Reflection on Our Years in Japan

by Carol Hastings, missionary
Presbyterian Church (USA)

A raw egg ready to be cracked into a small bowl to accompany the sukiyaki; a beautiful and exotic name: Shizuka; a Japanese stone lantern to enhance the small church garden; miso soup with no spoon; green tea-flavored ice cream; a tube of wasabi, platters of soy sauce, freshly caught and prepared fish, and a cooperative party to share the feast. My first impressions of Japan, perhaps? Yes, but all before ever arriving in Japan. It seems that Japan had been working its way into my life since I was a young girl in Yonkers, New York where two Japanese families were involved in my parents’ church.

The last memory listed above, the sashimi feast, took place in Western Samoa in 1978. My husband Tom and I, newlyweds, were spending the year there with the Peace Corps. Sharing similar values and goals, we naturally bonded with the group of young Japanese JOCV volunteers also working in Samoa. This was where we tasted our first sashimi, probably the freshest that we have ever had. Our new friends urged us to visit Japan. We too were intrigued, and also impressed with the trusting, family-like relationships between the Japanese volunteers, so after returning to the U.S., we applied for jobs and fortuitously ended up as English teachers at the Yamanashi YMCA, led by a wonderful and deeply committed Christian couple, Eiji and Sachiko Osawa. Their truly international outlook created an unusually open and accepting environment in the small, countryside city of Kofu. We were truly blessed to be hired and nurtured by them.

Our two years in Kofu held surprising new changes for us. Our first daughter Rose was born there, where her blue eyes and pink skin created quite a sensation. Tom and I also experienced a kind of rebirth in the Christian faith of our childhoods. After the tumultuous years of the 1960s and 70s, when we were both questioning everything we had been taught, we had strayed away from the church and had been looking for a spiritual home-even trying out Zen Buddhism. It never ceases to amaze us that God chose to draw us back to Him during our time in Kofu, Japan. In gratitude, we pledged to return to Japan after receiving more theological training in the U.S.

Our return to Japan in 1987 brought us to another beautiful city, Kanazawa, where Tom was hired to teach English and Bible at Hokuriku Gakuin. We first heard about this school in Wheaton, Illinois where we met the nephew of Virginia Deter, a PCUSA missionary, during a church fire drill, of all places. While standing around outside the church, he told us all about his dear aunt who had devoted her life to Japan at Hokuriku Gakuin. He said that she was always on the lookout for new English teachers and recommended that we contact her, which we did. We were fortunate to work together with her in Kanazawa for four-and-a-half years and also pleased to be officially appointed as missionaries by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1988.

Our family had expanded by then and included our son Paul and second daughter, Sarah. I became immersed in the worlds of yochien and elementary school. It was quite a bewildering experience to find the required yochien bags and school supplies. Every item had to be ‘just so.’ After the variety and freedom we had experienced in the U.S., this was quite a job. Thankfully, our children’s new schoolteachers at Wakakusa Kyokai Kindergarten and Hokuriku Gakuin Elementary School, really helped us out. I studied Japanese, taught in our church school, taught our children English reading and writing at home and helped them with their Japanese homework, and was involved in many community groups. Those were busy but happy years. As Kanazawa was rather isolated from the foreign community, our children especially looked forward to the annual Presbyterian missionaries’ retreat held at Amagi Sanso. In those days, this retreat involved nearly 100 people. Nowadays, with the decrease of PCUSA missionaries sent to Japan, there are only ten full-time PCUSA mission workers.

After a home assignment in Princeton, New Jersey, we returned to Kobe so that our children could attend an international school, Canadian Academy. Tom taught Christian Education at Seiwa College, and I had many private piano students at school and volunteered in various capacities at Kobe Union Church. Our third daughter, Katie, was born in Kobe, making our family complete. Soon after settling in Kobe, Tom was surprised to receive a call to join the faculty of Tokyo Union Theological Seminary. After much prayer, we decided to accept the invitation. Our older children were rather upset to be moving again so soon, but the devastating earthquake in 1995, which ruined our house, actually hastened our departure. Our children were shocked and distraught, as were my parents who pleaded with us to spend a few months with them in Cape May, New Jersey before our planned move to Tokyo. Seven months later, on a very hot August day, we arrived in Tokyo. We sure were grateful for the air conditioners in the guesthouse on the seminary campus. Tom launched into his work at the seminary where he was thrilled to help prepare students for ministry in the church throughout Japan. I was also very happy to teach English to the seminary students over the past year.

Now, after 13 years in Tokyo, we are sorry to be saying good-bye. I had just begun working on the staff of this Kyodan Newsletter when we rather suddenly realized that God was calling us againA|this time back to the United States. My widowed mother needs us near her, and so we must go. But, we believe that our own country needs help, too. The churches are losing members there, just as they are here. Young people are not interested. The war in Iraq has not only drained our country’s resources and Iraq’s, but has worsened the conflict between religions and cultures. There will be plenty of opportunities for ministry and learning.

Nevertheless, Japan has become a second home for our family. Our oldest daughter will stay in Tokyo to work at her new job. Our son is involved with Japan through his work in New York at the Japan ICU Foundation. Our second daughter spent this past year working at the American School in Japan. Our youngest daughter, still in school, is already wondering when we can come back to visit. As soon as possible, we tell her.

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