barbecue.  I’ve been to plenty such cookouts before, but this time it struck me afresh just how unique they are–spiritual, even.  And I knew I had to sort out these impressions and write them down, because as strange as it sounds, the Japanese barbecue was surely part of my journey from atheism to the Catholic Church.

So here’s what I feel is unique about them:

  1.  Emphasis on the team.  First of all, when you have a Japanese barbecue, you do it en masse.  In this case, it was my employer putting on the BBQ, so dozens of my coworkers and I left the office and donned matching happi (traditional jackets).  Papers were distributed in advance dividing us into teams and each person was given a specific job to do.  Every procedure, from washing our hands at the outset to carrying the empty pans back to the kitchen at the end, was carefully choreographed.  I find that there is a lot of satisfaction in working this way–it seems to make honoring the dignity of the human person and of work as much of a goal as eating delicious grilled squid.
  2. A Japanese barbecue is lo-tech.  The men fetched bags of charcoal and poured them into a metal trough, then covered it with a metal grate.  Voila–the grill.  They then carried large styrofoam crates of fresh whole fish and squid from the kitchen, presumably just the way they were received from the fish market that morning.  Everything is reduced to its bare essentials–one could feel that it was the effort of our team that converted a grassy spot into civilization–which I find gives a satisfying feeling of connection to the earth, your team, and existence itself.  You haven’t felt the soul of a grill until you’ve seen one assembled from the minimal required elements.
  3. A Japanese barbecue is gendered.  We were given no particular directions regarding the happi, but most of the women chose red and most of the men chose blue–the traditional colors for the genders.  The men were directed to carry the heavy items out into the yard, and my very gracious partner offered to do any tasks that involved running up and down a hill.  My manager saw to it that I wouldn’t be assigned to the grill, lest I burn my hands.  And it was a delight to watch the women slicing the grilled squid respectfully flatter the men on their grilling skills (it seemed to me the men’s hearts were singing at the opportunity to grill!).  Some people’s worst nightmare, perhaps, but I find that approaching gender with such reverence is like water to my parched soul.

There are other aspects of the Japanese barbecue that I struggle to describe–one would be the childlike “scripted comments” that give many Japanese gatherings their uniquely innocent character–but perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

For now, I think I can conclude that, once again, it is the Japanese art of listening–to what a human being is, to what a team is, to what work, a man, a woman, a grill, and a fish are–it is their sensitivity to and reverence for the essences of these things that makes a Japanese barbecue such a satisfying and spiritual experience.

And I think that learning to listen to these things was one of the experiences that gently led me out of atheism.

Thank you, Japan!

Japanese and Catholic: Not an oxymoron

If you were to ask me what the single biggest barrier is for Japanese people converting to Christianity, I would say, “It’s perceived as un-Japanese.”

In Japan, where nationality and religion are intimately intertwined, to be un-Japanese is basically heresy, in the sense of that word when it actually carried weight in Western culture.  I mean it gets you “excommunicated” from Japanese society.

The Catholic Church, of course, is universal:  bound to no single nationality or culture.  It is capable of absorbing and re-purposing pagan festivals, for example, and there is flexibility in terms of language, aesthetics, and spiritual styles.  Just look at the differences between the Eastern and Western Catholic churches.  While they believe precisely the same things, their ways of expressing those things are quite different.

So from the Church’s point of view, should the Japanese ever have a collective change of heart and convert to Catholicism en masse, it would not be the death of Japanese culture.  For starters, there are already icons of the Madonna and Child in kimono.

But what would Japanese culture look like if the whole of it were brought in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church?  Would the Japanese even recognize it as their own?

Recently, I got a glimpse of the answer to that question when I read the book A Song for Nagasaki by Fr. Paul Glynn.  This evocative masterpiece tells the life story of Takashi Nagai, a Japanese radiologist and cancer patient who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and went on to inspire the country and the world with his books that found joy, hope and meaning amidst terrific suffering.  Nagai had a fierce love for things Japanese and often expressed himself in beautiful tanka and haiku poems.

Oh yeah, and he was also a devout Catholic.

