Talking with a Japanese pastor about rest
A missionary interviewed the Japanese pastor at his church and discovered some interesting factors
Our Japanese pastor is known for being “good at rest,” so I interviewed him to find out why.
Dene: Considering pastors in Japan, and “rest” . . .
Pastor Matsuda: They can’t rest, they hardly rest at all. You see, they fundamentally don’t think of “rest” as a good thing.
D: Rest not being good—is that influenced by Japanese values, do you think?
M: Yes, certainly that’s one factor. Japanese people think of themselves as a working people. They believe that working is a fundamental good, and so then rest is not good.
Another important factor, though, is many pastors sense that their church is not “running well” and that they are not fulfilling their pastoral role well enough. In that context, they cannot take a break—they feel they aren’t doing their job well enough to rest even when a day of rest is scheduled for them. And if the church is not running so well—because they’re overwhelmed with concern about their quality of their work—even if they took a break, their mind would not be at rest.
D: Is this concern magnified by what a pastor fears his congregation may think of him? Or is it also wider—like what does the surrounding neighborhood think of that pastor and church?
M: Yes, what other people may think is likely a factor. Japanese people do feel quite concerned about what others around them will think. Compared with, say, the US or Australia, Japan is known as a place where the eyes of others, the thoughts of others, are a pressing concern. And those thoughts are influenced by a very long history of seeing rest as a bad thing. To work hard with all your heart is good; to rest is not so good. This mentality is firmly established in Japan.
But it’s also true that more recently, with great increases in mental illness, we’re hearing more voices encouraging workers to make a priority of rest: “you should take a break” and “resting is good for you”.
Compared to the old traditional Japanese lifestyle, today’s culture has much more stress, and this is being recognized. Without rest, modern stresses cannot be reduced. This encouragement to rest is a positive change.
You can see this societal change in the understanding of the work week. When I was young, Sunday was considered the only day of rest for a regular worker. Now two days a week (Saturday and Sunday) are considered rest days across much of Japanese society.
D: So society is shifting towards valuing rest a bit more, which is a good thing. In Australia, I think the value of rest and how it relates to stress are also being better understood.
But it strikes me that the fundamental motivation to rest in our societies (as a technique to better handle stress) is different from why a Christian might think that rest is a priority. I mean, within Christian doctrine, it seems that rest is a good thing in and of itself; the Bible commands us to rest as if it is a good thing. So the motivation we might have to rest compared to our culture . . . there’s a bit of a gap there.
M: Yes, but it’s a really good thing that society has moved in this way—there are so many people suffering from overwork. I’m thankful for this change even if it comes from a different place.
All that being said, Japanese pastors are still not taking a break! The culture has shifted to value rest more, but pastors still cannot rest—they rarely take time off.
Let’s say pastors in other countries work on Sunday and so take Monday as their day off. Well, a Japanese pastor may attempt the same, but Monday for everyone around them here is a work day, so there’s a feeling of awkwardness if they take time off while people all around are working. I’m sure that factor of caring a great deal what others think of them comes into play. And then, as I mentioned, perhaps they don’t feel their church is going so well, and so to rest from work actually would increase their anxiety.
D: Sensei, you don’t feel that anxiety yourself?
M: Not much at all, to be honest.
D: I’ve really been wanting to ask you about that—you are known as a pastor who is “good at rest” and enjoys leisure. Is that your personality, do you think? Or is it that you were born in Okinawa?
M: Of course, personality and where I’m originally from are a factor, but the main thing is that we’re blessed with a really good church!
Everyone in the church has a cooperative spirit. The pastoral team, missionaries, elders . . . for example, the way the eldership is conducted is not about voting between a majority and minority—they work hard to communicate well, consider the opinions of everyone, and come to unanimous decisions.
Not just the eldership, but you’ll also see this in the AGM with all the church members—not a struggle between parties but people seeking to understand each other and moving together.
You have to understand—this is a really rare thing in Japanese churches. It wouldn’t be unusual to have an elder committee trying to move forward with significant disagreement, and it isn’t surprising at some churches to see a quarrel at a general members meeting.
To have such cooperation is a great gift. Even the children at our church have a helpful attitude—you see them distributing drinks in preparation for lunch time. Everyone seems to want to help the church, support the church.
All that to say, there’s very little trouble, and so I can take time for leisure without anxiety.
Being from Okinawa—certainly there’s something in that as well. To Okinawan people, living life merely for work is no good. Life is to be enjoyed.
D: I also wanted to ask what influence your theology has on how you think about rest.
M: Theology is actually a really big influence. You’ll remember that as I preach, I often bring out my favorite diagram regarding the place of works in a Christian’s life. The theology of the gospel teaches us that we are saved 100 percent by God’s grace, and that the good works we do are a thankful response to being saved.
