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 The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP

Commuters heading for their offices in Tokyo ( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP)

Sophia's World

Lonely in Japan

How can such a wealthy and technologically advanced nation feel so empty?

I recently went on a 16-day trip to Japan, partly for vacation, partly for work. I did all the touristy things—zipping through Tokyo on a six-hour bike tour, trekking “Hacksaw Ridge” in Okinawa, gawking at the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, and visiting the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto—but for the last six days, I stayed at a tiny studio in the outskirts of Tokyo and basically lived like a local. 

Every morning I ran by the Ebi River, where I passed the same fat cats and elderly couples taking their daily strolls. I stopped by the same supermarket and food stalls every evening, where I picked up overpriced produce and discounted sushi. I walked to the same subway station for my daily commute, weaving through housewives in designer coats, men in tailored black suits, and students in navy pleated skirts. I was surrounded by people all day, crushed between armpits in subways and smushed in crowded yakitori bars—and yet, I felt a strange loneliness each day. 

Someone at my church asked me if Japan is worth visiting. I said yes—it’s a beautiful country of mountains and volcanoes and islands, a distinguished civilization with thousands of years of history and culture. It has punctual-to-the-second bullet trains with heated seats, manicured public green spaces, and an unquenchable food scene where every dish is a work of art. Its people speak the world’s prettiest language and are mostly well-mannered, well-groomed model citizens who never eat while walking (too sloppy), never talk on the trains (too impolite), and never cut in line (unimaginable). Their public toilets even play bird-chirping music to drown out impolite noises from neighboring stalls.

But, I added, Japan also seems to me a country of great spiritual darkness and unhappiness. That’s not just me conjecturing. Local pastors and missionaries tell me Japan is a tough mission field—less than one half of a percent of the population is evangelical Christian, making Japan one of the least evangelized nations in the world despite the longtime presence and freedom of missionaries.

Several residents told me the Japanese are terribly unhappy people, and I believe it. The studio I rented had thin walls, and almost every night I heard my neighbor weeping so hard that she had to pause to gasp for air. Japan, with all its economic and technological advantages, ranked No. 51 in this year’s World Happiness Report (U.S. ranked No. 14, Canada tied for No. 9). 

Other recent research reported that Japanese aged 15-21 polled the unhappiest out of 35 mostly developed countries, next to South Korean teens. Suicide and social isolation continue to be serious issues: Japan’s suicide rate is the sixth highest in the world, and about 541,000 young Japanese are labeled as hikikomori, a term describing young people who seclude themselves in their rooms for months or years at a time—a troubling psychological and cultural phenomenon.

With all that unhappiness, the Japanese seek to latch on to something bigger than themselves. Virtually every neighborhood has its own Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine. Though more than half of the Japanese people say they’re nonreligious, they still find comfort in their traditions and gods: They swarm the temples and shrines to pray for good luck every New Year’s Day, to rub the smoke of incense onto their heads (for healing), to buy amulets and charms promising good health, favorable exam results, or happy families. Some temples must really rake in the money, what with all the visitors paying admission fees and tossing coins into offering boxes so that the gods will hear their prayers.

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Jae C. Hong/AP

(Jae C. Hong/AP)

Sophia's World

Remembering the homeless this Thanksgiving

Meeting deep needs calls for more than a soup line

Something I’ve noticed in my travels: Homelessness in America looks very different from homelessness in other countries. Two years ago I was in Batam, Indonesia, where I visited a homeless couple who lived in a “hut” made of trash. They lay on a wooden plank with their two young daughters and toddler son, surrounded by flies and hoping to find enough rice in the dumpsters.

Here in America, poverty looks a little different. I’ve been following the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles for more than 10 months—and I’ve never met a truly starving homeless person. I’ve met several scrawny ones, but their emaciation was due more to substance addiction than to scarcity of food. Here, the homeless have smartphones, Facebook pages, beer bellies, and tents.

