Although I was raised in a Christian home by mission-minded parents, I had no intention of becoming a missionary. The thought of learning a language like Chinese or Japanese scared me. As I grew up, I learned about past mistakes of culturally insensitive missionaries, and I met a few missionaries who didn’t seem to like or even respect the people among whom they were working. If that’s how missionaries are, I don’t want to be one, I thought.
However, God graciously allowed my husband and I to meet all sorts of wonderful Japanese friends. I studied music in college and graduate school and had the opportunity to perform with a number of Japanese musicians. In particular I came to appreciate my friend and colleague, Akiko, who introduced me to Japanese food and tea. From that time on, my interest in Japanese culture and language began to grow.
When my husband and I were getting close to our graduation from seminary, we still had no idea what sort of work we would do and where we would go after graduation. We met Tony and Pat Schmidt, veteran OMF missionaries from Japan, and when the opportunity came to work with them in Sapporo as short-termers, we accepted.
Although we had admired Tony and Pat for their passion for the Gospel, we saw them in a new light when we arrived in Japan and saw them interacting with their Japanese friends and colleagues. They truly loved the Japanese people. If that’s how missionaries are, I would like to be one, I thought.
Following Pat’s example and assisted by online resources and kind ladies at church, I began my Japanese cultural study by learning about Japanese food, especially making bento lunches for us to take to language school. Tamura-sensei, one of the teachers, encouraged us: ‘the key to being an effective missionary in Japan is to love Japanese food,’ she said. ‘This will open up the doors to people’s hearts.’
I have certainly found this to be true. For my first New Year’s celebration in Japan, I prepared Osechi, the traditional New Year’s feast. When I showed pictures and exchanged ideas with Japanese women, I could tell that they felt honoured by my interest in their culture.
When my husband and I returned to Japan as career missionaries in July 2011, I set three cultural goals for my first term: to sing and play folk songs on the shamisen, to put on my own kimono, and to serve tea. Currently I am taking shamisen lessons and attending kitsuke (kimono wearing) classes. Learning tea ceremony is on hold until after language school graduation. Through learning the shamisen and kitsuke, I have learned about the relationship between teacher and student, about the Japanese approach to learning (in summary: copy teacher exactly, then repeat, repeat, repeat), and about rules as a framework for creativity. My classes have also been a good opportunity to observe Japanese Christians doing outreach. My shamisen teacher is a Christian; her dream is to play shamisen with other Christians. My kitsuke teacher is also a Christian; for her, teaching is a way of meeting people. My friend, Naoko, who hosts the kitsuke class in her home, is also a Christian; hearing her talk naturally about her faith with her friends has become a model for me.
Although I am still new to Japan, I can see that interest in Japanese culture will lead to deep friendships. I’m convinced that as missionaries, our participation in forming an authentically Japanese church will begin with our loving the Japanese people and loving the things that they love.
About the writers
Keith and Celia Olson (OMF US)
Japan Language Centre, Sapporo, Japan
Number of OMF Language students in Japan: 14 +4 arriving soon
Full time language study in Japan: 2 years
Fluency in Japanese: 6–8 years