Interview with Japanese Missionary Michelle Mikoski

Japan has a very small Christian population, with estimates ranging from about 2% to 0.5% of the Japanese identifying themselves as Christian.  Missionaries from the U.S. and other countries, however, are working to spread the gospel in the country.  Michelle Mikoski and her husband, Nate, recently returned to the U.S. after a missions trip in Japan.  Michelle graciously agreed to answer some of my questions.  You can also read more about her family on the Tell Japan website.

TWWK: Why Japan? What led you mission work in that particular country?

Michelle: My husband, Nate, and I met at a Bible college in upstate NY. Both of us had decided to give our entire lives into God’s hands and simply do what He asked us to do. We both felt strongly that God was leading us into vocational ministry, but we weren’t sure what it would be – pastor? Teacher? Missionary? After we married, we continued to seek Him through prayer and studying His Word and trusting that God would reveal His will for our lives.

Our prayers were answered in a way we never would have imagined. About 1 year into our marriage, I woke up one morning and immediately felt that I HAD to learn Japanese. Now, neither Nate or I had any interest in Japan before this incident, so it made no sense! I knew this had to be from the Lord. Rolling over, I said to Nate, “God just told me I have to learn Japanese!” He gave me the what-are-you-crazy?! look but simply replied, “Okay….” The feeling was so strong that I went out that morning to look for a Japanese dictionary in our local bookstore! They had one copy; I started studying that very day. I spent the next 3 years learning Japanese on my own using what methods I could: grammar books, watching anime, translating songs, reading manga, hand-copying line after line of manga text, etc.

I was really enjoying myself, but Nate and I wondered together at what reason God had for asking me to do this. The obvious reason seemed to be that God wanted us to be missionaries to Japan, so we started looking into that process. About a year after that morning we went on a month-long missions trip to Miyakonojo in Kyushu, Japan to live and work alongside a missionary family in order to confirm if this was where God was leading us. We came back to the States with a passionate love for the Japanese people and a strong desire to return and do whatever we can to build up the church in Japan. We knew this God’s call for our lives. We are especially passionate about planting new churches and a priority on discipleship.

TWWK: What kind of mission work did you do while in Japan? Did you work in a school?

Michelle: Well, from the time we felt the call to be missionaries in Japan to our first trip it was about 8 years! We had 2 boys (now 8 and 4 years old) in that time and spent the last 4 years actively raising support with very little “success.” Our mission allowed us to come with what little funds we had at that point. Those funds would only give us 1 year in Japan and there was not even enough for us to attend language school. We lived just outside of Tokyo in Higashi Tokorozawa, Saitama prefecture from July 2009 – July 2010.

Since Nate was a contractor, our mission asked us to manage the small apartment building that our mission owns and uses as a transitional space for missionaries moving to Japan or back to their home country (it’s very difficult for foreigners to secure housing in Japan). The previous managers had retired after 10 years and no one had been in charge for almost 2 years. There were a lot of repairs, remodeling, cleaning and organization that needed to be done! But we learned the most from working in a very small Japanese church near Tokyo and the opportunities we had to visit many other churches and attend conferences. I did some English teaching in our church’s Logos
Kids English club weekly and bi-weekly with a new friend I made that year. I was also able to give my testimony in Japanese at our church, the Logos Kids club and in a women’s group, but we wish there had been more opportunities to proclaim the Gospel clearly during our year in Japan.

TWWK: I’ve often read that because of the profound cultural differences between Japanese and American people, the type of evangelism used in the U.S. might not connect with the Japanese. Have you found this to be true?

Michelle: That’s absolutely true. Especially the “If you died today…” model! Japanese thought is that your life continues in some way after physical death and “salvation” can be achieved after you die. A Japanese family is expected to properly worship their deceased in order to help them achieve “salvation.” If a person is not properly venerated, they could become a dissatisfied spirit, wandering the earth until their desires can be fulfilled, very much like Menma from Ano Hana. **POSSIBLE SPOILER** In episode 6, Menma ponders Poppo’s offer to help her “成仏 joubutsu”, which means to become a buddha or enter Nirvana/Heaven. **END SPOILER** This is the prominent religious view of the afterlife in Japan. Your own works can cause you to achieve joubutsu in this life, but being properly worshipped by people after you die is simply another option.

