OSAKA, Japan (BP)–He is truly a carpenter following a carpenter. “At first, you clean it,” the Japanese woodcarver explains about treating the rough surface of his favorite wood -– American pine.
“As it’s treated, I rub it with water. If you add water, it gets darker and then it becomes the color of its maturity. In the same way, God treated my heart and is working on it. In the same way, it will mature just like these tables.”
Tables, cabinets and clocks have been fashioned by Ima Oka’s hands for 33 years. For more than a year, the 57-year-old has submitted to the crafting of another woodcarver, although the seed of the Gospel took root in his heart more than 10 years ago.
Last year, missionaries Bob and Gloria Gellerstedt, natives of Atlanta, Ga., and Cambridge, Mass., respectively, were prayerwalking the streets of Osaka when they spotted Oka’s woodcarving shop. As they met Oka and silently prayed for God’s direction, the strains of “Amazing Grace” began pouring from a loudspeaker. Seizing the opportunity, Gellerstedt asked, “Do you know anything about this song?” That led to a discussion of the song, and Bob was amazed when Oka said, “Actually, I have an interest in studying the Bible.”
Just months later, after meeting Gellerstedt each week for Bible study in his Osaka showroom, Oka accepted Jesus and was baptized. Oka’s response to the Gospel is unusual for Japanese, a people whose adherence to native Shintoism and Buddhism and rejection of any religion they consider “foreign” are strong deterrents to Christianity.
Yet many Japanese who come to faith in Christ do so 10, 20 and even 40 years after they had some contact with the Gospel. In Oka’s case, he had an interest in God, read the entire Old Testament and had several Christian clients and friends.
-– For Nobuko in Nagoya, a semester of living with a Christian family in California as an exchange student helped her see the signs of God working in her life almost 20 years later.
-– For a Brazilian-Japanese man, Tetuo, who grew up hearing about Jesus in predominantly Catholic Brazil, his return to Japan -– and the loss of his job and healing of his daughter-in-law from breast cancer after missionaries prayed for her — led him to accept Christ.
“We hear all kinds of things that have happened in the past to lead them to that point,” says missionary Cindy Reynolds, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It’s like they were ready for us to meet them…. God’s been preparing them all along.”
God’s love is making inroads into Japanese lives. Through Sunday School classes started in the 1950s and ’60s, relationships built with missionaries or through experiences abroad, Japanese are hearing about Jesus. That knowledge eventually blooms into belief -– though it may take years for the Gospel seed to come to fruition.
“You just encourage people, and be patient with people,” says Carlton Walker, a 25-year missionary in Japan. “We call them ‘yet-to-be believers.’ When we say, ‘nonbeliever,’ we’re making a judgment call. ‘Yet-to-be believers’ is a statement of faith that they can be someone who believes along the way.”
Dea Davidson is a writer for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.