As part of our Ten Thousand Churches initiative, Joey and Yisel Zorina are in the early stages of planting a church in Tokyo, Japan. We are thrilled to have them on board, and we can’t commend them to you highly enough. It is an honor for us to feature this post, written by Joey, here on our website. It is our hope that you’ll begin praying and giving so that Joey and Yisel can establish a vibrant, Gospel-centered church in Tokyo.
A few days before I first set my foot on Japanese soil in September 2004, a friend of mine asked: “Why Japan?” In all honestly, I could barely give adequate answers apart from the fact that God had called me, and that I knew it intuitively, along with confirmations from His Word and affirmations from my church leaders. There’s no doubt that Japan is leading technologically and materially rich when compared to other countries, but the spiritual needs are often unseen. Like every country in the industrialized world Japan has its own share of social problems despite all of its advances in various fields. The truth is that Japanese people are made in the image of God, and they are the 2nd largest unreached people group in the world, with less than 1% of the total population Christian.
Tokyo is an influential major global strategic city.
It is estimated that 5.5 million people move into cities every month. By 2050, the world will be nearly 70% urban. People move into cities faster than churches do. And Tokyo is the world’s most populous metropolitan area. As of May 2014, it has a population of 13.35 million and is key to reaching the rest of Asia. Also, there are at least 25 unchurched cities in Japan, where there is not a single church serving as a lighthouse for those living in spiritual darkness (not to mention the smaller towns and inakas, or rural areas). Besides, Tokyo is a city center where people worship money, education, wealth and power. The Gospel is much needed in this great city.
Japan’s low birthrate, aging population and its future.
The ongoing aging and decreasing population in Japan could trigger profound changes. Over 25 percent of the Japanese population are now 65 years or older. And 20-year-olds this year made up only 0.99% of the population. That figure is hardly enough to meet the needs of the society and economy, much less keep up with the nation’s pension system. It is estimated that in 2025, 20-year-olds will make up only 0.88 percent of the population.
Chances are that the government may open up and allow large numbers of foreign workers to come to Japan. Meanwhile, if the relatively small but powerful ultra-nationalist groups gained control, Japan could possibly become very hostile to the Christian faith. If the ultra-nationalists group prevailed, legalized persecution of Christians could possibly return. Currently, missionaries can freely receive “religious visas” to work in Japan but this could change if the ultra-nationalists gained power. I agree with what a fellow missionary said that, “We need to prepare….[and] for the church to thrive in these conditions, we need a contextualized Gospel for Japan that is not perceived as ‘foreign’ to Japan….”
Suicide, hikikomori, overwork, and a pervasive sense of gloom.
The suicide rate for Japan is about 60 percent higher than the average globally. For more than a decade, 30,000 people committed suicide every year. Thankfully, over the last 3 years this number has dropped just slightly. But even with a modest drop in the suicide rate, today alone more than 70 people will take their own lives.
And suicide is now the leading cause of death among men aged 20-44 and women aged 15-34. While Tokyo certainly has the highest number of suicides due to its staggering population, Iwate Prefecture (affected by the triple disaster of 2011) recorded the highest rate in 2013. The most common reasons for suicide are divorce, debt and bankruptcy.
Beyond the staggering suicide rate, a recent poll by an online market research firm found out that of those turning 20 years old this year, only 34.4 percent felt optimistic about Japan’s future. Few know what they want to do for a living. It’s as if they’ve reached adulthood and their lives have stalled. Furthermore, there are approximately 1 million hikikomori (modern hermits or shut-ins) in Japan, representing at least 20% of all male adolescents, or 1% of the total population. Millions are socially withdrawn and spiritually lost.
Work, too, has become enormously burdensome. In some cases people die of karoshi, which is a Japanese term used to refer to people who die of exhaustion due to overwork. Though some measures have been taken to ensure that employers do not abuse their employees through overwork, we still hear horrendous stories of overwork from our people. The corporate demands can literally be life-threatening. Despite these pressures, we have great hopes for Japan in the power of the cross. As a veteran missionary friend wrote,
“Japan’s epic disaster in March of 2011 was a huge catalyst for change in relation to the Gospel. Due to the way thousands of Christian volunteers responded, the general perception of Christians became far more positive. The presence and spirit of Christian volunteers was noticed and much appreciated by survivors. Remarkably, almost 4 years later, many Christian volunteers continue to reach out to those affected by the disaster.”
Young people, especially, need to be reached with the Gospel.
The average age of a pastor in Japan is well over 60 years, and there is often no younger generations to replace them. Young people need older and godly men and women to lead them into adulthood. They need imperfect but godly Gospel-driven role models in the home, workplace, community and the church. Sadly, some churches have only about 10 members, and many do not have pastors. A church with more than 100 active members is considered a flourishing ministry. Due to the smallness of some churches, there is also lack of financial support for pastors from their congregations, and so pastors often have to work other jobs. Having another job in a hard working culture like Japan, where overwork is not uncommon, can be spiritually draining when coupled with the demands of pastoral ministry. A pastor friend, in another prefecture, had to do pulpit supply for a smaller church while pastoring his congregation. And a few years ago I had to fill in for one 80-year-old pastor, who was looking for a younger Japanese pastor to succeed him. But his successor turned out to be another older man only slightly younger than him. This is not uncommon in Japan.
Having said all this, it is indeed an exciting time to serve in Tokyo. I work two-part time jobs, while leading our church plant, which is still at an early stage. The timeline and process for church planting in Japan are slower than in other countries due to the spiritual climate and hard cultural soil. Spiritual warfare is very real here, but our authority is in the name of Christ and in His Word. Our hope rests on the One who promised that He would build His Church — over which the gates of Hades shall not prevail (Matt. 16: 18). My wife Yisel is working full-time as a kindergarten teacher in a secular school. We’re grateful that four of her co-workers, including two managers, have also joined our community and are regularly hearing the Gospel. We currently have about 10 non-Christians coming regularly to our tiny apartment, and we are in touch with about 60 people more through our outreach events. Though the soil is hard, many have heard the Gospel and their responses have not been negative. Even those who are a little skeptical have not rejected our community or us. It is hard for a rich nation to enter the Kingdom of God, but with God all things are possible (Matt. 19: 23-26).
Would you please consider partnering with us with your prayers and monthly giving?
- Please pray for our weekly home gathering where we share meals, open the Word, pray, worship and fellowship; and our life on life discipleship, etc…
- Please pray for The Bridge music outreach to Jazz musicians, their friends and families coming up on March 8th to commemorate the 4th anniversary of the 3/11 triple disaster.
- Please pray for The Bridge Easter gathering on April 5th and The Bridge Live on June 6th.
- Please pray for gospel-centered churches to come alongside us and partner with us.
- Please pray for more laborers to lay down their lives for the sake of the Gospel in Japan.
- Finally, please pray for the name of God to be glorified among the Japanese in Tokyo and beyond.
Feel free to write to us — a note letting us know that you’re praying for us is a huge encouragement. You can also connect with us on Facebook and learn more about what we’re doing in Tokyo by visiting our website. If you would like to receive email updates please sign up for our monthly newsletters and forward it to others you think might be interested. Thank you so much.
If you’d like to make a tax-deductible donation to support the Zorina’s work in Tokyo, you can do so via our online giving page. When prompted, simply choose “Zorina Support” from the drop-down menu.
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