That’s not to say their poverty isn’t physical. These individuals are called “homeless” for a reason: Some sleep on the streets, some in emergency shelters, others in motels and cars. They have many real needs. But what they don’t seem to need is more food. So why is it that every holiday season, so many churches go on a charity binge, running food drives and donating stuff and serving meals? Come Thanksgiving, Christians across the nation will preach about remembering the poor and needy—but what does that mean, and how should it look?

From what I’ve observed, here’s how many people remember the poor: Whenever I visit downtown LA’s notorious Skid Row, an area with high-density homelessness, I see volunteer teams passing out food and clothing on the streets. Then a block away, I see homeless men and women peddling similar goods for instant cash—and I have to wonder where they got those items in the first place. On a recent visit to a rescue mission in Skid Row, I smelled hot food wafting from the cafeteria, while across the street another mission was also dishing out lunch. One woman walked out with her plate piled high with chicken and croissant, and when I remarked that it looked good, she replied, “Yeah, we can’t go hungry here. It’s impossible. There’s lotsa food—too much food.”

Last winter I met a homeless couple who arrived in LA with little more than two backpacks. Within four months, they had accumulated a mountain of stuff from do-good strangers: clothing, dressers, blankets, shoes, even Christmas lights. During the holidays, people dropped off lavish meals at homeless encampments until trash cans overflowed and untouched turkey rotted in the streets, attracting rats and vermin.

Several churches in LA now open their sanctuaries for winter shelter programs, which meet a huge need in a city that can get surprisingly cold in winter. I visited a shelter at an Episcopal church in town during one miserable rainy night. There, more than 50 people curled up on pews with sleeping bags and pillows. The church was so full that program workers had to bus a dozen people to another emergency shelter.

But I also saw a separation between the volunteers and the shelter guests. Five volunteers stood in front of a giant wooden cross, ladling chicken curry onto plastic foam trays and making little conversation beyond polite exchanges: “More fruit?” “Yes, thank you.” In came the volunteers with their trays of hot food, and out they went within an hour. Had they stayed a little longer, that chatty old lady would have told them a man had broken her jaw and stolen her belongings. The quiet father-and-son pair would have told them they had no bed that night after dinner, because the pews were full.

Throughout my reporting, I’ve met many, many well-meaning and good-hearted people who “just want to help.” And the simplest way they know how is to give—an instinctive human response. But as those who get more involved recognize the sheer complexity of this issue, they feel overwhelmed: So I can’t give money? Well, can I at least buy them a sandwich? Yet what if they spend the money they’ve saved on food on drugs or alcohol instead?

I too had that internal struggle every time one homeless woman I befriended asked if I could order her and her boyfriend pizza—and I knew they were both able-bodied individuals with food stamps and a penchant for weed. Finally I told her no, feeling intensely guilty afterward. I thought she would stop contacting me, but then one day she called me again in tears, desperate for comfort, and so I listened to her and asked if I could pray for her.

Ordering her pizza took me five minutes, but listening and praying with her took much more time and effort. I knew that one prayer didn’t solve her problems: That woman needed a lot more than I, a nonprofessional, could provide—she needed affordable housing, health services, employment, therapy—but at that moment, what she also needed was friendship, which was something I could give. And I felt then that all the pizzas I ordered for her were worth it—those pepperoni pizzas had built a consistency of communication and trust between us that I hope one day leads to her finding more help.

This Thanksgiving, let’s remember the homeless among us. We set aside a special day for thanksgiving precisely because we forget to give thanks every day. Like us, people experiencing homelessness need a warm meal, a roof over their heads, hands to hold and pray with, words of gladness and thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving, let’s remember not just the needy, but their real needs. 

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Sophia's World

Breaking bread with Jews

A Sabbath meal with an Orthodox rabbi’s family

When a Jew invites you to Shabbat, never say no. I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in America, and I’ve never said no to anyone who invited me to a Shabbat—be it a lesbian “spiritual” couple or an ultra-Orthodox rabbi.

