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I’m Sorry Emiko

Seth - November 4, 2006

When the Lord calls me to be judged, perhaps he will ask, “Zusia, why were you not like my servant Abraham?” And I will answer, “Lord, Abraham was the father of nations, the receiver of thy great promises. But I am only Zusia.” Perhaps he will ask, “Zusia, why were you not like my servat Moses?” And I will say, “Lord, thy servant Moses led thy people from Egypt; he received thy law upon the mount. But I am only Zusia.” But what shall I answer when he asks, “Zusia, why were you not like my servant Zusia?”

Like all missionaries who served in Japan in the early 90s, I taught free English classes to interested people twice weekly.

The first place I served in in Japan was Iizuka. A small town of only 70,000 on the island of Kyushu – where the growing suburbs of metropolitain Fukuoka contrasted with the ubiquitous rice patties and bamboo forests of Southern Japan. There were four of us missionaries stationed in Kyushu (in a non-air conditioned apartment with no central heat). Aside from a handful of exchange students from Australia, we were the only Caucasians for miles. I ended up living in Iizuka for 8 months (a very long stay even for a Japan missionary).

Our church meetinghouse, where we taught English classes, was a rickety old two-story shack with peeling brown paint, uninsulated windows and doors, poor lighting, and a upstairs floor that creaked so violently I had a frequent suspicion the whole structure was going to collapse. The building was blazing hot in the summer, and freezing in the wet winters.

My first senior companion, was a personable, outgoing missionary who had served in the area for a long time and was at the tail end of his mission. When he had arrived in Iizuka – three months earlier, the local members were dispirited, sacrament meetings were absolutely grim, and the Branch President and RS President had recently had a particularly nasty row (shouting in sacrament meeting and stuff like that). Through months of committed service, my companion and the junior missionary (whom I replaced) had turned the place around. Members were smiling again, church was happy. Things were looking up for the branch, even if baptisms were still non-existant (typical of rural Japan).

Looking back on it, I think he was the best missionary I ever knew. But I was far too self-absorbed to really notice.

The only downside of my companion was that he was so committed to the people he knew. Looking back on it, I really don’t see this as a downside anymore, but back then I had an idea that we were supposed to be meeting new investigators, promptly baptizing them, and going out and finding some more. My companion however, typically had the entire week scheduled with meetings with “old friends.” The typically term for the type of folks my companion loved so much was: “eien no kyudosha.”

It means “eternal investigators.”

These are people who are comfortable with their relationship with the missionaries and unwilling to take the next steps into church activity and membership. In fact they seem unlikely to ever do so. Our free English classes were “jam-packed” with eien kyudosha.

There was “Tom” a high school principle teacher with excellent English, a rare (for a Japanese) sense of sarcastic humor, and penchant for learning impolite words in English. There was “Rick,” an unusually opinionated truck driver with good English skills, and a penchant for showing up at English classes slightly inebriated. And there was “Emi” a sweet little grandmother with moderate English skills and a penchant for taking my companion and I out to eat at some very nice little family-run restaurants throughout the valley.

Our group of missionaries had divided the English classes into four groups: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, and a Saturday children’s class. My companion handled the beginners, the other two missionaries taught the advanced and children’s classes. I taught the intermediate class: students with enough English that I could communicate with them (my Japanese skills were almost non-existant) but unskilled enough that I had to improvise with what Japanese I knew to conduct class.

Looking back on it, those were beautiful days. We were busy, we knew a lot of people in the community, lots of old friends whom we met with regularly, a busy English class, friendly church members, constant opportunites for acts of community and individual service, and we missionaries somehow always managed to be at the center of EVERY community festival, celebration, or event. The missionaries were extremely visible, and well-liked in Iizuka.

Yet I had my gripes, just the same. Almost all of them were petty, and shortsighted. My main gripe was with several of my companion’s “friends” whom I felt were absolute dead-ends from a proselyting standpoint. They weren’t going to convert, and I didn’t see why we should waste much time on them. It didn’t help that my Japanese speaking skill progressed very little during my stay in Iizuka. So typically I would accompany my companion to meetings with “investigators” and sit there sullenly staring at couches and my surroundings in silence, sipping my wheat tea (don’t worry, it was completely kosher).