Reading the book, I experienced no jarring sense of discord.  Nagai was a seeker of truth and beauty, and he found those things in both traditional Japanese culture and in the Catholic Church.  Not in a syncretic hodge-podge kind of a way, but in a surprisingly natural way.  The beautiful virtues of the Japanese fit with the teachings of the Church like two halves of a locket.  Buddhist mantras were adapted simply by inserting the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in place of Buddha.  And there is certainly no commandment against traditional Japanese practices such as composing a poem on one’s death bed.

At once lyrical and profound, I found that Dr. Nagai’s synthesis of Japanese culture and Catholic teaching fulfilled a longing within me that perhaps I didn’t even realize I had.  I can’t help but wonder if there are others out there who would feel the same way.


Going to church in Japan

So far I’ve written a lot about non-Catholic Japanese people, but not much about the actual Church in Japan.  Yes, there is one, and of course, in all the essential points, it’s the same as the Church anywhere else in the world (it’s pretty cool that I can call my sister in America and discuss the readings we both heard at Mass!)

But there are some differences, too.  Of course I can only speak for my local church, so I don’t know if these are true everywhere, but here are some of the differences I’ve noticed between church in Japan and America:

1.  Japanese

The church is considerate and provides English notes for foreigners, but listening to the Japanese can be interesting, too.  For example, did you know that in the Japanese translation of the Bible, the apostles call Our Lord Sensei (the same title used for physicians, professors and martial-arts masters)?  Every so often there will be a passage in the Bible that just clicks in a Japanese socio-linguistic context in a way that it doesn’t in English, and I find myself thinking, “Oh, is that what that was about!”

2.  Singing

Just about any part of the Mass that can be sung or chanted, is!  We sing the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Responsorial Psalm, the Alleluia, the General Intercessions, the Sanctus, the Memorial Acclamation, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Agnus Dei to the accompaniment of the organ.  Personally, I really like this–I find it easier to understand the emotion and meaning of each of these prayers than if we just spoke them.

3.  Adult baptisms

Since so few Japanese people are baptized at birth, we have 10-20 adult baptisms every Easter.  It’s always touching to witness!

4.  Chapel veils

Speaking of adult baptisms, women receive a white chapel veil when they’re baptized here, and many women wear them to Mass every week.  Feminine gracefulness and submission are still a thing in Japan, and no matter what the West thinks, I find it inspiring!

5.  Bowing

Since bowing is widely used as a sign of respect in Japanese culture anyway, it fits naturally into the Mass.  Our church actually doesn’t have kneelers–we stand and bow for the consecration (I think this may be the practice in some places in America, too).

6.  International community

Expats from dozens of countries attend our church (and we have priests from quite a few countries, too!).  Once a month there’s an English Mass in the adoration chapel.  We’re a real international patchwork, and no one can ever seem to remember the correct responses in English or the tunes to the guitar songs, but there’s a unique sense of community when about 50 people from around the world crowd into the pews and enjoy the rare treat of hearing an English homily.  Showing up early means getting asked to proclaim one of the readings, and after Mass the priest always asks anyone who’s attending for the first time to come to the front and introduce themselves.  Once he even invited us out to Starbucks!

7.  Hanging out at church

Since so many people walk to church, and there’s a courtyard in front of the church building, there’s naturally a lot of hanging out and talking after Mass.  Sometimes, when there’s a special event, the church will set up tables with sandwiches and drinks in the courtyard.  Even if you drop by the adoration chapel at night (it’s always open!) you’re likely to run into someone you know who stopped by to pray before the statue of Our Blessed Mother or is waiting to talk to a priest.  It’s really a community gathering place.

8.  A Japanese outlook

I think the Japanese naturally gravitate toward the gentler aspects of our faith.  You rarely hear talk of controversial topics here–there’s a big emphasis on peace.  (Recently I asked one of my coworkers what she thought the most important Japanese value was, and she answered “peace.”)  Every week, without fail, we pray for the victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake in the General Intercessions.

That’s all I have for now, but feel free to leave a comment and tell me what church is like in your country!