A while ago I accepted a Shabbat invitation from Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization. I met Rabbi Adlerstein at the 175th anniversary of the birth of William E. Blackstone, a pioneer of Jewish-Christian relations in America. Rabbi Adlerstein was the keynote speaker, and his introduction immediately caught my attention: “Forgive me, for I am a sinner.” Then he confessed that he once harbored resentment towards Christians. I knew right then that I had to interview him—and through a three-hour interview, I learned more of his story. 

Adlerstein developed a “deep-seated revulsion to anything Christian” as a young Orthodox Jewish boy in Manhattan who frequently met the fists of Irish Catholic boys on his way home from school. With his telltale payot (side curls) and yarmulke (Jewish cap), he was an easy target for anti-Semitism. His grandmother and mother were survivors of the Holocaust, and the young Adlerstein divided Christians into two groups: evil Christians who seek to hurt Jews, or annoying Christians who seek to convert Jews. He didn’t like either. Then the rabbi discovered through his work at the Wiesenthal Center that conservative Christians are some of the boldest Zionists. Soon he began studying the New Testament, reading Christian literature, and engaging with Christian leaders from various denominations—and realized that many of the beliefs he once held about Christians were inaccurate. 

Which leads us to my visit with Adlerstein for Shabbat at his home. At the table head sat the rabbi, and surrounding him sat the rabbi’s petite wife, his soon-to-be-married son, their Jewish friends, my evangelical Christian friend, and me. Together we lit the candles, said a sanctification prayer over wine, broke challah, then washed our hands for the feast—and what a feast!

Over four hours, we had matzo ball soup, salad, sesame-fried chicken, potato casserole, Chinese stir-fry, and two kinds of cake, all washed down with plenty of wine. By the sixth course (a roast beef so tender I could suck down the bones into juice), I lost count of the number of dishes. At one point I had to lean back and loosen my belt with a sigh. “We eat like this every week! That’s why we Jews have these,” the rabbi’s son told me while patting his belly.

That night, we discussed Leviticus 13-15. I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun discussing Leviticus, and I think the rabbi too enjoyed quizzing a couple of young Christians on our interpretation of the most law-dense book of the Bible. I decided to toss any proselytizing aside and simply collect as much insight and wisdom as I could from Rabbi Adlerstein’s incredible mind—and the self-proclaimed Torah “addict” was happy to oblige.

I learned that the Orthodox Jews don’t glean through their sacred texts like many Christians do—they dissect and agonize and argue over every word, coating every passage with layers of moral and legal implications. I saw that in their dress and observances: The rabbi didn’t shake my hand because I’m a woman; the light switches in his house were taped on because Orthodox Jews cannot use electricity during Shabbat; the lightbulb in the refrigerator was unscrewed so that it wouldn’t turn on automatically; and of course, the entire meal from the meat to the chocolate shavings on our cake was kosher.

Shabbat being a day of rest, toward the end of the meal, the rabbi dropped his chin to his chest and dozed off. His wife walked over and gently shook his shoulders, whispering, “Abba, abba, wake up. Time for dessert.” As the rabbi blinked open his eyes, the only two evangelical Christians at the table (my friend and I) exclaimed, “Behold! He is risen!” The rabbi, of course, got the joke—and to my relief, he cracked a chuckle.

Later, I heard one of the rabbi’s friends tell him, “I wasn’t sure whether to believe you when you told me you befriend Christians. Now I see it for myself.” For me, his statement drove home how precious that evening was. But I wonder if the rabbi recognized that our joke—“He is risen!”—also marks a key distinction between Judaism and Christianity: The resurrection of Jesus Christ fulfilled the numerous prophecies in the Old Testament that foretold the Messiah’s coming. Because Jesus died and is risen, Christians no longer need to observe certain Old Covenant laws that Jews still do.

Several months later, I had brunch with another Orthodox Jew who told me that the idea of “salvation by grace through faith alone” was hardest for him to accept about Christianity. It made more sense to him that to atone for his sins, he would have to perform certain deeds, such as fasting, doing good works, and praying three times a day. I immediately thought of the old favorite hymn “Amazing Grace”—an undeserved grace that’s confounding to many, but so amazing to those who accept it.

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