Japan Doesn’t Feel Like Home, but it Does Feel Like Family.

I`ve recently got back from two weeks in Japan. It`d been a full year since I`d come back to the UK and I was really interested to see what it would feel like being back there. After all, Japan is now a second home to me.

Except it didn`t feel like it.

I was hoping/expecting I`d experience a strong sense of tadaima when I arrived back. “Tadaima” being the set greeting for when you return home after a day at the office, etc. In English it`d translate as something like, “I`m back” or “I`m home.”

I had played with the idea of greeting the customs desk with “tadaima.” But coming through the airport I didn’t feel any sense of arriving home. I was, to be fair, quite tired at that point, arriving into Tokyo about midnight after a day and a half of travelling, so I wasn`t sensing much of anything beyond jet lag.

As I waited for the train from the airport I treated myself to a can of Royal Milk Tea from the vending machine. Refreshing to be sure, but no tadaima experience.

Coming into Tokyo was fun and felt very natsukashi (`nostalgic`-ish) but still no sense of tadaima. One mad luggage-hauling dash through Shinagawa staion to catch the final train of the night (with a full seven seconds to spare!) and I was walking through the familiar streets of Ichikawa.

The next morning I went to the nearby Lawson to grab some breakfast. That felt really familiar: foods that I remembered in places that I remembered them being. Familiar . . . but not home.

Egg mayonnaise and teriyaki chicken. Because Japan.

It took me a little bit of time to get back into the flow of speaking Japanese. I`ve had a few opportunities to speak Japanese back in the UK but very spread apart and only for a couple of hours at a time. A few days of speaking non-stop Japanese was a bit of a shock to the system at first, and a nice combination with the jet lag, but I got comfortable with it after that.

I feel at ease in Japan, but not at home.

And I think that`s OK. Because Japan isn`t my home. And no matter how fluent I get at Japanese, it won`t change the fact that I am a foreigner in Japan. I wasn’t born or raised here. My parents aren’t from here. Japan doesn’t feel like home, and it probably never will.

But then I went to training with my frisbee team mates. And after that I had a prayer meeting with the kanto OMF folk, followed by catching up with a Japanese friend, and I start to realise . . .

Men with fire: some things transcend cultures.

Tadaima isn`t something you feel yourself, it`s something  you say to people, and it doesn`t work without someone to respond with an okaeri (“welcome back”). Although “tadaima” is best translated as “I`m home, ” it isn`t really about arriving at your house, it`s about being with your family.

Missionaries – and others who spend time living overseas – often speak about living without knowing where `home` is. And missionary kids (or in my case, army kids) struggle with how to answer, “Where are you from?” I was born in Germany, spent my childhood years in the south of England, my teen years in the north, and now I`m preparing to return to Japan for a second four-year stint. Committing to serve the church in Japan long-term has left me without somewhere to call home in the strict sense of the word. But in return I`ve been blessed with family – in the UK, in Japan, and indeed all over the world.

I don’t own a house in Japan, and it`s tough to even rent a place as a foreigner (especially one on a `religious` visa). There`s always going to be the red tape and the language and culture barrier will never fully go away. But for all the reminders that I`m not from Japan, I have friends who assure me that I am welcome there. Their cheerful call of “okaeri” is what finally gives me that sense of tadaima, so whilst Japan doesn’t feel like home, it does feel like family.

Translation: “Tadaima!” “Okaeri!” But you guessed that already.

I Forgot How Much Jetlag Sucks! (or, `some super-tired half-thoughts on the complexity of being human`)

I had an idea for a blog post on my flight over to Japan. I made notes about it during the train journey across to the guest house I`m staying in. I figured I`d type them up into a proper little article Sunday evening or sometime Monday. But my laptop battery had died and I`d forgotten to bring an adaptor for the plug.

I bought an adaptor today so my laptop is ready to go. My brain is not. Just . . . nope.

This is exactly how I feel!
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

I`ve made this journey from UK to Japan and back a number of times now (genuinely too tired to count them up), but I always forget what the jetlag is like. And for some reason I decide to make up what it will be like: my body clock being off by eight hours so that I feel awake in the evening and sleepy in the morning. But its not like that at all.

