Recovering from Hating the Japanese

This spring my book Reconciling All Things (co-authored with Emmanuel Katongole) will be published in Japanese, along with two other titles from the Resources for Reconciliation Series we launched with InterVarsity Press when I served at the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation. Below is an excerpt from the preface I just wrote to the Japanese edition, telling the story of healing which led to these translations.

One of the most important questions every human being must face is the central question at the heart of this book: Who is your “we”? When you say “we” who is included? And who is not? Who are your people?

Our nation. Our ethnic group. Our family. These “we”s have great power. Who our “we” is and how it changes over our lifetime matters greatly, because all of us are touched by stories of conflict and bitterness. These stories can be poisonous. There is a turbulent history between Korea and Japan, and that history poisoned me.

I grew up in South Korea where my parents served as Presbyterian missionaries. I heard many painful stories of Korean suffering caused by Japan’s colonial rule (1910-1945). Older Koreans told stories of being forced to learn Japanese, to take Japanese names, and to worship at Shinto shrines. I deeply despised Japan and this continued long into my adult life.

For many years I was involved in the racial reconciliation movement in the U.S. But my “we” did not include Japanese people. My children would hear me mocking Japanese people. “Dad, why do you dislike Japanese people so much?”

In 2003 I was doing graduate studies at Duke Divinity School in the U.S. One day in class I noticed an Asian student, an older student like me. After class I introduced myself. Yet when I learned his name I was very disappointed: Katsuki Hirano. From Japan. Katsuki said he was at on sabbatical at Duke for several months with his family. If Katsuki had been Korean I would have immediately invited him with excitement to my house for dinner with my family. But I did not offer to meet him again. Our conversation was over in 5 minutes. I did not think about Katsuki again.

Nine years later I was codirector of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke. We published Reconciling All Things and began a series of books focused on reconciliation. We began a successful reconciliation institute in the U.S. Another institute in Africa. We began to look at Northeast Asia as the next place of partnership. I needed to travel to China and Korea and Japan. But I didn’t know anyone who could host me in Japan. At our Duke Summer Reconciliation Institute I had met a Japanese composer named Yoko Sato, and I asked her for a recommendation.

“There is only one person I know who might be a good host,” said Yoko. “He is a Japanese pastor in Tokyo. His name is Rev. Katsuki Hirano. Would you like me to introduce you?”

tokyo.nagasaki2 136
2012: First Nagasaki visit, led by Katsuki Hirano (right). At site where 26 Christians were martyred in 1597.

Yes, I went to Japan. Yes, I was welcomed at the airport. By the same Katsuki Hirano I had scorned years earlier at Duke. Over the next five days we traveled together to Tokyo and Nagasaki. He introduced me to Japanese culture and food. He introduced me to Christians from Japan who lived faithfully as a small minority. In Nagasaki I stood in front of Urakami Cathedral where the U.S. atomic bomb exploded. I asked God to forgive the nation of my passport. I learned the story of the hidden Christians of Nagasaki (partly told in Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence”) who kept the faith alive through seven generations of intense persecution. I was shocked to find myself being changed. How was this possible? How could I tell my Korean friends how much I loved my days in Japan? How much I enjoyed this Christian brother named Katsuki?

Katsuki came to the U.S. and I spent five minutes with him. I went to Japan and he spent five days with me. This was the beginning of a journey of healing for me. Several years later, when Katsuki returned to Duke for a second sabbatical, my wife Donna and I could not allow him to stay in a hotel. We invited Katsuki to live in our home for two months, and during Katsuki’s “America homestay” the bonds between us became very deep. (I like to think that Donna’s many home-cooked meals were a kind of repentance from my previous unkindness.)

During Katsuki’s 2014 Duke sabbatical, at Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina

I still don’t like what the power of Japan did to Korea. But I learned that Katsuki and many other Japanese Christians I met didn’t like it either. Unlikely friendship with Katsuki interrupted and expanded my “we.” And since 2011, Katsuki and I have been drawn with many other Christian leaders from the church, academy, and grassroots into common mission through the Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia. Christian leaders from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S., seeking to find God’s way toward peace in turbulent times. Seeking to address the lingering wounds of injustice. Seeking to be interrupted by God’s new we.

P.S. Did I mention that the translators of the Japanese edition are the Rev. Katsuki Hirano and the composer Yoko Sato?


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