It’s hard to put me in a box. I was born to Japanese parents and grew up in Japan, but I’m not a Japanese national. I pastor a church in Takarazuka-city, Hyogo Prefecture, but I’m not a conventional Japanese pastor. I have a US passport, but I am not affiliated with any American church and I consider myself a missionary. Have I confused you?
In 1978, my father’s company transferred him and our family to a little town in Michigan in the US, where I attended an American high school. My high school friends invited me to their church. At first, I couldn’t understand English or Christianity very well, but I eventually became a Christian. After graduating from a college in the US and working at a company for a few years, I studied at Dallas Theological Seminary. While a student there, I attended a Japanese church in Dallas and became its assistant pastor. I was married to an American woman at that time, but then she divorced me. That made me feel like I was a total loser and a disgrace. I thought that God didn’t want me to serve him, so I left the ministry and returned to the business world.
God, however, did not forget me. Seven years ago, twenty years after I left the ministry, Jesus appeared in a dream and said to me, “Feed my sheep.” I immediately quit my job and came back to full-time ministry.
An audience of one blossomed into a thousand
When I returned to full-time ministry, I didn’t know where to start. I attended a Japanese church in Chicago, where I became a Sunday school teacher and a church committee member. Jesus had told me to feed his sheep, but that didn’t mean that I could approach my pastor and ask him to leave the church so I could be his replacement! I prayed and asked my girlfriend in Japan (now my wife) about my ministry. She said she wanted to hear my Bible messages. So I posted one of them on YouTube for her to listen to. That was how my YouTube ministry began.
A few months after posting my first YouTube message, I received an email from a Japanese man living in rural Philippines. He was a Christian, but there was no Japanese church in his town. So my YouTube messages became his only way to learn about the Bible in Japanese.
I subsequently received many other encouraging messages from Japanese people. Over time I discovered that, like me, many Japanese had become Christians overseas. That’s because Japanese are a very group oriented, and so they are more easily influenced by Christians and accept Christ when living outside Japan. In contrast, it’s much harder to reach non-Christian Japanese in Japan. Most Japanese belong to traditional social groups such as their family and chōnaikai—neighborhood groups that, among other things, organize matsuri (traditional religious festivals). Japanese are very loyal to these groups, which makes it hard for them to leave them when they become Christians. My YouTube messages seem to have become an important way to learn about Christ for Japanese who find it hard to leave these groups and attend a church regularly. They can watch my YouTube Bible messages in the privacy of their own homes.
My YouTube messages average about 1,000 views each and some messages have been viewed about 10,000 times. In Japan, it is difficult to find churches with more than 1,000 people, but my weekly Bible messages are reaching more than 1,000 people. They are reaching non-Christian Japanese. I have received many emails and phone calls from non-Christian Japanese all over Japan who watched my YouTube messages. As I challenge them to trust in Jesus for salvation over the phone, many do accept Christ. My biggest challenge is finding good churches for them so that they can belong to a local branch of Jesus’ family.
A tip for finding good Japanese churches
[Note that the following discussion is the personal opinion of the author, not of necessarily of JEMA.]
Some Japanese churches are liberal and their preaching is not based on the Bible. Instead of focusing on Christ, they may focus on political issues. Some Japanese pastors believe in evolution rather than creationism. Many evangelicals view liberal churches as being Christian only in name. Since I am an evangelical and believe in the inerrancy of Bible, I want to introduce new Japanese converts to evangelical churches. The question then is how to ascertain the theological orientations of individual churches. Due to the uniqueness of Japanese Christian history, the name or denomination of the church does not help much.
However, one way I’ve found to get an indication of the theological orientation of a church is to check the Bible translation they use. There are several Japanese translations of the Bible, but almost all Japanese churches use one of two translations: the Shinkyōdōyaku (New Interconfessional Translation) or the Shinkaiyaku (New Japanese Bible). A church that uses the Shinkyōdōyaku translation is more likely to be inclined toward liberal theology, whereas one that uses the Shinkaiyaku is more likely to be evangelical. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but I think most liberal churches would not use the Shinkaiyaku because it was translated by evangelical Japanese scholars. Since most Japanese churches lean toward ecumenicalism, ordinary Japanese bookstores (that is, non-Christian bookstores) generally stock more Shinkyōdōyaku Bibles than Shinkaiyaku ones.
There are many differences between the two translations. For example, in the Shinkyōdōyaku, the Greek word “magi” in Matthew 2:1 is translated sensei jutsu, which means astrologer or horoscope expert, whereas in the Shinkaiyaku magi is translated hakase, which means scholarly expert, doctor, or wise man. I personally think the word “magi” should be translated as “wise man” or remain as “magi”. This is just one example, but I prefer the Shinkaiyaku Bible as I think it is more faithful to the original Bible languages. [For fuller discussion and perspective on the history and use of various Japanese Bible translations, see additional Japan Harvest articles: A brief history of Protestant Bible translations into Japanese and Japanese translations of the Bible.—Ed.]
I think it is important to find a church that provides Bible-based, Christ-centered messages, and so I recommend new Japanese Christians go to a church that uses the Shinkaiyaku Bible.
Planting a new church
For many years, I did not know how to tell others about Christ. But then I realized the gospel is not dependent on human effort or tactics; it spreads by God’s mighty power. Evangelism is futile without God calling his people. I believe there are many Japanese yet to be called, and we need more workers to lead them to Christ.
At first, I was worried about starting a church as I was afraid that no one would come. But instead of depending on my instincts, I prayed and trusted our gracious Lord to lead me. I rented a room by the hour, and we held our first worship service on Easter Sunday in 2015. The church is called Takarazuka Fellowship Church (tfc-church.com).
Planting a church turned out to be easier than I thought. We have about twenty to thirty people coming to our Sunday worship services. Many who come have told me that they found me on YouTube and they liked the Bible-based, Christ-centered messages I provide.
I, who once left the ministry and did not know how to reach people on my own, am being used by our loving and gracious Lord to reach Japanese. I will continue the YouTube ministry and be faithful to God’s calling. It is an overwhelming joy for me that God has allowed me to serve him for his glory. Your prayer for this ministry is very much appreciated.
Kenji Higashi is a US citizen and the founding pastor of Takarazuka Fellowship Church in Takarazuka, Hyogo, Japan. He reaches Japanese with Bible messages on his YouTube channel, which has about 1,000 subscribers.