Serving in Japan: 30 Foot High Bonfires

At the beginning of the year, I was at the local elementary school where I teach English to the Japanese students. As I prepped with the teacher, she asked me to finish my second class 5 minutes early.  Something about everyone going outside for "dondoyaki."

Dondoyaki… hmm… what’s that?? I started processing it to try to figure out the meaning.

Takoyaki- Octopus batter balls
Yakiniku- Grilled meat
Yakitori- Grilled chicken

My best guess: grilled something.  Must be food. Grilled seafood of some sort?

After the first two classes, I came back to the office for my break.  One of the office staff encouraged me to grab my coat and head outside.  “It’s Japanese culture.”

Ok- new piece of the puzzle: it’s related to Japanese culture.  A New Years food perhaps?

In the middle of the schoolyard, there looked to be a cherry-shaped bunch of pine-branches, standing some 30 feet tall, with ropes holding the top of the “cherry stem” into the air.  Here and there were adornments and also at the bottom there seemed to be many pieces of paper with black calligraphy characters on them.

No sight nor smell of food anywhere.

After all the students gathered in a huge circle, a massive fire was lit and naturally everything was enveloped in flames.  Even from my distance, I could feel the wave of heat. Huge pops and cracks occasionally startled me, which I later found out was the bamboo cracking on the inside of the bonfire.  Clouds of ash rose to the sky and some students and moms collected some of the pieces of bigger ash that fell to the ground.

As I headed back to the office to wait for the students to pick me up for my next class, I knew it was time to do my research.  What was this that I’d just observed?

Dondoyaki is the Japanese tradition of burning all the New Year decorations and the lucky charms bought at the temple that hold the zodiac of the previous year. Apparently it’s the only way to dispose of these things, as it’s extremely bad luck and bad taste to just throw them away.

Most Japanese see these things as traditional superstitions and consider it better to do than not to do it. Unfortunately, there seems to be many such cultural superstitions they keep an eye on, There are charms for many occasions that they can buy at the local temple: for graduations, for safe driving, for health, etc.

Even if it may seem fun or just cultural to them, perhaps the root is deeper than they know. The overwhelming majority of them have never had the opportunity to hear of the freedom in Christ - of the love and care of a Heavenly Father who paid the price for their sins and healing - the Holy Spirit who would go with them - the freedom from any fear found in a fulfilling relationship with Jesus. 

The question is: will they have the opportunity to hear? Who will go to them? The reality of Romans 10:14-15 becomes stark in light of this situation. Will they have the chance to hear in their lifetime?

"But how can they call on Him to save them unless they believe in Him? And how can they believe in Him if they have never heard about Him? And how can they hear about Him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? Romans 10:14-15a (NLT)

by Janine Alvarado, Missionary to Japan