Hans Bouwman, Japan - 6 - How we got to know Japan

How we got to know Japan

The Country and its People
The name, Japan, derives from the Chinese, pronounced as Jih-pen, but the Japanese pronunciation of the characters is Nippon, the name written on postal stamps. The meaning of the two symbols is ‘sun’ and ‘basis’, together it stands for ‘rising sun’. Japan is a country of islands—the four main islands are:
Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu and there are many smaller ones. These islands form the summit of an underwater volcanic mountain range. There are some active volcanoes, and often the country is plagued by seismic events and eruptions. Some of the earthquakes are quite heavy, causing casualties and damage. Another danger for the peaceful Japanese islands are the typhoons or hurricanes that sweep in from the Pacific Ocean, taking a heavy toll in human lives and causing a lot of damage to property.
The country has always been protected from invaders by the sea. In all of its recorded history, Japan never lost a war till the Second World War. The people take much pride in their history and cultural heritage. Japan is a beautiful country with rice paddies nearly all over the country, levelled and terraced, and with neat tea plantations and an abundance of fruit trees and vineyards. Japan as a whole has a temperate climate, but in the south the weather is sub-tropical. There is plentiful rain, mainly occurring in the rainy season from the middle of June till the middle of July. Lush vegetation makes the Japanese islands a beautiful part of the world.

Because of its geographical situation, this island nation has always been one of the most traditional and isolated countries in the world. It is a little smaller than the State of California, but accommodates more than 125,000,000 people. Since 70% of the country consists of mountains, all these people live on only 30% of its available land, mostly in the plains along the coastline. In the plains, population density reaches nearly 4,000 people per square mile, as compared to The Netherlands—also a flat country—where there are about 900 inhabitants per square mile. The Kanto Plain where Tokyo is located is a comparatively small area of land, yet it is inhabited by 40 million people. Land prices are extremely high, to the extent that nowadays it is not possible to buy a house in the Tokyo area, no matter how small or old the house may be, for less than one million dollars. Because of the tremendous price of building lots, houses are cramped together with very little space in between. Japan does not have the palatial residences of America or Europe. There are some, but for the average Japanese his life is still on the ‘tatami’ in small dwellings. The tatami are the Japanese pressed straw mats, laid like wall-to-wall carpet. The measurement of a tatami is 72 x 36 inches (180 x 90 cm). All rooms are measured by the number of tatami mats. A room could be a three-mat, a four-and-a-half-mat, a six-mat, an eight-mat room or even larger with more tatami mats. Many apartments have just two small rooms. Especially in the outskirts of big cities rows of apartment buildings are cities in themselves.

Before the war Japan was an agricultural country, but after 1945 technology and industry developed rapidly, resulting in quality consumer products being exported world-wide. Though Japan has no major natural resources of itself, and therefore all raw materials like crude oil must be imported, it has become one of the strongest industrial giants of the world.
When a visitor arrives in Japan the first overwhelming impression is the crowds of people, and they all seem to look alike. In the beginning we could not distinguish between Mr. Sano and Mr. Kobayashi, as both had black hair and dark brown almond shaped eyes. Anthropologists claim that the Japanese are a Mongolian race, like the Chinese and Koreans. These people also have black hair, dark brown and almond shaped eyes because of a fold of skin in the upper eyelid that reaches down over the inner corner of the eye. It is interesting to notice that for identification in Japan there is never any mention of eye or hair colour.

The Japanese are steady and loyal in their work, and it is their character to be submissive to the tradition and life-style of their society. A Japanese does not see himself as an individual in society, but as one belonging to the dantai (the group). As one big family, their society is based upon collective thinking and collective actions. Japan has never produced great personalities with a strong influence or men who became world-famous e.g. Lincoln in the U.S.A., Churchill in England or Gandhi in India.

