1,000-Yen Club, Entertainers and Evangelism

Jennifer Abegg

Hooked on the American TV show Little House on the Prairie, 13-year-old Keiko Okano watched the program faithfully. The faith of the characters captured the young Japanese girl's attention. She watched and listened as the Ingalls family prayed to a God she did not know. "I started imitating how they prayed," Keiko remembers.

The Ingallses also attended something called church on Sundays. This piqued the interest of the girl growing up in a neo-Buddhist culture -- one where people frequently attempt to dodge curses and appease their deceased ancestors by building family altars. The God in Little House seemed different, and Keiko wanted to visit a church to find out more.

She eventually passed a billboard about a church. Then a Japanese pastor and an American missionary invited her to a rally there. This is a chance for me to go and find out what people do at church, thought the teenager.

There an alcoholic-turned-pastor told his personal story of how he had encountered Jesus. Wow, this God can really change lives, she thought. So when she heard the good news-that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to free people from their bondage to sin -- she asked Him to be her Savior.

She didn't know that God would bring her full circle, and that the very ones who sparked her interest in Christ -- those in the entertainment industry -- would be the people she'd eventually point to Him.

But long before Keiko told others about Christ, she had to decide what to tell her father. Christianity is unpopular in Japan as it is (less than 2 percent of the 127 million people are Christians), but it was forbidden in her family.

"My dad said he would disown me if I were to go to church," she explains. So she kept her faith a secret. She sneaked out of the house for three years in order to attend church while her mom worked and her dad and brother slept.

When Keiko enrolled at the Tsuda School of Business, the young college student met some friendly Americans. In Japan for the summer, they said they were with an organization called Cru and needed a translator. So Keiko, who had begun learning English from watching Sesame Street, helped out.

The Americans explained how Keiko could be filled with the Holy Spirit and experience the fullness of the Christian life. "I had never heard that before," she says. At that point, she surrendered complete control of her life to Jesus.

Those students from Cru also encouraged the college student to talk to her dad rather than continue covertly attending church.

History stood against her. In the 16th century, Jesuit priests converted one third of Japan's population to Christianity. The government felt threatened and instituted a punishment for becoming a follower of Christ: death -- not just to the Christian, but to the entire family of a convert. Though that was hundreds of years ago, the stigma remained.

Yet Keiko told her father of her decision. She remembers that he allowed her to attend church but said, "I'm ashamed that there's a Christian in my family."

Not only was she a Christian, but she eventually decided to join the staff of Cru, working at the Japanese headquarters for more than 10 years.

After being away from that "secular stuff" for a time, she again attended concerts, enlisted in fan clubs and watched television -- all the while praying that God might reach the geinojin, or entertainers. She later begged God to send a missionary to tell them about Christ.

"Two years later I realized, That's me."

In 2001 she moved to downtown Tokyo, where most of the TV shows are filmed, to begin her full-time effort to reach the geinojin. Soon afterward, a friend introduced her to a TV producer, named Setsuko, who needed a translator.

Keiko befriended the non-Christian producer, and offered to have her over for dinner sometime. "Japan is so impersonal," explains Lau Ying Kheng, the wife of Cru's East Asia director, "but they love to come over and be cooked for."

Keiko kept her promise. She invited the producer over, along with a few other mutual friends. They talked and laughed as they ate the gyoza, or Chinese dumplings, that Keiko had prepared. At the beginning of the meal, she prayed for her guests.

Then Setsuko surprised everyone by asking to pay for dinner. "I want to pay, because I want to be invited back," explained the TV producer.

Eventually the small group of women determined that everyone would contribute 1,000 yen (about $10 US) per dinner, and they would meet at Keiko's regularly. They became known as the 1,000-Yen Club.

Keiko continues to open her home and life to these women so that they will eventually understand the gospel of Jesus.

Another friend, a rookie TV variety-show host, asked for help reaching out to her non-Christian acquaintances.

Keiko invited her and five other entertainers to her home, including writers and a singer. That night, they were having such a good time that everyone missed their train. So the men caught taxis and the women spent the night. Right before they went to sleep, Keiko asked one of her guests, "How can I pray for you?"

Miki answered by disclosing her struggles in the entertainment world. Her friend said she could relate, and explained how knowing Christ had personally helped.

"I knew that Miki was ready to receive Christ," recalls Keiko. So Keiko explained that Christ had died for her too.

Just after 3 a.m. Miki prayed and asked Jesus to be her Savior.

Keiko has helped other Christian entertainers lead their peers to Christ. Keiko met Yuko, a Japanese gospel-music singer, through a mutual friend, Naomi.

"I was singing these songs, gospel songs that talked about going to heaven," says Yuko, "but I never understood." One day Yuko asked Naomi, a Christian young in her faith, if she knew anyone who knew the Bible well. Naomi thought of Keiko and took Yuko to Keiko's that afternoon.

The Cru staff member used her Bible to explain the lyrics in the songs. "Before, I couldn't understand the Christian lyrics or what the Bible said," says Yuko, "but Keiko explained everything to me." That night she prayed with Keiko and started a personal relationship with Jesus.

Yuko's husband, also a musician, immediately noticed a difference in his wife, so Yuko explained the good news to him, and he asked Jesus to be his Savior as well.

"There's no one in Japanese musicians' lives who will tell them about Christ," says Yuko, "but I am so thankful that Keiko was there to tell me about Him."

"I believe the Lord gave me this mission," Keiko says. "He brought me back to where my spiritual journey started -- the entertainment world."

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