Initiative works to bring hope to an underserved Japan
Pastor & writer
The very unexpected Facebook friend request added a surprising layer to Eri Kobayashi’s friendship with a Japanese girl she tutored years ago.
Kobayashi started tutoring Yuri after the Japanese girl moved to California. Yuri’s father, a Japanese businessman, worked in California for four years. Then, Yuri’s dad transferred to Toronto, so her family moved.
The request added a new layer because Yuri wrote she needed help. Choosing a college was proving to be complicated because the high school student had moved around so much.
“She messaged me and said, ‘Miss Eri, I am struggling. I don’t know what to do,’” Kobayashi recalled.
Thankfully, in between Japan and Toronto, Yuri connected with Kobayashi, a member of Converge’s Japan Initiative. The initiative, led by Brian and Rachel Lusky, builds gospel-centered relationships with people in Osaka and Tokyo, Japan, and the Japanese diaspora in Boston, Massachusetts, and South Bay, California.
Kobayashi visits with Yuri every time she goes to Japan. That’s right; Yuri chose a college in Japan. Better yet, she’s become a Christ follower. And she has even served under Kobayashi, who leads Japanese Bible day camps in California.
Many Japanese believe in dying at their desks
Japanese people are the second largest unreached people group on earth. The conservative island nation once closed all borders for 200 years to every country but the Dutch. One of the world’s most homogeneous countries, due to strict immigration policies, is also rapidly aging because of the same regulations.
Converge global workers have opportunities to serve Christ and people in Japan. Plus, the Japan Initiative includes servants who engage with a Japanese diaspora scattered by business goals and educational ambitions.
At the same time, unique challenges resist the gospel’s influence.
For example, an incredibly intense work ethic developed after World War II. Mastering a skill is estimated to take around 10,000 hours or just over 400 days. Brian Lusky, who leads Converge’s initiative, noted many Japanese would spend 100,000 hours ― or 4100 plus days – on the same skill. That’s almost 11.5 years.
Such devotion quickly made deep roots in Japan. After World War II, a good job created security for a desperate nation’s people and economy.
“You were set for retirement but in return the company expected you to work long hours and only see your family on Sunday,” Lusky said. “Your first loyalty was to the company.”
As a result, many companies and Japanese adopted a work-life imbalance that is devastating.
The combination of extreme mastery and employer expectations became so severe a new word, karoshi, describes the situation. The word means “overwork death.” Lusky explained the term describes the cause of death for people who die on the job.
“The government has to actually release statements about karoshi,” he said. “They feel so much pressure to work, to fulfill the expectations the corporation has for them, that people die at their desk.”
Japan’s honor-shame culture reinforces this generational pattern. Lusky shared an axiom in Japan: the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. For example, Japanese society pressured children without black hair to dye their hair well into the 1950s, Lusky said.
“There’s a huge pressure to fit in,” he added.
Any mistakes or deviations, any act where someone doesn’t fit in, disgraces the larger group. That pressure creates incredible spiritual, emotional and mental pain for all Japanese to some extent.
“You have a lot of people who feel like they’re letting down their company, their family, their wife, society’s expectations,” Lusky said. “They feel so ashamed that they end up wanting to end their life.”
The Luskys will likely move to Japan by year’s end. So far, pandemic restrictions prevented foreign-born people as residents.
Japan, the 2nd largest unreached people group, often misunderstands the gospel
In the hearts and minds of the Japanese, the gospel encounters yet another barrier. Japanese struggle to make sense of what God has done through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Ken and Debby Milhous frequently encounter this challenge in their ministry to Japanese college students in Boston. Ken Milhous grew up the son of lifelong, global workers in Japan. He sounds so Japanese on the phone he often fools Japanese people.
“He only looks American,” Debby quips. “All of the ways that he operates are very Japanese.”
That individuality – white on the outside, Japanese on the inside – helps him explain God’s identity and Christ’s work.
“In presenting the gospel, telling people we’re sinners and need to be saved doesn’t work,” Milhous said. “The Japanese word for sin is ‘crime.’”
But Japanese people would tell the Milhous they haven’t even had a parking ticket before. So how can they be criminals before God? So, Milhous defines sin as self-centeredness.
“I do things I shouldn’t even if I know I shouldn’t or even if I know it’s going to hurt someone else,” he explained. “Most Japanese are willing to admit that.”
Within the relationships the Milhouses develop in Boston, they help Japanese understand people can’t have a relationship with God without help. That help is God’s Son, Jesus.
Ministry to Japanese people is not exactly common, yet
When the Milhouses went to Boston to study at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, they saw many Japanese. All those students were coming to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees.
But the Milhouses didn’t see enough ministry to the Japanese in the 1990s.
So, Ken and Debby started Boston Japanese Christian Church in 1995. Now, inside the church, Japanese eat regular meals of Japanese-style curry. Plus, the church has a shoe rack full of indoor-only slippers made in Japan that helps students feel at home.
