Aaron Elder and five other college students hurry along the streets of Osaka, Japan, rushing to make the 11:24 train. If they miss it, they'll miss their connecting trains, ultimately delaying their arrival on campus. They hurry because unquestionably the train leaves at 11:24. Always.
Time is very important to the Japanese, especially on the trains. In April, a railway accident near Osaka killed over 100 people, allegedly because the driver was 90 seconds behind schedule and was speeding to catch up.
Chiku-taku ("tick-tock"), they say in Japan.
For the 18 students spending the summer in Osaka, time also is a concern, but not because of the trains. They are in Japan for only six weeks with Cru (called "GetLife" in Osaka), and they want to leave a lasting impact on the country.
"I wasn't sure what God would do," says Aaron, a senior at the University of Idaho, "but I thought it would be really cool to have a large group of people hear the gospel at one time."
In Japan, while the fast-paced society has moved quickly, Christianity has progressed very slowly. Less than 1 percent of the nation claims to be Christian, and to bring even one Japanese person to faith in Christ can often take years.
"The Japanese way is to make friends, but it's very difficult to know what they're really thinking inside," says Cru staff member Mark Oh. "It takes time and conversation to get to the bottom of what they really think."
But Aaron and the other students trust God will use them, so every day they visit college campuses to meet students, make friends and talk about Christ. All over the world, similar "summer projects" help create ministries where nothing has existed before, or give a boost to current Cru ministries.
Headed for Kwansei Gaukuin University, Aaron and his teammates make it to the station just in time for the 11:24 local train. The bullet train, the second-fastest in the world (next to one in France), whizzes past at around 180 miles per hour on its way to Tokyo. It, too, is on a tight schedule.
The train passes tightly packed apartments, restaurants and offices, and Aaron occasionally glances out the window at the green hills beyond the buildings.
His hometown in Washington claims a population of only 500, and is surrounded by rolling hills and mountains. Osaka has 9 million citizens. Japan's population is nearly half that of the United States, but is squeezed into an area slightly smaller than California.
Sitting with Aaron on the train are two of his fraternity brothers from Theta Chi at the University of Idaho. In 1993, a Cru partnership began between Osaka and that university, along with schools from surrounding states.
Almost every summer since then, students have journeyed from the Pacific Northwest to spend the summer in Osaka. This year, the majority of the project is from Idaho, including Aaron's twin brother, Adam, but some students are from New York, Georgia and Iowa.
Over the years, the summer projects have helped create ministries on several campuses in Osaka, but one campus they had never visited was Osaka Gakuin University. This summer Aaron's group visits the campus twice a week. Early on, Aaron met freshman Masahiro Inagaki in a classroom set aside for students who want to practice English. Quiet but interested, Masahiro began hanging out with Aaron whenever the group came to campus.
The other campus they visit is Kwansei Gakuin University, and they usually arrive just before lunch. They have to switch trains three times, but they've learned to use the commute effectively, reading or sending text messages by phone to their new Japanese friends. Some students have even learned to sleep on the train like many Japanese do -- chin to chest, head bobbing with the motion of the train.
On campus, Aaron's team also uses their lunches effectively, since they are often the best time to talk with students. Sitting down with new friends to meals of curry and rice or ramen noodles, the Americans have all learned to use chopsticks, but not at the level of the Japanese.
"Sometimes we'll be eating with a Japanese student and they'll get up and get us a spoon," sophomore Nick Hiebert says with a laugh. Using chopsticks might be slower than using a spoon, but just like ministry, the team uses the techniques that work best in Japan.
Chiku-taku. Chiku-taku. Time keeps moving.
After lunch one day, Aaron and Nick introduce themselves to two students. They easily discuss majors and hobbies. Third-year student Kazuhiro Kobayashi mentions that he likes movies, and Aaron asks if they've seen The Passion of the Christ.
They both have, but think it's fiction. Aaron and Nick talk to them about the Bible, and the Japanese students surprisingly ask genuine questions.
"A lot of the Japanese students have never thought about anything spiritual," says Idaho student Luke Evans, "like where they come from or what happens after we die. So when we ask them questions about it, they say, 'Whoa, I never think about these things.'"
As Aaron's team meets more students around campus, they invite them to play cards on Thursdays, working hard to create a sense of community.
"Community is central to the Japanese culture," says Cru staff member Cam Caughlin, who has spent the last 9 years in Osaka. "We have non-Christian students who will hang out with us for years, and over time, they come to realize, 'Hey, this isn't just a nice group of people, but there's a reason for why they act the way they do, and it has to do with this person of Jesus I've been hearing about.'"
The first Thursday, over 20 students show up to play cards, and there are barely enough decks for everyone to play. They also have more games on Friday night, when the other American students invite friends from other campuses as well.
Following the Japanese custom, everyone removes their shoes at the door, and the entryway is soon an overflowing pile of soles. Several Japanese Christian students are also there, hopefully building friendships that will last after the Americans have gone.
"Students need to meet other Japanese Christians," says Mark Oh, "otherwise Christianity is just a foreign thing and never a Japanese thing."
It is also important to help the Japanese Christians, like senior Yuji Hidemura, grow in their faith. At Kwansei Gakuin University, Aaron and Yuji began meeting together and talking about how to live as a Christian.
One afternoon they talk about the Holy Spirit, as Aaron speaks clearly, without contractions, to help the communication process. Yuji asks a practical question about a girl he met from Russia.
"She's not a Christian, but she's really cute," Yuji laughs. "I want to be sure that I want what God wants." He emphasizes, "Of course, God's wish is that she would know Him, and I'm sure that I met her for a reason, so how should I act now?"
"That's why it is important to spend time with God," says Aaron. "The longer you read the Bible, pray and want to follow God, the clearer those decisions will be." Yuji's dish of ice cream melts as he listens. Aaron's a fellow pilgrim on a spiritual journey, not the one with all the answers, so he adds, "There will never be a point where I stop making mistakes, but I can stop making the same mistakes I made when I was younger."
When the project ends, Yuji comes to the students' goodbye party, along with about 80 other friends they have met.
Mark Oh explains the gospel message, bringing to reality Aaron's hope of having a large group of people hear the gospel at once. In the audience is Aaron's friend Masahiro, a student from the campus where there had never been a ministry before. Although Masahiro is not yet a Christian, he may continue to be involved with Cru.
But for Aaron and the rest of the students, time has run out. "It's very difficult to leave once the process has started, once you've made a friend," says Aaron, "especially knowing that it often takes a long time for a Japanese person to receive Christ."
Some of the students may come back the next year, or inspire some of their friends to come. Chiku-taku, Chiku-taku. There is much work to be done in Japan, and no time to waste.