My History with Japan

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My heart is deeply connected to Japan. It’s not that I am a keen ‘Manga’ person, entranced by the sub-culture of ‘Anime’ that exists in Japan. Nor am I only besotted with the thought of the East meeting the West in one big melting pot of cultures colliding. I don’t have any Kanji (Chinese characters) tattooed on my body. I’m not a culinary artist convinced that Japanese cuisine is food in its purest form. I am not any of these things, and yet Japan is encased warmly within my heart.

An Education Begins

When we moved house from the city to the country when I was 10, I found myself in a class studying Japanese. Everyone else could read and write Hiragana and Katakana, but I knew nothing. And I didn’t like it. So I got some flash cards and as a 10 year old I taught myself the two alphabets one weekend. This was the first place that Japan started becoming a part of my life – an elementary introduction to Japanese.

In High School I continued studying Japanese. We had some less than brilliant teachers, until Year 9 when we not only had a great Australian teacher, but also had the first of a stream of Japanese assistant teachers, who were in fact, Japanese. I had actually now met a Japanese person! Or two or three. As I continued studying, my interest in Japan grew. I did well in school, despite probably not being able to have much of a conversation in Japanese. There were numerous opportunities to travel to Japan during my teen years, but I was never able to go myself.

As I graduated and began studying Podiatry at University, the opportunity to continue studying Japanese passed. I was unable to fit Japanese classes into an already hectic study schedule. This didn’t sit well but it seemed to be just the way things were.

At University, partly due to my involvement in the Christian Union, I began to have a significant interest in Missions. I wondered if this was something I could do in the future. God continued to impress upon me the need for the gospel to be proclaimed amongst the many hundreds of thousands of people groups who are yet to know Him.

After my first year of Uni my heart was not in Podiatry. Neither was my head – my brain struggled with the scientific and mathematic side of things, which was not a surprise to me at all. And so I followed my heart (and my head) and began my Arts Degree, hoping to major in Japanese. So my study of Japanese continued, but it was off to a difficult start. Despite having taken a year off from Japanese and being incredibly rusty, I had no choice but to be placed in the advanced class and I struggled my way through that first year. But I made it and was hopeful of making Japanese my major. Until I learned that you needed a certain grade to continue, and I hadn’t made it. I was unaware of this during the year, and was quite devastated when I realised my plan was not going to work! As much begging and pleading as I did, the Faculty would not be persuaded. And so it seemed that despite having lodged itself firmly in my heart, I was unable to pursue my interest in Japan and Japanese through my studies.

Although my studies had ceased in a formal way, God definitely knew what I needed to keep my interest going – people. He brought a few Japanese friends into my life and my heart was slowly, almost imperceptibly being changed. Ayako, Kazumi and Wakako have a lot to answer for! Their kindness ,fun and generosity of spirit gave me a glimpse into some of the positive aspects of the heart of Japan. And as this love for a people grew (rather than a language or idealised culture), my heart for Jesus and for seeing his Word proclaimed grew as well. But strangely enough it took me a while to join the dots – until I was faced with the decision of what to do when Uni finished. Having studied an interesting yet perhaps directionless Bachelor of Arts I had some thinking to do. And my thinking wasn’t working – I still had no thought as to what to do. So when the opportunity arose to combine my love for Jesus and my love for Japan, I accepted it with wide open arms.

An Adventure Begins

I moved to Japan for a commitment of two years only about six weeks after finishing University. I had an opportunity to work for a small Mission organisation in Japan, teaching English in various churches each week. The time had come when I was finally able to taste and see what Japan had to offer and was really about. And while I most definitely had my struggles (“What am I doing here?” thoughts about 2 hours after getting off the plane for example) it was an overwhelmingly positive time. I took to Japan like a duck taking to water. Occasionally I may have felt like I was swimming in circles and stuck in a dirty, algae covered pond, but mostly the swimming was good and the water was clear.

I only had two major episodes of culture shock. One is probably a normal experience: Picture me in a meeting with only Japanese people, trying to plan some ideas to move forward with our organisation. We’re sitting in a circle and after about an hour of quiet time to think, pray and prepare, we begin to share. I’m the last to share. As we go around the circle I begin to think that perhaps I got something wrong  – that something must definitely have been lost in translation. Everyone else had made fairly vague suggestions of what might possibly be an OK idea (their wordings), whereas I had a list of actions to plan from here on – very concrete, direct thoughts. It was at this meeting that the full strength and impact of Japan as a communal society became obvious, and where my inclinations for individualism came to the fore. I hadn’t misunderstood the language, I had misread the cultural situation. I had not waited to “feel the air”, as some Japanese have expressed this to be. I was confident in my suggestions, and was not considering if I would cause someone to lose face by having to disagree with me. I had a lot to learn! Actually, I still have quite a long way to go!

The other episode of culture shock may have just been plain old shock – I’m not sure. I had been invited to spend two days with one of my students. She was an older married lady who had no children and lived in the countryside. She and her husband had such kind hearts, and were so generous to me. But I struggled through the whole time. Culture shock is indiscriminating like that – it appears out of nowhere and sticks to you whether you like it or not. It began pretty much as soon as I arrived. A couple of other ladies from my class and I arrived together. I had not brought a gift. That was a big cultural faux pas right from the get go. And this was followed by dogs. Yes, dogs. The shock was great. Her front room, where I was staying, was full of dog memorabilia. Statues, figurines, soft toys, photos, pictures – whatever you can think of, she had it. It was, to say the least, overwhelming. And then there were the real dogs! She had two miniature poodles that were like her children. They ate at the low table with us, barked nonstop the whole time, and they kind of smelt too. But I guess they why is not so important – either way the culture shock was terrible. I wanted to be gracious and thankful to all they were doing for me, but this nasty thing clinging onto me made it a real struggle.

Anyway! Other than that, I had a pretty easy cultural transition. There were moments of loneliness, frustration and struggle, but those things can happen anywhere. God used the two years that I was away to grow deeply within me a love and a passion for Japan and the Japanese people. So much so that I really wanted to stay and not come back after my two years there. But some wise friends from my church at the time encouraged me to come back, get some perspective and perhaps prepare a little more if I wanted to stay longer. I somewhat reluctantly took their advice, knowing that it was the right thing to do. I had a plan to do a year of study at Bible College, and then head back to Japan as soon as possible after that. And while I did do my one year of study, and still intend to go back as soon as possible, it was five years ago that I returned. So sometimes plans can look differently to what we expect, while still being faithful to the Lord.

I will stop there for now, with another post in about a month continuing from when I got back to Australia, to my (current) plans for the future. Thank you for reading a part of my story, a journey into Mission and a record of the way that God has been working in this particular way in my life.



2 thoughts on “My History with Japan

  1. I enjoy reading your blog Mel 🙂 made me nostalgic for uni days when we were in the annexe together with Kazumi. do I really have to wait a month for the next chapter? Xx

    • Hi Miranda! I’m so encouraged that you read my blog 🙂 How are you going? Adjusting to being a mummy? It’s a big change, but wonderful too. Those were the days, hey? I was actually thinking of doing them sooner than in a month, so maybe you won’t have to wait so long after all hehe xx

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