What Is Mine To Do?
One Quaker’s Journey in Japan
Osaka Monthly Meeting, Japan Yearly Meeting
(FWCC Asia West Pacific Section)
for FWCC Quaker Conversation #6
November 28, 202
I am an American Quaker who has been living in Japan permanently since 1992. I am not a birthright Quaker. I only attended my first Friends Meeting in the U.S. in the early nineties, when I was in my thirties, and I joined Japan Yearly Meeting soon after moving to Japan the following year. I have just retired from my thirty-year career at Osaka University and now teach half-time at a private university that fortunately has a later retirement age than the national universities do. I now serve as Clerk of Osaka Monthly Meeting and in various capacities at the Yearly Meeting level, as well as recently accepting a very modest role in AWPS.
Japan Yearly Meeting is a very small Yearly Meeting. Only 1% of the population of the whole country of Japan is Christian, and so we are a tiny minority within a minority. But the spirit is strong! Through this essay, which was first delivered in a webinar for the FWCC World Office in conjunction with AWPS, I would like to share with you just a glimpse of how that strong, strong spirit has sustained me for these past three decades living and working in a country where the culture is deceptively similar in many ways, but subtly different in many other ways.
Over the years, I have taught various courses at various undergraduate and graduate levels, and the approach I have found most helpful to bridge those various levels and topics has been a cognitive linguistic framework, raising awareness about how we form our perceptions of others, especially others from different cultures; how awareness of our implicit biases can help us minimize their negative effect on the way we treat our fellow human beings; how it can help us be better global citizens; and especially how metaphors can be used effectively in intercultural communication. My practice as a teacher is based on GCED, Global Citizenship Education, as promoted by UNESCO. Today I will mainly share how Japan Yearly Meeting sustains my endeavor to discern What Is Mine To Do, to most respectfully and lovingly contribute to the opening of minds, including my own, to these principles.
Target 4.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG4 on Education) basically reiterates the principles of GCED. It especially calls on countries to ensure “that all learners are provided with the knowledge and skills to promote sustainable development, including education for human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity.” I am fortunate to be working with learners at a sufficiently high level that I can use authentic materials with them rather than being restricted to a commercial or designated textbook, and so we take the SDGs themselves as our starting point, and the course culminates in a symposium designed by the students themselves, where they choose which SDGs they want to focus on.
One of the most popular options they often take me up on is to design their own original SDG campaign. And as training to prepare for such a project, our long 90-minute classes always include a stretch break where everyone stands up and stretches or sometimes even dances while listening to music. This was especially important last semester when we were completely online, sitting in front of a computer for hours every day. I try to select music to fit the SDG themes they have chosen to focus on for their symposium, and we talk about how art and music might be effectively incorporated into an SDG campaign. I always share the lyrics to these songs, at first providing commentary and an introductory lecture on cognitive metaphors. Later, the students also do their own metaphor spotting exercise and share the images and symbols they find in their own favorite songs, and we talk about how sharing music can be an effective aid in general intercultural communication, as well as SDG campaigns.
So how does Japan Yearly Meeting support me in such educational endeavors? Well, first with their infinite patience for my idiosyncrasies! For example, I rarely offer vocal ministry in Meeting for Worship, but when I do, it’s usually song. Several members of Japan Yearly Meeting also share my love of traditional Japanese drama, the masked Noh drama. That art, like many of the traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and calligraphy, is based on an exquisite sensitivity to the meaning of space and silence—between words, between notes of music, between brush strokes in a painting.
That aesthetic philosophy, like the use of metaphor in communication, has a particular affinity with the Quaker appreciation for silence, especially being comfortable with long pauses that allow time for choosing the right words. This is especially important for intercultural communication: to be comfortable with silence when someone is struggling to translate their thoughts into another language. And so it seems to me that Japanese Quakers have an enhanced appreciation for the value of the quiet pause. And it is due to that appreciation, I believe, that they also know the great joy to be found in overcoming such barriers, the joy of a breakthrough in communication, the gratitude for the mutual effort to patiently bridge the gap.
Indeed, some of the sweetest moments I have known in my fellowship with Japanese Quakers are the moments when we shared our favorite hymns. So today I’d like to tell you a little story about one precious lesson I learned from Japanese Friends through such an experience.
