The Yosakoi Sōran Festival is a week-long team dance competition in June in Sapporo. Over 200 sponsored and non-sponsored teams of anything from 40 to 200 members, dressed in colourful and unique costumes, dance to the music of “Sōran”, the work songs of herring fishermen from a century ago. I joined a non-sponsored Yosakoi Sōran team during my first year in Japan.
My team started rehearsing in September, but I joined in May; in time for a month of intense rehearsals. Despite being an informal, non-professional team, we rehearsed three to four times a week, including Sundays (though I could not join those) and up to five days a week just before the festival. My team was mostly young working people, as well as a couple of students and older folk. All would do a full day’s work, then come straight to rehearsal at 7 or 7.30 p.m.—most would not have had time for dinner. During rehearsal we only had a 10- minute break and didn’t finish until after 9 p.m. Some then travelled home for an hour or longer.
Although this was a great way to meet people whilst I was still learning the language, due to the intense rehearsal schedules there was never enough time to get to know people. It was not until the penultimate day of the festival performances that opportunities came to talk to my fellow teammates. Later that day as we debriefed, one of the team members, whom I had hardly spoken to said, “Margaret, it’s your last day. So sad”. I wondered why she noticed it was my last day and why would she even care that I would not be continuing in the team? Reflecting back, I think that I had earned trust through faithfully attending rehearsals and performing with the team. This enabled me to continue to stay in touch with some team members, even after I quit the team in my last year of language study.
God enabled me to look beyond my ability, or lack of it, and to persevere and see what he might do with the opportunity he had given me in this group. This was just one team of 40 people, in which, as far as I know, I was the only Christian presence. What about the remaining 200 or so teams? How does the church reach out with the gospel of Christ to a large subgroup or subculture as this?
After graduation from language school I decided to join a craft group in my new local area in Hanamaki, Iwate. I found out from another missionary that there was a long list of circles posted on the local community page. I decided to try out a group called kirie—the Japanese art of paper cutting. Kirie consists of taking a black and white picture, sticking it on black card, cutting out the white parts of the picture; then sticking coloured papers behind it until the end result is a beautiful coloured version of the original picture, which can then be framed (or turned into a postcard).
I arrived at a building that looked like an old school. I entered the classroom in which the circle met, and immediately felt young. Everyone was in their 60s or older and many, I discovered, had been to school together. Strangely they were all seated on one side of the room and I was told to sit on my own on the other side. I discovered later that my side of the room was for newcomers; as a few weeks later I was joined by two others with whom I continued to sit with up to the time I left Hanamaki.
Many of the group were born and grew up in Hanamaki or Iwate Prefecture and most had never been abroad or travelled much outside of Iwate. The topics of conversations included other people, food, and local festivals. Local festivals featured quite a bit in the pictures that they undertook. Apart from the lady I sat with, it was extremely hard to have any even vaguely spiritual conversation with anyone. I was not even able to share any personal testimony. There appeared to be no interest in such matters at all. However, I continued with the circle for the two years I was in Hanamaki and four or five of the group did come to my farewell church service—possibly their first time ever to set foot in a church, but I pray not their last.
Sign language circle
While in Hanamaki I also joined a sign language circle which had a good mix of singles, married, and older people. The same day I joined, another lady, Mrs Fuji, also came to try it out, we continued in the group together. Not long after I started attending, I invited one lady to our English class (which had a short Bible message at the end). That evening she surprised me by bringing Mrs Fuji too. The two ladies seemed to enjoy the evening, and when I asked them whether they would continue, they said they would think about it. At the next sign language meeting the two ladies gave me a present of oranges and said, “Thank you for inviting us to the English class. Unfortunately we can’t continue. But we might start coming in April.”
Soon it was April, so I brought along the English class flyer and asked if they would be joining. But they had committed themselves to something else and said they would not be joining. I was so disappointed. However, I did not expect what happened next. We broke for our tea time and Mrs Fuji started sharing about how she had enjoyed her time at the English class, and even seemed to encourage others to consider joining. Mrs Mori perked up and expressed her interest. A few weeks after that, her older child joined the kids’ English class. In the months following, her daughter occasionally came to the kids’ club and also read through three of the manga Bible-based books in just two or three weeks. Mrs Mori also occasionally joined the younger kids’ club too. Where there “seemed” to be no opportunity in one circle (kirie), God opened the door in this one.
As a church family we are in a community, a community of Christ. How can we get alongside the communities we live amongst and draw people, from all walks of life, into the community of Christ?
Photo of dancers at Yosakoi Sōran Festival by もんもん. Released into the public domain via Wikipedia Commons.
Margaret Rugira (OMF) was born in Uganda but raised in England. She came to Japan in 2012 and after Japanese language and culture study spent two years in an OMF church plant in Hanamaki, Iwate.