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Church Music Workshop - Japan - Slideshow

A slideshow of photos accompanying a visit to the Church Music Workshop, sponsored by the Reformed Church in Japan.

Calvin Stapert, his wife Ann, and I were privileged to participate in the Church Music Workshop this year, sponsored annually by the Reformed Church in Japan. This trip was a cooperative effort between the Reformed Church of Japan (RCJ), Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM), and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. We were warmly welcomed everywhere, and enjoyed wonderful Christian fellowship.

During the long flight, I read Silence, a novel by Shusaku Endo telling of the persecution of Japanese Christians in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The introduction by the translator gives the background: From the first Basque missionary, Francis Xavier, who came in 1549, the church grew until by 1579, there were already some 150,000 Christians. But in 1587 threats started, and in 1597 twenty-six Japanese and European missionaries were crucified near Nagasaki. The church, by now 300,000 strong, entered a period of intense persecution, with many thousands martyred between 1614-1640 and many others going underground. Reading this was a sober introduction to the Christian Church in Japan. The roots of the Christian faith in Japan go deep, soaked in blood, and the visible church all but disappeared for a long time. The novel tells that terrible story.

Rev. Jeong Gho, a Korean-American missionary in Japan with CRWM, met us at Narita Airport and drove us into Tokyo, a trip of about two hours. First stop was a tour of the campus of the Christian Academy of Japan (CAJ), a remarkable campus on an excellent piece of real estate, with a separate auditorium building (vibrant string program, instrument practice rooms downstairs; some applied music teachers come to campus to teach there), classroom building, dorm, cafeteria. The CRC has 1/6th ownership in this ecumenical setting; five other evangelical missions are co-owners, and many other missions also supply staff. The school (more than 400 students, K-12) used to serve c. 90% missionary kids. The CRWM staff is among denominational staff gradually decreasing (the OPC allegedly has decided this year to pull out completely from Japan mission work), and now MK's account for only 50% of the very diverse student body. The school appears to be vibrant, stimulating, and very active in the academic, arts, and sports programs that take them on competitions to several other Asian countries for tournaments.

We then visited two small but typical churches of the Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ). Since real estate is so expensive, the church usually has a tiny bit of land and builds upwards. At Tanashi RCJ we had tea with Rev. Akira Mochizuki. The sanctuary had pews for about 50 people. In lieu of pew racks for hymnals and Bibles, the pattern is for a small shelf behind each chair or pew for the next row of people to be able to use for taking notes or placing their hymnals; that was the case in each of the four churches we visited.

The second church, Tokorozawa ("New Life") RCJ, was similar. An ESL class was in progress, with two church members and three others they brought. Japanese people are particularly eager to study English with Americans, and often that opportunity gets them into a church building for the first time.

On Wednesday, April 28, a cab ride brought us to Shinko ("Kobe Port") Reformed Church, site of the Church Music Workshop. The day was clear, and we got a great view of Mount Fuji on the way. The Shinko church is one of the larger congregations, with a 100 year history. We were welcomed by Rev. Ken Iwasaki and his wife Taeko. In contrast with the Tokyo churches we visited, the Shinko church is large and spacious, with a beautiful new two-manual tracker organ in the rear balcony built by Marc Garnier from Strasbourg, in some kind of Baroque temperment ("Mitteltonige Stimmung," Garnier explains in musica ecclesiae reformatae semper reformandae [MERSR], Vol. 6, 2002, pp. 36-37). I picked up copies of several issues of this Japanese journal of music and worship in the Reformed tradition, with original articles and as well as some translated from other languages. Several have articles on the Genevan Psalter, including a translation of John Witvliet's "The Spirituality of the Psalter" (#3, 2000-10), articles by Masaaki Suzuki, and others from Europe (Jan Luth, Marc Garnier).

Masaaki Suzuki-sensei was practicing when we arrived. Soon others started arriving, and the conference began. About 80 people had gathered, the majority were women who serve as musicians in RCJ churches. Several pastors attended as well.

The opening worship service at 2:00 was led by Rev. Yasuyoshi Kawasugi, pastor of the Tsunashima Church and member of the RCJ committee on liturgy and hymnody. Rev. Kawasugi spoke on Ephesians 5:19-20 and Colossians 3:16, and we sang several Genevan psalms, with Suzuki-sensei leading at the organ. I had taken my little Psalter Hymnal along, so Cal and Ann and I could sing along in English as the others sang in Japanese. Singing the same psalms to the same melodies, together in both English and Japanese, was particularly meaningful. I was reminded of the accounts of worship in the early days of the Reformed churches in New York where recent immigrants sang in French, German, Dutch and English simultaneously, unified by these same melodies. I doubt the singing and playing was as beautiful as it was here! The singing was enthusiastic and vibrant, excellently led by the organ with sensitivity and strength. Among the psalms we sang were 134 and 86 (Cal, Ann, and I sang along on Ps. 77). We sang no hymns.