Many Friends here today may be familiar with the old Christian hymn, “This Is My Father’s World.” This hymn also appears in Japanese translation in the standard Christian hymnbook used in Japan Yearly Meeting, and some of my dear Japanese Friends have lovingly remembered to this day the joy I expressed years ago when I first discovered that they knew one of my old favorites. The first time we made this discovery, we thoroughly enjoyed the pleasure of comparing the original English lyrics with the Japanese translation. It was fascinating to discover what is lost and found in translation—what is often found in the gaps, in the silence between the words and the notes, where way so often opens. One revelation I especially remember is learning that the phrase “All nature sings and ‘round me rings the music of the spheres” is translated into Japanese as “Heaven and Earth exchange song.”
This translation made me realize that the original English hymn is very anthropocentric! The knowing human subject on Earth is at the center: “round me rings.” Heaven revolves around me. The Cartesian human subject observes natural objects. Whereas in the Japanese translation, the elements are in more harmonious balance.
After that pleasant enlightening experience, I should have learned my lesson. But, to my chagrin, I must honestly report that I am still constantly tempted to place myself at the center of things, as my white privilege so easily allows me to do with impunity. For example, after that experience, I was tempted to search through my English and Japanese hymnals for similar examples, and to ask my Japanese Friends to sing more of the hymns that were familiar to me.
But through a series of wonderful learning experiences,* I have come to realize that was not the best way to promote egalitarian relationships in a diverse community. Why? Because that would have been placing myself at the center again, asking them to accommodate my language, my culture, at the sacrifice of their own. In selfish moments I must confess I have even sometimes sulked a bit—silently, of course!—when they chose to sing an original Japanese hymn that I didn’t know and could not easily sing along with.
Which brings me to my main point about how Japan Yearly Meeting has sustained me in my quest to discern What Is Mine To Do—as a teacher, as a global citizen, and as a Friend. The short answer is that they keep me humble with their humble example, demonstrating how well they know when to decenter themselves in their interpersonal relationships, while yet staying firmly grounded in their faith.
Now, one might say geography plays no small part in their cultivation of this wisdom, on this tiny archipelago, not so much centered as stuck in the middle between all these giant continental powers like China and Russia to the west and the U.S. to the east. There is also their war experience, which is rooted in that political constellation. Reasons are no doubt complex. But the result is that, ultimately, they remind me that my temptation to cling to my self-centered attitude, expecting to be accommodated, forever treated as a guest rather than as a member of the family with family duties and responsibilities, no doubt has roots in American cultural imperialism.
So this is just one of the many lessons I have learned from my dear Japanese Friends that I feel most moved to share with Friends around the world through this essay. It’s one which I think may be applicable to many of our intercultural encounters in FWCC. That is to say, when we talk about our spiritual practice, we often speak of centering as a positive discipline. At the spiritual level, certainly, yes. But I believe we must distinguish between centering as a spiritual practice and feeling comfortable in the center of the unjust system of white supremacy that functions as the central norm in too many places around the world, a system that is too comfortable for too many of us than we should ever allow it to be. And we must be ever vigilant to avoid equating peace with our personal comfort in that unjust system.
The humble attitude of Japanese Quakers toward both nature and their place in international human society has taught me much about how being centered spiritually but decentered in terms of my perspective on my place in the world can paradoxically lead me to be better grounded in my faith, more faithful to the Quaker testimony to equality. It is that attitude that the members of Japan Yearly Meeting model so beautifully for me, and I wish all Friends around the world the joy of discovering how this model might help you discern What Is Yours To Do.
*I trace this line of enlightening experiences back to an anthology of essays by feminist philosophers such as Uma Narayan and Patricia Hill Collins called Decentering the Center: Philosophy for a Multicultural, Postcolonial, and Feminist World(2000), which I used as the text in my graduate seminar on gender theory for several years. But it has been a constant struggle to bridge the gap between theory and practice. The main activities that have helped me integrate the two over the years are my work with the Asian-American student movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the Mixed Roots community in Japan, and currently the American anti-racist movement, especially reading Tracy Brown’s book Mine To Do and participating in her Facebook group and online courses.