Bazaar Cafe was created in 1998 by the United Church of Christ Japan as a way to employ socially marginalized people and foster a community. Their business cards state: “We welcome people from any country, language or cultural background, sexuality, age, ability…Come to Bazaar Cafe, enjoy yourself and feel at home.”
I volunteer at Bazaar Cafe on Saturdays. My typical day consists of washing dishes, eating free lunch with the rest of the workers, making a trip to the grocery store, helping with food preparation, eating more free food, and playing the piano for private events. I start work at 1 pm, and by around 5 or 6 pm I start thinking maybe I should go back to my homestay for dinner. Then I end up staying another 3 or 4 hours because there’s something interesting going on, and I’m enjoying my time with my friends at Bazaar Cafe.
My favorite memory of Bazaar Cafe is from my first day as a volunteer, when I ended up staying for Bible study. Although I’m not religious, I was curious to see how Christianity translates into the Japanese culture, what the Bible sounds like in Japanese, and so on. There were about 10 people in attendance. The leader of the session started by sharing a spiritual message she heard at a church retreat that had left an impression on her. She shared how she planned to apply the message to her life. Then, she opened it up for other people to share personal stories related to the theme if they felt inclined.
One by one, people began to open up and reveal pieces of themselves to the group. I had never met any of these people before, yet everyone felt comfortable sharing in that safe space. A theology student whom I had met earlier in the day sat next to me and graciously translated the parts that I couldn’t understand as people shared their stories. I shared something too, which was hard to do (partly because I was saying it in Japanese and partly because it was sensitive subject matter). There wasn’t a dry eye in the room by the end of the session, and we all hugged each other.
I’ve been to church before, and none of this is uncommon in a church setting in the U.S., but to experience it in Japan was something else. Japan does not have a hugging culture, nor is it the norm to express your true feelings. Sometimes I think I’m making too much of a generalization by thinking this, but I’ve had many Japanese people say to me, “No, that really is the way it is here, for the most part.” There are even terms for the distinction between your true feelings, honne, and what you actually express to others, tatamae.
Despite all that, I was able to experience a moment where people were honest about things that would be stigmatized even in the U.S., and everyone accepted each other. This showed me that Bazaar Cafe really is a place where one can feel at home.