Aug 21

Announcing JETwit Anecdotal Article Series!

JETwit Anecdotal Article Series is new feature by Jayme Tsutsuse (Kyoto-fu, 2013-2014). Jayme is a JETwit Job Manager and organizer of Cross-Cultural Kansai. She’s starting a new chapter in NYC and excited to explore new career opportunities.

Hi everyone!

Here at JETwit, we love it when JETs share stories of their experiences in Japan. That’s why we’re bringing back the Anecdotal Article Series! This is your chance to share your experiences as a JET participant with the whole JETAA community.

Each month, a new topic will be announced. If the topic sparks a particular memory for you, just fill out our quick Google Form! Stories can be anything related to the monthly topic about your time in Japan as JET.

For our first month, we would like to bring back the topic that has inspired the revival of the Anecdotal Articles, religion. Enjoy the anecdotal stories below compiled by JETwit Founder, Steven Horowitz, for the Spring 2006 issue of the JETAANY Newsletter, then jump over to our Google Form to share a story of your own!

Stories of Religion from Our Days as JETs

When I was in Osaka in the mid-1980s while a student at Kansai Gaidai, I was living with a Japanese family.  It was spring and Passover season arrived. My parents sent over a Passover Survival Kit, complete with matzah.  The father of this family had nominally converted to Christianity while a young man and had a Japanese-English Bible in the house. Using the Bible as a guide and my then-rudimentary Japanese, I held a makeshift seder one night in our home.  We then went to bed and I awoke the next morning to find that Takashi, the father, had eaten the entire remaining box of matzah.  I wrote a letter to my parents recounting this story and my father passed it on to the makers of Manischewitz saying they should consider marketing matzah in Japan. Some weeks went by and my father got a letter in return. “Dear Mr. Feiler, Thank you very much for your son’s letter.  But please leave the marketing to us!”
-Bruce Feiler

When I was on JET I dated another JET who was going through his own soul searching (for lack of a better word) and we spent a lot of time discussing religion and its meaning. I think he felt even more compelled to do so because to him Japan and the Japanese appeared to have no religion (generally speaking). I wanted him to see that it wasn’t necessarily that there is no religion, but that there is a lack of tradition of organized religion the way it is in other places. I still think that there is faith and a belief in God in Japan. It just manifests itself differently and from a Christian perspective, in a “pagan” way.  In any case, this topic about looking into your faith and at these issues brought back the memories and debates that we had in Japan.

I was teaching an English class for City Hall employees, and when they learned I was Jewish, they wanted to understand the difference between Christianity and Judaism.  I thought about it for a moment and started to explain that, well, Christians believe Jesus was the son of God and Jews don’t.  But that seemed kind of like it wasn’t going to really do the trick.  Then I thought of saying that Jews like cornbeef on rye with mustard and Christians like turkey on white bread with mayonnaise, but I knew that wouldn’t make much sense either.  I somehow stumbled through an explanation, but it subsequently dawned on me that Christians and Jews are pretty similar when viewed from a Japanese perspective, and many the distinctions that always seemed religious to me are more often cultural and contextual.
-Steven Horowitz

I worked at a kindergarten once a week and we had the daughter of former Mormon missionaries attending the kindergarten.  Although they didn’t really have much of a concept of religions such as Mormonism, the staff at the kindergarten really tried hard to be accommodating. The kids would typically drink o-cha with their lunches, but the little girl’s mother let them know that she was not allowed to have anything containing caffeine for religious reasons.  A few of the staff were surprised, but the head of the kindergarten grabbed a kettle, put a blue ribbon on it, and used this kettle for water for the little girl and anyone else who wanted it.  This may not seem so unusual to us, but in Japan, where conformity is stressed and children are not encouraged to be different and stand out from the others, I was very impressed with the respect my colleagues had for religious beliefs different from their own.
-Ilonka Oszvald

