A Conversation with Yuki Obata
Yukikazu “Yuki” Obata remembers his first trip to a Mexican restaurant in the United States. He scanned the menu, looking for a dish he recognized, and settled on something called “fajitas.” The word resembled a common family name, “Fujita,” in his native Japan.
Soon, he found himself facing a mountain of grilled steak, peppers and onions. He’s been a Mexican food fan ever since.
Obata, 40, is pulpit minister for the church in Mito, Japan. The congregation — the second-largest Church of Christ in Japan — has an average attendance of 90, one-third of which is American. The congregation began in 1948 near Ibaraki Christian University, a college founded, in part, by church members. English-speaking church members travel to Mito to teach in the city’s schools and worship with the Mito church.
Obata comes from a family of gospel preachers. His father, Shiro, ministered for the Ochanomizu church in Tokyo for more than 40 years before retiring to his hometown of Haruna, where he continues to preach.
Yuki Obata earned a master’s in theology from Abilene Christian University in Texas and a Master of Divinity from Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn. He and his wife, Hiroko, have a daughter, Rina, 6, and a son, Kento, 3. He loves to play with his children, walk and listen to gospel and classical music.
A theme lecturer at church events across the U.S., Obata is an articulate spokesman — in Japanese and English. His preaching style combines thoughtful biblical insights and well-crafted humor.
During his U.S. visits, he’s sampled many different kinds of food, he said, but “my favorite is still Taco Bell.”
How did you become interested in ministry?
A preacher was the last thing I wanted to be! As a PK (preacher’s kid), I often felt my dad sacrificed too much. Also, I felt that my identity as a PK put me in an awkward place in non-Christian Japanese society.
Then God gave me an opportunity to study the Bible in the United States. I was liberated from the pressure of being a PK and was able to rebuild my identity simply as a Christian, albeit slowly.
God called me through a community of wonderful teachers. I learned from theology teachers that there is a vision worthy to follow even with sacrifices. History teachers reminded me of the goodness of my religious heritage. A missions teacher woke me up to go back to my own country to preach the gospel.
What is the state of Churches of Christ in Japan today?
We have about 1,000 members in 54 congregations. There are 30-plus local preachers and seven full-time missionaries. Most of the churches are concentrated in the Ibaraki, Tokyo and Shizuoka areas where missionaries worked before. Many of those congregations are the fruit of post-World War II missions, and many of the members are getting older.
There are signs of hope. We now have our own preacher-training school. More churches have started doing Let’s Start Talking, and that ministry has brought vitality to churches. Younger ministers and missionaries have been bringing new waves of ministry, including an active campus ministry at Ibaraki Christian and cooperation with other churches in Southeast Asia.
Why have the Japanese people tended to be resistant to the Christian faith?
Only 1 percent of Japan’s 127 million people claims faith in Jesus. There are many reasons for this — the strong communal influences of traditional Japanese religions (Buddhism and Shinto), a relatively moderate climate that makes people satisfied and not willing to change, the presence of secular materialism and the fear of any religion because of a cult that committed acts of terrorism a few years ago. People do not feel the need for a savior who changes their life conditions for the better.
What challenges face this generation of Japanese preachers and leaders?
We have a challenge to turn our eyes from inside to outside the church. In the shadow of Japan’s rather quick economic growth — and now decline — more than 30,000 people have committed suicide yearly for the past 10 years. Depression is said to be as common as a cold. Morality is drifting. We need to find better ways to engage with this reality.
There also is a challenge concerning our identity. Some preachers seem to think, “Nothing good can come out of Churches of Christ,” while many simply don’t know the history. I believe there is something great about our heritage. David Lipscomb’s plea for us to be “a distinct people” is something we can make use of, especially in the Japanese context where the Christian minority is trying to uphold the faith to a non-Christian society.
Are there special challenges in the Mito congregation with Americans and Japanese worshiping together?
Language is a big challenge. There are many in our church who speak only Japanese or only English. We have tried several ways to accommodate the needs of all, but nothing is perfect.
The problem is complicated because English is the “power language” in Japan. So, the real problem may lie between Japanese people who speak English and Japanese people who don’t. It is easier for the former group (the “elites”) to have a good time using English, while the latter group is left out. On the other hand, we want to avoid the nationalistic mentality that dislikes any use of English in church.
These challenges, however, are blessings as well. I have come to believe that the cultural struggles help us concentrate on just being the church.
What evangelistic plans does the Mito church have for Japan and Asia?
Thank you for asking! Lord willing, we would like to plant churches in the growing areas of Mito in the near future. There are about 260,000 people to reach in Mito. We also want to share with other churches in Japan the joy of planting churches so that it may become more of a movement. Also, one elder has been insisting constantly that we should become a church that sends missionaries to other parts of Asia.
How can churches outside Japan best help the progress of the gospel in Japan?
We appreciate American churches’ efforts to send missionaries to Japan in various ways: short term (such as Let’s Start Talking), vocational (English teachers) and long term. They draw people to Christ and revitalize Japanese churches.
Long-term missionaries also have a special role. They can tell what is — and isn’t — American or Western about Christianity. Hearing this directly from the mouth of a Western missionary would be good. I appreciate Christian schools for equipping workers with a missional mindset as well as knowledge of the Bible, church history and cultural anthropology.
I would like to see better networking of churches around the world. Other Asian churches can help us with some Asia-specific problems. American churches and Christian schools can continue to be the “hubs” where Christians around the world gather to get to know and learn from each other.