How Gospel Music Became All the Rage in Japan

Ray Sidney leads a gospel choir at Grace Brethren Church. (Andrew Silk/Genesis Photos)

Hips sway. Hands clap. Arms wave in the air, heels bounce, and faces lift up wide smiles as the choir belts out, “You are good, and Your mercy endures forever.” The audience smiles as it listens. Irresistibly, a toe starts tapping along to the beat, shoulders begin loosening, and heads begin bopping.

That’s the magic of gospel music. A synergy of vocals, facial language, and body movement, a genre of Christian music dating back to the late 19th century, when African-American churches in the U.S. South fused classic hymns with traditional African-American spirituals and beats.

Except this particular choir was neither black nor Christian. It consisted of about two dozen Japanese college students praising God in a music room at Aoyama Gakuin University, a prestigious school in Tokyo—and only one student called himself a Christian.

One soft-spoken choir member, 20-year-old Yuri Nakajima, said she first heard of gospel music through her mother, a big fan of the 1992 movie Sister Act. When Nakajima saw Whoopi Goldberg and a group of nuns rock to a gospel rendition of “I Will Follow Him” in that movie, she too fell in love with the music style: “Everybody singing was so emotional, so excited. I felt that everyone was enjoying themselves.” She said she doesn’t have “a clear image of God,” but the lyrics of gospel songs uplift her. She finds the words “so warm, so kind.”

Ever since Sister Act and its sequel became surprise hits in Japan, the gospel music bug has bitten its citizens—so much so that local community centers began offering gospel singing lessons. The gospel boom was reaching its peak when a community center hired American missionary Ken Taylor, director of Nakajima’s choir, to teach gospel music classes.

At the time, Taylor, a former jazz musician, had been doing church-planting work in Tokyo for three years. What he saw at the community center amazed him: The room was packed, and about 100 more people had signed up on a waiting list. Millennial housewives and elderly grandmothers were enthusiastically singing, “Oh happy day! Jesus washed my sins away!”—and not a single person in the group was a Christian.

“Who would have thought this would come out of Sister Act? This was not something I was trying to manufacture,” Taylor recalled when I met him 17 years later at a Tokyo Starbucks. “It was one of those things where it was so obvious that God was saying, ‘Here’s an open door for you.’” And he wondered, “Where is the church in this?”

In a nation whose population is less than 1 percent evangelical Christian, Japan’s churches couldn’t attract even a handful of people to attend their free outreach events, yet these non-Christians were paying 2,500 yen apiece (about $22) to worship for 90 minutes. That’s when something clicked for Taylor: Ah, of course—Japanese culture follows a cyclical ritual of obligatory gift-giving. Give something for free, and the recipient feels obligated to give back. When churches offer music lessons for free, that’s a burden the Japanese are less likely to accept.

So Taylor did the same at his church plant in Tokyo: He charged people a small fee to attend a 10-week gospel music workshop. And people started coming. Other pastors took notice and asked Taylor to help them start their own choirs. In 2000 Taylor and his wife Bola (she died of cancer in 2015) co-founded Hallelujah Gospel Family (HGF), a ministry that helps churches start gospel choir groups. Today, churches all across Japan from Hokkaido to Nagasaki host more than 60 gospel choirs. About 80 percent of the 1,500 members of those choirs are non-Christian, or “not-yet-Christians,” as Taylor calls them.

Taylor trains all the music directors, but otherwise, local church leaders are responsible for caring for the choir members. Taylor refuses to help start a choir unless a pastor or elder actively participates in it. He wants churches to be not just meeting spaces but living communities that build lasting relationships with the choir members.

Evangelistic strategies that have worked in places like India or Brazil don’t always work among the culturally homogenous, super-polite Japanese, Taylor said. Japanese appear Westernized but hold fast to their national traditions, and although they’re not antagonistic toward Christianity, they see it as a part of Western culture. Japanese also tend to build relationships through existing social groups, not one-on-one encounters with strangers. That’s why gospel choirs are actually drawing unchurched people, Taylor said: “We need to meet them where they’re at.”

At an HGF choir, rehearsals may include a prayer or mini-sermon from the church pastor. Each choir member gets a songbook that explains what the lyrics mean, offers tips on how to pronounce certain difficult words, and gives devotionals with Bible passages. Once a year, HGF holds a combined concert in which all the choirs across the network sing together onstage. This July in Tokyo, 400 choir members sang for a 900-person audience. Over the years, many choir members have professed faith in Christ, along with family members, and others attend Bible studies and Sunday services at the church where they take their lessons.

THAT’S THE POWER OF MUSIC, said musician-missionary Ray Sidney, who recently traveled to Japan and the Philippines to teach and perform gospel music. He says he can preach on the streets in Japan and people walk right past him, but when he sings those same words with snapping fingers and stomping feet, people stop and listen. He and his gospel team Firm Soundation were there on the stage with HGF in Tokyo this summer bopping and hopping to gospel music with 1,300 Japanese.

Sidney says they’re planting seeds: “You can only say ‘Jesus’ so many times before something changes in your life, because that’s a powerful name to call upon. There’s a reason they feel so emotional when they sing gospel—there is power in the name of Jesus.”

Sidney was the principal of a private Christian school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles back in 2004 when he first met Taylor and one of his HGF choirs. A teacher had asked Sidney if a black gospel Japanese choir could come sing for the school kids, and Sidney recalls asking, “What did you just say? Because that does not make sense.”

Now in his 50s, Sidney has been trilling along to gospel music ever since he was a 5-year-old sitting on his mother’s lap during her church choir recitals. The music had always been part of his lifestyle as an African-American Christian growing up in LA, but he had never heard of “black gospel”—it was just “gospel” to him—and he had no idea that people sang gospel music in Japan.

And so he was “blown away” one February afternoon when Taylor and a group of about 20 Japanese folks hopped off the metro in Watts and sang traditional gospel music for his students. He was further shocked to discover that most of these Japanese singers weren’t Christians. When Taylor invited him to Japan to teach the Japanese how to sing gospel, Sidney, who had never traveled farther than Mexico, thought, “Wow, that’s a long way from home.” But as he prayed about it, he says, he remembered the “visions and dreams” he’d had about “all nations” and “crossing seas”—things he says didn’t make sense until then.

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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine, Sophia Lee