Reading the Air: a Christian in Japan


We sit on the hot carpet at the low table, which is so natural to me even though I have spent a lifetime being expected to sit on ill-fitting chairs with my head proudly in the air. This carpet insulates us from the freezing rocks below us of the island of Honshyu, western Japan, in mid-winter. I have never known such bone-chilling coldness as we have out here in the northern Pacific in winter.

I remember the first winter in our paper house by the Yodo river in Kyoto well. The bathroom was divided from the rest of the house by paper-clad sliding doors, but was in truth a wooden structure crammed into the tiny garden with a tin roof added. It consisted of a rough concrete floor, a sunken hip-bath in a tiny bath house, and a wash basin and washing machine both of which often had a layer of ice on them. I remember running from the sliding doors, closing them deftly behind meoutside bathroom to keep the flimsy warmth in, parting the dripping washing hanging with icicles, and then jumping in to the stainless steel tiny bath with relief.

One day, I ask you to listen to a piece of glorious church organ music: the Toccata by dazzling Widor, a nineteenth century masterpiece inspired by the glory of God. You are not touched by it at all, while my tears surface, I swallow madly, and succumb to total occupation by flocks of pimpled geese. You don’t even know what the instrument being played is, so I show you a youtube performance so you can see the complexities of the different keyboards, the stops which you think are some kind of telephone exchange, and the foot pedals which you say your legs could never reach.

I ask you to listen to it again, and to notice the splendour and joy ringing out into the massive vault of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. In an attempt to inspire you I say, ‘D’you realize that this Notre Damecathedral was built to fill with the sound of this mighty pipe organ as big as this house, exactly to glorify God?’ You politely acknowledge this fact, but clearly do not know why it is so important.

It is at that moment that I realize that my history as a European is swathed in such traditions and sentiments that I cannot explain to you, and know that you can probably never relate to it. This invisible force which has filled my unconscious life, and that of my ancestors reaching back to the time of the original teachings of Jesus Christ and beyond, surfaces from time to time in a harrowing but ecstatic way. I have no control over it, and there is no way to explain it as I experience it. I marvel at the flowering of genius in Christian Europe and its counterpart in the Muslim world, the passion and aspirations to ascend to heaven, to go back to God, their sacred origin, that my ancestors lived out.torii

Your passion is quieter, more realistic some would say. Your ancestors were not related to the imperial family who practiced the Buddhist faith imported from China, and so religious sentiment did not develop in the same way here. Shinto, the religion of the people, has instilled you with a sense of the 84,000 shinto priestgods or Kami-sama of existence. Your ancestors were mountain practitioners subsisting in the rugged crags, connected with the mystical through forest gongens (local emanations of Buddha) and Earthly and Heavenly deities.

The visible world. Huge stone blocks and steeples raised up towards the heavens. The intricacies of music and art dedicated to God impressively manifest in the pipe organ which was designed to fill huge stone vessels of Cathedrals and citadels with glorious sound. The precious metals and gems encrusting images of the saints, the Madonna, the risen Christ ascending into the heavenly realm. The determination of Christian champions, risking their lives to keep the teachings of Christ safe at the Crusades. The passion to earn the right to go back to God and not plummet down to the devil’s realm. The strong almost defiant energy to merge visible and invisible realms.

The invisible world. Shrines, jinja, built into mountain-sides. Red Torii gates placed carefully for the returning spirits to pass through. The purifying with water and thermal energy bubbling up from the massive kamifault-lines below the islands of Japan, and the will to survive massive earthquakes and rebuild. The focus on the 5 elements and keeping them balanced. The earth and the Heavens, with humans connecting the two. The evil deities of fox and snake, and the placation of destiny with kegs of sake and white silk kimonos. The guarded minimal expression of inner feelings, and the sense of duty to see one’s life through to the end despite great suffering and abject loneliness, which drove many to suicide by gruesome incisions. The quiet psychic acceptance of the unity of visible and invisible. The hushed tones and quirky songs accompanied by drums and strings, and the masked dancing imitating the animal kingdom.

onsenYou are quietly reading the newspaper as these feelings and thoughts surge through me almost too rapidly to capture on paper. I look up to see what you are reading, and there I see large adverts for female underwear and prostitutes, for public baths and spas, and I smile. You are so open where we are closed, and you closed where we are open, and I feel a kind of glorious amalgamation in our existence together.

Here there are few physical taboos – public nakedness and appearing in flimsy robes is a normal state in the heat, money is the main feature of most conversations, and tears flow freely for others suffering. There is no segregation of the sexes, except that the male, the maker of money, is unashamedly considered to be a King by his family, worshipped as a god, and may have female valets if wealthy.

After all, this is the land of the 84,000 gods, made from brine dripped from the end of a jewelled spear belonging to Izanagi and Izanami, the first beings. They innocently compared their bodies to find that female Izanami had a part that had not yet grown, and that male Izanagi had an excess growth. He proposed that he place his excess part in her empty part so that they could produce more land! Innocence and sincerity, a kind of naivety and simplicity, has survived here. It produces hope for the world largely filled with excess passions and obsessions, with hide-and-seek, lust and covetousness, and the immaculate conception.

christian martyrs in japan



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