Aside from developing a continuing fondness for chilled wheat tea (yum!), I neither contributed nor gained anything from these visits. After a month, I stopped even trying to take notes for my Japanese study. I personally had almost zero real connection with the people we met, and while they were exceedingly friendly and remained devoted to me long after my companion transfered to another city (about 5 months into my stay in Iizuka), I did little to deserve or maintain their friendship. I was never very brave socially and had a hard time applying myself to the serious study I would have needed to communicate with the people.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that I started thinking that we ought to “cut-loose the dead weight” in our contact list. These eien kyudosha weren’t going anywhere, and these weekly social visits were not doing anything to “Spread the Gospel” as I saw it. At first, I kept these thoughts to myself. Then I occasionally expressed them to my companion. He would look at the floor, nod his head in agreement, agree with my assessment that there weren’t going to be any baptisms from these people any time soon, and sympathize with me. Then he would look up and say “I know these people aren’t going anywhere, but they’re my friends and I can’t just abandon them. Maybe when I leave, you can stop visiting… get some fresh blood into this contact list…”

I liked my companion, so I accepted this and left it at that.

While I was almost comatose at most “investigator meetings,” my intermediate English classes were a different story. I had much more scope for communication with these people and could connect much better. I also discovered, for the first time in my life, that I was an excellent teacher. My manner was engaging, my class was energized, and I had a way of making difficult concepts in the English language both accessible and understandable. A testament to how well I was doing came in sweltering mid-July when I had almost twenty students packed into a tiny room with no air conditioning (other than an open door and window) at 1:00 pm. AND THEY CAME BACK EACH WEEK! I was doing very well, and the other missionaries noted that I was getting lots of compliments. It was something I prided myself on.

My first companion transferred. As predicted, I didn’t really push meeting with the “old friends” much with my next senior companion and he naturally had other concerns and prospects of his own. Most of the relationships ended that way.

But the English class regulars remained. In particular, Emi (the grandmother who took us to restaraunts) remained absolutely devoted to both me and my intermediate class where she was a regular. Those English classes were one of the highlights of her week. I complimented her growing English skills on several occasions and suggested that she might be ready to move-up to the advanced class. Each time, she would simply smile and protest that her English skills weren’t nearly that good and insist on staying in my class.

Not that I noticed much. I was far to self-absorbed and wrapped up in my poor missionary performance statistics (which I had to report weekly to the mission home). Stats which had some basis in reality – I wasn’t a very good missionary in my own estimation. I didn’t pay Emi much mind and rather took her frequent generosity for granted (under a facade of bows and thank-yous). I also eventually concluded that she really wasn’t quite as good as the other advanced students. So maybe she was right. I didn’t dwell much on Emi one way or the other.

I also had a pressing personal concern: I wanted to try my hand at the “advanced class” and had had my eye on it for several months. I enjoyed the opportunity to use my intuitive skills in teaching and comprehending the English language. I felt I would have more professional scope for this in an advanced class with advanced students. Besides, I had gone through the rough Church-produced intermediate lesson manual several times and I was bored with it.

To top it off, there was a new student in the advanced class. A pretty twenty-something female student from the nearby tech college named Saya…

My eighth month in Iizuka, I got a chance to make my move. The rest of the missionaries had completely turned over. I was the only “old-timer.” I simply suggested to the missionaries that I take over the advanced class. They agreed easily enough and there I was.

After a couple of advanced classes, I found that Emi had followed me into the advanced class. She really wasn’t a bother, and I should have been fine with it. But for some reason (that I still can’t understand to this day) her presence irritated me. She was obviously behind the other students, but that shouldn’t have been a big deal. Maybe it’s just that I wanted to move beyond the intermediate class, and here it was, following me. Maybe it was the fact that a couple of the classes in question, Saya and Emi were the only students and I was a young male and Saya was a young female (NOT that I had the guts, at that stage in my life, to even try anything with any girl).

