A Conversation with Akira Hirose
Akira Hirose grew up in the “Bible belt” of Japan, the Ibaraki Prefecture. At age 18 he heard veteran missionary Joe Canon preach during a meeting and decided to become a Christian.
Hirose worked up through the management of Joyo Bank, and managed the bank’s operation in the United Kingdom for three years. When he returned to Japan, he worked in Tokyo and eventually became a part of the corporate “think tank” which allowed him to move to Mito, the capital of his home prefecture.
Busy with family and career, Hirose made time to work in churches wherever he lived. He and his wife Chizuko now play a leading role in the Mito church’s evangelistic outreach. Once each month they have all the internationals to their home for “potluck and praise.” On Sunday evenings the Hiroses welcome those who come for English studies using the Bible.
In the late 1990s Hirose was chosen chairman of the Ibaraki Christian board of trustees, a position that effectively makes him CEO of the schools. He is the first member of the church who has held this position in the schools’ history as a public institution.
What aspects of the Gospel are most appealing to the average person in Japan, and what parts are the most difficult for people to understand?
The most appealing aspect of the Gospel is peace of mind — or the power to live — which is given through a faithful life. The Japanese live in a traditional, polytheistic culture, and basically they choose their god or gods judging which god will give them the power to live.
We can see at the entrance of many Japanese church buildings welcoming words to the public. The most popular are from Matthew 11:25, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” These words appeal to the weary person, because most of the Japanese live stressed lives.
The most difficult aspect of the Gospel for the Japanese to understand is the biblical view of sin. Sin is essentially disobedience of the created against the Creator. The Japanese have never had the idea of God the Creator, Man the created. The traditional idea of a relationship between god(s) and man in Japan has been obscure, flexible and relative. That is the reason why the Japanese have difficulty understanding the true meaning of sin. For the Japanese sin has always been the idea of morality or ethics.
How do elders at the Mito church nurture new converts and maintain an active evangelism program?
Mito church introduced the eldership in 1992 — the first eldership in Japan in more than 40 years. During the 1980s the congregation was driven to handle conflicts among the church members. The church became less evangelistic. We had no baptisms for several years and Sunday worship attendance decreased.
We started English Bible Class (EBC) in 1992 and the Let’s Start Talking (LST) program in 1993. EBC started with five English teachers led by John and Kelly Osborne with 25 readers. Now it has 20 teachers and 110 readers every Sunday evening. About 12 congregations in Japan invite the LST teams every year.
In 1999 we started an Adventures In Missions (AIM) program and every year three or four AIMers have come from Sunset International Bible Institute (Lubbock, Texas) for mission work in Mito and the surrounding area.
In 1991 average Sunday worship attendance was 59 and membership of the congregation was 68. In 2001 average Sunday worship attendance was 117 and membership was 120. It has not been very fast growth, but considering the difficulty of evangelism in Japan, it could be said to be spectacular. Without the leadership of elders and deacons the growth could never have been attained.
Describe the role Associate English Teachers in Mito schools and explain how that role has helped the Mito church in reaching the lost.
In Mito there are 15 junior high schools and each has an Associate English Teacher. Fourteen of the 15 are Christians and most of them are graduates of Oklahoma Christian University and belong to the Mito church. They are not allowed to preach the Gospel at school, but they volunteer to teach at the English Bible Class every Sunday evening at the Mito church. Their activities through EBC are the most important mission work of Mito church in reaching the lost.
Describe the way you teach your English studies on Sunday evenings.
We have more than 100 readers every week and we divide them into 18 classes according to their English ability and level of Bible understanding. Almost every week we have new students. Others have been studying for several years.
Every class has an English teacher and a Japanese Christian to assist the teacher.
We start singing English praise songs at 5:15 p.m. and have the group classes at 5:30 for an hour. After 30 minutes of tea time, we have an evening worship to preach the Gospel to the seekers. About 30 readers stay to join the worship.
In these past 10 years, nearly 50 people have been led to Christ through the English Bible Studies.
When we execute the LST-style English Bible studies we must be careful not to mix up the means and the ends. English Bible study is the means to invite the lost to the church. In fact, most of the readers join the English Bible Class for the purpose of studying English only. But some people gradually open their minds to the Gospel and have interest in the teachings of the Bible. With these people we have one-on-one Bible studies led by the minister, the missionaries, the LST team, AIMers and Japanese Christians. Without this spiritual follow-up, we cannot convert the lost into true Christians.
Do Ibaraki Christian schools have an important role for churches in Japan? Do you think that role will continue in the future or will it change?
Ibaraki Christian (IC) was established by a group of Christians — church of Christ and some denominational churches. Since churches of Christ in the United States supported IC financially and sent many Christians to the school, there was a very strong tie between IC and the churches of Christ in Japan.
In the 1970s as IC grew rapidly the number of non-Christian faculty increased, and it created the sentiment of independence from the church. It also caused friction with U.S. churches, and eventually financial support stopped.
Now IC does not have an important role for the churches in Japan. IC needs a good relationship with churches of Christ and their help to keep the identity as a Christian school. Because 20 out of 40 Christians at the school are members of churches of Christ, churches of Christ are still the spiritual backbone of the school.
You worked in London for several years. How would you compare the church in Mito to the church at Wembley where you worshiped?
When we first visited the Wembley church 20 years ago we were impressed by the variety of people in terms of nationality. It was a surprise for us to see the beautiful unity in the Lord among such a variety of people. We saw the power of the Lord to unite Christians.
Mito church has become more international in these past 20 years. We have Americans, Canadians, Australians and Chinese. Mito has become international and many foreigners have come here to live. Our challenge for the time being would be to build up a wonderful Christian family in Mito like what we experienced at the Wembley church.
What challenge and opportunities do you see for churches of Christ in Japan?
There are 60 churches of Christ in Japan. Most of them were established in the 1940s and 50s. For 50 years churches have been growing older. The Christians are getting older, and the preachers are getting older. Thirty out of 60 churches have less than 10 Christians, and many of the congregations do not have a preacher. There are 30 preachers in Japan, and within 10 years one-third of them are retiring.
The situation is rather critical. That is the reason why we started Japan School for Evangelism (JSE) 12 years ago to train the young preachers. It is a small school, but the only Bible school owned by churches of Christ in Japan. JSE serves the churches by providing new preachers and giving Christians an opportunity to study the Bible more in-depth.