41. On Being A Japanese Christian with Ayaka Uchida

January 28, 2023 - Roger W. Lowther

Immanuel: NOT ALONE

Welcome to the Art Life Faith Podcast. This is the show where we talk about art, what it has to do with your life and what it has to do with the Christian faith. And I'm your host, Roger Lowther.

Well, we've taken a little break from making podcasts over the New Year’s, but now we're back and excited to share more stories with you. My family spent a little time up in the snowy mountains of Japan in Nagano, which is where the Winter Olympics were held back in 1998, and there was a lot of snow! We had to put on snow chains just to get around and did some skiing, and had fun in the snow with the family and friends. Just yesterday, I got back from a trip to Nagoya, Japan, which is a city about two hours south of us. God is doing amazing things there. I was visiting one of my missionary teammates who lives down there and runs an art gallery and was meeting new people as well.

We have an intern with us here for two weeks about to graduate from college as a musician, and she's trying to decide what to do with her life. One of her questions is whether she should become a full-time missionary or not starting this summer. So yesterday we gave a concert in Nagoya at a cafe. She sang and played the guitar, and I played some things on the piano and accompanied her. We just had a great time meeting people and encouraging the ministry down there.

We also visited a private Japanese girl’s school started by Presbyterian missionaries back in the day, like 100 years ago, and they have a big hall with a pipe organ. So I had fun trying out the instrument and meeting the principal of the school with the music teacher, chaplain, and other teachers. The idea is that when I come back, I'll give an organ concert for the whole student body. That school is extremely well respected by the neighbors. So actually, our missionary friends with Mission to the World who are down there, they started working there as teachers at the request of their Japanese pastor and partners in order to get a stamp of approval from people in the area as they begin planting a church. Whereas before their activities would have been seen as suspicious, as possibly part of some kind of cult, now everyone says, “Ah, well, they're okay. They work at that school.” And so the hope is that a concert by me will help give further legitimacy to their church-planting work there. I'm looking forward to it.

Actually, I put a short clip of my time on the organ on TikTok, something I just started doing. TikTok was kind of a New Year's resolution in my desire to recruit more and more people into a life in missions as an artist. It shares various aspects of my life as a musical missionary in Japan in ways that I really can't share in other ways like newsletters, books, or other social media. So, anyway, please check it out and subscribe!

Today, I'm excited to share with you an interview I had with Ayaka Uchida. She paints in the traditional Japanese art of nihonga. She was born and raised in Tokyo but became a Christian during her time in the States and has spent quite a few years trying to figure out what it means to be Japanese and a Christian. It's her faith in God that's really brought her through some hard times.And through her artwork, she's been able to praise God and give back to him and share the presence of God with others in ways that they may know him as well. So in the show notes for this podcast and on my website, www.rogerwlowther.com, you can see a picture of her and some of her artwork we talk about it. So, without further ado, I'd like to bring Ayaka onto the program. Ayaka, thank you so much for being here today.

Ayaka

Yeah, thank you for having me.

Roger

I'm really happy to be able to share your story with all these people. I first met you at a conference we did last year, our Aroma of Beauty conference. And after that, you sent me a note, so I wanted to start with that and let you respond. You said,

“I got saved in college in 2000 in the USA, where the pastor told me to ‘put off your old life of sin, everything Japanese, and put on the new life in Christ.’ I tried very hard to do that for 18 years in the States through marriage, childbirth, my husband's affair, separation, single mothering, running a social enterprise, and my art. And now I'm trying to find Christ in Japanese culture.”

Can you tell me more about that? What were you thinking when you wrote that to me?

Ayaka

Yes. When I attended the conference, I think that's when all that memory came back to me, because when I got saved, I was in college. It was sometime before my senior year, and my friend invited me to church. I went, and it was one of those Paul getting knocked off the horse type encounters. I experienced God, and I started attending the church, but there was no other Japanese Christian in the church, so they would somehow associate all my old thinking to Japan. And they would say, “Oh, you've never touched the Bible,” or “You're from the godless nation,” or things like that. I would just take that as a college kid and believe it and say, “Oh, I'm sorry.” Then the pastor would say, “You have to put off your old self. You think like a Japanese person. You respond like a Japanese person, but you have to become a Christian.” And they said I needed to cut off my family, and I did cut off my family for years.

Roger

Wow.

Ayaka

Which I’m sad about, but I'm being reconciled to them now. And I threw away all my Japanese cookbooks, all my Japanese books, all the mamori. There were some things that were Shinto based, and I took it all as bad. But there were days that I would sit outside and receive things from nature. I wasn’t worshipping an idol god. It truly was my time with Christ. And I would draw or paint and say, “I felt the Holy Spirit whisper this to me when I was looking at the birds,” or something like that, and they would say, “Oh no, you're doing it again.”

