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Japanese Festivals—More Than Meets the Eye

Children and teachers had been rehearsing, and parents had planned and prepared. The Christian kindergarten’s grounds had been transformed into a summer festival. The smell of popcorn and hot dogs drifted around. We could hear the machine crushing ice for shaved ice drinks with a flavored topping.

Many of the children wore brightly colored summer kimono. And there were fun games for the kids. We saw a game like “Whack a Mole”—teachers had socks on their hands, and, snapping like alligators, they poked their hands in and out of holes. The children had to whack the “alligators” with a soft hammer. The more hits, the better the prize.

After an hour and a half or so, the performances began. A choir of parents sang; one song was gospel-style written by a Japanese Christian. Next, as older kids thudded traditional drums, four dads wearing togas came to the center holding long burning sticks. They read some lines, lit a fire that was covered by a protective cage, and called people to gather around the fire. So our five-year-old daughter went closer with all the other kids, and they and the teachers started dancing! When the teachers and students began circling the fire during their dance, it felt eerily like a ritual taking place in front of us.

At this point we realized something significant was happening. One of us said, “Is this the dance that happens at Obon?”
We’re still pretty new in Japan, but we knew that the background for Obon is Buddhist—it’s a festival that honors dead ancestors. We thought—What should we do? Our daughter is with them.

We decided we needed to withdraw her. But how, without drawing a lot of attention?
We waited until the dancing brought her close to us and pulled her out.

“Why?” she asked.

We said, “This is just something that our family is not going to participate in.”

A Buddhist ritual had, in a sense, taken place within our kids’ Christian kindergarten. People were having fun, but we were sad, thinking—What are you doing? You don’t even know!

This kindergarten teaches the children to say a prayer thanking the Lord for their food. Each month a pastor shares a Bible story. There’s plenty of exposure to the Bible. And yet, there’s this engagement with something that’s not a Christian practice.

It shocked us to experience people engaging in something without realising the possible implications of their actions. This kindergarten is Christian in name, but to some extent, it’s still influenced by traditional Buddhist ways.

This typical Japanese festival looked fun on the surface, but there was more to it than most participants realised.

By OMF missionaries

#OMFJapan #PrayforJapan

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