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Inside the outbreak: Coronavirus in Japan

Missionaries and churches in Japan feel the effects of the pandemic but still seek to share the gospel

Inside the outbreak: Coronavirus in Japan

People wear face masks as they walk along a street during snowfall in Sapporo, northern Japan. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

With heavy snowfall in the winter, Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, is a popular tourist destination with ski resorts, festivals featuring snow and ice sculptures, and the famous Hokkaido ice cream. But lately Hokkaido has another claim to fame: the prefecture with the highest number of coronavirus infections in the country with 111 cases. 

The streets of Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital, are deserted. Residents wear face masks in public while trying to avoid public transportation. As more locals and tourists decide to stay home, restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, and taxi services struggle to stay afloat. 

In Hokkaido and around Japan, the novel coronavirus is also affecting churches and missionaries trying to bring the gospel to a country where Christians make up only 1.5 percent of the population.

Dale and Karen Viljoen, long-term missionaries in Hokkaido, run Cafe COEN in Sapporo, a cafe and English ministry. Besides selling South African coffee and dry curry lunches, Cafe COEN also offers private and group English classes, a small church gathering on Sundays, and a place for people to connect and build friendships. With the outbreak, the Viljoens decided to stop English class for two weeks but continue to keep the cafe open and meet for worship on Sundays. 


Cafe COEN (Handout)

This past Sunday, six people showed up for church, while four others joined online. The number of customers has also dropped as more people decide to stay home. 

English class tuition makes up about 75 percent of Cafe COEN’s revenue, so the closure has a big effect on the business. But the Viljoens are seeing God continue to provide: In January, the director of a popular TV program happened to pass by the cafe and decided to check it out. Impressed by its warm atmosphere, he featured the cafe on the program “Hangin’ Around Hokkaido,” which explores different places on the island. 

The episode aired last Friday night with the show’s host and a celebrity guest drinking cappuccinos, chatting with the Viljoens, and joining an English class. Dale said the next day, several new customers showed up at the cafe. One 80-year-old woman came 15 minutes before the cafe opened. She told the Viljoens all her friends were dying, and she wanted to make a connection. Another newcomer was a man in his 40s who suffered from mental problems that kept him from keeping a job, but he said he saw the cafe as a friendly, welcoming place. “Some people think that Christians shouldn’t feel stress or fear, but that’s not correct,” Dale said, regarding the outbreak. “You feel the same feelings but it’s how you deal with them that is different.”

Elsewhere in the country, City to City Japan postponed its first Japanese Intensive, a two-week training for church planters. The group is connected to Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Damian Grateley, the director of City to City Japan, said leaders spent a year planning the event, which would have taken place in the first two weeks of March at a hotel in Tokyo. Fifteen church planters and 20 observers had signed up, with some flying in internationally. 

Initially as the virus began to spread in Japan, the government recommended the cancellation of large gatherings. The group decided to continue with the event while taking precautions. But a few days later when the government closed all schools, Grateley and the City to City’s board decided to postpone the event. 

“It wasn’t a decision made out of fear, but out of care for other people,” Grateley said. He noted that during the outbreak Japanese people are careful to wear face masks not to protect themselves from others, but to protect others from themselves should they be infected yet asymptomatic. In the same way, Grateley said the leaders look at the postponement as a way to love and care for others by protecting them, even if it was a costly decision for the ministry.  

Plus, Grateley noted the training wasn’t the best place for pastors to be during a crisis: “We needed to release pastors to be with the sick and anxious in the community. We didn’t want to take them away at this time.”

In the city of Nagoya, Grateley pastors GraceCity Church, which has about 40-50 attendees each week. For the past two weeks, services have happened over the video conferencing platform Zoom, while small groups and other meetings continued as usual. Grateley said the church’s biggest concern was for older members or those with health problems. Members are deciding whether they still want to participate.

Churches in Japan each make decisions as to whether they wish to continue meeting, and the crisis has led to churches to think outside the box.

“It’s been challenging people to think about what church is really about,” Grateley said. “We’re more than just a Sunday gathering.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Taiwan. Follow Angela on Twitter @angela818.