Doctor James Curtis Hepburn and his wife Clara arrived in Japan in 1859. Though they came as Christian missionaries, they quickly learned that Christianity was strictly forbidden for Japanese and were unable to make any progress for Christ. Rather than becoming discouraged and going back to America, Dr. and Mrs. Hepburn began training Japanese doctors in the ways of Western medicine introducing some practices that were far ahead of the medicine practiced in Japan. Over the years, they contributed greatly to the advancement of Japanese society in the field of medicine, and perhaps more importantly, linguistics. It was Dr. Hepburn who published the first practical bilingual Japanese-English dictionary, and he did it by inventing a form of writing commonly used today, romanji. So important was the invention of romanji to making Japan accessible to the West and vice-versa, there are some who say it was Hepburn, not the military threats of Commodore Perry, that truly opened the doors of trade between Japan and the Western world and changed the course of Japan’s future in the process.
When Cameron Townsend devoted years of his life to translating the Bible into a Guatemalan Indian language, his purpose was to enable these people to hear the gospel in a language that could move their hearts. In the process, however, Townsend realized he would also have to teach these people how to read and write in their language, and as he did so, he taught them the value of education and increased their ability to create positive economic change for their people group. Though it was not Townsend’s primary intent to give these indigenous people a pathway out of poverty, it was a by-product of the work God had given to him. And the same results are happening as Townsend’s organization, Wycliffe Bible Translation, repeats the process with hundreds of people groups around the world.
I offer these two stories to you because I find it is difficult at times to explain the importance of what we are doing in Japan. Even among Christians, the work of missionaries is not fully understood or accepted. And by the standards of the world, the work of missionaries may seem at best a folly, and at worst a crime against the people we are serving. History mainly remembers the harm missionaries have done to people groups and forgets the social ills that Christian missionaries have fought against. There is no doubt that some Christians have done tremendous harm to people in the name (but not the spirit) of God, and that is inexcusable. However, we should remember that foot binding in China, widow burning in India, and cannibalism are some of the many evils that have been brought to an end as a result of Christian missionaries who fought against them. New studies are revealing that people groups who have had contact with Christian missionaries are more likely to be better educated, have better access to medicine and are generally much better off than those who have not. Far more good has been done in the name of Jesus than damage by those who misused his name to exploit people.
In Japan, the issues are not as sensational, but they are real all the same. Suicide, anti-social depression (hikikomori), bullying, and neglect. These are huge problems in Japan that the government either cannot or will not deal with adequately. We believe these are issues the Japanese church is obligated to address because as Christians, we must follow the example of Christ. Throughout the Bible, God stood up for the weak and oppressed and opposed those who would do them harm or simply ignore them.
We are not implying that we are going to Japan to solve these social issues. But we will boldly say this, God has provided the solution to all of these problems and more in Christ Jesus. If, by the grace of God, we are able to affect positive change to the social issues of modern Japan, then we embrace that as part of our ministry.
William Carey, missionary to India said it best: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” Though our ministry is primarily to enable every Japanese person to hear the message of the gospel, if God brings healing to the nation of Japan through that message, that is simply blessing heaped on blessing.