Has COVID made you reassess what’s important to you? Here in Hanamaki (rural Japan), we are gradually emerging from restrictions and enjoyed our freedom again. In September, our city held its annual festival for the first time in three years. This usually quiet rural town becomes a bustling place, as stall holders shout greetings, volunteers parade god-houses from local shrines, and musicians beat drums on colourful floats.
What is this all for? If you ask people at the festival they’ll say “it’s about culture not religion” and there’s some truth in this. Many people, for example, can’t tell you the meaning of the specific things the Shinto priests are doing when they bless the people as they march past. But people are often fearful at the thought of neglecting the old traditions and the graphic depictions of demons on some of the floats are frightening, but it is fear of neglecting community traditions that runs deeper.
But modern-day idols also make an appearance at Hanamaki Festival. In recent years it has been Otani Shohei, the famous local baseball player who was voted Most Valuable Player last year in the American Major League Baseball (MLB). A larger than life statue of him was paraded through our streets to celebrate his success. In fact, over the years his success has inspired many local boys to join the baseball program at Hanamaki East School in the hope of emulating his success.
So, in this way, Hanamaki festival is a good picture of modern Japan. A dark spiritualism runs deep in society and, though often not well understood, there is a palpable fear of what might happen if it’s neglected. Almost paradoxically, this is married to a desire to pursue wealth and celebrity that’s so familiar to us in the West.
What does gospel say in the midst of these two desires in the heart of Japanese people? In Jesus we can know real riches. In Jesus we can know a God full of grace and love, instead of a spirituality to be feared.
Who will offer the Japanese people this better vision? Will you pray for the transformation of the desires of this people?
By Mark, an OMF missionary