I drift in and out of being tired and awake, seemingly at random. And the same with hunger. Im going from zero appetite to, “Is it illegal to grab and eat crows?” with no warning at all. Luckily crows are nearly impossible to catch, so I`ve avoided legal recourse so far.

But you didn’t come here to just read about my misery (or if you did, you can stop now because it`s all serious chat` from here on in). The problem is, though, that when my body doesn’t get enough sleep and/or food at the right time, my head stops working so well, and tasks like drawing spiritual lessons out of life experiences really, really . . . yeah, cant do it!

And that`s frustrating for someone like me, who works with words for a living (as much as missionaries work for their living). In the culture of Japan where (it feels like) the solution to most difficulties is to `ganbaru` – “dig deep,” “work hard,” “do you best!” And with a heritage of reliance on prayer to take tasks from `impossible` to `difficult` to `done.`

Because as people we are connected beings. And that means that sometimes the solution to a problem, like being able to turn rough notes into a clear and engaging blog post, is not better writing strategies, or just to dig deep and plough through, or even not to turn to prayer. But actually to rest, eat, sleep, drink plenty of water, and wait for the jetlag to pass.

“If you want to watch the sunrise, you`ve got . . . nah, just kidding, go take a nap.”
Photo by Arthur Brognoli on Pexels.com

So that`s what I`m going to do. Come back next week for the blog post that is still currently a pile of mush in the back of my brain (but don`t get your hopes up too much!).

Japan Has `Google Sensei` so Why do We Need to Send Missionaries?

This time next week I`ll be in Japan. Only for two  weeks, but still I`m very excited. Whilst I`m there I`ll meet with some folk to discuss what ministry stuff I`ll be doing when I go back to Japan properly in September for another four-year term as a full-time missionary.

Japan: the developed nation that keeps on developing.

Now I`m still working out what it means to be a `missionary` and the question of `full-time` vs `tent-maker` is always on my mind (but more on that another time). But before we get to those debates there is a much more fundamental question we, or at least I, need to consider: why go at all?

I mean if I were preparing to go to some remote jungle/mountain/generally-difficult-to-get-to tribal people without any concept of written language, then this wouldn`t be a blog post to write about. But I`m going to Japan. And whilst Japanese companies aren`t as internet savvy as you might assume (on-line banking isn`t really a thing, and a lot of places still rely exclusively on paper-based application forms, etc), smartphones are readily available, as is high-speed WiFi. And there are no governmental restrictions on what you can access.

Pretty much every one in Japan has completely unhindered access to the web (Do we still call it that? I`m an  eighties baby so I get confused about these things). So if people in Japan wanted to find out about Christianity, they could just ask Google Sensei.

You probably know that `sensei` is Japanese for `teacher.` If not, now you do. It`s used for most anyone in a teaching capacity. So you have high-school sensei, karate and judo sensei, tea ceremony sensei, your doctor and dentist are your sensei, and also pastors and missionaries get the title of sensei (that`s also a discussion for another time!).

So it didn`t feel odd the first time I heard someone refer to `Google Sensei.` He`s the online teacher who can get you the right answers on anything from terminology for martial arts, through the correct dates for historical events and the best way to fight a sore throat, to the ingredients for shogayaki and the teachings of different religions. Google sensei can tell you anything you want to know, anytime you want to know it.

And there are good Christian resources online that people could access, in Japanese, and many written by Japanese Christians. There is also a growing amount of social media that share Bible verses and information about churches and gospel events. It`s all easy to find and easy to understand. For the Japanese the good news is just a quick google-sensei search away.

VR Capsules. For when life gets a bit too real.

So again, that raises the question: why do we need people to go to Japan as missionaries? Or even, do we?

It`s not just an intellectual debate. I`m not trying to use up spare time thinking and writing about this. And the Lord knows we`re not suffering from a shortage of blog posts. This is a real question, because there are people – many peoples, in fact – without access to google sensei. Many people who won`t be able to hear about who Jesus Christ is and what he`s done, unless someone goes to them. So, for the last time, I ask myself: why should I go to Japan when they have easy online access to the gospel whilst so many people in the world don`t have any such access?

