6 Things Christians Must Know About Japan

As I have been sharing with new people about our move to Japan, I have found that many Christians have a surface knowledge about the spiritual condition of Japan but surprised to hear about some of the details. I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject, but over the past few years, I have both studied and experienced spirituality in Japan, so I feel I do have something valuable to share on the topic.

What I have discovered in talking with people is that many people are at a loss when it comes to how to minister to the Japanese people. They know of the social problems and the “1%” (commonly used to describe the percentage of Christians in the Japanese population). They know about relief efforts to the Tohoku region. But they aren’t sure how Christians working in Japan can influence the spiritual environment in any lasting positive way. If I could share with every Christian some facts about the condition of Japan and the role of the Christian in Japanese society, it would be these six things:

Christianity is strongly identified with Western culture.

From its first introduction in the 17th century by the Jesuits to the post WW2 churches planted by Baptists and Methodists, the Japanese people have always seen Christianity as a religion brought into Japan by Westerners. That fact influences the acceptance of Christianity in Japan, but not always in positive or negative ways. There have always been periods and demographics who are more accepting of Western ideas than others, and in these times and groups, Christianity has been more influential. On the other hand, in periods of nationalism or jingoism, Christians are often used as scapegoats or at the very least, alienated from society. One family that we know settled in an area outside Tokyo specifically because it was known for its hatred of Christians from the decade leading to WW2. On a prayer walk around the neighborhood, they discovered old signs saying “Christians not welcome here” were still on display!

As long as Japanese people view Christianity as a foreign religion, they will always have an excuse to reject it. Even today, we are seeing a frightening rise in the right-wing of Japanese politics, those who spew hate and intolerance for things deemed non-Japanese. Should these radical thinkers gain a foothold in national politics, it could spell dangerous or at least difficult times for Christians, Korean-Japanese, and immigrants in Japan.

This is precisely why it important for Christians in Japan to refrain from simply “selling religion” and get to the basics of what Christianity is about, a personal relationship with the Son of God himself, Jesus Christ. Japan does not need another religion; it needs the healing, saving power of the love of Jesus. Aside from that, non-Japanese Christians in Japan need to allow Japanese Christians to contextualize the worship of God into their own culture. After all, that is exactly what we have done when Christianity was brought to the West from the Middle East. I’m sure a person from the Middle East would be completely befuddled by our representation of Communion, but what is important is what it represents, not how it is performed.

Japanese Christians should be identified as persecuted.

When we think of persecuted Christians in Asia, we probably think of Chinese Christians or perhaps Indian Christians or Indonesian Christians. We don’t think of Japanese Christians as persecuted because Japan has freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

But many Japanese Christians suffer greatly when they make a decision to follow Christ. Often, this suffering comes in the cutting off of relationships, which in Japan, is extremely important. You may damage or lose your relationship with your family members. Your friends may no longer wish to socialize with you. You become less of a person in the eyes of the very people whose opinions matter to you.

Then there are the other subtle persecutions. Perhaps your job will not accommodate schedule flexibility for you to attend church on Sundays. Perhaps a local community center will not allow you to use their facilities for Christian activities, though they have no problem allowing festivals of a Buddhist or Shinto nature. Perhaps a local business refuses to do business with members of your church. While all technically illegal, the government turns a blind eye to these sorts of behaviors. Why? Because, as we have already established, Christianity is a foreign religion.

There is great personal cost for a Japanese person to become a Christian. Most Japanese already know this before they make a decision for Christ, but when they encounter the ugliness of discrimination or persecution, that knowledge doesn’t bring them comfort. As outsiders, we won’t feel this persecution in the same way they feel it, so we need to be extra sensitive to what we are asking a Japanese person to sacrifice when we offer them the gospel. And as brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to give them extra support and grace in dealing with what they have had to leave behind.

The greatest impact Christians have on Japan is on those watching how we behave.

After the earthquake and tsunami hit Tohoku in Northern Japan, hundreds if not thousands of Christians rushed to the region to help in the relief efforts. In the beginning, they were a few among the crowd of government workers, NGOs, and other non-religious organizations helping those who suffered loss. A year after the incident, however, most had moved on from Tohoku, but of the ones who remained, the vast majority were Christians.

I asked Jonathan Wilson, Executive Director of CRASH Japan (which coordinated most of the Christian based relief effort for Tohoku), if the Christian response to the disaster was more effective at reaching those who were being directly helped or the community around them. Jonathan responded that “…while we might not see many of the elderly people that we have been serving come to Christ, it is the fringe around them that have seen the selfless service of the Christians to their neighbors, friends, and relatives that are more open to it than they were before.”

Now, there is a simple truth about Christian faith in action, and that is that the world watches our every move and this holds as true in Japan as it does anywhere else. When we respond to people the way Jesus would have responded to people, with love in action and not hypocrisy or empty words, people may open their hearts to the truth of the gospel.

Put into application, however, I believe this opens tremendous opportunities for us as Christians in Japan. We should seek to serve “the least of these”: homeless, orphans, the poor, hikikomori, the hopeless, but we should not seek to do it alone. Whenever possible, we should work alongside Japanese non-believers, so they might witness the love of Christ in action. How often do Christians take their own initiative to address disaster or social problems, but do it on their own? When we isolate ourselves, we miss out on a huge opportunity to witness to a group of people who already share a core value with us: compassion.

There is no “right way” to minister to the Japanese.

Throughout the history of Christianity in Japan, there have been many waves of missionaries entering Japan to try to find the most effective way to reach the Japanese heart. After centuries of work, I conclude there is only one way to reach the Japanese for Christ: whatever way works.

