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Beyond Sister Act

Soul music rocks Japan

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The 2,000-seat concert hall shakes—literally—to the beat of giant taiko drums as 400 choir members belt out the words to “Kumbaya”: Come by here, my Lord. Come by here! We need you—right now!

During the concert, the youngest members sing “Jesus Loves Me.” A teenage hip-hop dance team explodes with energy, swirling, jumping and clapping to the rhythm of the music. They are part of the Hallelujah Gospel Family (HGF), a singing group that specializes in “full-throated, foot-stomping, hand-waving black gospel music.”1

None of the choir members are of African descent; in fact, all are Japanese. And 80 percent of them are not Christians. Approximately 30 of the singers belong to the Alliance Gospel Choir, led by international workers David and Vangi Kindervater. The choir consists of three choral groups from Kawaguchi and Sengendai Alliance churches and a community center in Laketown, where the Kindervaters hope to start a new church.

The June 19 performance in Kawaguchi was part of a summer concert series conducted by Ken and Bola Taylor, who lead the HGF, a network of 40 gospel choirs with a total membership of about 800 people from around Japan. It is one of many such choirs springing up in record numbers across Japan and among Japanese people in the United States.

“The gospel music boom in Japan (‘black gospel,’ as it is known here) was kicked off by the movie Sister Act,” says David. “I assume Whoopi Goldberg is aware of the craze, but I wonder if she knows God has used the movie to save many!”

David and Vangi have led gospel music workshops at Japan Alliance churches for at least a year. “Japanese love music, like anyone else, but music here tends to be very by-the-note,” says David. “Improvisation (jazz, blues) is uncommon—the whole culture and personality of Japan is generally very formal. Gospel music is very different from anything here, and the Japanese fell in love with it.”

What started as a completely secular phenomenon became an open door for a gospel witness in a country where less than 1 percent of the people are believers. Music schools and community centers picked up on the fad and began adding gospel music to their curriculums. “International workers saw this happening and realized they were missing a great chance,” says David. “The Japanese directors didn’t know what the songs were about and probably didn’t care; it was just about the beat. So, workers began to teach it. It provides a completely natural way to share the gospel. The Japanese singers ask the questions: ‘What is sin? Who is Jesus? What is so ‘happy’ about the day he washed my sins away?’ We have the perfect opportunity to answer those questions in each rehearsal.”

Of the 800 people that constitute the HGF, probably 600-plus are not Christians and have not been to a church—“until they joined a choir,” says David. “Japanese love the music, and many of them realize that it is not only the beat. Many of them cry as they sing. They tell us they feel ‘something,’ but they don’t know what it is. We know it is the Holy Spirit, speaking to their hearts.”

The Taylors, who serve with WorldVenture, started HGF 10 years ago. Having been professional entertainers in their native Philippines before becoming Christians, they use their experience to train Christian workers such as the Kindervaters to direct gospel choirs. “Through this surprising and improbable ministry, thousands of Japanese—one of the most difficult people groups in the world to evangelize—are now regularly being exposed to the good news, and a steady number of choir members are becoming Christians,” notes WorldVenture on its Web site.

“We need to understand what is happening here,” Ken Taylor said in an interview with ASSIST News. “Although this is an American genre that’s hit Japan, this is an indigenous movement born of the Spirit of God in Japan. It’s the Japanese non-Christians singing. They are not African-Americans coming to Japan to sing, but these are the Japanese who want to sing, and somehow, God is putting it in their hearts to sing. It is just so wild.”

One of the more recent developments in Japanese gospel is the addition of traditional taiko drums. The vigorous and rhythmic pounding seems a fitting accompaniment to the lively music that has attracted so many Japanese.

“The Japanese are wonderful people,” says David, “but they seldom let their hair down, even with friends. The stress level is very high. One of the few times when they really seem to let go is when they are singing gospel music.” Terrance Kennedy, an African-American gospel music instructor at Memorial Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, believes that the Japanese are drawn to black gospel because it allows them to be uninhibited and spontaneous. “They know how to sing,” he said in a New York Times article about the phenomenon. “Japanese are raised learning music, so it’s not a case of teaching them to hold a note. For them, gospel is about learning how to sing freely.”2

The Times article featured the testimony of Ms. Ichioka, a soprano who moved to New York from Japan after giving up on her dream of becoming a jazz singer because she grew tired of hanging out in dark, smoky nightclubs. Her discovery of gospel music persuaded her to give singing another try, “this time marrying gospel with jazz rhythms.” Now a student at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, Ms. Ichioka says that “it is impossible to sing about Jesus without eventually becoming a believer.” Although she hasn’t been baptized, “I think that now deep down inside, I am a Christian, a child of God,” she said.

During one of the Kindervaters’ workshops, the choir members said, “Oh, and by the way, please feel free to teach us about the God we are singing about.” For Alliance workers who have labored faithfully among this resistant people group for many years, such openness to the gospel is a welcome answer to prayer. “There is a spiritual battle being waged for the millions in Japan,” David and Vangi have said. After centuries of resistance among the Japanese people, the Holy Spirit is using African-American gospel music to draw many Japanese to Jesus.

It is something only God could have dreamed up.

1 Todd Crowell, “Local Love of Gospel Music Stronger than Ever,” Stars and Stripes, June 3, 2010.

2 Nichole M. Christian, “For Japanese, Gospel Music Sets Spirits a Bit Freer,” The New York Times, September 18, 2000.

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