There`s a number of answers to that question, which I will share in the coming weeks, and I really hope that this will spark a bit of constructive discussion. There is the important distinction between evangelism and discipleship; the way the father models mission by pleading with his sons; and those fun topics of `incarnational ministry` and `holisitc mission`. But for now the main reason I would give is:

Because love.

We go to show that the reason why people are producing online content is love. And that as a church as a whole we love them. We send missionaries to Japan because we love Japanese and want to share our lives with them as we share the life Christ gives with them. We go because when we receive the love of Christ it compels us to share his love with others.

Google sensei might be able to give people answers to the questions they have about Jesus, but it can`t share life with people. Google sensei knows a lot – almost everything – but for love you need actual people.

So we need people to go. Because love.

`Because we loved you so much we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.`

(1 Thessalonians chp 2 vs 8)

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Love Waits . . . Till After the Tournament (for cake and beer)

Last night we had a dinner party at the house I`m staying in. I made some Japanese-style ginger pork (shogayaki: always a win!) for the main course. And for dessert we had blueberry cheesecake. Here`s a very bad photo of it.

blueberry cheesecake
I am sadly not available to hire for food photography.

I can`t even begin to describe how good it was. Because I didn’t have any.

You see in a couple of weeks I will be visiting Japan to do visa stuff and have some meetings about my future ministry, etc. And whilst I`m there I will also be joining my ultimate frisbee team, Wasabi, for the Asia Oceanic Beach Ultimate Championships.

I`m very excited about that. Because,

  1. I love playing frisbee, and I really love tournaments, and I especially really love beach tournaments.
  2. I love my Wasabi teammates, and I really love playing frisbee with them, and I haven`t seen most of them for almost a year.

But I`m very aware that I haven’t trained with Wasabi for almost a year. Ive followed along with the team chat online and am kinda up to date with what our strategy is and what plays we`ll be doing, but I am still going into this tournament with a lot of catching up to do.

So I figure the best way for me to love them is to not eat cake and beer until after the tournament.

I`ve been thinking a lot recently about how playing sports can be a way of loving people. You can love spectators by playing in a way that is enjoyable to watch; you can love the organisers by honouring the spirit of the sport they gave time and energy to promote; you can love your opponents through trust, respect, fair play, and good communication; and you can love your teammates by giving your absolute best.

I want to give my best for my team. I want to love them well. And I think a low-key detox in the build-up to the tournament is one way to do that. I know from experience that by cutting out cakes and beer for these few weeks I`ll be able to run a little bit faster and a little bit further, and who knows, maybe even stay airborne for a little bit longer.

I don’t think there`s anything wrong with enjoying sweet things in moderation, and the same goes for alcohol (I`m not intending to give a defence of that viewpoint here: there`s a bunch of stuff been written on it). But sometimes loving people means making small, unimpressive, not-technically-necessary sacrifices.

When I`m finished with my ultimate frisbee career I want to be able to say to those I played with what Paul said to the Thessalonians,

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our own lives.

1 Thessalonians chp 2 vs 8

I`m still thinking through all this, and learning and growing in what it looks like to bring together playing sports, doing mission, and loving people. I know there are many other ways for me to love my teammates (and opponents, organisers, etc) with the same love that Jesus has shown me. But you have to start somewhere, and I figure it may as well be with cake and beer.

(Oh, and no, this isn’t something I`d be doing anyway to get “beach body ready.” My skin cooks easier than salmon. It doesn’t get to see the sun.)

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Compared to Japan, UK Train Journeys are Decidedly ‘Tekitou’ and I Think I’m Going to Miss That

Grafitti covered wall by train tracks

I’ve been back in the UK for almost a year now, and have lost track of the number of train journeys I’ve taken in that time. But I know for sure it is a lot. And one thing that has been apparent to me over that time is that train journeys here are quite a bit different to ones in Japan. Most of my initial reverse culture-shock I experienced on train journeys.

Trains in Japan are fast, efficient, clean, on-time, reliable.

Trains in the UK are . . . well, I think the best word to describe them is ‘tekitou.’

