Japan Through the Eyes of a Sansei
It was the 12th day of our 15 day tour and we were descending theTateshina Highlands on our way to Tokyo. Everywhere we went for the first twelve days, the cherry blossoms welcomed us with their subtle fragrance and glorious displays of pink.
My wife, Jasmine, and I have lived in Dallas, Texas for the past 22 years. We joined my parents in Hawaii and traveled to Japan with a group of Hawaii residents, most of whom were Nisei or Sansei (second or third generation Japanese in the U.S.). We began the tour as strangers but by the end of the tour we had developed an intangible bond commonly referred to in Hawaii as ohana (“family” in Hawaiian).
Cherry Blossoms, Mochi, and More
Our tour began on the southern island of Kyushu, through the islands of Shikoku and Awaji, then to the largest island of Honshu. In every city and throughout the countryside, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Whether creating a pink canopy on the grounds of the historic Kokura Castle, lining the river at Arashiyama Park in Kyoto, or beautifying the countryside carved with terraces of rice, tea, or other types of agriculture, the cherry blossoms were either the main attraction creating a tranquil atmosphere or provided contrasting splashes of color against various shades of green. This was the peak of the cherry blossom season and words and pictures are inadequate to convey the impression that they leave.
Throughout our trip, we had seen so much of Japan’s beauty, experienced the richness of its culture, and tasted many of their distinctive dishes. Japanese customs and etiquette are highly refined and visiting the shrines, temples, and historical sites bridged my understanding between their ancient eras and modern day life. Jasmine’s knowledge of Japanese arts and history was a major asset for me. At each point of interest, she explained the cultural nuances or the historical context. For example, when we visited sights such as the famous Kumamoto Castle, she explained the history of feudal Japan and the Bushido Code by which the samurai lived. After Japan transitioned from the feudal to the modern era, the values from the Bushido Code endured forming the core values of modern Japan, which explains why the Japanese people are characterized by a politeness, courtesy, honor, respect, and loyalty that is not found anywhere else in the world.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the food, oh yes, the food—from the distinctive pork broth ramen of Fukuoka in a yatai (a little roadside noodle stand) to a nine course seafood banquet in Naruto, to the tantalizing variety of sweets with each prefecture boasting its own distinctive treats. Once you have tasted the warm, soft, and sweet umegai mochi (rice cake) of Dazaifu you will never forget it! I was hoping that all of the walking on the tour was going to help me to trim down a bit, but no amount of exercise could overcome my level of consumption. There were simply too many enticing choices to pass up.
God’s Surprise “Gift”
The Tateshina Highlands was our last stop before Tokyo, our final destination. The warmth of spring had melted most of the snow and we had this entire ski resort to ourselves. The peaceful and secluded atmosphere was a welcomed change of pace from the daily sightseeing stops and discoveries on foot. Soaking in the fresh mountain air and relaxing in the onsen (natural hot spring) could have been a befitting finale to the sightseeing aspect of our tour and I would have been completely satisfied. Honestly, I had mixed emotions about Tokyo for although I looked forward to experiencing what it had to offer, the modern convenience of their transportation system and shopping (yes, I do like to shop), I also knew that the best of the beauty was behind us… or so I thought. Surprisingly, God had one more “gift” in store for us…
The bus ride down from the Tateshina Highlands was quiet and pleasant with majestic snow capped mountains on both sides of us. As our bus emerged from the valley we encountered a breathtaking sight! The hills in the foreground were dark, still in the shadow of the mountains we had just descended from but in the distance, painted on the canvas of a flawlessly blue sky, was a completely unobstructed view of Mt. Fuji (Fujisan in Japanese)! The scene was surreal and like the cherry blossoms, pictures cannot capture the reality of seeing it with your own eyes! Taking advantage of this rare opportunity, our tour director departed from our planned route and took us to the foot of Mt. Fuji. As our tour bus approached Fujisan, Jasmine, so awed and inspired by this breathtaking sight burst forth with, “GIVE GOD A HAND!” That drew laughter and applause from our primarily non-Christian tour ohana. It was truly a moment worthy of worship, not of the mountain but of the Creator, whose hand had carved this magnificent naturel edifice that the mind of man could not conceive. Being able to view its majesty was truly a gift from God as Mt. Fuji is randomly visible only 80 days out of a year.
