On my very first trip to Japan, Abi and I were treated to a performance of kabuki, a traditional Japanese art form combining music, dance, and drama. Walking into that famous theater in the Ginza district of Tokyo, I had no idea what to expect. The sounds of the shamisen, drums, and bells, and the movements of the actors on the stage were all new and exotic to me. A translator over the crackling headset tried to convey the story into broken English, but all I could catch was that shame had somehow fallen on the city. In the end, a man visibly bore the weight of the shame on his shoulders as he slowly and heavily walked the raised platform from the stage to the back of the theater. When the lights came on, almost everyone in the theater was weeping and wiping their eyes.
That scene haunted me for years. Only recently I learned of a library dedicated exclusively to kabki with in walking distance of my apartment, and I immediately went with the hopes of finding out more about this play. I described to the librarian as much as I could remember, and she handed me some big old books.
After pouring over them for hours, I found it!
Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy powerfully retells the true story of Sugawara Michizane, a high court noble who lived in ancient Japan (845-903 AD). Due to the actions of his daughter Princess Kariya, shame fell on the entire family and everyone he was lord over. The only way to save his daughter and his people was to accept the punishment of exile. Michizane was not even able to look upon the face of his beloved daughter one last time before he left.
I was surprised to find that this pointer to Jesus in the exile and atoning death outside the city walls (Hebrews 13:12) was not the end of the story. In fact, the most famous scene in all of kabuki comes a little later in the story. After Michizane’s death, an evil lord sends men to the village school to kill the deceased noble’s only son and heir. A faithful retainer realizes there is only one way the boy can be saved. This loving father takes the pain on himself by sacrificing the life of his only beloved son to save the life of the one he is covenanted to.
As I read this, I wanted to stand there right in the middle of the library and shout, “This is it! This is the gospel!” God is not new to Japan. Pointers to him exist through out Japanese art and history. God was in Japan before the first missionaries ever arrived, revealing himself in this culture with all its unique beauty. As one Japanese pastor put it, “God has given Japan unique resources to use to serve him…We need to mine those resources.”
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Roger Lowther has been working as a missionary with Mission to the World in Japan since 2005. He lives in downtown Tokyo with his wife Abi and their four small children. Roger and Abi are on staff of Grace City Church Tokyo (partnering with City to City) doing church planting through the arts and directing Community Arts Tokyo.