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A letter from Barbara Easton in Japan

January 23, 2012

Dear Friends in Christ,

The Lantern Festival in Nagasaki welcomes the lunar new year.

Thank you for your interest in God’s work in Japan and for your continued support through prayer and gifts. We have all come through a festive season of celebration because of Christmas, and this is true even in Japan where only about 1 percent of the population is Christian, and even where the tragic conditions following the earthquake of last March continue.

God’s mercies come to us fresh every day, but the marking of a new year on the calendar is a big moment for many people. January 1 is a big day in Japan, particularly for families. Houses are cleaned especially thoroughly, including such items as washing windows inside and outside (at least where temperatures are above the freezing point). There are special decorations made of pine, bamboo, and plum branches; huge ropes made of rice straw; and pounded rice cakes along with other traditional food products that carry the meaning of long life and prosperity. Preparation of these things can be seen on daily television news broadcasts of local features. In earlier years all businesses closed for three days to allow for celebration, but now some “convenience stores” are always open for necessities and big stores of various kinds have sales featuring “lucky bags” of mixed goods at a fixed discounted price. Many millions of Japanese people travel in a very short time, between December 29 and January 3, for family gatherings or pleasure. People also visit Buddhist temples on New Year’s Eve, to clear away their troubles with the 108 strokes of big bronze bells, and Shinto shrines, generally with family or friends, to begin the new year with prayers for health and success. Then in early January many local customs continue to be practiced and broadcast. Recently I was surprised to see a brief feature about a traditional religious site where some people go to wash money. This is not “money laundering.” Instead they seem to hope their money will grow as crops do when watered well. It is hard to know whether people really believe in the effectiveness of many traditional customs. My students often seem mostly unaware of these, so at least the younger generations may be losing connections with a lot of older Japanese culture.

Lunar New Year decorations feature "Luck upside down", which sounds like "Luck has come."

In contrast to past centuries when Nagasaki was the only port in Japan open to outside influences (from China, Portugal for a time, and Holland) and then a center of British cultural influence in the 19th century, Nagasaki is now somewhat conservative in keeping past customs alive. Christianity came here more than 400 years ago, but when Japan was closed to most Europeans, Chinese influence remained. Now the Lantern Festival (January 23–February 6, 2012) attracts tourists to celebrate the lunar new year in a Chinese fashion. This is organized by the local Chinese community, Chinese who originally came largely from Fukien Province. (Our Chinese students at Kwassui Women’s University come from other places and consider some of the festival sights rather strange to them.) As 2012 is said to be the year of the dragon (one of the 12 creatures in the cycle of years), there is a giant lantern in the form of three dragons at the central location of the festival. Nagasaki also has several dragon dances performed in successive years with similar images in connection with the main Shinto shrine festival here each October, so dragons frequently appear somewhere in the city. Most people see this as entertainment and do not associate it with any religious meanings. Although the image of a dragon in the Bible is not a good one, in East Asian cultures the dragon is widely thought to bring prosperity. I try to have students think more deeply about the meaning of the culture around them, since they often seem to take most of their surroundings for granted. In the classes that I teach about Christianity, many students write that they believe God loves and protects them. The challenge is to help them become connected to the body of Christian believers in Japanese congregations.

Our academic year is coming to a close in the next month or so, with graduation in early March. Please pray for students who will soon be going out into the wider world that they will remember what they have learned at Kwassui (“Living Water”) about Jesus Christ.

Thank you again for holding me in prayer as I try to serve God in Japan. I am grateful to be part of this connectional church. May God bless each of you in your various locations and vocations.

Christ Jesus is with us always. Hallelujah!

Barbara Easton

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 200

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