My first inclinations of taking a trip to Japan started nearly ten years ago. I had just returned from a work exchange for engineering students in Finland in the summer of 1990 and came back with a desire to do the same thing - this time in Japan. Even then, the drive and success of post-World War II Japan attracted me. I had a conviction that life was good to achievers and so was pouring all my energy into my academic access, extracurricular involvement, and career-related work experience. I also felt that Japan was a society of achievers - people like me. I thought I could learn a lot there about life and success. And the Japanese were also at the forefront of all the things I was interested in professionally: automation, quality engineering, etc. I began to make plans to head to Japan after graduation and found that there were two training programs in Japan with Toshiba and Nortel being offered to Canadian engineers. The early association of Japan and success in my mind was important for what would follow.
I had another two years before graduation and along the way, I became more and more unsettled in my thinking - not about my trip to Japan but about my convictions regarding success. I had believed that with success would come fulfillment, but the closer I got to what I called success, the more empty that hope seemed. Rather than pursuing success, I felt that my drive to succeed was changing me in a way I didn't like. I had been looking forward to a dream of achievement and yet my future scared me. I wondered about the kind of husband and father I'd become some day, and didn't like what I saw.
In the spring of 1992, as I was intending to leave for Japan, the effects of global recession were being felt. The two training programs with Toshiba and Nortel were cancelled, and I was sent back to the drawing board by this first set-back. I decided to head over anyway and see if I could find work teaching English in a Japanese company as a way into an Engineering position. After all was said and done, I ended up in Toyama, teaching English conversation privately for ten months.
I found Japan fascinating. The beautiful mountains, the cultural differences, and the rich history all intrigued me. I never really hit culture shock in the classic sense, as I loved my experience in Toyama.
Japan is truly an amazing country. But something disturbed me. I had had a growing concern that life oriented solely around professional success would self-destruct. As I looked around I became more convinced that this was the case. Many I met in Japan seemed to suffer from the same symptoms I had been experiencing. Hard work had brought prosperity but the inner emptiness seemed to remain. I met many who were powerful in their careers but lacked any power to bring change in their personal lives. I became more convinced that life focused around professional success robbed marriages of their love, families of their joy, friendships of their depth, and people of their soul.
About a year before I left for Japan, I begin to find help in my struggle with balance through a spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. I found strength and freedom to begin to deal with the selfish tendencies that I feared would make a mess of my future. And I found practical direction through the Bible to deal with decisions, fears, conflicts, and various heart issues that I had never been able to change on my own.
Wherever I went in Japan I saw signs of religion - particularly in traditional Toyama. The festivals, temples, shrines, and ceremonies inspired awe. But when I looked at people's lives I didn't see evidence of freedom in their daily lives. It was as if there was something missing on the inside.
Things began to come together one night when I went to visit a former Sumo wrestler and he said to me, "We have a saying in Japan, 'Kao de waratte, kokoro de naite,' which means, 'The face is smiling, but the heart is crying.'" He said, "If I were to describe the Japanese people that's the phrase I would use. We have this distinction between form (tatemae) and reality (kokoro). We do a very good job of form for the most part, but the heart is another story." Those words stuck in my mind as I reflected on the path that I had been on myself and the people that I met in Japan.
As my stay in Toyama continued, my love for the people of Japan grew. I had an eagerness to return to Canada and start my career as an engineer, as I had been working towards this for many years. The pull to get back to a profession that I loved was great. But as the time went on I had an even greater desire to return and share with the Japanese the same hope and freedom that I had begun to find in Christ. And it was finally this desire that won out as I felt something calling me back to the land that had forever become in my mind the land of the smiling face and the crying heart.
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