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Unexpected results of teaching ukulele in Japan

Have you ever seen a bumper sticker with a red ukulele and the words “I’m Huge in Japan”? There is no doubt that the tiny ukulele is huge in Japan—so huge that Japan has been described as the second home of ukulele, with Hawaii as its first.

Why is ukulele so popular in Japan? The ukulele is cute, easy to carry around and fits in crowded Japan. Additionally, Japan has a special relationship with Hawai‘i’ for a long time. According to the 2000 US Census around 40% of Hawai’i’s population has some Japanese ancestry.

As an instrument the ukulele is popular around the world due to how easy it is to play. You do not need to read music to pick it up. The nylon strings are also easy on the fingers. Ukuleles come in four different sizes, making them comfortable for hands of all sizes. Furthermore, the ukulele has the sound of a happy instrument.

I’ve conducted group ukulele classes in different Japanese churches in Hokkaido as a community outreach ministry with the mission of sharing the love of Jesus. I’ve seen how powerful this tiny instrument is and how it can be used in connecting people to the church.

One church’s experience with ukuleles

One of the churches I have worked in has an aging congregation. Most of the church members are over 50 years old. The ukulele class was thus aimed at mid-lifers, seniors, and retirees. The church members invited their non-Christian husbands and friends to join the classes. Having read about the class in the district newspaper, some retired folks with no church affiliation also came.

At first, I wondered whether these grannies had a real passion to play the ukulele or they only wanted to kill time. But they wondered whether they could master the skills of playing the ukulele. After performing a nursery rhyme for their family, especially their grandchildren, they told me that they were so excited that they could play music. Some of the students said that they had learned to play the guitar when they were young. However, playing the guitar was hard and even painful, so they gave it up. They would like to see if playing the ukulele would be easier. They all agreed that playing the ukulele was more comfortable. 

Most of the male students said that when they were young, they had to spend all their time on work. But as retirees, they could pick up music. In the class everyone enjoyed playing all sorts of songs, including hymns. After each class, we had a ten-minute Bible time, learning about Christianity.

Upon completing the course, the students formed a ukulele group—playing ukulele and socializing in the church once a month. Not only do they perform in special church events, e.g. Easter Sunday service, but also regularly share their singing and music with seniors at the care home near the church. In this way, the non-Christians have been connected to the church.

Innovative means to reach out in Japan

It really is eye-opening to see how the ukulele has drawn people together and warmed the hearts of many. I am grateful for the opportunities to share the love of Christ and serve our Lord through teaching ukulele.

In Japan, churches are becoming more willing to try innovative means to reach people. If you have other ideas for outreach in mind, would you please share with us?

By Ka Po, an OMF missionary


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