From our experience in talking to Japanese people, they are highly aware of the spiritual plane that exists concurrently with our life here on Earth. In their belief, the two influence each other, positively and negatively. Most of the people we met have had actual encounters with what they call “ghosts.” One lady told my husband that when her Grandmother died her spirit lived with them for several years and did housework like washing dishes. If this actually happened, we reasoned, then whatever was doing their dishes was certainly not Grandma and it wasn’t Jesus or an angel… it was a demon.

We had our own encounter which involved our 3 year old son. Shortly after we arrived in Japan, our just-turned-3-year-old son, Connor, started having terrible nightmares. We would have to get up every night to comfort him and it didn’t take long before we knew something was not right. So, one day I asked Connor what was happening to him at night. He told me that he would talk to ghosts and they would talk back to him. At first I thought he was making up a story, but after talking to him more about it we realized this was actually occurring in his room when he was alone at night. My husband and I tried to tell him that, if these “ghosts” were real, they were not good and he should not talk to them. He immediately got very angry and yelled, “They’re my friends!” and refused to believe us after much insisting. Needless to say, we were completely freaked out and we realized how unequipped we were to deal with spiritual warfare. We had been told several stories of demonic oppression from other missionaries to Japan, but it was so out of our realm that we didn’t consider it could happen to our family. So, we simply prayed with Connor and over Connor each night as we put him to bed and the nightmares stopped right away. Connor doesn’t even remember the experience today, about 1 1/2 years later.

From this and many other experiences during our year in Japan, we understood how unprepared we were to serve the Japanese people and how ineffective typical evangelism methods are in Japan. But, the good news of Jesus is not limited by culture or language. His Word has  power and His Truth permeates the entire world. Creation screams of His glory; every person is made in His image and every culture reflects His attributes. Japanese culture puts high value on the concept of sacrifice. Most famous anime series and movies have this as a major theme. The hero sacrifices himself/herself to save the world. Sound familiar? The Gospel cannot be watered down, but it can be explained in ways that relate better to a certain culture. Jesus is the ultimate samurai, the greatest ninja, the most benevolent emperor, the most loving father. But the one concept that must be properly communicated is that Jesus is the Son of the one and only God, Creator of the universe. Most Japanese people have no problem including Jesus worship alongside ancestor worship and worship of Buddha and innumerable local “gods.” But God tells us that He will share His glory with no other (Isaiah 42:8).

TWWK: Could you relate to us a story or two about your mission work?

Michelle: During one of the Logos Kids English Club meetings, our pastor’s wife was reading (in Japanese) the story of Jesus walking on the water. She asked the elementary-aged kids what they thought about Jesus being able to walk on water. I heard Daisuke, one of the older kids whom I worked with, whisper “ninja..” I looked at him and said, “You’re exactly right, Daisuke-kun!! Jesus is totally like a ninja!” A few weeks later, it was time for us to return to America and I gave Daisuke-kun (and the other kids) a Japanese copy of the Gospel of John and asked him to please read the story of Jesus the ultimate ninja! (最高の忍者のイエス様の話を読んでください!)

I would also like to share what we learned about the state of Christianity in Japan. Since we had the freedom to visit many different kinds of churches and Christian conferences in Japan, we got a clear view of the good, the bad, and the ugly of Japanese Christianity.

After WWII, missionaries poured into Japan to boldly proclaim the hope of Jesus to the wounded nation of Japan. The missionaries knew that they could be evacuated at any moment, so they worked with a sense of great urgency. They focused greatly on evangelism, often driving into a village or city, setting up a tent and preaching the Gospel daily for a week or two before moving on. Many Japanese people responded to the message of Jesus during that time, but often received little or no discipleship. The Japanese church is reaping the consequences of this today. Most Japanese pastors are in their 60’s and have no one to replace them because they have not discipled
anyone. They look to missionaries from the West for vision and direction. This grieves us.