Contact with the West
The first contact with the Western world was established in 1543 when Portuguese ships entered the port of Tanegashima in the South. At that time firearms were also introduced; and in 1571 the port of Nagasaki was opened to Portuguese traders. Merchant vessels also carried Catholic missionaries over to Japan. However, about 15 years later there was an imperial decree ordering the expulsion of the missionaries and the confiscation of all firearms. In 1609 Dutch traders were able to enter Japan and they established a factory on the little island of Hirado. It was not long before the Portuguese traders were expelled and only the Dutch were granted a favourable trade agreement. In 1641 these traders were transferred from Hirado to Deshima in Nagasaki harbour. We have been in this area a few times and have seen the sloping lanes built by the Dutch and the construction styles which also have distinct traces of Dutch architecture. For many years Holland was favoured as the only Western nation which was allowed to trade with Japan. In fact the Dutch-Japanese relationship covers a period of nearly 400 years. In recent years a complete ‘Dutch town’ has been built on the southern island of Kyushu near the port of Nagasaki. There, famous buildings from Holland like the Queen’s palace in the Hague, the Dam Square in Amsterdam and the Dom Cathedral in Utrecht are replicated to scale, and the workmanship is outstanding. The ‘Dutch Town’ draws a lot of Japanese tourists. It was not till the middle of the nineteenth century that Japan opened itself to other nations. In 1853 Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived from America at the port of Uraga and this resulted in a political and commercial treaty between Japan and the United States.

Since Japan’s staple food is rice and fish, it is common to eat rice three times a day. For a westerner every meal may look the same, and he may get theimpression that they eat rice with fish every day and maybe on special days fish with rice! However, there are many side-dishes, so there is quite a variety in the meals. A Japanese dish is first of all designed as a visual presentation and then as one of taste. Usually three main colours are used in a dish, and foods and dishes are artistically arranged. Raw fish is abundant, of great variety, and quite delectable. Sometimes a bowl containing roasted grasshoppers is served. They are baked in oil and are crunchy. Misoshiru soup, made of dried fish and soybean paste, is an essential part of a Japanese meal. Many foreigners call it simply ‘thumbsoup’. The reason for this is that the hostess who serves the meal usually holds the bowl in such a way that her thumb is literally in the hot soup. Nowadays the younger generation likes a western type of breakfast with cereal and toast. Fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken are also popular with them. This contributes to a genetically taller and heavier race of Japanese.
To take a bath—to go into the ofuro, as the Japanese say—is quite a ritual in itself. The Japanese ofuro is completely different from the Western style bath. It is small and deep so that the occupant can sit in hot, steaming water for an enjoyable relaxation. Nowadays the bathtub is filled with hot water from a boiler, but in earlier days a fire of wood underneath the tub heated the water. The dense steam coming out of the tub gives the impression that the water is boiling. With temperatures up to 115 Fahrenheit (43 Centigrade) a foreigner would come out of the tub looking like a red lobster! Every night the ofuro is prepared and everyone gets his turn in the proper order. First the father, then the sons, followed by the daughters and last of all mother takes her bath. With this type of bath, the first thing to do is to rinse yourself outside the bathtub. A long hot soak is next, sitting with bent knees in real hot water that reaches right up to the chin with only your head sticking out. There is never the discomfort of having knees and chest exposed like in our western baths. The next thing to do is to step out of the bathtub and sit on a little milkmaid stool to wash the body. After rinsing again, you remain even longer in the ofuro to relax. The Japanese say that one should never take a bath in a hurry.
Nowadays many houses have their own ofuro, and there are fewer public bath houses. Yet there are still many Japanese (about half the population) who prefer the public bath house, recognizable by its tall chimney from the furnace that is used to heat the water. Public bath houses are seen as a traditional social institution, a place to relax, where the news of the whole neighbourhood is passed on and where all kinds of things are discussed. It is sometimes even the venue for men to have business talks. Because of the volcanic activity Japan is blessed with many hot springs. In resort areas there are hot spring hotels, where the Japanese come to relax for two or three days. Not so far from where we lived there were many such places. A hike in the mountains could become quite an experience, as you find columns of steam emerging out of holes in the earth’s crust. It does not take long to boil an egg in the tremendous hot steam.

