Here in Japan, in addition to traditional Japanese holidays, many holidays from around the world are also celebrated. Ghosts and ghouls inhabit stores throughout October, and the majority of candy packaging switches to black and orange. Many celebrations even have a unique twist. On Valentine’s Day, chocolates are given only by women to men. Then, one month later on White Day, men reciprocate with chocolate to the women from whom they received a gift. (Usually labeled ‘giri choco’, or ‘obligation chocolate’.) Christmas is a mixture of Santa Claus, decorations and traditional carols, with Christmas Eve being a romantic date night for young couples and families enjoying the traditional American Christmas meal of fried chicken. (It’s a long story, just thank the ingenuity of the KFC ad department.)
Personally, we welcome these holidays, even when the celebration differs from how it is done in the US. They almost always give us a chance to share our faith with our friends. Valentine’s/White Day are chances to talk about true love and God’s design for couples. Christmas is a month-long proclamation of God’s love for us. Halloween affords opportunities to share about God’s promise to protect us from evil spirits, albeit most of the ‘spirits’ on the candy wrappers are rather cute.
But there is one holiday that continues to miss the eye of consumerism here, and that is Easter. We see little of chocolates and bunnies, baskets, and egg hunts. One reason may be that Easter isn’t a set day. Another is that in the spring, all of Japan focuses on cherry blossoms. But I think that the main reason is that Easter is connected to death, and to most Japanese, death isn’t something which is celebrated. There are memorials held for the dead, and in the year when a family member dies some holidays are forgone. Death is associated with pain, separation and uncertainty, none of which are worthy of celebration.
For us who live with Christ as our Lord and Savior, though, Easter is about hope, second chances and true life. Allow me to share how Japanese churches celebrate Easter and then the message we bring to our community.
Churches across Japan celebrate Easter in similar ways. Easter Sunday services proclaim a clear, evangelistic message of new life in Christ, and many churches will use the day to baptize new believers. Of course baptisms happen throughout the year, but believers like the spiritual significance of linking their new life with Christ’s resurrection. After the morning service, church members will share a meal together and then, in the afternoon, will travel to a cemetery that houses the church’s communal grave site for a second service.
Why at the grave site? It is here that they take time to remember and honor church members that have passed away, and celebrate the time when we will be re-united in Christ for all eternity. The grave will also be washed and have new flowers placed on it. The grave and graveside service plays an important role in the life of Japanese Christians.
In Japan, law stipulates that everyone must be cremated upon death, and urns are placed in family graves, called ‘haka’. These graves have a small crypt underneath so that multiple urns are able to be placed inside. Almost all funerals are Buddhist, and most grave sites are maintained according to Buddhist traditions, with various rituals preformed at the grave throughout the year. Because of this, churches provide a communal grave for their members who wish that, even in death, they may continue to proclaim Christ. Most believers do not want rituals performed on their behalf. Not because they oppose the ritual itself, but because they want their relatives to have true life in Christ. They want their families to have the hope of eternal life with Christ, and their grave becomes a part of this testimony.
Easter traditions feel very much like ‘family traditions’ for churches. While Christians do not keep altars and shrines in their homes to pray to/for deceased ancestors, Easter is a time to remember our spiritual family. Caring for the church’s grave shows honor and respect to ancestors while also proclaiming Christ as Lord. While chocolates and eggs are not in the mix, remembering Christ’s resurrection and the promise of new life in him is both poignant and celebratory in the family life of the local church.
How do we personally proclaim the Easter message to our Japanese friends and neighbors in our city? We most often frame it in the message that Jesus is the God of second chances. While there is so much that we love about Japan, it is not a nation of second chances. Blow it once and you are out. There is incredible pressure on people not to bring shame on themselves or their family. Receiving forgiveness is elusive, and many times it is never bestowed. Elementary school children are sent to cram schools in order to pass entrance tests that will often decide employment and position in life. Failure at business leads to ostracization, and has been a leading cause of suicide for middle-age men in recent years. Don’t follow society’s rules perfectly and soon you are on the outs with those around you.
Fear pervades much of Japan. Fear of unacceptance and fear of harm drive many actions. Why do we classify this as fear? Why don’t we see it as a desire to honor others and do the right thing? Because there is little mercy, grace and compassion when rules are not followed. There are few second chances. For the junior high boy that goes through a period of rebellion and slacks off on his studies, he has missed his chance to test into a good high school, which limits his college choices, which limits his career options. And if he isn’t working for the ‘right’ company, well, he must have been a slacker back in school. It never ends…
But good news! Christ has broken the cycle! He takes the dead and dying and gives them new life. 2 Corinthians 5:19 states, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” Hebrews 8:12 quotes the Old Testament saying, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” What an amazing God! Not only does he not count our sins against us, he forgets them. No labels pulled out to remind us of our past failures, no old scores left to be settled. And regarding all those societal rules that need to be relentlessly followed, Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you… for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This is an amazing promise to people weighted down with oppression.
To many of our Japanese friends, the Easter story itself at first seems like the ultimate failure. God sends his son to save the world and the son ends up executed and in a grave. As our friends read all the great promises in the Scripture, they often end up saying, “Well, look where it got him! If it didn’t work for this Jesus, why should I believe it is going to help me?”
“Good question. We’re not quite at the end of the story.”
Then we share about the resurrection. (Most of our friends don’t have an issue with supernatural events, as most Japanese people believe in a supernatural world.) What appeared to be hopeless suddenly becomes hopeful. Defeat transforms to triumph and what we thought was the end for us becomes a second chance to live again. And this is ‘Good News’ to the people of Japan. This is the message that people are longing to hear. Even while they strive to be ‘good Japanese,’ here is mercy, for when they make a mistake; grace, for protection from evil; and compassion on their weary hearts.
Year by year, we proclaim this message at Easter. We proclaim this message at Christmas. We proclaim this message daily to our friends and community. Most still struggle to accept it. That’s okay, we’ll keep proclaiming for as long as Christ has us here in Japan. We proclaim it not only to the Japanese people, but to ourselves as well. We love the hope that is found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is what frees us to fully serve and love Jesus here in Japan.