The Foreign Mission Board (FMB) had several programs for those wanting to serve overseas. The pre-requisites for all potential missionaries are that they must have a calling from God and be an active member of a Southern Baptist church. Career missionaries must be twenty-one years old and a seminary graduate. Those who want to serve as Journeymen must be twenty-one and commit to two years of service. International Service Corps (ISC) personnel must be twenty-one and commit to one year. I signed up to be a semester missionary. I had to be between eighteen to twenty-six years old and I had to commit to six months of international service.
I had no time to contemplate about my long, physical, emotional, and spiritual journey to Japan. I also had no time to reflect on my service while in Japan until I was at the end of my term. Right from the get-go I was busy.
The night I landed at Fukuoka International Airport I was thrust into a world of airplanes running their engines, flashing lights and pink neon signs, trains tooting their horns, and taxi cabs waiting in line for passengers.
The airport and train station was busy with millions of people who look like me milling about.
I had no idea that an American missionary couple was suppose to meet me at the terminal. But there they were seeking me out.
“I’m Keith. This is my wife Anne.”
Keith and Anne were definitely foreigners. Both had sandy blonde hair so they stood out from the crowd like two sore thumbs.
“The Foreign Mission Board has asked us to help you purchase a train ticket to Nagasaki,” explained Keith as he and Anne assisted me with carrying my two boxes and my suitcase over to the adjoining train station.
I stood and watched this couple buy my ticket to Nagasaki.
“As soon as you hear the word ‘Nagasaki’, get off,” Anne explained to me as she handed me my ticket.
Okay, I thought. Simple enough. I can do that.
Or so I thought.
The couple loaded my boxes and suitcase onto the train before seeing me off.
About forty-five minutes later I thought I heard the female loudspeaker on the train say the word, “Nagasaki”. So I disembarked.
It was a mistake. I got off at the wrong stop. The station sign said in English and Japanese “Tosu”. I was lost.
Getting lost on a train line in a foreign country was really nothing new. I had gotten lost on a train line four years earlier between Hong Kong and Shenzhen after hanging out with my Dad and his students.
On the way back into Hong Kong my Dad, who was right behind me in the customs line, was for some reason detained. But I got disoriented and thought he had jumped the queue and boarded the train ahead of me. So I boarded the train thinking that he was already on it. It wasn’t until the doors slid shut that I realized Dad was not on board and that something was wrong. But I could not get off the train.
Luckily for me I remembered how to get back to our family flat in Hong Kong. And luckily the British still ran the territory so all signs and announcements were in English and Cantonese. A few hours later we were re-united outside our front door.
Here in Japan everything, with the exception of the station signs, were in Japanese and I really didn’t know anyone in the country other than Keith and Anne.
It did not occur to me to follow the crowd out of the station because we don’t have any trains in Hawaii and it had been four years since my Hong Kong experience. I thought someone from the FMB would meet me at the platform.
I had no food or water and I had not eaten dinner. Buying food was also impossible as I did not have any cash, only a credit card and traveler’s checks. And there were no food carts or shops on the platform.
I was stuck. I finally figured out that Nagasaki was at the end of the line. By the time I figured that out, the last train for Nagasaki had already passed. At one point a station attendant tried to assist me but because of the language barrier he was unable to explain that I should have taken the train all the way until it stopped and all passengers disembarked.
There was a green, public phone that had a card slot but it was only for pre-paid phone cards, not credit cards.
Crap! I thought. Now what? I was getting nervous.
Nervous, but not afraid. I recalled several of my professors at UH-Hilo saying that murder and assault rates are much lower in Japan than they are in the U.S. People rarely break the laws in Japan.
There was a waiting room on the platform with two wooden benches. One of them had a smutty comic book. Since I didn’t bring anything to read I tried to pass the time by reading it. I didn’t realize it contained pictures of scantily clad girls until I flipped through it. It was all in Japanese anyway and I couldn’t understand it. So I put it back on the bench and tried to get some sleep.
Tried being the operative word. Those benches were solid wood and were very uncomfortable to lie on. It was impossible for me to sleep lying down so I tried sleeping in a sitting position.
The next morning I took the first train out. Three hours later I arrived at Nagasaki Station around lunch time. I looked at my ticket and tried to match the destination to the sign on the platform. It was a match. The sign also said “Nagasaki” in English. I arrived at the right place. Plus all of the remaining passengers got off.
After unloading my two boxes and my suitcase from the train I took out my new supervisor’s green business card and bought some water from a nearby mart using a traveler’s check. Using the cash from that check I set out to find a public phone. There was just one problem. The phone booth was at the other end of the station. How in the world am I supposed to carry two boxes and a suitcase with me? Impossible.
