Nightclub hostesses, alcoholics, drug addicts and terminal cancer patients are among the colorful but troubled characters that come knocking on Kazuhiro Sekino’s door seeking guidance, repentance or, occasionally, an outlet for pent-up aggression.
“I’ve been strangled by an ex-con and had to subdue a suicidal woman who came in waving a knife,” says the 39-year-old pastor at the Tokyo Lutheran Church, located within walking distance of Kabukicho, Japan’s most notorious red-light district. “That’s why I work out at a kickboxing gym twice a week. Not to hurt anyone, but to protect myself.”
The long-haired minister who sports a black leather jacket isn’t your typical preacher. Then again, his church isn’t sitting in your typical neighborhood.
Situated in Okubo — an area in Shinjuku Ward known as Tokyo’s Koreatown — the ministry serves an international community, and its proximity to Kabukicho means those working the night also attend Sekino’s sermons, where he sometimes preaches while grooving on his electric bass.
Sekino got into heavy metal while in high school and played in a band during college. When he was in his third year of college, however, his sister, who has Down syndrome, collapsed from acute diabetes and was admitted to an intensive care unit.
The doctor at the hospital warned Sekino’s family that she might only have a few days to live. Confused and feeling helpless, Sekino phoned a pastor he knew based in Kobe and asked for his prayers.
“That same day, he hopped on a bullet train and visited us at the hospital,” Sekino says. “He told us that everything will be alright, and he was right.”
His sister recovered from critical condition and lives healthily to this day.
“I’m not saying his prayers miraculously saved my sister,” he says, “but the experience opened my eyes to the importance of standing beside people in need of help.”
Sekino, who was baptized when he was in elementary school, then ditched his plans to become a rock star and entered the Japan Lutheran College, located in Mitaka. He was ordained when he was 26. He was dispatched to the Tokyo Lutheran Church, where he became head pastor in 2010. His responsibilities kept him away from music, but he picked up his bass again in 2013.
“I hadn’t played in a band for years but was asked to perform at a church-sponsored festival,” he says. He gathered other ministers from the Lutheran church who played instruments and formed Boxi Rocks, the band name being a play on the Japanese word “bokushi,” which means “pastor.”
“I thought it’d be fun if I invited Vowz Band, a group comprising Buddhist monks, to perform with us,” Sekino adds.
The unusual combination of robed pastors and monks rocking the stage caught the attention of international news organizations, including coverage from the U.K.’s BBC, which gave Sekino his “15 minutes of fame.”
“I thought I made it, that I had become a star. But obviously that wasn’t the case. Life continued as it did before,” Sekino says with a laugh. “But the attention our band garnered reminded me of the power of music.”
While Boxi Rocks still plays gigs, from time to time, Sekino mostly performs solo nowadays. “The other day I got the feedback going on my bass and played Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ during Mass at Meiji Gakuin University,” he says. “I think around 100 students gathered, which is apparently something of a feat.”
Sekino’s method of delivering God’s message may be unconventional, but he believes it’s a useful tool in reaching more people in a nation where Buddhists far outnumber Christians. According to the Agency for Cultural Affairs, there were approximately 1.91 million Christians in Japan as of 2016. That’s compared to 87.7 million who considered themselves Buddhists and 84.7 million who affiliated themselves with Shinto.
The casual and unorthodox approach in teaching the Gospel may also be one reason why strangers feel compelled to visit his church.
“People who are struggling or suffering from sickness seem to have a special sensor or a sixth sense that guides them toward me,” says Sekino, who, in October, published “Kami no Shukufuku o Anata ni: Kabukicho no Ura kara Goddoburesu!” (“God Bless You: God bless from the back streets of Kabukicho”) a book about the interesting personalities that found their way to his church. He describes a Filipino hostess who asked Sekino to host a funeral for her dead colleague, an African asylum seeker who came begging for money and a lonely drunk who wandered in during the Christmas season and left a jar of “one-cup” sake as a gift.
“There are many other outrageous episodes that couldn’t make it to print,” Sekino says with a grin. “It’s draining to have to deal with some of these folks, but I tell myself that I’m a man of God, and that I need to learn from these people.
“There are hospitals for cancer patients and lawyers to consult when you have financial troubles. But we’re here to listen and lend a hand to people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, addictions or any number of other hardships that we deal with day by day.”
Sekino’s time at the Tokyo Lutheran Church is nearing an end, however. This year he will begin an 18-month training program at a hospital in Massachusetts to become a chaplain.
“It was at a hospital that I decided to become a pastor. So it seems natural for me to work with patients at a hospital,” he says of the move. “Eventually I’d like to cross national and religious borders to work for people across the world facing crises.”
He may miss the eccentric residents of Okubo and Kabukicho, but Sekino knows his next “gig” will provide no shortage in nerve-wracking episodes.
“Now I’ll be dealing with victims of shootings, overdoses and post-traumatic stress disorder, to name a few,” he says. Luckily, he has at least one tool in his arsenal — his trusted bass guitar — to help him spread the good word.