In September 2019, Jacob Burns (Ponoka, AB) and Jacqueline Warner-Smith (Sudbury, ON) took part in the third annual Minority Youth Forum in Okinawa, Japan through the People in Partnership program. The youth forum was organized by Mission & Service partner, Center for Minority Issues and Mission (CMIM) to learn about the violent history of Okinawa and the issues of peace and militarism still happening to this day. Jacob and Jacqueline are eager to share about their experience. Please contact pip [at] united-church.ca (People in Partnership) to invite them to speak to your community of faith or group.
Jacqueline, how did you feel as you anticipated your visit?
On my flight to Japan, I was in a bit of a panic. I had no idea how much English I would be able to speak there and still be understood, so my best option was to cram as much Japanese into my poor, addled brain as I could in 13 hours. I had my Japanese language workbooks, a few study videos saved to my phone, a pocket-sized book of Japanese phrases useful for travel, and a sinking feeling that what I would teach myself wouldn't be nearly enough. I'm very happy to report that I was wrong about how much Japanese I really needed, and I truly thank God for that. The bits and pieces of the language that I had taught myself throughout my years of fanatical obsession with the Land of the Rising Sun were plenty. Perhaps God was looking out for me. Considering the number of times that I lost my camera and managed to have it returned to me, I wouldn’t doubt that the Holy Spirit had Its hand on my shoulder the whole time I was there.
Jacob, what sites did you visit and how did it make you feel?
The tour group I went on focused on places of historical significance like the Peace Memorial Park, Abuchiragama, the Kamejiro Senaga and the People's History Museum, and Sakima Art Museum. While learning about these places I made several comparisons with my own background. Being of Indigenous descent, my Kokom (Grandmother) and Mosom (Grandfather) would tell me stories of what they went through, such as the Residential Schools and treatment of our peoples during those times.
While learning about the history, my feelings were of sadness and sympathy, especially when reading the testimonies of survivors of the Battle of Okinawa. During the battle, the people were treated so poorly. Reading about the cruelty made me shed a tear just thinking about being in their place and the situations they faced. As I was reading and learning, I thought also about the stories I was told. After the tour I had so many thoughts going in my mind. One of those thoughts was how resilient and how strong the people of Okinawa are, just like the Indigenous peoples.
Jacqueline, what significant sites did you visit? What impacted you?
Visiting Henoko in Okinawa really had an impact on me. Even though Okinawa accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan's landmass, about 75 percent of all of the United States' military bases in Japan are there. In addition, of the 54,000 U.S. troops in Japan, about half of them are in Okinawa alone. As a result, there is a very strong military presence on this tiny island, and I did not meet a single person who was happy about it. At Henoko, we observed people protesting the expansion of the bases. As the protest was in Japanese, I don't know exactly what they were shouting. I remember one word that was spoken quite often, however: “yamero,” which means "stop." There was such righteous anger in their voices, and it has stuck with me ever since. All of that anger disappeared once the protesters took a break, however. They let us sit with them in the shaded benches they had set up. We were given cups of somen—cold noodles made of wheat flour, which were delicious—and we were treated warmly. I felt a bit intimidated, as I was one of only a couple of people who didn't speak Japanese, but I was surprised yet again when a woman approached me, speaking perfect English. She was a Christian, and had even attended The United Church of Canada General Council meeting in 1997. I was able to speak at length with her about The United Church of Canada, including my own experiences at General Council in 2012, and how I came to be in Japan in the first place. This short interaction showed me that, no matter where we go, God finds ways to connect people together.
During my time in Okinawa, I became very passionate about the U.S. military presence that I was able to feel there. Nowhere did I feel this more strongly than at Michi-no-Eki—a roadside stop near the Kadena Air Base. Michi-no-Eki has an observation deck, which allows people who visit to view the air base. The base is so expansive that it disappeared into the horizon, and I will never be able to forget that. All of this land that is being used by the U.S military feels like such wasted space, and I know that the citizens of Okinawa agree.
Jacqueline, what was your experience of church in a country where Christians make up only one percent of the population?
Though one percent sounds like a minuscule amount, it's important to keep in mind that the population of Japan is nearly 127 million people. There are enough Christians in Japan for there to be churches, monasteries, Christian schools, Christmas celebrations, and a general knowledge of Christianity. Even outside of the Minority in Mission Youth Fourm I attended, I met a great number of Christians—especially in Tokyo.
The moment that sticks out to me the most was the Sunday church service our interpreter and general guide, David McIntosh, took Jacob and I to at Tokyo Union Church. When I looked at the congregation, I saw people from all over the world. Christians of every age, colour, and background were filling the pews, and I was able to speak English with all of them. That Sunday was the first time a sermon had ever left me completely enraptured. To paraphrase it, the preacher said that the fact that the global church is shrinking isn't a bad thing—after all, Christianity started in the homes of a few hundred faithful, thousands of years ago. Returning to our roots could be a good thing.
What was your experience of community and hospitality, Jacqueline?
On the second-to-last day, after dinner, one of the other delegates at the youth forum told us that she was going to go to the supermarket. I asked her if she could pick up some royal milk tea for me, because I had fallen in love with the drink. This escalated into a whole group of us piling into the van we had rented and visiting the supermarket together. We all picked out snacks and drinks that we wanted, paid unbelievably low prices for them, and drove back to the monastery to have a little impromptu party. All of us were gathered around a table, sharing stories, laughing, toasting new friendships, and new experiences, and sharing the multitude of snacks we had purchased.
Jacob, do you have any closing thoughts on your experience?
In Japan, I broadened my knowledge of food types and dishes, as I am studying culinary arts at college and am hoping to become a chef someday. The tastes and feeling of Japan were very new to me. Canada is far colder and not as humid as Japan. This trip to Japan has given me more knowledge about Japanese culture and getting to experience it firsthand makes it an unforgettable memory.
— Jacob Burns recently graduated from high school and plans to become a chef. He is an alum of United Church youth programs, including Wampum and Gibimishkaadmin. He is proud of his Cree culture. Jacqueline Warner-Smith is also active in United Church youth programs and at St. Andrew’s United Church in Sudbury, ON. For both, Jacob and Jacqueline, going to Japan was a dream come true as both have had a long-time interest in the people and culture of Japan. See the full collection of photos from their trip.
Does this blog pique your interest to participate in people-to-people opportunities with global partners? We invite you to find out more at the People in Partnership webpage or by pip [at] united-church.ca (emailing us).