In 1852, Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy sailed into Tokyo Bay with four US battleships. For the last 260 years, Japan had completely isolated itself from the outside world. Commodore Perry came with the demand that Japan open up. Under the threat of naval bombardment by new, fearsome, modern weaponry, Japan capitulated, and it opened itself to the west. Japan remembered the existence of the outside world and realized that it was very relevant. This event, the sailing of black ships into Tokyo Bay, shaped Japan’s history. Truly, it began the modern history of Japan and remains a strong national memory.
Since the opening of Japan, missionaries have come to this land, and I am but the smallest and most recent of centuries of Christians who have given themselves that the Japanese people might know Christ. However, even after so long, the work here is still in its infancy: a scant 1% of Japan (if that) has eternal life. Our work is so far from completion, and the darkness lies heavy on this land.
However, just today I was realizing just how much I stick out as a foreigner, and in the back of my mind, these thoughts came to fruition: foreigners are black ships in Japan. In most of this country (once you leave the big cities), foreigners are a rare sight. I attract dozens of stares just walking down the streets of rural Japan. When foreigners show up, ignorant and incompetent in the Japanese language and culture, it is a sight to see. I daresay that my visit to the bank today created scarcely less commotion than Matthew Perry sailing into Tokyo bay so long ago.
Because we stick out so much, foreigners constantly remind Japan of the existence of the outside, non-Japanese world. On the one hand, some of Japan remains very traditional and nationalistic, but on the other, the government sees the need to “internationalize” Japan. The reason is that the foreign world is vital to Japan: this country would be bankrupt and starving without international trade. For economic reasons (among others), Japan needs its share of foreigners in order to understand the rest of the world.
As I ponder the role of missionaries in Japan, we are black ships in an even deeper way. We come to Japan to say that there is an outside world and that it is relevant. Most Japanese believe in some form of spirituality, but they do not believe it matters. Religion here, even Buddhism and Shinto, does not play a major part in the lives of most Japanese. It’s the here and now, money and industry, that propel Japan. If there is an afterlife, worry about it when you get there.
However, Christians declare that this is utter folly. We say that not only does the afterlife most certainly exist, but that heaven and hell are more intensely real than anything we can imagine. Furthermore, in this life, we find a meaning and purpose in God’s love. The Lord is real, and He is Lord of the universe now, not just after death. Missionaries come in ships that the Japanese have never seen to declare these things to a nation that denies them.
However, the black ships that Commodore Perry came with were feared. They were a sign of western power, and they resulted in the dishonor of Japan, causing Japan to look like a little child next to the west. We are not such black ships. We are the Black Ships of God’s Love. We do not come for the good of an earthly nation but the Heavenly one. And the good of the Heavenly nation IS the good of Japan. They are one and the same. We come bearing the love of God, a love that Japan needs more than we can even imagine.
I must pause to give credit to the Japanese believers who are faithful to declare the gospel in their own country. They are no less black ships than we foreign missionaries, and in some ways, they suffer more for it, because black ships are not loved in Japan.
So, here I live as a black ship, sticking out as foreign so that the Japanese might open to a world they have long ignored. Didn’t Christ say something about this? How did it go?
“You are the Black Ships of God’s Love. A black ship in a harbor cannot be hidden. Neither do people dispatch a navy without cause. Instead, they sail it straight into Tokyo Bay, and Japan is opened to the outside world. In the same way, sail out to men…”
Yes, now I remember it: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:14-16)