Whatever. Whether due to ambition or hormones, at the beginning of my third class, I suggested that she would do better in intermediate class. When she protested, I put my foot down. The other students looked uncomfortable. Quietly, Emi left.

Two weeks later that November, I was transferred out of Iizuka. I believe Emi was at my going-away party. But honestly, I can’t remember.

On the train ride to my new assignment, I remember feeling bitter that I was being transferred right before Christmas, and I probably wouldn’t get any presents since no one in my new area would know me.

The above is a repost of a comment I made on Kevin Barney’s thread “Oy, What a Jerk I Was” over at BCC (see comment #37).


  1. Ahh, mugicha! Yum! (Er, that’s the name of the wheat tea for those of you not aware/obsessed with things Japanese.)

    Ouch, Seth. Isn’t twenty-twenty hindsight fun? I think I only recognize the good times of my life about five years later.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — November 4, 2006 @ 12:55 pm

  2. I served in Okinawa, Japan. I HATED Eikaiwa. I would’ve rather gone housing (there was no such thing as streeting on Okinawa. That may be different now.) I thought it was a big waste of time.

    If I could go serve in Japan again I would do several things differently:

    1. I wouldn’t sweat the small stuff. My trainer, whom I thought was a wanpaku apostate, always lived by this. I ran around that island for two years worried stiff that I was wasting the Lord’s time if a dinner appointment lasted three minutes longer than an hour. Foolish!

    2. I would befriend people. I went my whole mission in awe of the amazing, friendly, pleasant Okinawans but never took the time to really befriend anyone. I was too busy trying to “convert” the island. Turns out, I didn’t convert anyone (no one ever converts anyone else) and ended up having to leave a nation of people I loved but never took the time to really talk to.

    Missions are tramatic, plain and simple. I served honorably, have never had any regrets (except those listed above), but now ten years later, I have to be careful about how much time I devote to thinking about those two years. I am emotionally, socially, and mentally wounded by it.

    No one seems to talk about this too much. We hear about how a mission blesses a life and boy!!! has mine ever been blessed by it. We hear about how a poorly served mission will wreck a life (we could all hear a little less of that). But we never hear about how being absolutely wrenched from one lifestyle and, in a matter of moments, being forced to live another lifestyle; then, in two years being wrenched from that lifestyle and being forced back into, once again, a different lifestyle can really screw a person up.

    I was fine for the first five or so years after the mission, but slowly, I have come to have a real difficult time processing what exactly happened to me during those years.

    And man! I miss it. I miss it like you couldn’t believe. Funny thing is, though, I really don’t want to go back right now.


    Comment by John Cline — November 4, 2006 @ 12:57 pm

  3. Just one note:

    When I was in Japan (Nihon Chuo Dendobu, when I got there, renamed Nihon Kobe while I was there) there was no central heating in any apartment.

    Air conditioning: try a fan. Better yet, take your pants off. (Only around the apartment, never in public!)

    Flush toilets? Well, I think my second and later areas had one, but not the first. And, there was Suita (northern suburb of Osaka) with its famous second story “squat drop”. Don’t ask.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 4, 2006 @ 2:28 pm

  4. Great post, Seth. I never served a mission and neither did my husband, so I love to hear mission stories. I think you’re being a little hard on yourself, though.

    Comment by Susan M — November 4, 2006 @ 3:02 pm

  5. PDoE,

    Yes! I love that ashtray aftertaste!


    Great response. I must say that Eikaiwa has to be implemented correctly to serve its true purpose. As originally conceptualized, Eikaiwa is accompanied by a series of focused activities that are geared toward bringing people closer to accepting the discussions (although not overtly religious). Under Pres. Figuerres, about 80% of our investigator pool was coming from Eikaiwa. During his tenure (he left in 93 or 94…), mission baptisms tripled, and dwarfed every other mission in Japan.

    Unfortunately, once he left, the follow-up was lacking. Missionary discipline took a nosedive, the programs became unfocused, and convert levels settled back to normal (I believe it was once around 105 in one year for a mission of over 300 missionaries). I would hazard a guess that by 1996, Eikaiwa wasn’t really being implemented the way it was originally intended.


