Japan Pt. 1 – Illiterate

I have met and worked, over the years, with people who were functionally illiterate. I have marveled at the ways in which they adapt to living in a society that expects language and cultural literacy. With 20 years of formal education, a master’s degree and 60+ years of learning and reading I never expected to be illiterate.

Arriving in Japan on Tuesday April 5th I entered a world in which all my skills & experiences were useless. A three year old Japanese child would have been better able to understand the world around them; the concerns of adults and the cultural expectations that surrounded them.

In Japan I simply did not know or understand the words spoken to me. I did not know the cultural norms. And my only learned Japanese phrase was for “thank you”. On trains, trolleys, busses, in restaurants and shops I could not read the signs, or follow the directions whether written or spoken. I would not have even understood how to save myself in case of an emergency – and might not have even known there WAS an emergency unless it was translated into English for me.

At Joe’s wedding a woman on staff at the shrine carefully told me (in rapid fire Japanese) what my role as groom’s father  was to be and what I was to do. She ended her several paragraphs of instruction by asking “OK?”  I felt like a deer in the headlights. I did not know what she had said or what I was to do. Pantomime and guess work allowed me to function – nervously – in the rite.

Nancy pointed out tome that this is often what those who visit a church feel like. Church language, church culture, as well as church behavior expectations are no longer part of the most people’s experience. They come into worship and often feel as lost and uncomfortable as I was feeling. Without others to gently assist and instruct them many might not be able to get beyond the feeling of being the other, being out of place, – let alone achieve comfort in or an understanding of who we are, why we gather, and what we are doing.

This is not to suggest that we change our worship language or culture but that we need to sensitize our own people to be able to be good interpreters of these things to those who are functionally illiterate in the world of church.



About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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