Roger

Oh, no.

Ayaka

I feel like my Japanese-ness was very tied to my art, using the five senses and loving nature. When I'm with nature, I connect deeply with the Lord and not the god of water or the god of…you know...but yeah, using all the senses was viewed as very Japanese.

Roger

So at that time, you really had trouble seeing what it meant to be a Japanese person and a Christian, right? As if the two couldn't be reconciled?

Ayaka

Yeah, it was truly presented as, “if I remain as a Japanese person, I cannot be a Christian.”

Roger

Wow. How has your thinking, then, changed over the years?

Ayaka

Yeah, so now that I'm look back, it was actually through tragedy, like personal suffering, when God showed me that he's with me as I am. And it wasn't that I had to become more Westernized in my thinking or had to act like an American. I had to laugh at American jokes and not Japanese jokes. And I couldn’t speak Japanese. So my Christian experience was only in the context of English, so I had never seen a Japanese Bible. And then my father passed away, so I went to Japan and someone gifted me a Japanese Bible. And when I read it for the first time, that moved my heart completely differently. One that touched me was “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” But the way the Japanese Bible put it was “love God with your heart spent 100%, your mind spent !00%, your soul spent 100%. And I was like, oh, this is what it means to love God. It was the Japanese words that really touched me. So then I realized, “Wait a minute, maybe I can be a Christian while embracing my Japanese-ness.”

Roger

That's really cool. So hearing or thinking about the gospel in the Japanese language helped you see it in a new way, a different way.

Ayaka

Yeah, very different. I think it just moved me in a different way maybe because it's my mother language, even though I was living in the US for, like, 20 years. But, yeah, something about that moved me. So then I started reading the Bible in Japanese, which felt like a taboo thing. I was like, “Oh no, Lord, please don't destroy my faith.” I actually did pray this a lot. Like, “God, I am scared. The Japanese Bible touches me so much, but if I keep reading this, will I lose my faith in you?” And I was like, “Jesus, I don't want to lose you. I don't want to go back.” Because for me, the life before Christ and after Christ was black and white. So I was like, “Please, I don't want to go back to life without the way, the truth, and the life.” So I remember praying that a lot. But then when I do open the scriptures and read them…yeah, I don't know…it was more vivid or some verses became more clear, like, the nuances made sense to me.

Roger

Yeah, well, I feel that too. I mean, I became a Christian in English in America. And it really has helped me so much to worship God more by being here in Japan and praising him in Japanese and reading the Bible in Japanese and talking about him in Japanese. There's just something…it's like you get a different perspective that gives you a deeper understanding of who he is and how he is working in this world.

Ayaka

Yes, it is fascinating.

Roger

What brought you to our conference, the Aroma of Beauty conference?

Ayaka

So actually, I found your book on Amazon. I bought it after I moved back to Japan in 2018, and I really wanted to start searching for a way to see the Lord, to see Christ through things in Japan. And then I found your book, and I was just blown away. Thank you!

Roger

Wow!

Ayaka

Because each chapter I read, I was like, “Yes, in Japanese culture, in the things that are very Japanese, we can see God.” And I really appreciated the way you wrote it. It wasn't, “Even in Japanese things, we can see the Western God.” It wasn't like that. I've read that before somewhere else. But here, you are writing that we see different sides of Christ that we didn't see before. And that was very, I think, affirming and comforting for me as I was starting the journey of, “Oh, I'm scared. I'm back in Japan once again.” I thought I was a good Christian in the US. Can I be still here or would I get thrown and eaten by Japanese culture? So, I really appreciated that. And when I went to the conference too, it was very affirming for me that it's okay to be here. Like, oh, maybe God can use me for his kingdom here. Yeah, thank you for that.

Roger

Yeah, no, thank you! Well, let's go back a little bit further now. So how did you become a Christian?

Ayaka

It was a summer before my senior year, and I had an internship. I was in university in Pennsylvania, but I had an internship in New Jersey with Johnson and Johnson, and a friend there said, “Hey Ayaka, I have friends on your campus, and they all belong in this campus ministry.” I was like, “There's no such thing on my campus. I've never seen that.” But when we went back to visit the campus, obviously they existed, and they invited me to a car wash event on Saturday. And I think that was the first time I witnessed joy. So I asked him, “Why are you guys so happy for washing someone else's car? I don't understand this.” And they all say, “Oh, we do this with Jesus. We love him so much.” I was like, “Where is this guy? He's not even here and you guys are doing this? He must be really something.” And then they're all like, “Oh no,” and then they said, “Why don't you come to church with us on Sunday?” The next day I went to church with them.