Seeing Mt. Fuji, it is no wonder that the Japanese people look upon this mountain as being sacred. Buddhists regard it as a sublime symbol of meditation. According to Buddhist thought, its summit provides a sanctuary for the deities, who dwell there free from the sorrows of the world below. Shintoists consider Mt. Fuji to be the sacred dwelling place of a goddess, who is the central deity in the major Shinto shrines surrounding the mountain. Christians, clearly the minority in Japan comprising less than 1% of the population, must feel joy and honor in knowing the God who created such an awesome wonder! Thousands of people trek to the summit every year. For tourists, it is a once in a lifetime experience but for many of the Japanese, it is a religious pilgrimage.
Culture, Faith, and Identity
Throughout Japan, there are literally thousands of shrines and temples, probably as numerous as Christian churches are in Texas. Buddhism and Shinto are woven into the fabric of their culture dating back for centuries. Clearly, the Japanese are spiritual people, whether it is seeking Nirvana as in Buddhism or worshipping thousands of gods as in Shinto. However, the Christian celebration of Easter commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ is virtually unknown in Japan. Our last Sunday in Japan was Easter Sunday and it was just a regular day without any visible references to Easter anywhere. Not even secular images such as the Easter bunny or Easter eggs were to be found. As a Sansei living my entire life in Hawaii and Texas, this was an aspect of their culture of which I was unaware.
I’ve always been aware of my Japanese heritage but had not developed a personal affinity with Japan. Hawaii has its own unique culture with a blend of Asian, Polynesian, and Western influences. For a Sansei in Hawaii, one’s ultural identity is more firmly rooted in the uniqueness that is referred to as “local” culture than in being of Japanese ancestry. While my grandparents brought Buddhism with them to Hawaii, Buddhism to my parents was simply a cultural tradition to be followed, not a religion that defined their identity.
When I was two years old, my parents were introduced to Christianity. They learned that because we are all by nature sinners separated from God, He sent His Son Jesus Christ to live a perfectly sinless life and pay the price of sin on our behalf by sacrificing His own life (Romans 5:6-8). His resurrection on Easter Sunday proved His victory over sin and death and He offers the gift of eternal life to anyone who will place their faith in Him (Romans 6:8-10). They readily accepted God’s gift of eternal life through His saving grace (Romans 6:23). At the age of nine, I too accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. So, while my ancestry is Japanese and culturally I am a product of the blend that is the Hawaiian “local” culture, my Christian faith has defined my sense of identity and purpose (Galatians 2:20).
Blessings Received, Blessings to Share
I believe that God blessed us in extraordinary ways. Our tour director has led a countless number of tours from Hawaii to Japan for 30 years and he said that in those 30 years, this was the first time that BOTH the cherry blossoms were so vibrant and full AND Mt. Fuji was as clearly visible in all of her grandeur! In conveying my impressions from this trip, I have highlighted the cherry blossoms, Mt. Fuji, and the food as they have left an indelible impression upon me, but there are so many other memories that flood my thoughts...
This was my first trip to Japan and I hope that it was the first of many. I love everything about Japan—the beauty, the culture, the history, the people… everything! I know that I have only seen a small slice of springtime in Japan and I would return during any season in a heartbeat. In autumn, the maple trees show off their colors; in the winter, there are ice festivals on Hokkaido with unbelievable displays by ice carving artists; and in the summer, well…it has to be better than summer in Texas where the temperature exceeds 100 degrees and I would do anything to escape the unbearable heat!
I would love to discover more, experience more, and…eat more! But while my life would certainly be enriched by it, there is something of greater significance than seeing more of Japan. My greatest joy would be to return but not simply as a tourist. I would count it an honor and privilege to return to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the people whom He loves and gave His life for, so they can have the Life that He promised and live it to the full (John 10:10), and spend eternity with God in heaven (John 14:6). Their desire to connect with something higher than themselves is clearly evident by their shrines and temples. I pray that God’s Spirit will sweep across Japan, break through cultural barriers and reach the hearts Nara, Todaiji Temple of the people. Then many more will come to personally know their Creator and their search for peace will be fulfilled.
(Morris Isara was born in Hawaii and has lived in Texas for the last 22 years. He and his wife Jasmine have two children, Rhapsody (21) and Seizen (19). Morris has ministered in several pastoral roles since 1985 and currently works for an international biblical counseling ministry which provides counseling and training for pastors and church leaders. He can be contacted at morris.isara@ gmail.com.)