Buddhism entered Japan in 533 AD and soon became the religion of the ruling class. The result was that the whole population was influenced by this new religion. The teaching of Buddhism emphasizes endurance and patience, and it is a component of Buddha’s teaching not to show one’s feelings in public. Even tragic news is often passed on with a smile. Once, a girl of about twenty told us of the death of her mother, laughing; she wanted to suppress her grief. Laughing is a way out when the Japanese feel bashful or embarrassed. A Japanese will never lose face and therefore he will not easily admit that he was wrong. A big smile settles the matter. However, a smile may hide a lot of inward pain and grief! Women are not supposed to show their teeth, so when they laugh it is expected that they put their hand in front of their mouth. Kissing is also an unacceptable expression of feelings in public, and consequently, ‘kissing the bride’ never occurs in a wedding ceremony. In fact the Japanese don’t see kissing as a gesture of love and affection, but connect it with a sexual relationship.
In many ways their concept of love is very different from the western view. The Japanese feel that when two are brought together, love will be the inevitable outcome, and this makes the job of match-making a very interesting one. Of all marriages 70% are arranged either by parents, relatives, or a respected person like the company boss. In missionary work, it is also essential to be aware of this custom. These days the assemblies are quite well established, so that the Japanese brethren take an active role in acting as a ‘go-between’ to arrange marriages. However, in all fairness, the persons involved do have the right to decide for themselves, as they always have the last word as to whether they will accept the match or decline it. The persons who act as a ‘go-between’ proceed in stages, and at each juncture the young man and the young lady will be asked separately whether they wish to stop or to continue the process. An arranged marriage is not so much a romance, but is seen more as a partnership. It seems to be a safe method, since the divorce rate among arranged marriages in Japan is very low.

 temple worshipers

Worship in front of a temple


Part of a temple

The native religion is Shintoism—this is a primitive pagan religion of nature-worship. Shinto means ‘the way of the gods’ and is strongly nationalistic. It teaches that the Japanese descended from the gods. Of the whole world first of allJapan was created from drops spilled out of heaven. According to Shinto teaching Japan could never lose a war, but since Japan was defeated in 1945 Shintoism obviously suffered a set back. However, that does not mean that the religion died out. To the contrary, it is still a tremendous force in modern Japanese society. Since Buddhism and Shintoism do not conflict with each other, the two religions have existed side by side throughout the centuries. The statistics say that 80% of the Japanese are Buddhists and 70% are Shintoists. In almost every non-Christian home one can find a Shinto godshelf and usually a very ornate Buddhist altar.

rescued fisherman

The five Japanese fishermen rescued in a typhoon.

A little bit of influence from Christianity has created a trend among young people towards having a Western style wedding in a fancy Wedding Hall. Even in places like Hawaii and California there are Wedding Halls especially designated for weddings of Japanese couples. The life of a Japanese starts out with a Shinto birth ceremony, often a Christian-like wedding is performed, and it ends with a Buddhist funeral. To them there is nothing wrong with dividing their allegiance between Shintoism and Buddhism with a bit of Christianity inserted wherever it is convenient. According to Government statistics only 0.7% of the Japanese identify themselves with Christendom, in which are included Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, etc.
The first funeral we attended shocked us. A fancy hearse with a roof like a pagoda temple, black-lacquered sides with glass windows and covered with ornate reliefs of golden brass, is used to carry the body to the crematorium. Cremation is mandatory by law, since there is not sufficient room available to allocate a deceased person a piece of land of some square feet. The procedure of cremation is far more an involvement of family members in the East than it is in the West. Going down to the place where the furnaces are, those present watch the coffin being slid into the oven. The man in charge takes off his cap and there are a few moments of silence to pray to the deceased spirit. Then the mourners are requested to go into the waiting room till the ashes are brought in. The actual cremation process takes about 50 minutes. In big crematoria there are high tables to stand around. The family is guided to a certain table and the huge dustpan containing the ashes is put right in the middle. Then the ceremony of ‘collecting the bones’ begins, as each member of the family uses big chopsticks to pick up the small pieces of white burnt bones and put them into an urn, together with the leftover ashes. It is the custom to place the urn underneath a tombstone on the temple ground or nowadays also on a public cemetery in a ceremony conducted by a Buddhist priest.

