Numerous first-generation Japanese Americans live in a climate very different from that of 21st-century Western thought, one in which centuries of tradition-steeped culture still provide the framework for thought, choices and social interaction. In the Los Angeles area, Spring Iwata is a bridge-builder for these people, tirelessly working to present the message of Jesus in a manner that transcends the culture gap.
Physically, she is unassuming. Her voice is soft and gentle. But don’t be deceived—a reservoir of strength and stability lies beneath her delicate exterior. Within her heart beats a deep-seated passion for her Savior, and an equal passion to help her fellow Japanese find relationship with Him.
More than 30 years ago, Spring (her given name is Haruko) came to the U.S. from Japan, to study at Azusa Pacific University. After college, she chose to remain in the U.S., marrying Paul, a third-generation Japanese American. Though initially a Free Methodist, for the past 15 years she has been Foursquare. In 1993, she and Paul founded the San Fernando Valley Japanese Foursquare Church. Paul leads the English-language portion of the congregation, and Spring, the Japanese-language side.
Bringing Christianity to a people whose spiritual history is a conglomeration of centuries of Shinto, Buddhism and ancestor worship is not an easy task. To add to the confusion, Japanese celebrate secular versions of many Christian holidays, such as Christmas, but with no comprehension of the underlying spiritual origins.
Because the Japanese culture has such long-established roots, Spring has found ways to incorporate some of its traditions into her Christian outreach, using means such as cooking, koto (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument similar to a harp) music, and the tea ceremony. “The Bible says that wives should obey their husbands, and we do that already in Japanese culture,” she explained, adding that concepts such as appreciation and sacrifice also are excellent tools for bridging the cultural gap.
The unemotional nature of many first-generation Japanese Americans can present challenges within the context of feeling-oriented Western society. While Japanese tradition inherently stresses tightly-controlled leadership and unquestioned obedience (e.g., a father is the unquestionable authority for a family), these values often are at odds with American culture. Decision-making and expression of opinions becomes difficult, according to Spring. “Many don’t really know who they are, or they don’t want to express their opinions, or they really have no opinions,” she said. “They are envious of American freedom.”
“As a young girl, I was very naïve; I hid in the background and was quiet,” she continued. “Once I became a Christian, I completely changed.” The transforming power of the Holy Spirit brought her a new expressiveness, sense of identity and a strong love for others.
Helping new converts to follow through on spiritual commitments is another challenge, she said. “People really want to follow through when I talk about Jesus, but they don’t know what it means to do that,” she noted. “It is difficult for them to give up their families and their culture to make a commitment to Jesus.”
But despite the cultural hurdles, Spring tirelessly continues her outreach. “People come to me, saying, ‘Will you please pray for me?’ ” she noted. “Wherever I go, people still respect Jesus.”