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Cultural Curiosity and Trends in Japan

Learning at the Local Bookstore

By Fr. Barry Cairns

Since first coming to Japan as a missionary 60 years ago I have had a cultural curiosity! It is still with me. It makes missionary life interesting. Such events as festivals, customs, ways of thinking and acting fascinate me. And Japanese people delight in explaining things Japanese to a foreigner.

This cultural curiosity leads me to go regularly to the local bookstore and see the ten top selling books of the month. These give me an indication of what is going on among the people to whom I am missioned.

For example: ten years ago books on improving the quality of life predominated. These included books on exercise, relieving stress, healthy food and cookbooks, etc.

Then in 2014-15, 70 years after the end of World War II, history books had a time of popularity. Recently there has been a subtle change. Books written for senior citizens who prefer bound volumes rather than the internet have started to appear. Some of these seem to regard the future as bleak and without hope. There are books with these ominous titles: "Elderly People's Hell – a Report," "Poverty in Old Age," "Aged and Bankrupt" and "The Aged are Second Class Citizens."

In a recent article in the Japanese Yomiuri News the social welfare editor, Ms. Ritsuko Inakuma writes: In Japan "an increasing number of elderly people have become more interested in how to live before dying….People today have begun to seriously worry about their future in Japan."

This brings to mind what the Japanese literature Nobel Laureate Kensaburo Oe said almost 20 years ago: "Despite material affluence we Japanese are facing a crisis worse than the devastation left by the war. The problem is an absence of hope." (Interview reported in Daily Yomiuri November 13, 1998).

What is causing such widespread pessimism and fear especially among the elderly? There is the Fukushima nuclear disaster still causing problems with leaking radioactive water. Are the other nuclear power plants safe? There are the frequent missile launchings by North Korea when the people see massive mobile missile interceptors move into place even in central Tokyo. There are rumblings in China over the ownership of the Senkaku offshore islands. To whom do they really belong? Will this disputed ownership cause war?

The present Prime Minister Abe proposes a change in the Peace Constitution. He wants to change Article 9 renouncing war and calls for a standing army. Then there are the frequent articles in the media predicting a major earthquake and tsunami with the number of dead in the tens of thousands. There are even some who predict Mt. Fuji to erupt after 700 years. We get many minor earthquakes – we ask ourselves each time: Is this the big one? A subtle sense of fear pervades especially among the aged in Japan.

In many cases fear is combined with loneliness. For example, I often visit retirement homes. It is sad to see the old people gathered in one room just sitting. But many watch the door in the hope that the next person to come in might be a visitor for them.

All this I feel is a renewed call to mission. The Risen Lord gives us hope. We are called to be instruments of hope. The Apostles when worried about their future were told to look at nature – the birds and flowers. This is so suitable for the nature-loving Japanese. Our Abba Father – God, knows where each tiny bird flies and where each flower blooms. Our loving Father cares for us humans as much as nature. Jesus tells us: "Fear not! Because I am with you." We have been gifted. Let us share those gifts with others.

Columban Fr. Barry Cairns lives and works in Japan.