The spark that started a fire in my heart for Japan and her people was a three-week visit to Japan in 2007 in my mid-fifties. This included a week in Sapporo with my Franco-German choir, followed by two weeks in Chiba with OMF missionaries—a couple from my home church in England. To my surprise, this set in motion a process whereby God led me to leave 25 years of ministry to Muslims in North Africa and France. Following that first visit to Japan, my mission, Arab World Ministries, suddenly offered me a sabbatical. I believe it was heaven-sent.
How did I minister initially?
I spent 10 months of my sabbatical in Sapporo, from October 2008, ministering to Japanese people. I gradually met up with those I had met in 2007. I also went regularly to a doughnut café and the International Communications Plaza where I found folk who wanted to speak English or French. I even went weekly to “Let’s speak German”. Not that I speak German, but I tried anything to meet people, even cross-country skiing (at which I am a disaster!). By God’s grace, one of those German-speaking ladies became a friend and in 2012, a Christian. A friend I met skiing is still my friend today, but we don’t ski anymore! During those 10 months, with minimal Japanese, I made several friends, taught English and French, and even taught the Bible.
You just never know where God will lead, nor where you will be after 25 years of ministry. God is the God of surprising blessings and challenges. Never did I think I would leave my ministry to North Africans. It is not so unusual for a missionary to change countries or even languages, but to change missions, ethnicity, and religious groups is a bit out of the ordinary.
Learning Japanese in middle age
I still love the Arab world and pray daily for the persecuted church. I love the French language and I studied both Moroccan and standard Arabic. But Japanese, my friends, is a different kettle of fish entirely! I have found it far more difficult than even Arabic.
Learning Japanese was fun during my sabbatical, but once I became a full-time OMF missionary in 2010, I really had to knuckle down. I had always said “Arabic is the language of heaven because it takes eternity to learn.” But my mind has indeed been changed on this issue. No, the language of heaven must be Japanese! I have concluded that it’s a language you should embark on as a foreigner when you are 7, not 57 as I was.
However, I don’t agree with Francis Xavier who reputedly said something about Japanese being invented by the Devil so no missionary could learn it. No, I believe that this language was developed by God’s sovereign will and so it must be learnable. I defy the Devil to discourage me or put me off. I refuse his lies and his tactics as I struggle. For struggle I must.
I have had to adapt both to this huge change in life and ministry and this language and culture learning curve. In the midst, I’ve had to lower my expectations and be prepared to study hard, persevere, and be strong. I think this challenge has been good for developing my dependence on God.
I have also concluded that working mostly through the English language is necessary for me. Living in a city where many speak reasonable English, rather than in a rural setting, was a good choice since I have been unable to master Japanese.
Do I still try to learn Japanese? Indeed I do. But despite this, now at 65, the honourable age of expected retirement, I have decided that I have not yet finished the task God gave me. So, by his grace, I am continuing a bit longer.
You can make friends at any age and God has, by his grace, helped me make more Japanese friends, as well as keeping my previous ones. Even though Japanese people tend to like to be with folk in their own age range, I think that perspective changes a bit with foreigners. I’ve found many who find practicing English a great motivation for them.
I currently work at Sapporo International Church where my ministry involves teaching English and French as doorways to learning the Bible in all three languages. I mainly work as an evangelist, bringing the good news to not-yet believers; but I also disciple, encourage, and teach Japanese Christians. I learn a lot from Japanese people, culturally and linguistically, though understanding their mind-set is something I struggle with.
If God calls, then he equips, so I will not let a poor grasp of language demotivate me. Indeed, a well-known apostle said that when he was weak, then he was strong (2 Cor. 12:10). God uses me despite my fumbled Japanese. Lack of fluency can engender frustration but, as it often means relying on Japanese people or OMF missionaries for help, it also leads to shoving pride out the door. I believe also that God uses me to communicate his love and care. I pray he will keep me loving and caring, remove all pride and selfish desires, and use me to his glory for the sake of his gospel wherever I am. May he use you too in whatever capacity he has called you. He gives the gifts; let us use them with perseverance and faith.
Estelle Lee lives and ministers in Sapporo with OMF International. She teaches English and French at Sapporo International Church. She also translates and interprets for non-Japanese speakers at the church.