Give and Take: Teaching in Japan enriches students and their volunteer teacher

Date Posted: 
Friday, November 7, 2014

For Rachel Hashimoto, long-term volunteering in Japan was a great way to learn about the country and the culture there “without having to deal with taxes,” she jokes. But it was more than that, of course—it was a chance to quietly witness to others and share Christ’s love in a country where Christianity is a minority religion.

Hashimoto, a Hope College graduate, recently returned to the United States after four years of teaching English in Japan. She taught students in kindergarten through middle school at Yokohama Eiwa Gakuin, a girls’ Christian school in the city of Yokohama, just south of Tokyo.

Of Japanese descent, she had studied in Japan while in school and started to learn the language, so long-term volunteering and witnessing in the same country seemed a natural fit.

“I loved watching students growing and learning not only the material I was teaching, but also gaining personal interest and figuring out who they were as an individual,” Hashimoto says. “It was really inspiring to be included in that part of their journey.”

Hashimoto’s position as a Christian teacher in a Christian school in Japan put her in a unique position to be public about her faith. Less than 1 percent of Japan’s population claims a Christian belief or affiliation. As a result, most of her students were not Christian and did not come from Christian families.

“From my experience, Christian schools are looked at more highly than public schools [in Japan],” she said. “They are private schools that promise a good, personal education for each of its students. Most parents send their children to Christian schools in hopes of them having the best possible education.

“Since I was working at a Christian school, I could speak openly about my faith. Those who were interested always knew they could ask me questions any time about faith and Christianity. I also taught the Sunday school class at the local church and gave chapel messages at my school.”

Life in Japan was “busy and fast-paced,” she says, but that made the experience very rewarding. She lived in the heart of the city, made an effort to learn as much Japanese as possible, and took advantage of school holidays to travel throughout the surrounding area. She made time for her students outside of school hours and sought out volunteer opportunities. Essentially, she immersed herself in culture there.

Such cultural experiences are what make long-term volunteering experiences so enriching, says Kristin VanKampen, RCA coordinator for volunteer engagement.

“In long-term volunteering, you really experience the culture much more deeply, and that’s a gift,” says VanKampen. “Mission is not only about what you can give; it’s about learning from one another and being challenged by the community that you’re a part of. When you step outside your comfort zone, the Holy Spirit often shows us what we are called to be—this is one of the best ways to do that.”

The role of a long-term volunteer can be a challenging one on a personal level: Hashimoto admits that it was difficult to feel like part of a faith community in Japan, where religion is not a priority.

“Many people [in Japan] do not believe they need God because their physical needs are all met. It also takes a long time to create a deep relationship with Japanese people. I did my best to get involved in church activities and volunteered to help plan the missionary conference through the Japanese Kyodan [denomination]. It was through the relationships that I made specifically in those times that I was able to find people I could be accountable with. The Lord provided mentors in his perfect timing, every time.”

Hashimoto was also encouraged in her faith by the response she received from some of her students. Near the end of her four-year volunteering term, the fruits of her witnessing became apparent.

“A handful of students shared that they were interested in learning more about Christianity and faith. I had the pleasure to then go to church with these girls, have coffee and meals with them, and laugh and cry with them. That was when I knew God was working full-time to get these girls back to him.

“There was rarely ever a minute to myself, but the time with the students encouraged me and inspired me. They never let me forget why I came to Japan—for them.”

Pray for volunteers currently serving with mission partners around the world.

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