And it was during the worship, the music. There was something about the music that really stirred my heart. But it was a charismatic church, so people were putting their hands out, jumping and singing, and that was a little bit scary for me. So I closed my eyes and I just listened to the music. And then I received a vision of a seed falling from the sky, hitting the ground, and grass sprouting. And I felt my body, like, jump. So then I was like, “Church is quite interesting. I could come to this again.” Then the pastor gave a message, and my heart was stirred again to want to know what he was talking about when he mentioned Christ, because that's the part that I didn't understand at all. Then they said, if you want to receive a prayer, come to the front. And I went up, and that's when they prayed for me. And I just started weeping and weeping. I hadn't cried since age nine, like 13 years. I had not shed a single tear to that point because I had, I guess, closed my heart to numb the pain of life. I was a Disney fan, so I wanted to be in the happiest place on Earth all the time, and I didn't know how to embrace pain.

So that was that. I started weeping and weeping, and they said, “Do you want to accept Christ today?” And my mind said, “Who is this guy? He's not here again. He wasn't at the car wash. He's not here either today.” But in my heart, I was yelling. I was really yelling, like, “Yes, yes!” And they said, “Okay, say the salvation prayer.” And I was like, “I don't know what that is.” And they said, “Okay, repeat after us.” So I repeated the prayer, and they all hugged me. They celebrated, but we had to drive back to Jersey. So the rest of the summer I was thinking, what was that? What happened to me that Sunday? But I had joy. I had this new feeling in my heart, so I just said, “Okay, I'll find them again when the new semester begins.” So that was how I got saved and I started my Christian walk. And I was a senior in college that fall, but I joined a freshman small group because I was a new believer.

Roger

Car wash? That's the way to go!

Ayaka

Car wash and worship music.

Roger

Oh, that's so cool that music played a role. You are a painter, so tell me a little bit about that. Especially…I went to your exhibit last month. That's the reason that we're talking right now. I really wanted people to hear that story. Can you tell me a little bit about the exhibit last month?

Ayaka

Yes. So it was an exhibit by eight Christian artists in Japan, Japanese and Chinese artists, and I was the only Americanized person…but I am Japanese. And we got together from different churches. We wanted to do something for Christmas and especially for the people who wouldn't come to church for the season, so that was how it started. And pretty much the theme was just Christmas, so it was very open ended. One guy was a sculptor. Another was a photographer. There were painters of different styles…

Roger

Your theme was Immanuel Sky? Can you tell us a little bit about that series?

Immanuel: LOOK UP

Ayaka

Yeah, so when we were brainstorming this exhibit, a lot of them said I'm going to do the Song of Mary or maybe the scene of the Nativity. And when I was sitting on it on the train, I realized, you know what? The special thing for me personally about Christmas is that Jesus is Immanuel, he became flesh for us, and God is with me all the time. To me, that was the most exciting thing about Christmas. So that's where the idea began. And then I started recalling the times since I moved back to Japan in 2018 when I really felt God's presence. When I found I had uterine cancer, and I was walking back from the clinic, I looked up at the sky and the sunset was beautiful, and I realized, our story doesn't end when the sun sets. I'm okay. God is with me. So I started thinking that's what I wanted to paint. So it became a series of sunset skies in Tokyo.

My non-Christian mom and my sister were like, “Isn't it supposed to be about Christmas?” But it was about Christmas.

Roger

Yeah. And the color you used for the sky was golden, which reminded me of the art hundreds of years ago where they used gold to represent heaven, sacred art that revealed the beauty of heaven on Earth. Was that part of what you were thinking?

Immanuel: ALWAYS

Ayaka

Actually, it just so happened when I was crushing the pigments, I truly feel like it was the Holy Spirit doing it because I just wanted to paint the sunset sky in the nihonga-style, which is pulverized minerals and jewels mixed with hide glue, everything natural, from the Earth. And I was kneading the minerals to create pink or orange. The thing about minerals is that they change depending on the humidity of that day and the temperature and even the different amounts of the glue. It just so happened that on that day it became very golden. So, yeah, I was just like, oh, this is interesting, but I'll just go with it. And when I was painting, I kept praying all the verses that has the word Immanuel and yeah, it was really a prayerful time of kneading very yellow, orange, warm pink, really happy colors.

