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A Simple Act of Charity

March 7, 2011

In my last letter I reported about the unusually hot summer we had in Japan. As I write we are in the midst of one of the coldest winters and record breaking heavy snows all over the country. We pray for the homeless who are out in the cold– an increasing number in Japan too.

One of the top stories in the news that has received considerable media attention recently was an anonymous donor who sent a gift to a home for children, with a letter attached. The 22 school bags were given for the children residing in the institution. (Most of the children in such institutions are victims of child abuse or children who for other reasons are not able to live with their parents.  In the US, these kids would be in foster homes.) The name signed was the name of a famous character from an animation series in Japan. This fictitious character was a pro-wrestler known as “Tiger Mask”. This simple act of charity was the focus of quite a bit of attention in the media and before long this act caught on in a fad-like fashion. Gifts for children (school supplies and toys) and monetary donations were being sent to other institutions all over Japan, all in the name of “Tiger Mask”. This started just before Christmas and continued throughout the New Year holiday, which is a time when families get together and children receive monetary gifts from grandparents and other relatives. The spirit of Christmas and New Year giving seemed to strike a chord in the country. Especially noteworthy was the fact that these gifts were given to children in institutions. The fictitious character had also grown up in such a home, and when he gained success as a wrestler, he donated gifts for the children in the home– so the story goes!

I share this with you because this “Tiger-Mask Phenomenon” offers some insight into understanding Japan. Charitable giving has not been a custom in Japan (to the extent that it is in Western or Christian cultures). Sending a donation anonymously may be more comfortable for some, and in this particular case, using the name of a well-known character must have inspired others all over the country to join in. Some have indicated that this is an example of human behavior in group-oriented cultures, where people join in because others are doing so. Critics have pointed out that this kind of giving is a “no-strings-attached” type of gift. Just a “one-time deal” with no further commitments or fear of further solicits.

Since I teach social work at the University, I spent some time with my seminar students discussing this topic. Some students had a positive take on this “phenomenon”, while others were more critical. Some pointed out that what this shows is the insufficiency of welfare funding – that the government should provide basic needs for children, especially for those less fortunate.

Finally, this story may shed some light on Christian mission in Japan. It has long been said that Christianity is a foreign religion in Japan. But the way the Tiger Mask type of giving has captured imagination all over the country shows how close the spirit of giving to those less fortunate is to the Japanese soul, akin to the Christian commitment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Charitable giving and volunteering are much more common now. Many young people are interested in working to help society at large, and also in working abroad to make a difference in the world. Working with such young people in Japan gives me hope for a world that cares for those in need.

I pray that the Christian witness will be a significant influence in the changing tide of Japan.

In Christ’s Peace,

Martha Mensendiek

Martha serves at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan through the Council on Cooperative Mission.  Martha is a Teacher of social welfare.

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