Usually an assembly possesses its own plot in a cemetery and underneath a tombstone the urns are placed on a shelf. The funeral of a Christian in a heathen country like Japan is a great testimony of the victory of the Christian faith over death and the grave. “0 death, where is thy sting? 0 grave, where is thy victory? But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor.15:55,5 7). What a great opportunity to preach the Gospel to the many unsaved who attend the funeral!

sunday at kobe

Our first Sunday spent at Kobe.

The Japanese are a disciplined people. Even on the very crowded railway platforms, or bus stops, people line up in a considerate manner. During rush-hour there are stations which become so crowded that they will be closed until there is again space for people to enter. There are hundreds of stations in the city of Tokyo and the busiest is Shinjuku Station, which handles two million people a day! Students are hired to serve as ‘pushers’ on the platforms, and it is their job to crowd more people into a train. Often when the pressurized doors are closed, and the train departs, jackets and coats stuck between the doors are left to flap like flags in the breeze. These electric trains often transport at more than 250 percent of capacity, and you have the feeling that it is more a matter of hanging than standing. Most foreigners are taller than the Japanese, and that is a distinct advantage in breathing. If you lift your foot, you can’t put it down again, because that little piece of floor-space has been occupied by somebody else’s foot; and you must be content to balance like a stork on one leg. The only way to re-occupy your territory is by first wedging the toe of your shoe onto the floor and gradually following it with the rest of your foot.

It is a country of great customer-service. At a gas station it is not unusual to have five attendants surround your car to fill it up, clean the windows and check your oil. In department stores and many shops a customer is welcomed by the word Irasshaimase. You will receive a warm welcome even in the elevator, where an attendant will tell you exactly what kind of goods are available on various floors. You are made to feel very special indeed.

In many ways Japan is a country of stress. The pace of life is fast and intense with hardly any time to relax. It is a noisy country, and train stations are especially so because of the blaring announcements over the loudspeakers and a one-minute buzzer announcing the departure of each train. In some restaurants the music is so loud that a normal conversation is hardly possible. Needless to say, among the Japanese there is a constant atmosphere of competition and survival of the fittest—already noticeable in kindergarten! If the parents manage to get their children into a superior kindergarten, it is more or less a guarantee for graduation from a better university. ‘Tokyo University’ is the most respected, and their graduates are certain to get the best jobs. Nearly all the government postings, including that of Prime Minister, are occupied by graduates from this university. Because of the competitive spirit, and the shame of losing face, many suicides occur, with most of the cases among young people aged 12 to 25. The most sorrowful example is a ‘family suicide’ where a father or mother is unable to bear the unbelievable pressure and kills himself or herself along with the entire family. Some of the most scenic locations, such as waterfalls or cliffs, are utilized by young people who have failed university entrance exams. Such failure ends their career hopes.

Because of success and recognition of status there is a lot of pride in Japanese society as a whole. Many men take overt pride in their company, and it is a common saying that a man has a greater love for his company than for his own wife—indeed it does appear that way! The men leave their offices at 7, 8 or even 9 p.m. and then endure a one to three hour ride in trains filled to over capacity. The company is often the place where a worker has security, as the firm takes good care of its employees in many areas, such as arranging a marriage, granting a personal loan, etc. All the extra hours put into the company are reflected in the year-end bonus as a token of the company’s appreciation. This bonus can be equivalent to two or three months salary and for executives, up to half or even a full year’s salary—all paid in cash! Lately however, as Japan has begun to experience some economic hardship, things have started to change.

