March 04, 2013

The zombie mission


Accommodating the surge in missionaries occasioned by the lowering of the age requirement, 18 for men (from 19) and 19 for women (from 21), the Mormon church has added 58 missions (mostly by dividing existing ones), bringing the total slate to 405.

Hearing that news, a light went on in my head. No--it couldn't be--but it did make sense--so with baited breath I checked the list. And wouldn't you know it: Tokyo South is back!

Tokyo South was born in 1978, a few months before I arrived in Japan. After a three-decade long roller-coaster ride, it was shuttered in 2007, merged with Tokyo North to create the original entity from which it had sprung. And now it stalks the earth once again.

Tokyo South is the zombie mission. It won't stay dead!

But while the new rules (especially for women) should push up long-term missionary numbers, I have to wonder if these levels can be sustained once the current surge washes through the system.

Back in the day, missionary service was considered a Mormon male rite of passage, like the military draft once was. And then, as I observe in the introduction to Tokyo South, the church shifted to "the few, the proud" mode (and the fewer women the better).

Now it's apparently gone back to casting a wide net. Well, if big numbers are the goal, the only question is how low the common denominator can go. As Tokyo South shows: pretty dang low. And yet, I've since concluded, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

From a purely practical standpoint, the mission should not have become the venue of choice for Personal Growth and Rehabilitation. But we are an imperfect species, and if not now, when? More importantly, the church remains in short supply of what universal conscription supplies the nation in times of crisis (an organized religion, by definition, being constantly in a time of crisis): a common cause and experience that reaches simultaneously across generations.

Still, for every "spring forward," there's a "fall back." Call it the "Daylight Saving Time effect." I won't be surprised if Tokyo South goes back on the chopping block in a few years. That it was axed in the first place shows how tenuous the church's hold is in Japan.

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