A couple months ago I walked into a Starbucks and saw a guy studying from a premium Bible at one of the tables. “Is that a Cambridge Clarion?” I blurted to the stranger excitedly. He confirmed that it was. “Nice!” Later, as I saw him hard at work, we began a brief dialogue and I asked him if he was in seminary or perhaps writing a sermon. He told me that he was actually preparing to move to Japan that upcoming Thursday to be a missionary – indefinitely. Wow. Here was a young man setting off on a divine adventure, leaving relationships, home, and native language – doing something courageous that I have only dreamt about doing but cannot due to family, vocational, and financial reasons.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Japan is 1.5% Christian. That is not a typo. I love the people, the language, the cultural aesthetics, the history, and the food of Japan, but it is one of the spiritually darkest countries on Earth. Despite the many ways that Japan has thrived and prospered, I detect a pattern of fatalism and ennui when examining their pop culture art, which I believe reflects the spiritual undercurrent of the nation.
One recurring theme in Japanese pop culture art is uncontrollable, world-consuming destruction. Perhaps this is a remnant in the cultural consciousness of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla is an obvious symbol. Others include the enveloping headless forest god of Princess Mononoke, the rampaging No-Face spirit in Spirited Away, and the Tokyo and Neo-Tokyo obliterating destructive force of the titular Akira. Another theme is boredom or feelings of emptiness as motivation to engage in violent or extreme actions. Both student Light Yagami and the Shinigami Ryuk cite boredom as contributing to actions that eventually result in mass killing in the manga series Death Note. Not one but two murderous antagonists in the videogame Persona 4 cite boredom / emptiness as reasons for their diabolical actions. Even satirical manga superhero One-Punch Man struggles with the drudgery of lacking meaningful challenge. No wonder. English writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple states that people who are bored, alienated, or not spiritually anchored may find that “danger absolves one of the need to deal with a hundred small problems or to make a thousand little choices – danger simplifies existence.”
In March of 2011, I awoke in the middle of the night. I was trembling, shaking uncontrollably, much to the alarm of my wife. I thought my body was cold, so I tried to bundle up with extra clothing and get back in bed. It didn’t work. I wasn’t cold, my body was just trembling. I had no idea what was happening to me and I begged for God’s help. After quite a while I was able to stop shaking and fall asleep. In the morning, I read that there had been a devastating earthquake in Japan, followed by a tsunami. It happened at the exact same time that I woke up, half way across the world. As the ground in Japan was shaking, so was I.
Interpret that however you wish, but when I shared this mysterious occurrence with a Japanese friend of mine, she later told me how encouraged she felt upon hearing it. To her, it meant that God still cared about Japan and the Japanese people, and perhaps he had good plans for that Land of the Rising Sun.