Shelf-stacking Preacher

The church that we attend in Japan has a congregation of 10 when everyone rocks up. Of this number my family is 4 and the pastor’s family is 3.

I’ve been wondering how our pastor survives financially given the small size of the congregation. I discovered part of the answer on Sunday. For five nights a week he works at a local supermarket stacking shelves and undertaking other stock-related work.

The more I get to know this guy, the more I like him!

The Japanese Schindler

sugihara memorial
Illuminated Pipe Organ at Sugihara Commemorative Museum, Yaotsu, Gifu Prefecture

The story of Oskar Schindler is fairly well known. He is credited for saving the lives of over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware factory, and his story is retold in the famous film Schindler’s List. The State of Israel honoured Schindler as “Righteous Among the Nations” – a status it endows on Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.

In a town called Yaotsu about 60km from here was born another of whom Israel has deemed “Righteous Among the Nations”. Despite his relative obscurity, at least compared to Oskar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara is credited with saving thousands of Jews during this terrible time in history. Last weekend we visited a commemorative museum dedicated to this man and his story.

Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat posted to Lithuania in 1939. In July and August 1940 and he used his position as a representative of the Foreign Ministry to write transit visas to allow European Jews to pass through the Soviet Union and Japan to claim asylum in countries of refuge.

He contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to request permission to grant transit visas to fleeing Jews despite them not meeting the requirements for issue of a visa. Tokyo responded that without a visa to a destination country a Japanese transit visa could not be granted. Realising that the Jews coming to his office would be in grave danger from the Nazis if they could not escape, he began to issue visas by his own hand, without authorisation from Tokyo and in defiance of direct orders to the contrary. Given his low position in the Foreign Ministry,  cultural pressure to follow orders, and the Japanese alliance with Nazi Germany, this was an incredible act of bravery.

Sugihara hand-wrote visas for up to 20 hours per day. As news spread of his actions, more and more refugee Jews lined up outside the consulate in order to get a transit visa through Japan. This continued for only a couple of weeks after which the Japanese consulate was closed in September and Sugihara was ordered to leave.

Sugihara died in Japan in 1986. His story is not well known in Japan. His humility was such that it was only when a large Jewish delegation (including dignitaries) attended his funeral that his neighbours and friends found out what he had achieved.

The little commemorative museum in Yaotsu does quite a good job at recounting Sugihara’s story despite its paucity of related artefacts. (For example, the only visas on display were replicas.) However, as is typical of most Japanese recounts of World War II, the broader Japanese Imperial context in which these events took place is missing. Despite this shortcoming the museum does a good job at bringing visitors to uncomfortably face the extent of human evil (it includes photos from the Nazi death camps), as well as the joy of redemption brought through a man that chose to do good.

Ageing (car) Population

Daihatsu Car Model
Japan – A country where you can express yourself in surprising ways by your choice of car.

I am married to Nicewife, a Japanese national.

Nicewife’s dad has some special friends that he has know from his schooldays that have become legendary characters to me. Let me introduce them. There’s “special car friend” (he owns a car dealership and garage), “special-tomato-friend” (he owns a hydroponic tomato farm), “fisherman-friend” (quite dissimilar from his strong minty-tasting namesake), and “always-wearing-purple friend”. I love the fact that they are named with reference to what benefits their friendship provides – apart from “always-wearing-purple friend” that is, who presumably counters his apparent uselessness with a good social presence.

Late last week we met “special car friend” to take possession of a car that we will be able to use during our gap year in Japan. If there is anywhere in Japan where the car is king, it’s Aichi. The lifeblood of this prefecture is the automotive industry. The largest car manufacturer in the world, the Toyota Motor Corporation, is headquartered here. When I was first living in Japan (about 8 years ago), people were generally driving nice, modern cars that were only a couple of years old, but were yet complaining that they could not afford to replace them because, “the economy is bad”. As an Australian, and being from the State with the oldest car fleet in the country (if we exclude Tasmania – which is a good thing to do generally anyway), I found this pretty amusing.

I was curious about just how things have changed since 2003. In the intervening period the Japanese economy has continued to stagnate. The national public debt has ballooned to about 200% of GDP. The population has peaked and is several years into its forecast near-terminal decline (more people are dying or emigrating than the combined total of those being born and immigrating). The government, with its funds depleted, are facing an expensive cleanup operation in northern Tohoku following the March 2011 Tsunami, which includes yet unknown costs related to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

I asked “special car friend” how business was going. He sat back in this chair, sucked the air through his teeth, and then gave the following frank assessment.

“The problem with cars nowadays… they don’t break down”, he explained.

“That’s terrible!” I sympathised.

“What about car servicing? Surely that’s a cash co…. um, I mean, surely that’s a vitally necessary public service you can provide?”

“Retirees, housewives, workers who commute by public transport. They’re only driving short distances… 1,000 to 2,000 km per year, so they don’t bother getting their cars serviced very often.”

“I see. What about new car sales?” I inquired.

“Well, you know, the economy isn’t good. People used to change cars every 3 years or so, now they’re holding onto the same car for 5 or even 10 years! And when they do upgrade, they buy privately off the internet.”

These things are all relative, however. Special Car Friend pointed to a white Toyota Crown parked out the front of his office. It was a trade in, about 10 years old with 100,000 km on the clock. Equivalent Camrys in Australia are for sale on for around $8,000. How much for this white Toyota Crown? Less than nothing! Contrarily, special-car-friend will have to pay for its disposal.