Happy New Year

Happy New Year!

By Helen Heath
With a shriek of delight, Mr Watanabe flung his cap to the ceiling. His wife beamed a smile to match the one on her Felix-the-cat apron. Thigh-slapping laughter filled the room as our hearts warmed towards these people God had called us to.

The occasion was our first solo flight into a Japanese conversation. The crisis was a leaking window frame that had left water marks on the flimsy walls of our tiny wooden apartment.

Mr Watanabe lived in the same block and was the one appointed to collect rent from all the other tenants. Attached to his apartment was his motorbike shop, which sprawled in every direction on the street corner.

Having communicated enough to persuade Mr Watanabe and his wife to come and see the damage, we hit stalemate. Whatever we said meant nothing to them, and whatever they said meant nothing to us. Anxious glances flew, fingers pointed, arms gesticulated desperately, but no one understood.

Dictionaries and textbooks, which later became our daily tools, emerged and pages opened for the first time. We found words for rainy season, paint, and Wednesday. A man would come and paint the wall on Wednesday!

It was the shared relief of having struggled and succeeded that caused such uninhibited joy. Mr Watanabe caught his cap with both hands and bowed repeatedly as he and his wife scampered backwards towards the front door. We heard them chuckling to themselves all the way back to their shop. We were so grateful that God had given us such warm-hearted persevering people as our first friends in a strange land.

Five years later, we took the opportunity of being in the area again to try and find them.

To our surprise the old apartment block was gone, including all evidence of the shop. We learned that they had moved to a new part of town and went in search. Finding the only mechanic’s garage, we approached hopefully.

From beneath a truck, a greasy boiler suit inched out, legs first. Mr Watanabe?

Yes! Instant recognition.

Throwing aside his tools, he called his smiling wife and we were soon gathered round his hastily-cleared table sharing happy memories.

Another few years passed and we found ourselves well-immersed in a church-planting situation far away from Sapporo and Mr Watanabe’s world in a rural part of Japan. Every April this small town celebrated Cherry Blossom Festival in spectacular style. People traveled from all over Japan to see it. This provided outreach opportunities for us and became a busy season in the church.

One year, in the midst of our planning for this event came news from Mr Watanabe. He wanted to bring his motorbike club to the region to see the Cherry Blossom Festival and meet us! We were amazed that he wanted to come all that way and publicly associate with us.

Having booked them in to the only hotel in town, we eagerly awaited the day of their arrival. It came with an unforgettable roar as twelve leather-clad bikers on twelve meaty engines thundered into the sleepy town of Kanagi.

Roles reversed as we welcomed these foreigners into ‘our’ town. A social whirlwind of sightseeing, shared meals and laughter lasted two days. Finally we took the obligatory photos against the background of our little white chapel. The Cherry blossom was in full bloom and would soon give way to fruit. I hoped that our friendship would also bear eternal fruit one day.

That was seven years ago, and since then our busy pastorate back in England has almost squeezed out the memories of those early days in Japan. Then last year on New Year’s Day like an unexpected gift came a phone call from Mr Watanabe!

As I fumbled for words in a language I hadn’t used for years, I remembered that New Year’s Day in Japan is a time for sending greetings to friends old and new. I was thrilled that he had bothered to seek us out after all this time – and as the Japanese language came back to me I thrilled even more as I realised the reason for his call: Mr Watanabe had just been to church for the first time and wanted to call to tell us!