Jackson Japanese congregation looks to expand services to Tupelo

7/14/2008

Jean Gordon
The Clarion-Ledger
Growing up in Japan, Masaka Takano encountered few Christians.

"Japanese are really, really tough people to accept Jesus Christ as their savior," the 33-year-old minister said. "Most have never attended church before."

Still, Takano sees a chance to win converts from among the growing number of Japanese moving to the state to work at businesses related to Canton's Nissan plant and the Toyota factory that will open soon near Tupelo.

"We have a lot of opportunity here for them because their lives will be different and they need support," said Takano, who ministers to a small Japanese congregation that meets at Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson. "They come to our church for English class and in that class we also teach a Bible lesson so there will be some opportunity to hear the Gospel."

Wesley Biblical Seminary professor the Rev. Paul Tashiro and his wife Eiko launched the Jackson ministry where Takano works. The trio of Japanese Christians is now gearing up to launch a Japanese congregation in Tupelo.

The Tupelo church is an initiative of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church, which like many denominations is working to expand and diversify its membership.

Tashiro, 74, will lead the effort to establish the new Japanese congregation. He expects many of the newcomers will need to learn English and get help navigating American culture.

But Tashiro said it's difficult to get Japanese people to attend worship services, much less join a church.

Christians make up less than one percent of Japan's population, who mostly identify with the Buddhist and Shinto religions.

Tashiro said Christianity has made few inroads in Japan because the culture has historically been closed to outside influences.

A convert himself, Tashiro said many of the Japanese he encounters respond to his evangelism efforts with blank stares.

"They don't have any idea what we're talking about," he said. "They don't know anything about Christianity."

Tashiro found his way to the faith after World War II, during the time when his country was trying to recover from the massive bombardments it endured.

He had been trained as a teen to be a Kamikaze pilot, but the war ended before he took his suicidal flight.

After the war, he returned to Tokyo, where he found his house destroyed and his parents missing. There Tashiro got involved in organized crime, working as a drug dealer and a pimp.

A few years later he wandered into a Christian tent revival run by American missionaries.

His life was never the same.

"On that day, Oct. 21, 1949, I accepted Jesus," he said.

Tashiro met his wife at the church he joined. The couple moved to the United States in 1969 and have since lived in Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi.

Five years ago they started ministering to local Japanese by offering pastoral care, English and American culture classes and worship services. The Japanese congregation they formed at Christ United Methodist Church now draws between a dozen and 30 people.

Worshippers tend to be college or seminary students, professionals who work in the auto industry, or women who married American servicemen after World War II.

Tashiro, who serves as president of the Japan-America Society of Mississippi, estimates there are 4,000 to 5,000 Japanese statewide and expects that number to double once the new Toyota plant is up and running.

Beginning in July, he and his wife will split their time between Jackson and Tupelo, where the Japanese ministry will start out offering English classes, cultural education and child care at its host church, Tupelo's First United Methodist Church.

Within six months to a year, Tashiro hopes to get enough people interested in attending Japanese-language worship services.

The host church, which has about 600 regular worshippers, plans to use its business contacts to help spread the word about the Japanese ministry, said pastor the Rev. Andy Ray.

Even though he knows it's going to be a challenge to get Japanese people engaged in church, Ray thinks the ministry fits perfectly into the church's focus on missions and community involvement.

"Evangelism with the Japanese is different from anything we could have practice with," Ray said. "It's not just opening a church, we've got to do some cultural events reaching out to find their way in the community."

And Ray expects that working with people from a different culture can teach the larger church body some lessons.

"Maybe we need to learn a different way of doing evangelism in America," he said. "Membership may be different than what we've seen in America."

This article first appeared in The Clarion-Ledger and is used with permission.