【December 2016 No.390】A Half-Century of Working With Nihongo (Japanese Language)

by Timothy D. Boyle, retired missionary Penney Farms, Florida

As a newly retired missionary and ongoing translator and copyeditor for the Kyodan Newsletter, I have been asked to reflect back on my years in Japan. I first began studying Japanese as a junior in college as part of a program at the East-West Center in Hawaii in 1967. Becoming a missionary and spending most of my adult life in Japan was not yet on the radar screen, but that is where God was leading me behind the scenes. I was sent as a “J-3″ (3-year-term missionary to Japan) in 1971 to Sapporo in Hokkaido, and it was there that I sensed a call to the ministry. I returned to the US with my new wife, Yuko (Juji), in 1974 (Yuko is her given name, but she has gone by the nickname of Juji since her youth. Her maiden name was Kurosu, which sounds like the English word “cross,” which in Japanese is “juji.”), and then we returned as regular missionaries in 1982 first to Hokkaido, then to Tsukuba Science City, where we spent the bulk of our ministry, and finally to Kansai area, where I served two years at the Buraku Liberation Center and 6.5 years at Kwansei Gakuin University.


There are many highlights I could share (along with a few “lowlights” I would rather not), but since this has to be short, I will just briefly introduce two. Just about the time we went to Tsukuba in 1986, Juji began having trouble with her muscles and was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular condition called Isaacs’ Syndrome. (Well, actually, that would qualify as a “lowlight”!) This has resulted in regular stays in the hospital for treatment ever since, which has opened up numerous opportunities for her to minister to fellow patients. One was a young lady by the name of Yuki, who had a malignant brain tumor. Juji became good friends with her and her parents. Yuki loved Christmas lights, and Juji was able to get special permission for Yuki to be brought by ambulance to the church on Christmas Eve, first to see the lights and then for the choir to sing for her prior to the candlelight service. Before she died about five weeks later, she indicated that she would like to become a Christian. We were able to bend the rules Tsukuba University Hospital had about religious activities in the hospital, and so I was able to baptize her right there in her hospital bed. Her parents were so moved by the experience that they too wanted to receive baptism and follow Christ.


As Yuki’s father was a high-ranking prefectural government employee, there were many who came to Yuki’s memorial service, where I gave the message. It was held in a big funeral hall, which would normally have a Buddhist ceremony. But this was to be a Christian ceremony, and so the stage was set up with a large, floral cross. My goal in the message was to get the over 500 people in attendance to think about what “filial piety” towards their true “parent” is. Oyakoko is an integral part of Japanese culture, where duty towards one’s parents is emphasized. The English translation, “filial piety,” is not a phrase Westerners normally use, but it really flows right out of the fourth commandment: “Honor your father and mother.”


Yuki had been a daughter who demonstrated such “filial piety” towards her parents, and so I wanted to emphasize that while showing such respect and devotion to one’s earthly parents is very good, there is one thing that in the end is even more important—that of showing oyakoko to our true oya (parent), namely the God who created each of us in his own image. Funerals, along with weddings, are perhaps the points of contact with the general population who have no background of Christianity where we have the greatest opportunity to plant seeds that the Holy Spirit can use to draw people to Christ. I have no way of knowing whether God has used that particular event to play a role in drawing some of those people there to Christ, but I think it likely that he has or will, as I am aware of many anecdotal accounts of Japanese coming to faith through seeds planted by sensitive messages at Christian funerals.


Along this same line, I have always endeavored to find linguistic and cultural points of contact that can serve as vehicles for communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to Japanese in as natural a way as possible. The other highlight I want to mention is the book I put out first in Japanese and later in English on how the makeup of so many of the Chinese characters that Japanese use in their language perfectly illustrates biblical truths. The publisher of the original 1994 Japanese version came up with the title that translates in English as Bible Stories Hidden In Chinese Characters, and 5,000 copies were printed in two editions. This is quite a large number for Japanese Christian books, but it is now out of print. I self-published the original English version several year later, and just last year put out an updated version under a new title, The Gospel Hidden In Chinese Characters. It includes the Chinese readings as well as the Japanese so as to have a broader appeal. I hope some day to be able to rewrite the Japanese version and make it available again.


As I close this brief article, I want to say that while I feel I have been able to make important contributions to the mission of Christ’s church in Japan, I can add my voice to that of many other missionaries I have heard who all testify that we have received so much more than we have been able to give during our years of working with the Japanese people. That no doubt will continue to be true in the future, as we plan to return to Japan every summer to spend time at our cabin at Lake Nojiri in Nagano.