On April 22nd, I left for a two-week journey to get away from distractions and to spend some time alone with God. As the destination for my adventure, I had chosen Kōzu-shima: a small, volcanic island 170 km (106 miles) south of Tokyo, in the Pacific Ocean.
I first heard of the island about one year ago from a customer at my job. At the time, I was working in a call center but was getting ready to hand in my resignation in order to attend a YWAM DTS from September; I had been overworking so I had decided to quit my job early, in July, so that I could spend the next two months recuperating—hopefully even getting to go on a short mini-vacation—before the school started. My job involved having telephone English conversations with customers and we could speak about virtually any topic, so I used every opportunity I could get to learn about different vacation spots across Japan. It was in one of these conversations that I learned about Kōzu-shima.
I Googled the island and the photos that came up were stunning. Crystal-clear aqua waters. A magnificent volcano rising straight out of the sea. A white cross standing against the blue sky… “Wait, what?” I thought. I figured that a cliche worship slide background had somehow snuck into the search results. A few minutes of research, however, corrected my assumption: the cross was, in fact, on Kōzu-shima and it was a memorial to a Christian woman named Julia-Otaa.
Julia-Otaa was born in the late 17th century near Pyongyang. Captured and brought to Japan during Hideyoshi’s invasion of the Korean Peninsula, she had been adopted and introduced to Christianity by the Christian daimyo Yukinaga Konishi before ending up in the Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu’s harem. In 1612, when Ieyasu banned Christianity from Japan, he pleaded with Julia-Otaa that she should give up her faith but far from giving up her faith, she kept on leading the men and women of Ieyasu’s court to Christ.1 In the end, Ieyasu was forced to exile her to Kōzu-shima, which was, at the time, a penal colony. However, Julia-Otaa cheerfully endured the privations of life on this remote and then indigent island. She served the islanders selflessly, and never stopped preaching the gospel.
Learning about Julia-Otaa only made me more interested in Kōzu-shima. While the main reason I wanted to visit the island was still in order to get rest, it was now clear to me that my vacation should have an added spiritual element.
However, in the end, I had overbooked myself last summer and was compelled to postpone the adventure. Then DTS started. The school kept me so busy that, for a while, thoughts about wanting to visit the island were driven into a distant corner of my mind.
During the last couple of months of my DTS, I sunk into a depression. While I often have to battle feelings of gloom during the winter months, this past winter I was also struggling through the break-up of a deep and very serious relationship.2 And this break-up was, in turn, digging up some deep identity wounds. After my DTS graduation, as I continued to struggle through depression, whether this truly was the case or not, I felt judged whenever I made myself honest and vulnerable to others: it seemed like people always suspected some hidden sin as the underlying cause for the misery I was going through. So I distanced myself from most of my friends and felt even more miserable and alone as a result. Exhausted from my unceasing heaviness of heart, I found it increasingly difficult to fulfill my various ministry responsibilities. I often felt sick, probably as a result of all of my stress.
But to top it all off, I also started feeling very confused, spiritually. It was not that I was confused about any one doctrine—I was and still am solidly convinced of my beliefs (which could be characterized as being both evangelical and charismatic). It is difficult to describe my sense of confusion at the time but the best I can do is to say that I was confused about the flavor that Christianity is supposed to possess. Christianity, as a body of beliefs, contains many paradoxes. Now, I had the faith to embrace the orthodoxy which these paradoxes constitute—but I was clueless as to what the orthopraxy which arises from these paradoxes might look like. What general atmosphere of life and faith is congruous with the paradoxical beliefs which we hold? How do you force your way into the Kingdom of God (Luke 16:16) while entering into a Sabbath for those who believe and rest from works (Hebrews 4:9-10)? How do you follow the Apostle Paul’s charge to be rejoicing always (Philippians 4:4) while simultaneously following his example in having unceasing anguish in your heart for the people who still don’t know God (Romans 9:2)? What flavor does your life possess when you embrace these apparent contradictions? I had no idea how to answer this question.
All of these things came together to make me feel hopelessly confused. While DTS had opened my eyes to great blessings, the sadness and ambiguity I found myself in made it impossible for me to confidently appropriate these blessings. I found myself more and more frequently assaulted by overwhelming feelings of despair.
It was in the midst of this anxiety and depression that my desire to go to Kōzu-shima resurfaced with a vengeance. Though I had previously wanted to rest on the island, I now wanted to fight for healing. I wanted to strive with God for answers. And Kōzu-shima seemed like the perfect place for this kind of wrestling because it was the place where Julia-Otaa wrestled.
If anyone had had a reason to throw up their hands in resignation, it was Julia-Otaa. But by all accounts, she had stayed hopeful to the very end. She did not allow her adverse circumstances to rob her of her fruitfulness. She had faced her obstacles and leaped over them; I wanted to learn to overcome my spiritual adversities in the same place in which she had gained her victory.
And so, I prepared myself for my pilgrimage. I gathered all of the necessary equipment as I decided that I would be camping on the beach—I wanted to get away from any potential distractions. And I bought myself a cheap outreach Bible to read through and mark extensively. I would return to Tokyo only after I had read through the entire Bible. I would come back home only after God had answered me.
1. Tanenobu Hara is one notable member of Ieyasu’s court who came to faith as a result of Julia-Otaa’s evangelism. In 1612, when Ieyasu banned Christianity from Japan, Hara was forced into hiding but continued preaching the gospel. When he was captured two years later but still refused to abandon his faith, the enraged Ieyasu had him hamstrung, all of his fingers and toes cut off, and a cross branded on his forehead. Hara, however, continued in his dogged covert evangelism, operating out of a leper’s home for nine more years before being captured and burned at the stake. Before dying, he is reported as having said, “I have endured all of these sufferings in order to prove the truth of Christ. My mangled hands and feet are the proof of His truth.” I mention his story because of the great impact it had on me. We, Japanese Christians, have a deep, rich spiritual heritage of discipleship which we would do well to remember.
2. For the record, our break-up was not the result of a impulsive emotional choice but a careful Spirit-guided decision. My ex-girlfriend and I are still on speaking terms—in fact, we still pray for each other. I can say that the respect that I have for my ex-girlfriend has not diminished in the least. I harbor no bitterness towards her as I believe she did nothing deserving of my bitterness. And I believe, or at least hope that she could say the same about me. We are now walking down our own individual paths of discipleship.