The prayer walk

IT WAS ZHAOHUI who first urged me to do a prayer walk for Japan. The idea would never have occurred to me. She must have loved Japan very much and her request gave me no choice but to consider it. Zhaohui had been fighting cancer for six years but I never knew about it until two years ago. I was helpless when I got to know of her condition as I had no information on her whereabouts except that she had been living in Japan since her marriage 13 years ago. We were schoolmates in high school. In 2006, someone had organised an alumni get-together. It was then that I got her address and started corresponding with her.

About three months ago, I received a sponsored invitation to participate in a seminar in Japan. I was so excited I lost no time in informing Zhaohui that I would be visiting her after the seminar. To my surprise, she wasn’t very keen about my visit. She told me she was really not well and that it would be painful for me to see her. Adding that I would have to go south from Hokkaido to Osaka in visit her, she suggested that I do a prayer walk instead.

I must confess that praying for Japan never crossed my mind. It wasn’t true to say I had never prayed for any country. In fact, I had been remembering the Back-to-Jerusalem movement for at least two years and praying frequently for Tibet in particular. I asked myself why I found it so strange praying for Japan. Was it because it is a rich First-World nation that  I was envious of? Was it because I had been trying to forget that my grandfather was brutally killed by Japanese soldiers during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya? Was it because Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had upset me by continuing to honour the Japanese war dead, including Class A war criminals, at Yasukuni Shrine? It was Zhaohui’s words that softened my heart and made me decide to do a prayer walk for Japan: “We must learn to forgive Japan and have compassion on Japanese men, who are consumed by work and have no time to contemplate Christ. Less than 1% of Japanese are Christians.”

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do in a prayer walk since this was my first. A friend gave me an article written by Dan Crawford. From it, I learnt that prayer walking is “intercession on location with information in cooperation against opposition, for glorification”. I then realised that I needed more information on Japan in order to intercede for the country and its people.

Reading up, I found out that traditionally the Japanese believed that kami or spirits existed in nature. Hence, moun-tains, waterfalls, lakes, stones and trees were revered because the spirits were part of nature. Over time, this belief developed into Shintoism (“the way of the gods”). Buddhism arrived  in Japan in the middle of the 6th century. During the 9th century, new Buddhist sects began to adopt Shinto practices such as purification rituals. Buddhism was recognised as the national religion during the Heian period. There are many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples all over Japan today. Many rituals continue to be practised in modern-day Japan, for example, Shinto priests are called to recite prayers at the start of a new construction project.

Christianity was introduced into Japan in 1549 when the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier arrived after spreading the Gospel in other Asian countries. Many Japanese aristocrats were genuinely converted, although many others were only interested in trade and technology. The Jesuit Valignano reported to Rome in 1582 that there were 150,000 Christians in Japan. In the same year, a group of Japanese converts of noble lineage visited the pope.

During the Tokugawa shogunate, Christianity grew rapidly and believers were persecuted. Those who would not recant were killed. In 1637, Christians, together with farmers who suffered under a heavy tax burden, rebelled in Shima-bara, near Nagasaki. Over 100,000 soldiers were sent to stop the uprising.

In 1639, the Tokugawa shogunate ejected the Portuguese and closed Japan’s door to the outside world. This policy continued until 1854 when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with his Black Ships. Christianity received official approval in 1873 during the Meiji period. By the end of the Meiji period in 1912, Western influence could be seen all over Japan.

Eventually, there was a strong reaction against this influence. Expressions of nationalism, often linked with Shintoism, sprang up. The government of the day wanted to unite Japan under the emperor, who claimed divine descent. These nationalistic ideas led Japan to enter World War II.

I also found out that Japan had 7,961 Protestant churches, an increase of 51 over 2005. The Protestant Christian population was estimated at 512,211 or 0.4% of the population. Average membership per church and average worship attendance per church were 64.3 and 41.1 respectively (Japan Update No 51, 2006, published by the Japan Evangelical Association).

