by Willi Baclao
February 1, 6:00 AM. A chilly Sunday morning. The sun is up but the temperature reading is stuck at 1°C. Snowfall hit the Tokyo area two days ago. Mounds of snow litter the streets, cold and slippery. We could have chosen to stay curled up in bed. But, no. It’s Sunday, and our Kyoukai (Church) obligation and bonding time must go on. We are off to a two-hour drive for Ibaraki Prefecture, to lead the singing in the English language Mass with the Catholic community in Toride. Yes, singing in the choir is our Church obligation and bonding time every Sunday.
Parishioners fondly call us “Akabane Choir,” perhaps because most of us actively take part in the ministries of the Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Akabane, Tokyo, but I don’t think it is an official name. I feel that we are more like acquaintances brought together by our shared love for music and hunger for spiritual nourishment, and later on became friends. We do not deny that this is one of our survival mechanisms in this stressful Tokyo work-like-a-dog environment. It is not much different from our occasional six-hour karaoke bonding time to sing stress away after six days of work during the week. What sets it apart from a merely “gimik” is the element of witnessing effected by that sharing of musical talents with the Church.
The road trip to the Catholic communities outside Tokyo is long and boring. To keep ourselves awake after praying the Rosary, we share faith stories, talk about Facebook posts, crack jokes, take selfies, rehearse voice blending for some songs, and share each other’s bento (packed food). Almost always, Ate Maria prepares boiled kamote and roasted peanuts. Ate Lea shares her boiled eggs, besides driving the car, and plays the piano during the Mass. Perennial vocalists Ate Julie, Ate Linda, and Emon make sure voice harmony is in place. Ate Ghigie takes care of the technical stuff like projectors, usbs, and selfie monopods. I prepare the Powerpoint slides for the Mass songs and responses, and play the guitar during the Mass. Indeed, everybody has a role to play and something to share.
From Toride, Ibaraki Prefecture, we are off to another prefecture for the 3 o’clock English-Tagalog language Mass in Saint Peter’s Church in Kawaguchi, Saitama. An hour later, we are off to our last stop, the Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Akabane, Tokyo.
The Mass in Akabane Church is celebrated in Nihongo. Our choir leads a mix of Japanese and gaijin (foreigner) community in singing the solemn Nihongo liturgical songs. For us, this is symbolic of the Filipino faithful’s witnessing of a lively and sharing Church. Despite our thickly gaijin-accented Nihongo, we fervently share our music with the Japanese faithful. Whenever we sing Filipino liturgical songs during the Communion, we give witness on the Christian faith inculturated in an Asian nation’s psyche. Christianity has been in Japan since the 1600’s, yet it has never been embedded in the Japanese popular culture. Until now, less than 1% of Japan is Christian. I feel that we Filipinos have so much to share to the Japanese people about embracing the Christian faith.
Come August, mornings will have been extremely humid and oven-hot, with temperatures that could reach as high as 40°C. Summertime in Tokyo is most uncomfortable, no thanks to its combined heat and humidity. However, our Sunday Kyoukai (Church) obligation goes on. We need it to keep us spiritually nourished as well as rooted in our Filipino Christian identity.
William “Willi” Baclao is an English language teacher in Tokyo. He has been in Japan since 2012. Prior to this, he worked as a guidance counselor in the Ateneo de Manila High School. He is a former Claretian seminarian. Now in Japan, he serves as a guitarist for the all-Filipino choir in the Catholic Church in Akabane, Kita-ku, Tokyo.