Roger

And then in the Earth part, it's a bluish color, isn't it? What mineral do you use for that? And what does it represent?

Ayaka

Blue is the most precious, expensive mineral, lapis. I had this feeling that when God is with us on Earth, he doesn't consider it cheap. It's the sense of God coming to Earth on Christmas. I wanted to honor that with blue. So I purposely painted anything on Earth with blue. And then it ended up being a good contrast to the sky.

Roger

Yeah, it is. It stands out. It was clear it had meaning to it. Usually when I think of God's presence, I think of things like a mountain, starry sky, ocean, or something like that. But God's presence is here in the city, in the normal scenes we see every day. Right now as we're recording, we can look out the window and see the city. But people tend to look at it as a man-made thing so not as good. But no, this is a God thing, and God is present here. I really appreciated that. When I am tired and riding on the train, to remember that God is present here in this train is so cool, that image.

You were telling me before we started recording, just how you started painting this too, during a hard time in your life, and you shared that testimony. And they're like, no, that's too much, that's too dark. But then your paintings are so happy. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Immanuel: WITH ME

Ayaka

Yes, when the artists got together, so we were praying every week before the exhibit, and we decided to write our testimony for the website. So I said, “The reason I'm doing this is because I'm going through a divorce. And this is ten years after the initial affair, separation, single mothering, and reconciliation. It was a culmination of my worst fear coming to true. I had to wrestle with this: Is reconciling my marriage my hope or is Christ my hope? It was in the midst of that I knew God was with me. So that's what I wanted to paint. I wrote that and they said, “It's too much. You can't say that. That would scare people away, and we don't want to scare people away.” I think I was really struggling. I understand the point, but in Japan, it's so hard to talk about, or no one talks about personal suffering. But isn't Christ the very reason why we can? Because now we have a sovereign God who walked into the mess of our lives and is able to save us.

But I said, “Okay, I will write a nicer paragraph.” But after they saw my painting, they said, “Wait, your paragraphs and your painting don't go together at all.” And I said, “No, they do.” Then they were okay, and I put that on the wall at the exhibit as well. I could tell by watching the visitors, they would look at the painting first and then read my paragraph and go, “Oh!”

Roger

As you just described it, too, about getting the colors from crushing the minerals. I think even that just in the very medium itself, the idea that Christ was crushed so that we could have beauty in this world coming across. The more they are crushed, the brighter they are. You know, in the gallery the lights were shining down, and as I went around the side of the painting, I could see the minerals sparkling because of the way you crushed them. Just you saying, “I have this pain in my life, but I'm able to paint this beauty because of what Christ has done for me,” I thought was cool. Even in the very medium itself of nihonga, the message came through.

Ayaka

Yes, the funny thing about nihonga is that this practice is so tied to Shinto art. My classmates, my teacher, are used to seeing nihonga painting of Shinto-related things or spiritual things that are not of Christ. But for me, I realized this is very fit to worship God, the creator God, because everything I'm touching is from the Earth. All the colors are the colors that God created, and they’re crushed like the Lord. I get to paint it to worship back to him, and I think I feel like it's a full circle.

Roger

Yeah, a lot of people apparently did, because when I visited the gallery and came in, you had a crowd of people around you, and they were asking a lot of good questions. I was trying to overhear to see what they were asking. It was really cool to see so many people engaged with your artwork.

Ayaka

Yeah, I was actually surprised because my paintings were the smallest compared to others. I thought about making them big, but it was really just my prayer for the whole series to keep them humble and small, with no frames, like how Jesus is. Even the way that Jesus was born on Christmas had nothing decorative. I purposely expressed that. I wasn't sure if people would even be drawn to it because there are other paintings that were big and covered in gold. But I was actually very surprised. So many people came, and I think they related to the train window one the most.

Roger

I really like that one.

Ayaka

I was very surprised because that was the last piece I did right before the exhibit. And I didn't think I would finish, but that was a scene that kept coming to my mind. A lot of viewers asked me, “Is this Nihonga? When I think of Nihonga, I don't think about this.”

Roger

Right!

Ayaka

And I was like, well, the style, the technique is nihonga. So that's why the conversation started. And they said, “Okay, wait, but this…” and I have to explain. The thing about nihonga is that it's a slow art. So for me to start painting, I can't just get on the canvas right away. I have to do the double boiler to melt the hide glue. I have to knit the paint, crush it, make it smooth, mix it up, check the temperature, check the humidity…This is crazy process. And that hour to me is my time with the Lord, a heart check. Because sometimes I find myself really rushed and impatient, and it actually shows in the quality of the pigment when I'm rushed and mixing. And when I start painting, it doesn't glide as well. And I realize “Oh, Lord, am I worried today. Oh, I have this undeveloped issue in my heart. God, can you purify me now as I'm doing this really meticulous, tedious thing?” And that's how the painting starts. And also, it doesn't paint like watercolors. If I just brush across the paper, all the colors will move to the side of the paper.