“We’re trying to match the culture of the people coming here and make them feel they’re coming home,” he said. “We can be that support system for them and show them Christ’s love. And they get curious about what the Bible says and some of them become Christians.”
One of the church’s first baptisms was a Japanese pediatrician. She came here with her husband and didn’t have anything to do. She started coming to church, Milhous said, because she was interested in the Bible. She thought she couldn’t be a Christian because she believed in evolution. But she came to Christ through Boston Japanese Christian Church and now knows Christ as her savior and God as her creator.
Evolution, other religions create uniquely Japanese challenges to the gospel
Part of the tension she had to work through, the Milhouses explained, was navigating evolution. Japanese schools and families teach Japanese children evolution is a fact.
However, the idea of a creator God was present in Japanese history before the current religion of Shintoism took hold. Shinto documents, Milhous said, record a creator God and two helper gods making the whole world. These documents predate the arguments for a sun goddess in Shintoism who made an archipelago. An archipelago is a group of islands close together, such as those that include Japan.
Even with all the potential, missionaries and churches often resist ministry to the Japanese. Financial costs are high for serving in Japan; the first-world island nation is expensive. It can take two years to raise enough support to live on the island nation.
Secondly, spiritual rewards like seeing conversions and discipleship take root are slow in coming. The widespread teaching of evolution causes the Japanese to believe they can’t be Christians. Shintoism and Buddhism manage life’s positive and negative experiences, creating a shelf of gods some Japanese want to add Jesus to. Finally, honor-shame culture makes a god who died seem like a failure.
This all leads to an unsatisfying and unhelpful spiritual experience, said Jane Fischer. She started teaching at Christian Academy in Tokyo in the 1990s and recently joined the initiative.
Fischer sees God at work among young people who are being born again, leading ministries and going to seminary to be pastors. Still, Japanese people need help understanding Jesus.
“Almost everything Jesus taught was upside down in that culture,” she said. “Every part of his teaching was contrary and that’s part of what we can help Japanese people see, too.”
Only .55 percent of Japanese are Christians. How can the gospel be better explained to Japanese people?
“God lost face in the Garden of Eden and we lost honor. And we’ve been trying to make our little manmade honor pockets,” Lusky explains. “But really we are sons and daughters of the king. So, God sent his son to open that circle back up.”
Lastly, cultural pressures and societal struggles like mental health and karoshi, or “overwork death,” create robust barriers to Christianity. Japan has the highest suicide rate among the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
Along the Sandanbeki cliffs in the Shirahama town of Wakayama, Fujiyabu is a pastor of a small church. Since the cliffs are the third most common place in Japan for people to commit suicide, the church put up a sign with a phone number and a message: your life is worth living.
“[Japan] is a first-world country that is dealing with a lot of hopelessness in their heart,” Lusky said. “That’s the need in Japan: addressing that hopelessness and stress with the gospel.”
The team is creative and utilizing multiple strategies in different places
That need is also why the Milhouses are excited about the initiative team. They started their ministry 26 years ago designated as church planting missionaries. The work they did is more like global service, yet it happened in the States. So, organizationally, they navigated isolation since they weren’t precisely American ministers or global workers.
“We’re really thankful for the Japanese initiative. This is where we belong,” Milhous said. “We are on the same team as the missionaries in Japan. We are united in reaching out to Japanese speakers and we’re doing it on both sides of the pond.”
Over in Osaka, Japanese, Barbara and Jeff Chapman are working with about a dozen churches around the city of one million. Their ministry is training the Christians at these churches to be disciples who make disciples.
More conversions through indigenous Japanese people believing in Christ are certainly possible. Plus, people learning to apply the scriptures to life, marriage and work will help the country see the dignity of every life through a Biblical sense of honor and shame.
As more and more Japanese know and follow Christ, not only will the culture change, but Eri Kobayashi is confident the Japanese she serves in California may be the Japanese Christians helping their neighbors, friends and family believe in Christ.
Hoping for the next generation to be in heaven
“I always hope and pray that this torch will be passed onto other Christians. Wherever my students go, that they will find another Christian who will nurture their spirituality and help them know Jesus,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful if, when they are grown up, if in the next place they went to, there was another Christian?”
The Luskys are similarly inspired to see more and more Christians in Japan. The family understands how a passion for missions develops over time in someone’s heart.
Brian was the site pastor of a Converge multi-campus church until he became the initiative leader. He helped lead that church’s involvement in foreign missions. That’s where he developed a heart for global service and a specific passion for Japan. So, the Luskys personally experienced leaving a meaningful job as God led them to serve in a new country and ministry.
Like Kobayashi, the Chapmans and the Milhouses, the joy and dream of the new initiative motivate the Luskys: one day, many Japanese can gather around the throne of the lamb who was slain and sing Christ’s praises.
“Each people group has their own unique voice and the praise of God is missing something if we don’t have all the people groups,” he said. “The Japanese voice is severely under-represented. God deserves a vibrant Japanese voice worshiping him in a way that they uniquely can.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.