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A letter from Thomas Goetz in Japan

Spring 2014

To Plant a Seed 

“First the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” Mark 4:28.

I have been in Japan as an International Mission Volunteer for nearly half my life.  The whole time I have been associated with private, Christian-related universities:  International Christian University in Tokyo, Kwansei Gakuin University outside of Kobe, and Hokusei Gakuen University here in Sapporo.  Every now and then when visiting a church stateside, I get the question, “So, what have you done in Japan that might, even in the slightest way, suggest that you have done something?”

Gone are the days of the 19th century when missionaries would write dictionaries and grammars, translate the Bible, and found hospitals and universities in addition to churches.  Japanese society has been through many transformations and the way in which we do mission has changed as well.  Instead of being at the forefront, I see my role as one who plants seeds that may grow. 

In this letter I would like to begin with a picture of a current construction project at Hokusei Gakuen University. 

This was taken recently from the window from my office. Behind the crane is an auger being used to bore holes for the foundation of a new classroom building AND to drill a fresh water well.

Here is the story. 

Let’s go back to the end of 1995.  It had been eight months since the 1995 Kobe Earthquake.  I was meeting with the Chancellor of Kwansei Gakuin University, informing him that I was going to leave in favor of Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo. He thought I was out of my mind.  Kwansei Gakuin truly is a great university.  If I were to compare it to a stateside institution, Northwestern comes to mind.  Chancellor Miyata and I are separated by 30 years; however, we share a lot of common ground, in short, we are both “out of the box” thinkers.  When we were both young, we served with the YMCA, Japan and America respectively. 

He asked me why, after the earthquake, I did not take my family to a safer place? We lived on campus in a big old mission house. By being there we were inside one of the many zones of major destruction. I said that we were here to serve in any way we could. The mission house we were in was in surprisingly good shape, considering. We opened our doors and took in earthquake refugees, sometimes accommodating more than a dozen, ranging from school-aged children to the elderly. And after the electricity came back after two and a half days, we were able to tap into the university’s fresh water supply through a series of garden hoses.  With water, we could cook, clean, and flush toilets.  Then he asked if I knew where the water came from. I said that I assumed it was well water. All of the city mains had been ruptured. Indeed, Kwansei Gakuin had three such wells, deep, wide and clean, to meet community needs.  Kwansei Gakuin regarded those wells as an insurance policy; should the day come when the local water utility failed, Kwansei could keep its doors open and serve itself and others in need.  And it did.  The earthquake hit on January 17, 1995. Entrance exams were less than two weeks away. Within hours the water was tested and the diesel electric generators were fired up to pump up the water.  Kwansei Gakuin was ready. Chancellor Miyata planted a seed in me that said that I must always be an “out of the box” thinker. 

Soon I moved to Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo.  Hokusei is smaller but well respected in the region.  Shortly after arriving, I asked a university leader how many fresh water wells Hokusei has.  The answer: none. "Why?" “We don’t need one.” So, with my fond memory of Chancellor Miyata in mind, I asked, “What would Hokusei do if there were an earthquake or some other natural disaster that shut down the local water utility?”  The answer was a total denial of any such thing happening.  That was 1996. 

9-11-2001. I asked the same guy. What would happen if the Sapporo water supply were contaminated by a terrorist group?  It might not be a bad idea to have a freshwater well as a kind of insurance policy.  His answer: "I can’t disagree with you, but we still see no need for one.  After all, wells are expensive." 

Fast forward to…

3-11-2011: The East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.  By this time the leadership at Hokusei had changed and I approached the appropriate leader saying that with the plans to replace Classroom Building C with a bigger and better facility, might not this be a good time to drill a freshwater well in its basement as a kind of insurance policy?  A natural disaster can strike anywhere at any time and if we cannot generate our own power and flush toilets, we cannot remain open.

The guy said: “You are right.” Six months later it was announced publicly that a freshwater well would be part of the package. I sat through that meeting smiling and thinking of my friend, the former Chancellor of Kwansei Gakuin University.  I see him from time to time when I visit Kobe.  He is elderly now, but still gets out and about.  He well remembers the names of our children and asks how Hideko, my wife, is doing. 

What I learned is this.  I did not decide to include plans for a freshwater well at Hokusei. I was not on that committee.  But I planted the seed for it to happen.  What makes for effective missions in the 21st century in Japan? Patience, and the ability to listen. Wait, and ask questions. 

“‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me”  2 Corinthians 12:9.


The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 234
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