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A letter from Thomas Goetz in Japan

summer 2014

"He said what?"

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ  (2 Cor 4:6).

Greetings, friends, 

I so much appreciate your prayers, feedback, and well wishes from my last letter that I decided to include material here that I had to edit simply because of length.  The scripture lesson refers to light shining out of darkness in a metaphorical sense. In short, Paul wanted the Christians in Corinth to walk their talk.  Enough of the denial, bickering, and false pretenses.  It was as if he were delivering some kind of ultimatum by referring to the Creation story. 

This passage seems most fitting in that I found myself in a similar, almost winless situation back in 1990 when I was at International Christian University.  The offices of the ICU Church and Religious Center were, and still are, located in Diffendorfer Hall.  At that time next to it was the student union, a wide-open room with an adjoining bookstore.  The open space was typically filled with cigarette smoke at any time of the day.  Having considered placing a highly visible sign done up in road-construction format, "Caution, Lungs at Work," I knew only too well that that would have been counterproductive.  After all, it was 1990, the collapse of the economic bubble had not yet materialized, and there was a high-riding sense of pride in whatever the Japanese were doing.  

The smoke was terrible.  The secondhand smoke that floated into our office made all of our clothes stink. 

Then it occurred to me.  I worked for an organization that had in its name the word "Christian." International Christian University.  "How," I thought, "does a university that calls itself Christian by name answer a theological question about tobacco sales and consumption on its own campus?"  I also knew that any discussion about banning smoking would fail outright.  But if the discussion were not about smoking per se, but about a Christian university making money off of the sales of tobacco products, products that have been proven time and again to leave the consumer worse off than prior to purchase and consumption, consumption according to manufacturers' designed intent, then why should anyone listen to the message of God's love as evidenced in Christ's ministry?

This is the question I asked the ICU Religious Affairs Committee in the fall of 1990.  The members of the committee elbowed each other asking in all earnestness, "He said what?" But asked it was and in a theological manner. The question was taken seriously.  A representative from our committee asked the manager of the ICU Bookstore why it sold tobacco products.  By the next meeting we heard that the manager felt that cigarettes were an essential item for student life.  At that point I asked why the bookstore did not sell salt.  In Japan at that time manufacture, import, distribution, and sales of all tobacco products were under the control of a state monopoly that also controlled salt.  Why one and not the other? The conversation continued. "You can consume salt in accordance with health directives and be a healthier person, but the only health directives [about tobacco] found anywhere talk only about quitting the habit of smoking."  The question stood, Why should a Christian university allow for the sales of tobacco on its campus? The representative met again with the manager and we learned that at that time 5 percent of annual sales were the direct result of tobacco sales.  The conversation continued: Why not offer a plan to the bookstore, a compensatory 5 percent decrease in rent? 

After that the conversation stopped.  It was decided that as a committee that dealt with religious affairs, we had done our job.  Any further discussion could be construed as bullying. And no one wants that.

Time passed, I changed universities, Japan remained a smokers' heaven. I changed universities again, to my present assignment, Hokusei Gakuen University, and noticed in 1998 that the counter at our bookstore stopped selling cigarettes. Furthermore, the number of cigarette vending machines were reduced to one machine. Later, to make a purchase, you had to place an ID card on a magnetic plate to prove your age.  Then, while attending a conference in a different part of Japan, I read a sign that said, "This university is a non-smoking university. Please do not smoke here." 

What had happened?  I asked my friends at different universities about this transformation that was taking place in the early 2000s.  I asked and asked and everyone said that around 1999 or 2000 an awareness had reached groundswell proportions. 

Then I called up a friend at ICU and asked if ICU were smoke-free.  It was, and it predated everyone else.  I asked if you could still buy tobacco products at the bookstore. "Has not been possible for years."   

This is the formula.  For a university to rid itself of smoking, it first pressures its bookstore to cease the sales of tobacco, obviously with some kind of incentive.  Then it can set up a smoke-free campus policy. 

In Japan there is no other university that went through this transformation that predates International Christian University.  And that started with a simple question from a sometimes stubborn yours truly. 

So, let this be another story along the line of "What have you done here in Japan now that you've been here half of your life?"

In my last letter I told about how my experience in the 1995 Kobe earthquake led to the founding of Habitat for Humanity in Japan.  That is a cheerful story based on giving and mutual friendships.  As the discussions were unfolding, I was more often told to shut up.  I left ICU thinking that the pictures I had taken would always be mine forever, but what about my theological question about tobacco sales at a university that calls itself Christian?  I assumed that would disappear and be forgotten like footprints in the sand.  But, obviously, those footprints remained.  Thank you, Lord, for carrying me and letting the question that I asked so many years ago shine.

“Let light shine out of darkness,” (as it) has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ  (2 Cor 4:6).



The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 234
Read more about Thomas Goetz's ministry

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Individuals: Give online to E074285 for Thomas Goetz's sending and support


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