But many Japanese Christians still treat their works as fulfilling a quota, fulfilling a duty, as opposed to thinking of works as a normal, thankful response to God’s grace.
In my case, before I became a Christian, I was much like Paul when he was a Pharisee—a legalist, a perfectionist. So it was exactly at that point that I needed a radical change of thinking, and God broke down that thinking in me. We are not achieving goodness, but we are given it by God’s grace, and then the good we do is not about fulfilling a quota or being motivated by fear.
So, having been convinced of this early on, I’m often repeating this idea at church, that we do good works not out of fear of God’s discipline or duty but because we are thankful to have received so much mercy from God. Church members aren’t to do ministry to fulfil a quota, but as saved and thankful people. They should not push themselves beyond their capacity but rather respond willingly to God.
I think the atmosphere of our church speaks to this— it’s not a place where people are constantly judging each other or feeling judged. If people are behaving out of duty or to reach a quota, then they’re responding to fear.
As a result, the church is easy to manage, and so when I rest, I can rest wholeheartedly.
When I take a break, church members aren’t looking badly on me for that. They know I like my leisure time.
D: So what kind of things do you do for leisure?
M: For example, twice a week, I participate in sports. Yesterday, I played table tennis at the sports center. I’d say that most pastors aren’t doing that—they don’t have the space in their lives for that. Additionally, I often include people from church. For example, I often go fishing with people from church. This is actually really important for an organization like a church that relies on healthy teamwork—the pastor and congregation need to communicate well, so they should hang out and play together.
D: If that were me, I’d feel like it was work!
M: Not me! I really enjoy time with them, and it’s helpful for my work. For example, last week, I went out for lunch with the Uchida family (both names in this paragraph have been changed). The week before, I went fishing with Mr. Kuroda. I often stay with different people a night or two from Sunday evening down at that campsite we use for youth events. We go fishing, eat, and play together. It’s really good for my refreshment and for building a sense of unity with the church. That’s a unique thing about our church culture, I guess.
But I was like this with them from the beginning. The couples that are now in their forties, when they were in high school and university, I used to hang out with them at church three or four afternoons a week. At that time, I pastored through play and leisure, so it continues that way in the atmosphere of the church.
D: Just going back a little to talk about the theological basis for resting—you were talking about fulfilling a quota, doing things from a sense of duty—those result in fear of punishment, fear of being looked on badly, and that we should think of our Christian service as a thankful response. Is resting a “work” in the same way? For example, do you engage in rest with a thankful heart in response to God’s grace—is that how you think of it?
M: With thanks to God, I rest. That’s how I think of it. Rest is another thing that God gives by his grace. So I take it happily, with thanks.
I mean, in ancient times, like at the time of Abraham, they worked hard while the sun was up, so they naturally lived perhaps a more restful life. Nowadays with electricity and all other kinds of developments, we can work nonstop into the middle of the night. Before these days, including early Japan, there was naturally a time in the daily rhythm to be home with family, resting.
D: When you’re fellowshipping with other pastors and you’re talking about life and ministry, I’m sure the idea of time off and rest is mentioned. What kinds of things do they say about you? Do you feel criticized for enjoying rest?
M: No doubt I’m known as a pastor who knows how to enjoy time off! They likely think, Most pastors are working with every ounce of energy, but Matsuda Sensei likes to play, doesn’t he! But at the same time, it’s not thought of in a critical way. I’m okay with them thinking that about me.
And I might say to other pastors, “You should do the same!”—I mean, I’m often saying that to various people, but Japanese pastors somehow just don’t rest.
D: When you’re talking to younger pastors about this, do you take a different tone at all?
M: Among the older pastors I know well, they are already thinking, I’d love to be able to rest like Matsuda Sensei, but . . . And for various reasons that we’ve talked about, they just can’t. But with younger pastors, I talk in more detail about why they should rest—like for the sake of their family.
Without that coaching, they just won’t rest. So I’m purposefully advertising the need for rest to younger pastors. I’m like an evangelist for taking time off!
I enjoyed hearing Pastor Matsuda share about how his understanding of the gospel leads to a church environment which encourages rest for him and avoids overwork for the congregation. As Aussies who really love our time off, this has been a great gift to our family. And as foreigners who make lots of mistakes, we find that because the pastor we work with doesn’t imagine God looking down demandingly on him, he as our pastor then looks graciously on us. He helps us feel like God’s forgiveness is a tangible thing.
The interview didn’t conclude here. But I will share the rest in a follow-up article in the next issue. In the second half of the interview, we talked about how to preach the gospel not just in our church but towards today’s Japan. He had a lot to say about cultural shifts and the difficulty missionaries and pastors across Japan are experiencing in communicating God’s message of grace.