Different cultures can show us something new in our understanding of Jesus, says Rachel Mataraki. Here she shows how God’s fingerprints can be seen in the new year traditions in her home of Japan.


Source: Photo by David Edelstein on Unsplash

Deconstructing before there was a word for it, I moved to Japan in my twenties determined to embrace everything New Age and Eastern. Later, in meetings and friendships that only God could have orchestrated, I got connected to an amazing African-American missionary musical couple and IAM  - a group connected to painter Makoto Fujimura. These Christian artists inspired and encouraged me and I was eventually baptized by a Samoan pastor in a Korean Church with Japanese Christians.

While wrestling with questions of decolonization and how to honor culture while staying true to God`s Kingdom I stumbled across the idea of redemptive culture (also known as redemptive analogy). I loved the idea that each culture has aspects which point to God  allowing us to see ‘God’s fingerprints’ in many contexts. To know that he is within each culture working, beyond religion, to draw people to himself. While “redemptive culture” may be a new phrase, St Paul was demonstrating these principles when he was ministering to the Greeks and pointing them to their ’unknown God.’

While wrestling with questions of decolonization and how to honor culture while staying true to God`s Kingdom I stumbled across the idea of redemptive culture

New Year here is associated with home, family, food. I have come to appreciate the traditions, having been welcomed by my friend`s for many years. I believe, like Paul that we can point people to the source as well as learning to view God through different expressions of beauty.

Hatsumode  (Shinto shrine first visits) 初詣

While opinions differ on whether it is ok to visit Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, my suggested takeaway is that our bodies are now the temple and turning our hearts to God at the new year in thankfulness is a wonderful way to ‘visit the temple’. We can praise him at New Year.

Shimekazari (New year wreath/decorations) 注連飾り

These look beautiful but the meaning of ropes can be to mark boundaries between sacred and profane and new year decorations are designed to both ward off evil spirits and invite the ‘toshigami’ New Year gods to visit. While I do not personally use new year decorations for this reason, understanding the importance of Thresholds on physical entrances in Eastern cultures can help you understand the passover story more deeply.  We reclaim  the meaning of weaving with the knowledge that we are secure in God who knew us in the womb when he ‘knitted together in the womb’  and it can remind us of the importance being ’woven into a tapestry of love’ together in community.

Osoji (“big” cleaning) 大掃除

Cleaning the home before the new year is a physical way to invite new things, Jesus about white washed tombs and he was clear that what is on the inside is most important. We do not necessarily think of the new year as a time to repent but by not only cleaning externally but internally as well we can begin the new year with a clean heart.

 Osechi  Ryori (New Year food) 御節料理

New Year food has  has meaning, Toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles) symbolize crossing into new year, kuri kinton (chestnuts) are associated with wealth, kuro mame (black beans) represent good health, kagami mochi mean prosperity. The Passover meal involves aspects of tasting salty water to represent tears and eating sweet things to be reminded of God’s goodness. Food can be deeply symbolic and we can remember the one who causes the ’plants to grow.’ 

For me, the Japanese New Year, if we recognise that the King of the Universe created all things, we can, like Paul, point people to their unknown source and like the Japanese art of kintsugi (mending broken pottery with gold) redeem that which has been broken.