We assumed that the collective church in Japan would be pretty close knit considering how few Christians there are, but we found the opposite to be true. The Japanese Church looks almost exactly like the American Church: many different denominations that typically do not work with each other, cities with 3 or 4 churches whose pastors don’t even know each other, each local church lives in its own bubble, taking care of their own needs and rarely reaching out into their communities. Pastors and missionaries are expected to do all the work of evangelism. This was shocking to us! Many times during our year in Japan we heard “that’s the way it’s done here” in response to questions about the lack of evangelism and discipleship. Although we could not afford language school, we were allowed to see a Japanese tutor once a week for 2 hours. In my first or second session, I asked my tutor to teach me how to give the Gospel in simple Japanese so I could take every opportunity to proclaim Christ to the people whom God gave me such a great love for. She politely refused and said I could not do such
a thing because I must build a deep relationship with a Japanese person before I could tell them about Jesus. I was stunned!

This is “how it’s done” and how it has been done in Japan for decades. It is considered very rude to question authority in Japan, so this method has remained and is a huge barrier to the growth of Christianity in Japan. “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). Our greatest desire is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus to the people of Japan boldly, clearly, and in love which is shown through our actions towards other believers and toward everyone.
We are confident that not even the Church itself can stop God’s Kingdom from advancing on Earth, and we know God loves Japan greatly. There are many wonderful examples of Japanese churches that are reaching their communities for Christ. This 5 minute video from Samaritan’s Purse explains how the recent disaster has awakened the Japanese church:

Our prayer is for a great revival to sweep over this nation and we are seeing the beginnings of this in the relief work the Church in Japan
has been doing in Tohoku. We have been especially encouraged by Machida Christian Center and their tireless work in Fukushima. You can view the video here.

TWWK: Were you in Japan for the earthquake? Why did you and your family have to return?

Michelle: We had to leave Japan in July 2010 because we did not have enough funds to stay for more than one year. Our hearts were broken. We prayed fervently every day that year for God to miraculously supply the money we need to stay in Japan, but by the end of that time we knew God wanted us to return to the States to learn more about spiritual warfare, repentance and prayer and to wait on His provision. It’s been 10 months since we have come back to America and I can’t even begin to tell you all the things we have learned and the ways we have seen God provide for our family. We’ve watched the news about the earthquake and tsunami and grieved for Japan. Our desire to proclaim the Gospel in Japan has only grown these past months, and we believe God is starting to open doors for us to return to Japan this summer.
Our time of waiting seems to be ending and we are so excited to see how God will provide for and lead us! We would be grateful to have more people praying with us and asking God to provide what we need to return to Japan.

TWWK: I visited your website, and it’s quite well-done. Could you tell us a little about it?

Michelle: Shortly after feeling called to Japan, we realized that digital media and the internet would be very important tools in proclaiming the Good News to Japan and in discipleship. So, we have been learning as much as we can and wanted to experiment with websites. I was the owner of Sailor Moon Center for a few years, but I didn’t have enough knowledge to build a site from the ground up, so we hired one of SMC’s staff to help. The site opened in February 2006, but we realized we needed to figure things out ourselves so my husband made the current layout using iWeb, Blogger and Gimp – all free programs for Mac. It has quite a few errors, but we are learning one step at a time =) Our hope
is to one day help create a website or online community for Japanese believers and be involved in different ideas for digital evangelism such as our friends’ Let’s Love Japan website.

TWWK: And a couple of quick, fun, final questions. You mentioned anime and manga in the interview? Are you a fan? If so, what are some of your favorite anime?

Michelle: After that fateful morning when God told me to start learning Japanese, I have been a great fan of anime! My first exposure was Sailor Moon when it was shown on Cartoon Network. I was so impressed by the story that I started looking for the original Japanese episodes. I stumbled across Sailor Moon Center’s IRC channel and spent many a night downloading 30MB .rm episodes of the Sailor Moon VKLL subs using GetRight and a 56k connection. I don’t miss those days, lol! My next favorite series was Rurouni Kenshin. My online nickname became himura_KAORU. I soon became involved in encoding and subtitling for Sailor Moon Center and became the owner for a couple years before we moved to Japan. Its been a crazy adventure!

My favorites are RahXephon, Vision of Escaflowne, Rurouni Kenshin, Kimi ni Todoke, Sailor Moon, Miyazaki films, Fullmetal Alchemist and recently Ano Hana and Hanasaku Iroha. I’ve seen MANY series over the years and have been intrigued by the spiritual themes so prevalent in anime.

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