Armed with such information, I planned to start my prayer walk after my seminar. But the Lord made me start even during the seminar. The organiser had arranged several cultural programmes, including visits to shrines and temples, for the participants. At these places, as rituals were being performed, I declared, “In the name of Christ, I denounce any worship of kami and any manmade images, and give glory to the triune God.” I pleaded with the Lord, “Let the people see you, the only true God, so that they will worship you.” I also noticed that just like the Chinese, the Japanese have altars in their homes, offices and shops, with food such as fruits being offered at these altars.

I was in Japan for 18 days, during which I visited Obihiro, Sapporo, Yokohama, Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka, travelling by train with my Rail Pass. I prayed for the people of each city I visited, prayed against evil forces in the vicinity of shrines and temples, prayed for church leaders in Japan, for evangelistic efforts, for Japanese men to rethink their lifestyle, for increased church attendance, for revival and so on. I interceded for the Japanese, denouncing spiritual darkness in the name of Christ and requesting for true spiritual insights to be given to them. While I was travelling, I prayed that the Holy Spirit would convict one person per coach per trip to meditate on sin and salvation.

I also presented to God the problem of “cost-effectiveness” of missions in Japan. The cost of living in Japan is so high that supporting one missionary in this country is equivalent to supporting three missionaries in other countries in Asia. Thus, many mission organisations choose to send workers to “cheaper” countries, neglecting Japan.

Above all, I thanked God that Zhaohui finally welcomed me to her home. I had a memorable time getting to know her family of four. Despite her suffering, she showed complete trust in God to heal and provide. She wanted me to better understand the nature of Christian work in Japan by experiencing “a day in the life of a pastor/missionary”. So she arranged for me to stay with Don Toth, an American missionary in Yokohama, and Rev Hsu Shang Hua, a Taiwanese pastor who served in two churches—in Osaka and Kobe—catering to Chinese Christians who work in Japan.

God also granted me the chance to visit Rakuno Gakuen University, a private university founded in 1933 by  a Japanese Christian, Mr T Kurosawa. Today, it is still supported by Christian mission organisations. I was shown around by a Christian professor whom I had met in Vietnam in 2005. At the campus chapel, I noticed these words engraved on the front wall: “We rejoice in our sufferings because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character;  and character, hope.”

Another interesting event was that I finished reading a book in Japan! It was Don Toth who suggested that I should do it before I returned home and I did—in three nights. The book was Shiokari Pass, written by Ayako Miura and translated by Bill and Sheila Fearnehough, the publisher being  the OMF. The book was first published in Japanese in 1968 and had been made into a movie.

The book was based on the true story of Nobuo Nagano, a railway employee who founded the Young Railwaymen’s Christian Association. On the day of his engagement to his childhood sweetheart Fujiko, Nobuo saved many passengers in a runaway coach by using his body as the brakes, sacrificing his life in doing so. The touching story removed many prejudices against Christians and introduced the idea of a personal relationship with God to the Japanese. The opening page had this verse printed: “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

On my last day in Japan, while waiting to board my plane at Narita Airport, I suddenly thought of Vision 2020. It was Malaysia’s vision to become a developed country like Japan in 2020. Suddenly, I found myself crying out to God: “5%, give 5%!” My prayer was for 5% of Japanese to be Christians by 2020. I don’t know whether it was a faithless request or an over-ambitious one. I only knew that for a demo-cratic country with complete freedom of belief, the present Christian population of less than 1% was far too low.

Written by Hwee Keng Ong

Hwee Keng Ong is a lay leader in his church in Serdang, Malaysia. He is also on the management team of World Outreach Malaysia, being responsible for media and publication. He and his wife Helen recently completed the intensive WOI missions Nations Course in South Africa. They are active in reaching out to migrants and also facilitate the missions Kairos course in Malaysia.

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