In Beppu or Oita-City I saw one of the saddest things.  A temple had a bunch of statues of mizugo, or water children. Mizugo means unborn baby and the statues memorialize children who never make it out of the womb, whether because of miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion, or who die very young.  It is often the Japanese version of abortion counseling.   People had left toys for the children to play with in the next world, and notebooks where women had written letters to them. One asked, “Do you play with other children?” and “O-kaachama” (“Mommy”) was a signature I saw.  I was in tears.  A woman came by with a son about three years old and talked with the priest. She told me her son was ill. Obviously not the flu or mumps.
-Mike Harper, CIR, Kagoshima-Ken, 1990-93

The closest I ever came to a Japanese religious experience was probably having hanami under thesakura! Seriously. Because the Japanese people know every meaning that the sakura have, appreciate their beauty more than I ever knew how to appreciate any tree, and create family and friendship traditions beneath the trees every year. If they had to miss having hanami one year, it may be just as bad as missing Christmas dinner or a Passover seder with your family.
-Michelle Andrews

My mom, who had recently converted to Orthodox Judaism, came to visit me in Japan during Chanukah while I was a third-year JET.  We went to Kyoto together for sightseeing and she forgot her chanukkiah, so we had to make do with putting some candles in a peanut butter sandwich.  I’m sure halacha would frown on that but it made our holidays bright and cheerful.  :-)
-Rosie DeFremery

Part of my job as a CIR was to introduce American culture to Japanese students, and one year an elementary school that I had visited in the past asked me to organize a Halloween event for the third graders.  With happy memories of Halloweens past I gladly accepted, and decided to hold a festival like we had had every year at my own elementary school.  All the grades would gather in the auditorium and some parents would show up as well.  The festival usually took place on Halloween itself and involved trick-or-treating, as well as students coming into school wearing their costumes and then taking the stage in turn to show them off to everyone.  Certain prizes were awarded for a handful of kids in each grade for categories such as scariest, funniest, and most creative costumes.

Figuring that such a simple cultural concept would be easy for the Japanese students to relate to, I shared my idea with the third grade teachers and they loved it.  I made a pre-Halloween visit to tell the kids about the history of the holiday and how it was celebrated in the States.  I encouraged them to be as creative as possible, for the fun of Halloween was not in how much money you spent or how pretty you looked, but in escaping your own identity to become whoever or whatever you wanted and making your costume believable.

I eagerly awaited the arrival of the day and made requests for specific Halloween candy to the folks back home in order to make the trick-or-treating portion somewhat close to the real thing.  Finally, October 31 rolled around, and as the students crossed the stage clad in their various costumes, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the efforts exerted by their okaasans.  There were a handful of predictable costumes like Morning Musume and Pikachu, but others were truly unique and had clearly taken time to make.  Just when I was about to give myself a big pat on the back for creating such a successful event, a boy crossed the stage in a costume that caused me to do a double take.  This couldn’t be what I think it is…

But it was.  This 8-year old had chosen to be Jesus Christ, not him as a carpenter or delivering the loaves and fishes, but on his deathbed!  Yes, his Halloween costume depicted the crucifixion, down to the real-looking blood dripping from where his hands were bound by fake nails to the cardboard cross!  What was there to say, other than to declare him the hands-down winner for creativity?  Clearly, certain traditions, even seemingly innocent ones involving candy and costumes, don’t translate as smoothly as one might think!
-Stacy Smith

My grandfather passed away during my first year on JET and I found it a very lonely experience not being able to be with my family or find a comfortable religious setting in which I could sort through my feelings.  Grandpa was a great lover of nature and we joked that the Sierra Club was actually the religion he and my grandmother followed, so on the day I found out that we lost him, I walked up to my favorite tiny hilltop shrine overlooking the ocean.  No one ever went there and it was like my own personal spiritual refuge, so I spent some time there alone staring out to sea and remembering what he meant to me.
-Rosie DeFremery