適当 (pronounced “techy tour” – ish) is a great Japanese word that has two totally opposite meanings. Positively it means ‘suitable, appropriate, fitting.’ Negatively it means ‘careless, half-hearted, lazy, noncommittal, irresponsible.’ But I’ve also heard it often used in a fairly neutral way, somewhere between the two meanings. I think the closest English word we have is ‘random,’ in that sense that it gets used to mean something that actually isn’t random at all but more unexpected (and which makes the old Computer Science student part of me bristle with quiet rage).

See, as much as I love Japanese trains – and I really do! – when you travel by train in Japan, you know what you’re going to see: beautiful Japanese countryside. There’ll be a gentle slope down to a road, across the road there’ll be a stretch of rice fields with the occasional house dotted around, and beyond that there’ll be forest-covered mountains. It’s lovely, even breath-taking, but . . . well, it’s quite predictable.

But on a train journey across the UK you never know what you’re going to see. Sure sometimes it`s just houses, but you also get church steeples, bowling greens, allotments, ponds, parks, canal boats, dry-stone walls snaking across fields dotted with sheep, cows, and horses. On a recent train journey I watched from my window for about ten minutes, and in that time we travelled past football and rugby pitches, a line of abandoned caravans, fields with sheep and horses, a windfarm, factories, and a racetrack. And my personal favourite spot was a large country home with – and I swear this is true – a helicopter parked in their back garden.

allotment next to a railway line

And this scenery flies right past your face! In Japan I always feel a bit distant from the passing scenery. It does allow you to take in the view in a leisurely manner. But I feel like in Japan I`m travelling past the countryside. Whereas in the UK, you rattle through it.

As I type this we`re going through a patch of wetlands and I mean through. If we broke down and had to exit the train, we`d literally be stepping into a bog. I`ve seen horses so close you could toss a carrot to them, and I`m sure once I looked up from a book to discover my train was going through a car park. You just can`t guess what you`re going to see when you go cross-country on a train here. It`s so random, so unpredictable, and yet somehow so very fitting. I wonder if you could even call it quaint. But as I`m not sure, I`ll stick with tekitou.

So whilst I do wish that UK trains were a bit less rickety and lot more reliable, I am going to miss these ridiculously tekitou journeys when I`m back in Japan.

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Walking to work, reading to write, receiving to give.

You may have noticed that I haven`t blogged in a while. I really enjoy writing but I find it super hard. Or at least I find publishing hard. Writing is fairly natural once I get myself to sit down at the keyboard and ignore the urges for some Facebook scrolling.

So I`ve been reading. A bunch of stuff. In the last couple of weeks I`ve read:

The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

Silence & Beauty – Makoto Fujimura

The Message of Discipleship – Peter Morden

The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

The only thing these books have in common is that they’re books. But for me that`s enough to get me writing again. I read because I love reading. But I also read to write.

And the same is true of walking. When time and distance aren`t too much of a factor, walking is my favourite mode of transport. Among other reasons, because walking helps me work.

I was recently asked what my favourite way to relax is. Since living in Japan, my number one answer has become `onsen.` And number two is walking. Proper walking. Getting out into the hills, make sure to bring something to eat, don`t-forget-your-raincoat type walking. I know there`s some science about blue skies prompting creativity, and no doubt fresh air and exercise does wonders for the circulatory and what-not systems, but what I know for sure is that after a good walk I am ready to work.

Last weekend I went up two of the Yorkshire Three Peaks(Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent). The weather was classically British and mostly overcast, which is to say the views were still spectacular. And as a bonus, I finished reading Shock of the Fall on the car ride back.


And then last week I just got a lot of stuff done. Including some writing, and more impressively for me some admin.

You might be the same. Or you might be one of those strange folk who find admin empowering. Maybe the way you recharge is by baking (if so, can I give you my address?) or wood carving, or going for a drive, or [fill in blank]. But I think we all face the pressure to keep giving without taking the time to receive.

There are no doubt the occasional times when we have to just push on and grind through. But as I start to plan my return to Japan this Autumn and think about how crazy busy I got during my last four years there, I am increasingly convinced that if I am really going to give myself to the Japanese church, I am going to need to first receive grace to face the grit. I am going to need to read in order to write, and I am going to walk to work.

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