    Kobe mission got merged into the Fukuoka mission right after the big earthquake. You’re right about the “central” part of AC and heating. At the tail end of August though, a kind student in our English classes insisted on buying our apartment an electric AC and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The Japanese are increasingly moving away from the “squatters” and adopting more western-style toilets. I doubt you’ll find one in the home of anyone under 50 in Japan anymore.


    Like John, I treasure my painful memories just as much as my happy ones. Possibly even more.

    Comment by Seth R. — November 4, 2006 @ 4:38 pm

  6. John Cline: “I was fine for the first five or so years after the mission, but slowly, I have come to have a real difficult time processing what exactly happened to me during those years.”

    John, the traumas of my mission had life-changing effects on me too. My suggestion is to look towards the Savior and the Atonement. The Atonement covers for, pays for, and heals our wounds, regardless of how we got wounded. The Atonement covers for our mistakes, and it pays for those offenses committed against us. All we can do is repent the best we can (knowing we can’t possibly make restitution on many things), forgive others for their offenses against us (knowing that the Savior paid for their sins/errors/mistakes too), and do the best we can from this point on.

    I got off my mission 20 years ago, and I still sometimes stress over things from back then. But we just have to move on.

    Comment by Bookslinger — November 4, 2006 @ 4:58 pm

  7. You know what…

    Scratch those baptism statistics. I thought they were correct, but then I started wondering if they were yearly, or merely monthly. Now I’m just puzzled. I think they were yearly…

    Comment by Seth R. — November 4, 2006 @ 5:26 pm

  8. Seth:
    “Ashtray aftertaste?”

    How do you know what an ashtray tastes like? ;)

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — November 4, 2006 @ 6:47 pm

  9. I never served a mission, but I lived in Japan for 9 years. I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying. And, yeah, I like mugicha too! (You can buy it at Japanese stores in the States. We do!)

    Comment by meems — November 4, 2006 @ 7:56 pm

  10. Interesting thoughts, Seth.

    I can relate quite a bit. I have a few bitter memories of my own from my own self-absorbed times on the mission and it’s nice to know some people are willing to share some of their regrets and not just all their rosy successes.

    Comment by Bret — November 4, 2006 @ 10:53 pm

  11. “How do you know what an ashtray tastes like?”

    Wouldn’t you like to know…

    Comment by Seth R. — November 5, 2006 @ 8:01 am

  12. Seth, thanks for capturing the feel of small town missionary life in Japan so well. For some reason, the ample cast of eikaiwa students and eien kyudosha that greeted me in every town seemed to have one dimensional personalities – like sitcom characters. There is the guy who always says weird things from his English phrasebook, the giggling high school students, and the housewife that brings all the kids to the kids class.

    Now, for my regrettable eikaiwa moment. I transferred in to a small city on Shikoku late in the evening after long boat and train rides. My Japanese companion met me at the station and told me we were late for eikaiwa, so we would have to go straight to the church with my luggage. I suddenly realized that I would be completely in charge of eikaiwa since it was a 2-missionary town and my companion was Japanese. There were new students there that night, so I greeted the class and carefully explained how I would run things, and started organizing the students into levels. I was starting to feel proud of myself for being so organized on the fly.

    Towards the end of my introduction and explanations, a housewife with decent English skills rose her hand and said that she would like to explain something to the new students. She proceeded to say that after a few weeks we would pressure each of them to join our church, but they could just say no to that and could keep coming to eikaiwa. She then looked to me for confirmation. Caught off guard, I didn’t know what to say, which made me turn bright red for some reason – like some tacit secret had suddenly become explicit. I fumbled around and then blurted out that she was wrong and we would not ask anyone to join our church.

    I could tell that she was hurt and dejected that I contradicted her like that, and I ended up saying the wrong thing anyway. Needless to say, it took a few weeks for the awkward feeling to dissappear.

    I’m sorry Nakamura-san and the rest of the eikaiwa class.

    Comment by lief — November 5, 2006 @ 11:44 pm

  13. Wouldn’t you like to know…

    Actually, Seth, I think I shall live a long and healthy life not knowing.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — November 6, 2006 @ 7:20 pm

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