I went to Japan with an avid interest in Buddhism mostly gleaned from Kerouac and other Beat writers. I visited two temples for the purpose of prayer — one Zen recommended by a friend and then the local temple that was located just near my home. At the Zen temple, once we were all situated in a quiet room below the main area of the temple and the time came to meditate with the group of about 20 people I was thinking to myself that I could get used to this kind of religious practice.  Quiet, individual, exploratory, and no book to memorize. I didn’t know when the time to start would happen and so I wasn’t sure what to do other than wait painfully in zazen. All of the sudden the bell rang! I was startled to say the least. I know I also made a loud gasping sound as if my heart stopped because others spoke to me afterwards and they continued to say how “surprised” I was.  I am sure those old pros found it quite amusing. I went back only once since that temple wasn’t so convenient and instead I started going to the temple near my home where on most occasions I was the only person there. I was invited inside for dinner afterwards and then I found out that I played basketball with the temple master’s son.  He and I became better friends from then and I continued to visit the temple from time to time and was always asked to stay for dinner afterwards. I went to my basketball friend’s wedding also when he married one of the girls in our basketball club.  They wanted to see Shaq and Kobe play in L.A. for their honeymoon and they did it.  I was raised without going to church, and I don’t think I would ever want to go to church, but I will go to a temple from time to time because I always feel a little more at ease inside.  Not sure why, but so it goes, and it suits me fine.
-Scott Hiniker, Nagasaki ’96-’98

During my stint in Japan, I had the pleasure of attending a wide variety of English and not-so-English Catholic masses. My first one was oddly enough in good old Choshi, my JET hometown.  I was pretty amazed (and pleased) to discover shortly after I arrived that not only did Choshi have a church, but a bilingual one at that!  The mass was done in both Japanese and English for the benefit of the Filipino community (I think). It was a strange experience (but great for my Japanese) to have things said in both languages right after each other, but it did add to the length of the service.
-Kat Barnas

In my second year in Fukuoka, a friend of mine from church was diagnosed with cancer.  We all expected her to recover, but she passed away suddenly.  Her family had a Buddhist funeral ceremony with an open casket.  As the ceremony closed, everyone picked flowers from the arrangements that lined the walls and laid them in her casket as they filed past. During her illness she had refused all visitors because did not want anyone to see her while she was ill. The last time I saw Akiko she looked angelic, her face radiant in a sea of flowers.
-Brian Hersey

I had a Jehovah’s Witness church in my town, which kind of surprised me, and the school in that neighborhood had a fair number of students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses (or yehoba as I think they’re called in Japanese).  As a result, every time the school played the national anthem, those students would remain seated.  So much for the stereotype of uniformity and non-religiousness in Japan.  One day two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door – a middle aged woman and a very young woman.  They showed me a book, opened to a page with a colorful picture of the Garden of Eden hosting what appeared to be the most colorful and multi-racial picnic ever.  I invoked the “nihongo ga wakarimasen” defense, prompting the middle aged woman to give up.  But the young woman was beaming at me and exclaimed, “Steven-sensei!”  My eyes suddenly widened, I recovered and went through an awkward greeting and then we said goodbye. The epilogue is that that evening a Japanese friend was taking me to his home for dinner with his family, and as I related the story of the visit from my Jehovah’s Witness student, I added, “Kind of strange, huh?”  To which he nodded politely, paused a moment and then said, “My wife is ayehoba.”  I never figured out the implication of his statement, whether he was offended or whether he agreed with me and wasn’t particularly thrilled that his wife was a yehoba.
-Steven Horowitz

When I was a student in Kobe, I lived with a temporary host family for two weeks.  The family had two obsessions: baseball and Buddhism.  As rabid Hanshin Tigers fans, not a day went by that there wasn’t a game on TV.  And not a night went by that okaasan and her daughter didn’t light some incense and lead her daughter in a chant before the family altar.

Although I was supposed to be on vacation, I was also dragged to the other two sons’ little league games (twice daily) to sit in the bleachers with all the fanatic mothers in the freezing March air.  Then later in the month I was asked to attend a “special ceremony” with okaasan and her daughter.  Naturally, I was expecting a simple temple service.  What I got was a crash course introduction to a cult.

Somewhere in Osaka, we drove up to a complex where visitors were allowed in only by magnetic swipe card.  I was signed in as a guest, and escorted to a room with the family where a dozen of us (mostly women) sat in the excruciating seiza position for nearly an hour while watching a videotaped monk’s chanting.  The room was solemn and I’m sure I would have been more caught up in the spirit of things had my legs not felt like they were on fire.  While everyone else was reflecting on the Now, I was lost in thought wondering how many more recruits Buddhism would stand to gain through the introduction of chairs.

