In the fast-paced, success-driven society of Tokyo, children and young people face intense pressure from their parents and community to excel at school and work. Even children as young as three or four years old are burdened with high expectations.
TEAM missionary Karyn Zaayenga tells the story of her friend Miki Keiko who was anxious for her two-year old son to be accepted into the “right” playgroup because that would help his chances of getting into the “right” preschool and subsequent schools. On the morning of registration for the playgroup, Miki Keiko arrived two hours before the office opened – but she was too late. Most parents had been in line since midnight, and the playgroup was full.
Students face a relentless pace that includes long school days Monday through Saturday, including classes at “cram” schools after regular school hours, and sports and extracurricular activities on Sundays. The high-stress environment produces bullying, peer pressure, conformity, and burnout. This pace continues in the competitive Tokyo business world, where young adults take crowded 5am trains to work 18-hour days six or seven days a week in hopes of improving their financial and career success.
As a result of this extreme pressure, groups of Japanese youth known as hikikomori have completely withdrawn from society. The hikikomori are typically men teenaged to 30 years old who quit school, are unemployed with no technical skills, and live with their parents. The hikikomori rarely leave their bedrooms, instead passing the day using their smart phones and computers or watching TV while their mothers leave meals outside the bedroom door.
TEAM missionary Zaayenga, working at Toma Tama Church in Fuchu City, Western Tokyo, has seen this phenomenon first-hand in families at church. Zaayenga started the Lighthouse ministry four years ago as a way to offer the love and hope of Jesus to these young people who also face spiritual darkness, as most Japanese are only nominal followers of the Shinto or Buddhist religions. Lighthouse offers connection and friendship to young people at church and at area universities with a contemporary worship that appeals to the younger generation. The Sunday evening worship service is followed by a casual dinner. Lighthouse also has many fun activities where non-believers are invited to share meals, play games, and celebrate special occasions and holidays. The two area universities – International Christian University and Tokyo University of Foreign Studies – have many students from other countries, and Lighthouse provides a place where they can learn about each other’s cultures.
In a country where the average church size is 23 people, Lighthouse regularly has more than 20 in attendance at their Sunday evening service. Since 2008, two high school students, two college students, and a sixth grader have been baptized. Lighthouse has started an evening Sunday School class for preschoolers to make connections with young mothers through a “Mommy and Me” English class, and they actively reach out to hikikomori young people and others suffering from burnout and depression.
Zaayenga hopes to develop the Lighthouse ministry into a Lighthouse Café, creating a friendly atmosphere where young people can meet friends while enjoying coffee and cuisine with an international flavor. By serving the felt needs of the community, the Lighthouse Café will shine the light of Jesus for the young people of Japan.
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photos provided by Karyn Zaayenga