Saturday, April 28, 2012


In 2009 I had the great opportunity to go with my dad to Japan. It was an amazing time to see such beautiful country it also meant completing an interesting historical circle as I have now visited Pearl Harbor, Poston (where my family was interred during the war) and Hiroshima. Those are probably the most significant World War II historical locations in terms of how they influenced my family. We also saw a great deal of Tokyo which is now my favorite mega city in the world. But that all pales in comparison to seeing the Nakamura house in Yanai (actually Hiroamachi before it was incorporated).
A hopefully brief family history: the Meiji emperor decides to modernize Japan opening up opportunities for Japanese men to emigrate to other lands to seek their fortune. In the obscure town of Hiroamachi my grandfather and his brother move to Hawaii and then the San Joaquin Valley in California to farm. They are the first generation immigrants known as Issei. Their eldest children, born in America, are sent to Japan for schooling under the assumption that the families will move back to Japan. They will be later known as Kibei. When the Great Depression hits, my father, a young boy at the time, finds out he has three siblings who lived in Japan. His generation will be known as Nisei. Because of the hard economic times the entire family is reunited in America. His cousin, Shigeno remains in Japan to take care of her grandmother. She remains lifelong friends with her cousin, Fusaye, my father's eldest sister. Fast forward to 1941, Pearl Harbor is attacked by Japanese armed forces. Out of fear and racism my father's family is interred in Poston Relocation Center. Ironically, my Kibei uncles serve in the Military Intelligence arm of the US armed forces as they are fluent in the Japanese language and customs. I have one uncle, my aunt's husband, serves in the 442nd in Europe. The US drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrenders and my family is allowed to return home. In the 50s my grandfather becomes a US citizen claiming it to be one of the proudest days of his life. I barely knew him but know that this was one amazing man. I am so very proud that I can be considered his grandson.
Fast forward to 2009. Asking my father, he says that visiting Japan is on his "bucket list".  I contact my cousin Glenn who has transcribed my grandfather's biography after visiting Yanai in the 90s. He give me the information to find the Nakamura house. Armed with this small amount of information we travel to Japan where we visit Tokyo and Hiroshima. These being very urban cities, you can find English speakers everywhere. Not so in Yanai. Luckily, my dad said that their dialect of Japanese was much easier for him to understand in Yanai - obviously the dialect hasn't changed much since my grandfather left.

This red paper crane is the symbol in Yanai. I took this at the Yanai train station. Anyway, armed with only a street name we found a cabbie who dropped us off on the street with no idea how to find the Nakamura house. We were fortunate to find a kind woman who knew the next door neighbors. After explaining our situation, she said "Roots". I think she got the message. She drove us there and I was able to see the house that my grandfather was born in. I guess this was my "Kunta Kinte, I found you!" moment. The neighbor soon hooked us up with Shigeno who still lived there along with her daughter Michiko and her husband.

Right away I knew that Michiko was my relative. She had the exact same mannerisms and energy level as many of my cousins. I know it meant a lot to my dad to meet a cousin he barely knew existed. I'm blown away to think that I know her brothers, but have never ever met her. Just to think that she was born a US citizen but the winds of fate would have her end up living her entire life in Japan. I got to see pictures of my uncles and aunt as young children. I was told how much I look like my uncle Howard. I saw a beautiful picture of my aunt standing next to a deer in Miyajima - she looked exactly like my niece Melanie. I saw picture of relative who served in the Japanese army (just think that my relatives were fighting against each other).
Our all too short visit ended and we bid our goodbye. Michiko gave us a traditional Japanese bow (she got on her hands and knees and bowed to us - wow!). We later went to Miyajima and petted the deer just as my aunt did as a little girl.
What I take from this is that we all have a history. I am so fortunate that the major events of the past centuries have greatly shaped my life. I am so very proud to be the grandson of Sojuro Nakamura as well as the son of Michiyuki Nakamura. My roots run back to a small town on the Inland Sea and a house like so many others in Yanai. Even deeper is the fact that the Extraordinary is at work in my life. I have a family history and I got the joy to share some of it come to life for my dad. He said that this was the highlight for him and that he got to check this off his bucket list. I know also that God was gracious enough to bring so much goodness to me through it. So I hope that all of us can live out our "Roots" moment and praise Him who provides us with a legacy we all can savor.