After that we were shuttled off to a massive hall that resembled the inside of those churches (studios?) seen on Sunday morning TV, except that there were flowers everywhere, and another huge monitor beaming images of monks walking in slow motion dropping flower petals followed by people crying.  Everyone had their heads bowed and eyes closed—everyone except me, since I needed to focus on something in the room to get my mind off the shooting pain my legs were still in.

After the video ran its course, okaasan escorted us back to the entrance where she made a donation and swiped her card again, telling me something about “points” she was accumulating.  She then introduced me to one staff member and while I couldn’t make out everything she was saying, he suddenly became very animated and handed me something that looked like an application form.  It asked for my name, phone number and address in the U.S.

There was no way I was going to fill that thing out (I would rather have joined Morning Musume’s fan club), but they both had a look in their eyes that suggested I wasn’t going anywhere until I complied.  So in the sloppiest handwriting I could swing, I gave them an address they’d never be able to track me down at.

As we turned to go (okaasan said something about a “new soul” being born), I was stopped abruptly by the staff member.  “Excuse me, but where is this ‘Springfield’ I see here?”, he said.  “I was told that you’re from New York.”  Uh-oh.

“It’s a suburb,” I faked, one foot already out the door.  “Ah, I see.  Thank you very much.”  Fortunately, I never heard from the cult again, although I did sit seiza again the following year at a wedding during JET.  And my legs are still smarting.
-Justin Tedaldi

For Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I went to a synagogue in Kobe, the only one in Japan outside of Tokyo.  It was a bit awkward and difficult explaining to my supervisor the reason I needed to take off twice from work in a short period (“How often do Jews have to take off from work?”)  And it felt very paradoxical to me that I was traveling several hours to go to a religious service that I always dreaded and tried to avoid back home.  But the real problem was that on Yom Kippur there was nowhere to go to just take a break and chill for a while until I went back for the evening service before breaking the fast.  My friend and I wandered around downtown Kobe a bit but quickly grew tired, and the only decent solution seemed to be to go to a movie theatre where we could just sit and relax for a few hours.  Jurassic Park was showing, and as a result my Yom Kippur in Japan will always be associated with dinosaurs.
-Steven Horowitz

While I was in Japan last fall for my first visit back since JET I paid a visit to Kiyomizudera in Kyoto to pick up an omamori for my mother, who had loved that temple and felt a spiritual connection with it.  I also got a little purple one reading “Katsu” (“Win / “Be Victorious”) to help me with my next major goals in life (pulling off some tough projects at work, passing the JLPT exam, etc.), and with some divine support I succeeded in all of those goals just a few months later.  Thank you kami-sama!
-Rosie DeFremery

The first interesting religious thing I saw was a small Catholic church in my town of Yaku-Cho in Kagoshima Prefecture. An Italian priest who had come to Japan in the early 1950s was living there and researching the life of a Father Giovanni Battista Siddotti, an Italian who landed there around 1709 in the Tokugawa Era. He was eventually taken to Kyoto and executed. One source says he was the last missionary to enter Japan before the country was closed off to foreigners.  Every so often I would go out to visit the priest to say hello. For Christmas 1992 I attended his service and a Japanese man who was a Christian brought about eight or 10 Filipina hostesses living on the island to the service as well.  The priest told me he did very few marriages but sometimes performed them for the people from that shuuraku (neighborhood).

One of the town officials, a section chief in the yaku-ba, was a Pentecostal Christian. He actually spoke in tongues for me and said I was welcome anytime I wanted to come to his church.  He and his wife ran the neighborhood kindergarten.  He ran the tax section. I wonder if he ever thought about “rendering unto Caesar.”  I heard that in the the 1950s an American missionary friend of his had brought an oven to the island for baking bread. Apparently before that the people had primarily eaten rice.
-Mike Harper, CIR, Kagoshima-Ken, 1990-93

Now, it’s your turn! Head on over to the Google Form and tell us about your experience with religion on JET!

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