Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
I sit in front my computer in my apartment in Tokyo to share what I am doing while on sabbatical from the College and from the Church.
I arrived in Tokyo in late February, one day after my last homily and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper at St. Luke’s. It was two days after I came back from New York City, where I attended the first meeting of the Board of Trustees at General Theological Seminary, an important position to which I was elected, unbeknownst to myself, at the General Convention in 2018. I found Japan’s capital city since the late 19th century no warmer than Boston; in fact, snow is falling and roads frozen, in the north. Tokyo, however offers so many exciting cultural and other opportunities. I am trying to go to at least one museum every week. I also try to savor local food, whenever I can. I am even managing to learn how to cook with fresh ingredients from the farms and the sea. The apartment, owned by Japan Women’s University, where I am giving a series of lectures in April, is centrally located and comfortable. The University was founded in 1901 by a Japanese Protestant minister. While studying theology in Boston, he visited Wellesley and decided to establish a women’s college like Wellesley, once he returned to Japan. It is a strong bond between the two schools. Over the years, several students came to Wellesley to study for a year. One of them is teaching American Studies; I will work with her later in April for a symposium on women’s education in the US and in Japan. It is always gratifying to see a former student, thriving in any she chooses.
As some of you know, my Nancy served as a missionary to the Anglican Church of Japan some thirty years ago. Her charge was to start a program to minister to the foreign women working in Japan in the “entertainment” business, which was a euphemism for what many now call “sex industry.” It was a demanding, sometimes dangerous, work for Nancy. For, these foreign women, many from the Philippines at that time, were controlled by the yakuza, Japan’s equivalent of the mafia. Nancy’s ability to speak their language and her commitment to peace and justice helped her work for five long years. The Anglican Church of Japan has only two parishes where English is the main language: one in Okinawa, where the majority of the parishioners are US military personnel, the other is St. Alban’s Church, located next to the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew in Tokyo. The parishioners come from many English-speaking countries, including those in Africa, South Asia, UK, Canada and US. They include diplomats, business executives, but also menial workers in restaurants and shops. The Rector, William Bulson, came six years ago from the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, where he served in a parish with many Hmong and other Southeast Asian refugees, who came to the US after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Yesterday, after the service, I spent the rest of the day with a Protestant minister who ministers to the incarcerated foreigners in Nagasaki. Many are Muslims, most “people of color.” Not many committed violent crimes; rather, they overstayed beyond what their visas allowed, or sold drugs in Japan. Japan has a very strict law against crimes of all sorts. Laborers from the “Third World” are particularly vulnerable. With a steady decline in population, the population here is getting older and needier. In local markets and shops, as well as nursing homes employ people from Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere. Construction work that is everywhere as Tokyo prepares for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games rely heavily on foreign workers. With the encouragement of Father Bulson, St. Alban’s is reaching out to inmates in a prison for foreigners in Tokyo, modeled after the work of the minister in Nagasaki. St. Alban’s is doing Christ’s ministry. The church was established after the end of the World War II, when Douglas MacArthur and other Allied soldiers came to help Japan recover from the war. Since then, the church has flourished.
Today, April first, is a very important day in Japan. In preparation for the current Emperor’s abdication on the last day of April and of the Crown Prince’s enthronement on the first day of May, the Japanese government chose the name of the new era, which will begin on the day of the Enthronement. Starting in the 7th century, 645 to be exact, each time a new emperor was enthroned, Japan entered into a new imperial era with a new name. The current Emperor, Akihito, has reigned for 30 years now during the Heisei period. Heisei means: “lasting peace.” The imperial reign in Japan is “symbolic.” The Constitution states that the Emperor is the “symbol” of the history and the people of Japan, with no influence on politics. With the advice of nine leaders, chosen from the legal, media and academic sectors, the government chose Reiwa (令和) as the name of the new era. For over a millennium, the imperial era was chosen from the Classics of China, just as many European countries returned to the Greek and Roman precedents. This time, the Japanese chose this word from Japan’s oldest anthology of poems, Manyōshū, “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves,” “leaves” meaning “words”. The first character, rei, means in Chinese “to decree,” as decreeing an ordinance, edict or law. In Japanese, it means something like “exquisite,” “beautiful” or “graceful.” The second character, wa, is “peace” or “harmony,” but also an alternative word for Japan. According to the Prime Minister, the choice of the new name was inspired by a desire for a peaceful era, when the people would treasure and honor that which is graceful. It is a very poetic choice.
In spite of many negative, even malicious, images associated with the Emperor of Japan, the last two Emperors have been much beloved. As “symbolic emperors,” they have no say in the government, or the military. They unify and comfort the people, especially during crises. When a huge earthquake struck the part of Japan where I grew up, Emperor Akihito and the Empress came to comfort the people who lost their loved ones. When the nuclear plant exploded, when a huge tidal wave struck Fukushima, to the north of Tokyo, they went there to visit with the victims. The current Empress grew up in a Roman Catholic family in Tokyo. The current Crown Princess, soon to be the next Empress, was also a commoner. She graduated from Belmont High School in Massachusetts, when her father was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. From there, she went to Harvard and then to Oxford to become a diplomat for Japan. Because she was a commoner, to say nothing about her American upbringing and education, many conservative people objected to the marriage. But, in spite of her apparent poor health, Princess Masako came to be as beloved as the Crown Prince Naruhito, who is now 59 years old.
In mid-April, I will be traveling to San Diego to give a paper at an academic conference. I will return to Tokyo to continue my research and writing. I will return home to Boston on May 12 for the next meeting of the General Seminary Board of Trustees, followed by our daughter’s college graduation, and then by the 50th reunion of my undergraduate college. I may return to Japan in July for a few weeks, but it will depend on my research and writing, as well as funds.
Every Sunday when I worship at St. Alban’s Anglican/Episcopal Church in Tokyo, I thin of you all and pray for all of you. This is the time when we remember how Christ suffered for the redemption of the whole world. At the end of Lent comes Palm Sunday, when we repeat “Crucify him, crucify him.” God in Christ still loves us all. With that forgiveness, we can celebrate on Easter the Resurrection of Christ so that we, too, may rise from death, from hatred, from despair. Thanks be to God.
May the Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with each and every one of you on this day and the days and weeks to come.
Writing from Tokyo, Japan