Once again I had to remind myself that this is Japan. I was not hurt while on the platform the previous night and the odds of me ending up as a murder victim in this country were almost nil. What are the chances of someone stealing my stuff?
I took a chance. I left my things in front of the food mart and ran to the other end of the station to make the call.
“Hello? This is Jada.”
A man answered the phone in fluent English. “Where are you?” he asked with a southern U.S. drawl.
“I’m in Nagasaki at the train station.”
“Stay there. I’ll send someone to get you.”
I hung up and went back to my boxes and my suitcase to wait. A few minutes later I was approached by a young Japanese woman and a middle-aged man.
“I’m Aya,” said the young woman. “This is Ota-san.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said shaking both of their hands.
Ota-san flagged down a taxi and we all loaded my things into the vehicle. Ota-san told the driver where we were heading; Nishikoshima Street in Shianbaishi District.
Nagasaki is a very hilly city. It is surrounded by hills and mountains on the north, west, and east. And on its south side is the East China Sea. Because of its mountainous terrain damage to the city from the atomic bomb was not as widespread as in Hiroshima.
My supervisor’s home was on a steep hill overlooking the rest of the city. Below his home was an apartment building, my future home. Across from my building was a place called Water World.
“Is that an aquarium?” I asked Aya thinking it was a place of interest for tourists.
“No. It’s a karaoke parlor.”
I was disappointed. I love going to museums and aquariums.
It turns out the word Shianbaishi means “hesitation bridge”. The majority of the missionary residences, including my future apartment, were located above the red light district of Nagasaki. The bridge itself has since disappeared. The water below the bridge was diverted and the remaining ditch was filled in with concrete. The story behind the bridge is that weary travelers would hesitate before crossing the bridge into sin.
Unfortunately the fastest way to get home was through the red light district. When we drove through, it was noon so all the parlors were closed and people were either shopping or eating.
Upon my arrival I was warmly greeted by my supervisor Sam Davis and his wife Linda. Both were in their seventies and originally from Alabama.
Aya and Ota-san unloaded my things and put them in the Davis’ guest room. Their home was much like an American home. Every chamber, with the exception of the dining and living rooms, was separated by a wall. And although there was no wall separating the dining and living areas, there was a Japanese-style sliding door complete with shoji paper. Their home had three bedrooms with one of those rooms converted into an office/storage room. Their kitchen had a swing door that led to the dining area. Behind their home was Aya’s apartment and a small yard for their Akita husky, Arashi, and their eternally pregnant cat, Magarin.
“You finally arrived,” said Sam while shaking my hand.
“Let’s get you freshened up and get you something to eat,” said Linda as she showed me to my room.
I took a quick shower, got a bite to eat, and slept for at least two hours. When I awoke in the early afternoon, Sam had Aya and I ripping leather seat covers off of some chair backs and replacing them with new ones. Later that evening, Aya drove me and another American missionary from Alabama, a young man named Mike, to a farewell party in Isahaya, a small town just outside Nagasaki.
That was pretty much how missionary life was in Japan. The Davises ran the mission as if the world was coming to an end. They believed that every Nagasakian should have at least heard the Good News. So they ran a very tight ship with great fervor. Everyone on the team was constantly moving. Morning staff meetings and devotions were held at their home every day except Sundays and Mondays followed by English and Bible study classes which ran from late morning until night. Fifteen hour workdays were not uncommon for us. Once a month we had to deliver the Nagasaki Compass, a bilingual newsletter, around the city. And I had to assist Aya and Mike in running an English camp on Goto, a set of islands off the coast of Nagasaki Prefecture. Often times I would not get home until 11 pm when the karaoke parlors and night clubs would open for business and Nagasaki salary men are out getting drunk with their bosses.
Sundays were also busy workdays for us. In the morning I was assigned to attend a Japanese church. In the afternoon I had to attend the Davises’ international church.
Even Mondays, our days off, I was doing something; most likely playing tourist. However, the people I’d play tourist with were my co-workers or Japanese friends who attend the international church. It didn’t feel like a day off to me.
When my six months came to an end in the winter of 1993 and I boarded the train back to Fukuoka International Airport, I finally had time to think. My first thought was that’s it? My time in Japan had been such a whirlwind of activity and that was all I could think of.
As my train was pulling out of Nagasaki Station I plugged into my walkman. The last song I heard was a duet by Christian artists Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant singing Somewhere, a love song between two lovers who are separated but promise to find each other. Such a sad and melancholic song to leave on I thought. But it was appropriate because it seemed to fit my reflective mood.
As I was leaving Nagasaki I still had that missionary zeal in my belly; the same zeal I had as a child.
I still believed that God wanted me to be in Japan.