Written by Dr. Doyle Srader
I spent much of my sixteenth year as a Bushnell professor rubbing my eyes in astonishment. Japan is beautiful, orderly, quirky, tidy, ancient, space-age, fallible, conflicted, confusing, confused, inexplicable, and heartbreakingly lovable.
But Japan and its people were not what astonished me the most. In September 2022, I stepped into the unknown and unpredictable, and I found God waiting for me, ready to throw open one door after another and usher me into meetings and gatherings and opportunities He had prepared on a scale I can still only wonder at.
I did underestimate the challenge of the language barrier, partly because I knew Japanese students study English from a very young age. But American students study math from a very young age, and most Japanese people I met seemed to feel toward their English lessons the way Americans do toward math lessons: bitter dislike, and a complete lack of confidence. My students wrote beautifully in English but would sooner eat month-old unrefrigerated sushi than speak an entire English sentence.
As for me, I’ve puttered at learning Japanese a few phrases at a time since the nineteen hundreds, but I had not factored in my deaf left ear, the lingering popularity of masks in Japan, the Japanese norm that speaking softly shows good manners, and native speaker speed. I often could convey my request or comment in reasonable Japanese, but I had zero understanding of their answer. And I say “often” because I did make quite a few mistakes; for my first month in Japan, I kept trying to start conversations by saying “Please forgive me, my Japanese is terrible.” Then a new friend very gently pointed out to me that I was saying “Please forgive me, your Japanese is terrible.” I’m still trying to recover from my embarrassment at that.
Less than a day after I stepped off the plane, I began teaching at my first assigned school, 津田塾大学, Tsuda University. Tsuda is a women’s university founded by Tsuda Umeko, a teacher and activist who championed women’s access to education in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was also a Christian, and that meant the university had two facilities that blessed me in very different ways: a guest house, where the university allowed me to live for the entire year for a nominal fee, and a chapel, where I was invited to deliver a welcome sermon to the newly arriving class of first years at the start of their school year.
Japanese college students tend to be very attentive, but very quiet; they do not raise their hands to ask a question or offer a comment. That’s true for men, but ten times as true for women. I taught my first classes at Tsuda in rooms filled with very polite, very proper Japanese women who put enormous effort into doing everything correctly and never leaving themselves open to the unexpected. Most of the time I did my best to fit their expectations, but on a few occasions I’m afraid I did shake them up a bit.
One Wednesday, I was in the guest house, getting cleaned and coiffed to teach my class. I keep my head shaved, and on teaching days I give it a fresh going over, so I was almost finished applying shaving cream to my scalp when I heard a knock at the door. I didn’t move to answer it, because I figured it was the maintenance staff coming in to take care of something in the house. But a few moments later, I heard a knock on the bathroom door, and that seemed to require a response. I opened it just a crack, and there stood a young lady with eyes as big as saucers. To be fair to her, I must have looked like something from another planet. In a faint voice, she asked, “Is this building seven?” I said “No, this is building three, the guest house.” She ran out the door at top speed, yelling “ごめんなさい! ごめんなさい!” (“I apologize! I apologize!”)
That afternoon, I taught my “Public Speaking for Japanese Audiences” class, and they were having a hard time understanding why westerners tell so many stories in their speeches. I decided to demonstrate by giving an impromptu speech on the thesis, “It is important to pay attention to where you’re going.” I started by telling them what happened, then connected it to my thesis, elaborated on a couple of main points, and in the conclusion returned to my opening story to bring the speech full circle. I said, “If any of you happen to know the young lady, please tell her she didn’t do any harm. I thought it was fairly funny, and as you all have just seen, I got a nice lesson illustration out of it.” The week after, one student stayed behind after class and whispered to me, “I wanted to tell you that I do know the young lady. I told her what you said, and she felt better. And when I said you told the story in class to teach us how to introduce a speech, she laughed.”
In addition to Tsuda, I also taught at 東京国際大学, Tokyo International University, and 東京外国語大学, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, which goes by the nickname Gaidai. At Gaidai, my colleagues invited me to teach a one-week intensive class at the end of their school year, and they shared with me a list of past topics. Several were about religion, so I prepared a syllabus for a class entitled “How Christianity helps explain the way westerners communicate,” and they accepted it. Soon after, both Tsuda and Tokyo International asked me what classes I would teach in their spring term, so I offered to teach the new class I had developed for Gaidai, and they both welcomed it.
At the very first class meeting, I introduced myself, but then I delivered about a forty-five minute explanation of the basics of Christianity, because I knew the majority of the students probably knew nothing at all about it. After that, I tackled issues like the influence of the Catholic church on the individualism-collectivism split between cultures, or the Biblical accounts of Jesus and His apostles arguing with authorities and how those differed from Confucian teachings about filial piety and staying in one’s place in the hierarchy. Each week I took up a communication situation and explained what published research said about Christianity’s influence on how it would unfold in the west.
And I had learned my lesson from my first experiences with quiet students at Tsuda, so I assigned students to gather in duos for the last fifteen minutes of class and prepare an open-ended question about the day’s topic that they wanted me to discuss. They turned in their questions by email, which solved their reticence to speak up during class. Their questions were the best part of the experience: they asked about why God allows suffering, why God is invisible, why Christians want to forgive people who do bad things, and many more. Every time I tackled the questions, which were far from easy, I felt the satisfaction that they had highlighted the gaps in their own understanding, the parts that left them curious, and I was privileged to do my very best to answer them.
Between the fall and spring terms, I had about six weeks free, so I hopped on the 新幹線, the bullet train, and traveled to Kanazawa, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Osaka, and back home to Tokyo. In Nagasaki, I was blessed to meet Tasaki Toru, an eighty-nine year old native of the city who was ten years old on the day the bomb fell. He took me around town, moving so nimbly I had to stretch my legs out to keep up. We visited all the memorial sites, and he gave me the standard tour, but then added his own memories. At one point, he pulled out a picture he had drawn of the mushroom cloud. After the tour we sat and ate lunch together, and he pulled out his Bible and showed me his favorite passage, Matthew 7:1-5, and I showed him mine, John 1:12. He told me his wife is Christian and so is his sister, but he is not. He was a wise, kind, gentle man, and I now pray for him every day, and I hope you will too.
I made many discoveries on my travels, but back at my home base in Tokyo there were even more and better discoveries waiting for me. I made friends with a number of missionaries, especially Max and Bille Seifert who are sent by Liebenzell Mission. We took Japanese lessons together for several weeks, and stayed in touch afterward. They invited me over for Christmas, and they came to the airport to see me off, and I have made a point of keeping in contact with them.
My adventure in Japan was the best sabbatical I could have hoped for. God sent me to Japan to work very hard, but He also rewarded me lavishly in friendships and discoveries and opportunities. I took my little loaves and fishes to a country of a hundred and twenty-five million people whose culture stubbornly resists the Gospel, and God opened door after door for me to teach what I know and answer questions about what they want to understand. I came home with a thousand little stories to tell and one big testimony to offer about how good our Father is, how ready He is to bless us, and how reflecting His glory to people who so urgently need to know Him is the most satisfying work I have ever done.