Monday, April 16, 2012

No Religion Bad

I am blessed to know so many people who are in the ministry. College friends (Mark Melkonian, Mike Norris, Troy Turley) , former students in the youth department (Bryan Prats, Jason Helveston), mentors (John Helveston), and friends (Mark Brackney, Wes Alford, Phil Fishbach) I have encountered along the way. What is universal is the feeling that the harvest is few no matter how ripe in number there are workers.  Obviously, this isn't what God's Word will tell us. When I look at my testimony, I see in my ancestral past the one thing that hits the truth that with God, you just never know what your impact is. I hope that for all who are in ministry, this is an encouragement.
First, I became a Christian largely through a youth group that I attended in my middle school years. My parents who are Christians took me there and it was clear that God ordained a path for me to meet the Eternal and have that all too beautiful life change that only He can do. What you can trace this back to is that my dad was allowed to go to youth group in his younger days.The interesting thing is that my grandfather, an immigrant and life long Buddhist from Japan was OK with this. Why would he be OK with this? His response was to the effect, "No religion bad." Reading my family history I found out that some unknown Methodist missionary visited the fishing village of Hiroamachi on the Inland Sea in Japan. His name is lost in the annals of time. His immediate impact was probably minimal as Japan is one of the most difficult places to evangelize. But there must be something powerful in how this missionary behaved. Obviously, he carried the Message that never ceases to leave an impact. It clearly spoke enough to my grandfather since he was OK with my dad attending Sunday School and going to youth camp.
The cool thing is that I receive the benefit of this man's faith. Who knows if anyone remembers his name. Who knows if even his descendants even know of his impact. But his faith has made a difference. So here I am living in the Knoxville, TN saved by the Amazing Grace of an amazing God and the faithfulness of a nineteenth century missionary to Japan. My deepest gratefulness goes to this missionary who probably toiled in a difficult environment with possibly little fruit for him to see. But his impact touched me. One thing I will do when we get to heaven is to find this man and thank him for his faithfulness.
So to all who toil in some times difficult and trying circumstances in ministry. I say keep it up. Perhaps even those who don't come to the Savior will end up saying their own version of "No religion bad," and it impacts someone you never personally encounter. In the end we'll all be very thankful and glorify the amazing work the God is doing.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Good Friday, The Extraordinary And The Tail Of The Dragon

I'm sure this will sound to some like a cheap excuse to ride my motorcycle, but I hope that you can see that God really is in all things and whatever way you find wonder in life, God is there. Anyway, having Good Friday off from work I went out on my very favorite motorcycle ride.
I head out onto Highway 11 in a section known as Dixie Lee Highway. Nice sweepers lead you to the north side of Lenoir City. From there head out on TN 321 and some amazing views. First you cross the Tennessee River and then onto Maryville and direct views of the East Tennessee foothills. This day, they were a deep green from all of the spring rain we've had. Past Maryville you head up to the Foothills Parkway. This stretch of road in of itself is a great motorcycle ride. Big sweepers with lots of turnouts to enjoy the views. On one side, there's the Tennessee Valley and on the other, the foothills and valleys that make up the West side of the Smoky Mountains. This is a unique and scenic area that one has to be there to appreciate. My analogy for this part of the ride is getting to have Luther Vandross open up for the Commodores: great in of itself and a taste of even greater things to come. BTW, I did get to see that very act one time in my youth. Pretty darn great show!

Well, after the Parkway comes a short ride along Chilhowee Lake (what a view!). This leads to the main attraction: Deals Gap, aka the Tail Of The Dragon. 318 curves in 11 miles. A motorcycle riders dream ride. People from around the world come to ride this road and for good reason. It requires good to great command of your motorcycle, total concentration and the chance to have a ton of fun! My friend once described it as riding a roller coaster on your motorcycle.

I rode the Dragon several times on Good Friday and as with every time I ride it, something quite spiritual happens there. You see, riding a motorcycle requires all of your physical body to maneuver the bike and this road requires total concentration. Along with that the twists and turn gives one an almost "oneness" with the bike, the road, and your mind. For some reason, God in His greatness likes to meet me there in a deep spiritual way. I can't seem to describe it, but it's almost euphoric yet peaceful. In my mind I ask, "Is that you God?" I get an emphatic "Yes, I'm right here!" I deeply smile when this happens.
I think all of my life I've desperately tried to find ways to really connect with God. It's a longing born out of the depths of hurt that I experienced through out life. It's part of the deep regrets one has for all of the past. Don't we all want to just be deeply loved by the Father?
My friend and pastor Mike Brackney asked when have we ever truly experienced God? I know that there are many different places in my life I've had that all too fleeting feeling, one of the deepest is on a windy road in the hills on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. What I've learned is that in all things my great Heavenly Father is there. Perhaps in some places deeper than others, but my encouragement to you is to find the One who deeply loves you in your journey in life. I think God desires for us to find Him in surprising places and when we do find Him, I know that He is smiling.
So if you see me out on the Dragon, know that I'm not alone and also you'll know why there's a smile on my face.