So the way it works is that I have to place the pigment almost like sand art, and then I wait for it to dry. And then I put the next layer and the next layer. You can actually see through all the layers. That's something we have to think about ahead of time. If you want to paint, say, a red flower, some people put green underlay on purpose to play with the contrast, stuff like that. I was explaining to the people that, yes, this is just a window view, but there's a lot of layers of prayer that I prayed over this painting. And there's, like, 30 layers of different color on it. And then so many people said, “This brings tears to my eyes,” or a businessman said, “You know, this brought me back 30 years ago when I first moved to Tokyo from the countryside, and I've lost that pure heart as a businessman.” So he was tearing up, and I was like, “Oh, I'm glad.” And then another lady said she had been battling depression the last two years. But when she came into the gallery and saw that painting, something left her, the heaviness was lifted. So she was just crying, saying, “I’m healed. I'm healed by this light.” Praise the Lord Jesus.

Roger

That’s really cool. Clearly, God is working through you and your art. And that what you said about slow art…the idea of praying through even the process of preparation, I think I and other musicians can learn from that. We have to warm up the fingers to be able to practice some of the harder things and can give that to God as well.

So I noticed that your group was called Bezalel. You want to tell us why?

Ayaka

Yes, the lead artist came up with that name. It's the person that God chose to create highly artistic and beautiful tools for worship. It was in Exodus 31, I think. And she prayed over us, saying, “May we be the artists in Tokyo today that receive from the Lord the wisdom, the skill, the ideas, everything, and create something excellent to help other people worship.” So that was the idea. It's kind of unique. Not in your face Christian.

Roger

And it so fits. God gave Bezalel those gifts to build the temple so that people could connect with him. And that was the whole point of your exhibit last month, as you even showed during the conversations, the way people responded to what you were saying, to share God’s presence. And you have an exciting story to share too, right? About the owner of the gallery?

Ayaka

Yes, so the owner of this tiny gallery in Nihombashi, through the time that we were preparing and interacting a week before our exhibit, she shared that she wanted to know Christ and she wanted to accept Christ. And we were all like, what is happening? She said our group was very different than any other artist group who have showcased at her gallery. It was very precious because she was always in the corner of the gallery watching during the setup, during our conversations, and even during the week of our exhibit. One or few of us were always in the gallery, and we had our gospel musicians come play music. And through that, she decided to accept Christ. And speaking of this week, she's starting a class on baptism to get baptized.

Roger

Wow, that's so cool! There’s this image that art is about self-expression or trying to make a mark by saying something new or something like that. But the fact that God would work so powerfully through the arts, through your exhibit, to help people is really encouraging.

Ayaka

Yeah, I feel like art is a familiar language in Japan. I don't know why, but art is everywhere in this culture, and it's very accepted. People know the need for it, even the government. They spend so much money on art, and they don't mind because they think it's important. It's almost like, in daily life, it’s as important as food and transportation. So, in that sense, art is not excess, but part of life, I think.

Roger

Yeah, I think in general Americans like the idea of debating—we were talking about that earlier—debating someone into the kingdom or something like that. But in Japan, it's different. It starts with the heart, not with the mind. And so it makes it particularly effective to use the arts to share Christ here.

Ayaka

Yeah, and the mind battle is so hard here, too. Sometimes I am reminded that even though the US may not be viewed as a Christian country, there's a familiarity. There are Bibles in the hotels, like in little drawers, or there's a sense that Christianity is part of everyday life. But in Japan, it's not like that. It's a foreign thing. And a lot of people have a weird understanding or it's scary or it's forceful or some old book says it smells like butter. It's a foreign thing. Like the Western missionaries brought this to Japan. But I feel like, in art, people can know that this is the Creator God who created Japan as well.

Roger

Definitely. Well, thank you so much for sharing today. I pray that God will continue to bless you and your art and use you to share more about him and his kingdom, as he already has been. So exciting. Thank you for sharing today.

Ayaka

Thank you so much.

Roger

This is Roger Lowther, and you've been listening to the “Art Life Faith” podcast. Check out my website www.rogerwlowther.com for a transcription of this podcast and various links. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”

(Visit Ayaka Uchida on the web at www.ayakauchida.com and on Instagram.)

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