The Japanese are generally very polite and helpful. If you show uncertainty, for instance, as you might when you lose your way, a passerby may come up to you and ask, “Can I help you?” Politeness is the cornerstone of Japanese society. When we began to study the language our teacher told us the following: “Remember that the mouth and the heart are always two different things in Japan”. In order to maintain politeness, it is expected and accepted to lie. How different from the Scriptural concept: “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matt.5:37). It does not mean that there is no honesty in the Japanese society. On the contrary, it is still one of the safest countries in the world, with a very low crime rate. If, as a tourist, you forgot your suitcase on the platform of a very crowded railway station and come back an hour later to claim it,
there is a 95% chance that you would find it still in the exact spot where you left it. In Western countries this is unthinkable. Because Japan is largely a cash society, it frequently happens that a tremendous amount of money is left behind in a taxi, bus or train. There is a good chance that the driver or the conductor would take the attache case or purse to a police station, for it is a custom in Japan that the finder gets at least 10% as a finder’s fee.
There are a number of different levels of speech in the Japanese language. One could speak plain Japanese or polite Japanese. When addressing a person of higher social status, the polite speech is essential. The Emperor would never respond in the polite form of speech, but would use plain words in speaking to his subjects. There is a specific ‘children’s language’, but also amongst men and women different words are used, as a ‘women’s language’ and a ‘men’s language’. The language is cluttered with polite phrases which are not easy to remember, and in studying I had much difficulty in distinguishing them. At times I inadvertently used the wrong expression. Once when a shipment of personal belongings arrived from Europe and the truck driver kindly put it into the shed for me, I was supposed to have used a polite phrase to thank him for all the trouble he took. But instead I used the phrase to thank him for an elaborate meal. I noticed his perplexed look at the hen na gaijin—the ‘funny foreigner’! Perhaps he thought that it was a shipment of food.

In Japanese society the sodan, a discussion, holds a vital place. Without a thorough discussion nothing could ever be accomplished in this country. The reason is that a spirit of individualism does not exist; the thinking pattern, actions and behaviour of the Japanese are based upon collectivism. Therefore a decision is always the result of a sodan and so the final outcome becomes the decision of the family or of the company. The Japanese Government also reflects herd mentality as it is not the action of one minister that counts, but far more that of the political party as the result of a sodan. In the discussions, however, extra respect is shown for the elderly and experienced. The missionary work in Japan also depends on this essential to build the assembly on the basis of spiritual
leadership and the ability to commune with all the believers. There must exist a sense of involvement by all the believers in every decision taken.

In many aspects there is still a feudal system in Japanese society. Though forbidden by law, discrimination is quite noticeable, and though there is progress for the better, women are still treated poorly compared to men. There is much freedom in a man’s life. Often the evenings are spent with friends in the presence of hostesses in bars and clubs. Though women take ‘second’ place after men, in the family the wife is usually in full control of the finances to run the household well.
When referring to a foreigner the word gaijin is used. It has the meaning of being an outsider. Strangely enough Chinese, Koreans or other Asian people are never called gaijin. The word is used only for Caucasians. A lot is expressed in the use of this word. It means that you are foreign to Japanese society and culture. You may learn to speak Japanese perfectly and you may know a lot about their culture, yet you will never be able to enter into their world and be a real part of their society. This remains closed to foreigners, regardless of any mouthings to the contrary.

The elder son is traditionally obliged to take care of his parents till they die. His wife is not called the ‘bride’ of the groom, but the yomeire, which means a ‘bride put into the family’. In former times, with large families, most had sons to carry on the family name. Today, with a birthrate of 1.7 per family the problem is solved in another ingenious way. When two girls are born into a family, one—preferably the oldest— marries a hanamuko. This means that her husband is received into the house of the girl’s parents and treated as their son. He will take their name and thus continue the lineage of the family.
In view of the importance of having a son in those earlier days, we observed the concern among the Japanese over our growing family. The Lord blessed us with five children, each one of them accepted with great joy and thankfulness as a ‘heritage from the Lord’ (Psalm 127:3a). When our first child was born, a girl, the Japanese congratulated us sincerely, but when our second child was a girl as well, the congratulations did not seem as heart-felt.

On the arrival of our third daughter we heard expressions like zannen da, which means ‘What a disappointment!’ and when our fourth daughter was born, the word komatta was heard, which means something like ‘Now we have a problem!’ There was of course never a disappointment on our side as we formed a happy family with our four sweet girls: Linda, Marion, Carla and Monica. But for the Japanese our situation must have appeared to be beyond hope. When our fifth child came along, and proved to be a boy, the Japanese were beside themselves with joy, and congratulations were effusive. Upon the occasion of Robert’s birth, the Christians offered us a ‘feastmeal’, this time not rice with fish, but rice with red beans, as a sign of good fortune.