After a short break, Cal gave his lecture, ably translated by Larry Spalink, and after another break, I gave my lecture, with Cal playing one example (Ps. 81) on his recorder, and Suzuki-sensei playing the other examples on the organ. We sang an example from the Iona Community ("Take, O Take Me As I Am"), Psalm 81, the Song of Simeon, Psalm 116 from the African American tradition ("I Love the Lord," on CD played by James Abbington), and a Japanese song, "Don'na Tokidemo" from Hymnal 21; this song was written by Junko Takahashi, a young Japanese girl who died of cancer when she was only seven. I had learned about the song from Dr. Yasuhiko Yokosaka at Niigata University, who was on the editorial team of Hymnal 21, the most recent hymnal of the United Church of Christ in Japan.

We ended the day with worship, this time led by Rev. Katsuji Kawase, pastor of Hanakoyanei RCJ. We sang Psalms 36 (Cal, Ann, and I sang along on Ps. 68), 24, 80, and 47. Before Psalm 47 I was invited to introduce one example we had not had time for in the afternoon. We sang "Ososo," a Korean prayer for unity, and I gave the background to this song. For the postlude, Suzuki-sensei played Sweelink settings of Psalm 36.

On Thursday, April 29, we visited the Seminary of the Reformed Church in Japan, where President Yoshikazu Makita and Professor Yasunori Ichikawa met us for coffee. President Makita then took us on a tour of their campus, an impressive new facility that includes housing for students as well as classrooms, library, administrative offices, and chapel-which has another small new tracker organ by Marc Garnier, also featured in the 6th issue of MERSR on p. 18ff.).

Meanwhile, the conference continued in the morning at the Shinko Church and Shoin Women's University Chapel for several organists who gathered for master classes, with Masaaki Suzuki-sensei at Shinko RCJ and others at Shoin. In the afternoon we went to Shoin Women's College in Kobe, for a separate event sponsored by the college. When we arrived, people were already lining up to get in to this ticketed event. Then Masaaki Suzuki-sensei gave a recital of music by Bach, beginning with four pieces from the 17 Leipzig chorales, three on Pentecost chorale tunes.

The choice of Pentecost chorale themes was deliberate, since Maestro Suzuki-sensei was celebrating his fiftieth birthday, giving us all the gift of his playing on that day. We stayed long enough to offer a toast, and Cal gave him a gift from Calvin, and then we had to rush to catch the train back to Tokyo. We had had a rich full day.

On Friday, April 30th, we visited a bit more of Toyko. Jeong Gho took us by subway to see the latest church plant; Toyo-Senkyo Church. Later that evening, I met briefly with a retired pastor, Rev. Yutaha Maeda, who has written many hymns and also children's songs. He gave me a collection of his songs and a CD, and also a Japanese/English copy of a "New Catechism" that begins with a Toddler's Catechism, with a few questions with very short answers, moving to a Children's, then Elementary, and finally Adult Catechism; a fascinating idea. Actually, it begins with a small "catechism" the pregnant mother reads aloud to the child in her womb!

On our last evening we were able to take in a big event at CAJ for which they had prepared for weeks: a full-scale production of The Music Man, with performances four nights in a row. It was a community event, with adults as well as students in the solo roles, choruses, and pit orchestra-an intergenerational group of students, staff, and supporters. Costumes were made or rented; it was excellent and first class, giving evidence of the quality of musical and community life at CAJ; the music teacher has been there for 25 years. Seniors sold their home-made baked goods during intermission to earn money for their class trip to the Philippines; they were also planning to work in churches a couple of days during their class trip.

The partnership between the RCJ and the CRC has born good fruit; I hope that this trip has also served to deepen our relationship. We left with very good memories of dedicated leaders in the RCJ who are committed to honoring their Reformed roots as well as to reaching many more in Japan and beyond with the good news of the Kingdom.

On the way home, I started reading Andrew Wall's The Cross Cultural Process in Christian History (Orbis, 2002), a very insightful book that places in perspective the movement of the church of Jesus Christ over the centuries. The center of mission activity has shifted; from Jerusalem to Rome to Europe and North America, now clearly moving to Africa and other places south of the equator, so that North Americans are actually receiving more missionaries from other lands than they are sending. In this shifting landscape of Christianity, the church in Japan is part of a long history that has never been large, but in God's grace, is poised to become a sending church as well as a church that grows spiritually and numerically within their land. It is good to have many names and faces to remember, as well as those small, tall church buildings where every Sunday God's people meet for worship and fellowship. May God bless the RCJ richly.