Facetiousness aside, approaching Japanese evangelism as a puzzle to be solved presupposes that there is time for the puzzle to be solved. Every day spent developing strategies for reaching the Japanese and not doing actual evangelism is hundreds of lives lost forever. Death claims too many Japanese lives every day, nearly 100 by suicide alone.

While I don’t think it’s wrong to evaluate what has and hasn’t worked in terms of evangelizing the Japanese, it is easy, given the poor results over history, to over-analyze the problem. To try to simplify the solution assumes a relatively homogeneous Japanese culture, and we know this just isn’t true. The  teen aged Tokyoite is nothing like the aging farmer of Niigata.

When missionaries entered Japan after WW2, they largely approached the evangelism of Japan with a cookie cutter approach based on what they knew best: American Christianity. Go to church at many of the rural churches established during this time frame and you’ll feel like you stepped back in time, attending a Midwestern American church in the 1950’s. While these missionaries certainly had good intentions, they had not anticipated the Japanese cultural penchant for faithfully reproducing what already existed, rather than evolving for the changing times. As a result, many churches now serve the needs of the older members of their congregations now reaching their 70’s and 80’s while remaining largely irrelevant to generations of younger Japanese unfamiliar with the traditions and values of the times.

Unlike the US, where it seems like there is a ministry tailored for every demographic, there are large voids in the Christian ministries to the various demographics of Japan. What I believe this means is that creating strategies to reach the Japanese is not a productive use of time when 99% of the people you meet are not Christian. If you have the gumption to start a ministry, chances are you will reach somebody. And if you stick with it, you may reach many. Or better yet, join an existing ministry that is already having success since they probably need your help.

Organizations like TEAM Japan, World Venture and JEMS understand that flexibility and creativity are important elements of developing ministries in Japan. If your approach doesn’t work, you need the freedom to re-evaluate and try something different. One missionary friend we know spent over a decade in Japan helping his church to raise funds to build a building. In the end, they had the building, but the people weren’t showing up. They had focused on building the building without building the church. After taking a sabbatical, they decided to return to Japan focusing on building house churches, a ministry that has been much more successful in reaching the people of Japan.

Even at home, ministries reaching Japanese students like ISI or JCFN are using innovative ways to reach the Japanese while they are abroad and helping to connect them into Christian networks when they return to Japan. We need to use whatever means are at our disposal RIGHT NOW to reach the Japanese for Christ.

Small church does not equal bad church.

One myth that I bought into as an American Christian was the myth that small churches are part of the problem in Japan. The average size of a church in Japan is probably around 20 people. But small churches are not the problem. Small churches that are not growing are the problem.

In terms of buildings, things are much smaller in Japan. A Japanese megachurch is not ever likely to be a reality because the cost of a facility to house a congregation numbering in the thousands is probably beyond what the congregation could afford to support. Many churches are built for congregations of less than 50 people, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The problem occurs when a pastor decides, consciously or unconsciously, that he must limit the size of his congregation to that which he alone can support. Or when a church or its governing organization decides that church can only occur in a church building, presided over by an ordained minister and only on Sundays. When non-biblical standards are placed on the church that keep it from growing, then we must address the problem.

The idea of the house church is still not as well received in Japan as it is in many other countries where Christianity is thriving. Missionaries have to take some of the blame for this, directly or indirectly, for establishing the protocols of the early and mid 20th century where house churches were virtually unheard of in the United States. Churches and their affiliations who are suspicious of the nature of the house church and lay leadership also need to examine the reasons behind their policies and whether the risks they are guarding against are greater than the threat of the death of the traditional Japanese Christian church due to its inability to adapt.

Small churches are a wonderful thing if they are allowed to thrive through multiplication instead of addition. This of course requires that lay leaders be trained and trusted to care for house churches, a role traditionally filled only by an ordained pastor. I’m not an authority on the pros and cons of house churches, but I do understand that exponential growth of the church, which is absolutely necessary in Japan if any real impact of the gospel is to be made, requires more flexibility than the model the traditional church has been built on.

More than ever, Japanese people need something to believe in.

The current generation of young Japanese have known almost nothing but heartbreak. The Japanese economy began its slow but relentless decline in the early 1990’s and has yet to show any lasting recovery. For the first time since the 1950’s, a university graduate has no guarantee of a career in a stable company, like his parents or grandparents had. Disaster struck in 2011 with the largest earthquake in modern history followed by a devastating tsunami, natural disasters that could strike almost any part of Japan at any time. These disasters triggered a nuclear catastrophe which effects are still largely unknown due to the failure of the government to inform and protect its citizens. The growing power of both China and  South Korea have caused international friction and a rise in right wing extremism in politics and society in general.

A century ago, the Japanese looked to their Emperor as their god. The defeat of Japan in WW2 showed the Emperor was simply a man after all and left a spiritual void in the hearts of the Japanese which has yet  to be filled. The decades of economic success following the war temporarily filled that void with the idol of materialism, but now,  even that is gone. Nature, with its earthquakes and tsunamis is dangerous and unpredictable. Government has failed them. What is left for the Japanese people to hang their hopes on?

In a sense, there is nothing left in this world for the Japanese except Jesus. As the trustworthy saying goes, “You don’t know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” But millions of Japanese people don’t have a clear understanding of who Jesus is. This is what I believe our role is in Japan and the role of every Christian in Japan: to preach the name of Jesus Christ and demonstrate the love of the Father who sent Jesus as Savior to all mankind.

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