Falling In Love

The job of the missionary is to fall in love with the place that they are in. – Tim Svoboda, YWAM

If you’ve followed our adventure for this past year, you may notice that among the ministry events we participate in, there are also many cultural events that we take part in as part of our life here in Japan. Summer festivals, tea ceremony, and even pop culture events have all been things we have been blessed to enjoy. Though these events seem unrelated to our core ministry here, they are actually a vital part of our ministry when we look at the big picture and the potential that we may be in Japan for many years.

For the sake of simplicity and because I tend to be a prolific writer once I get going, I’m just going to break this down into a few key points. Over the next few months, I’ll expound in detail on several of these so you get a better understanding of what I mean by them. Ready?

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Among the many wonderful tidbits of wisdom from YWAM director Tim Svoboda, this is one that I use every day. Japanese culture, as viewed by a person from Western culture, is very difficult to understand. The priorities of the average Japanese person and the group vs. individual mentality are so radically different that one must pause to think in the Japanese mindset before reacting. Full immersion in Japanese culture helps make that transition to the Japanese way of thinking easier, though it is never automatic. Participating in Japanese tea ceremony, for example, teaches us the mentality of serving others in even the smallest of detail. It teaches us to appreciate beauty in seemingly ordinary things. It teaches us the virtue of humility that is held in such high regard in Japanese culture.

Be the salt. Be the light. Because Japanese culture is so relationship based, the concept of evangelism has to be adapted to fit that relational model. It is said that a Japanese person will take 3-5 years to make a commitment to Christ, but not because they don’t understand the gospel on an intellectual level. More likely, it is because they want to take the time to know you as a Christian, literally a “little Christ”, to see how Jesus makes a difference in your life.

Just like Western culture, there are many subcultures of Japanese culture which are by nature more difficult to reach with the gospel. Not necessarily because they are resistant to the gospel, but because Christians lack the desire or courage to become part of those subcultures to be the salt and light to them. Often, the groups that suffer are those with strong adherence to Japanese traditions which was seen by the traditional Protestant church as pagan. We feel that if God opens a door to build a relationship with a specific group of people, we are obliged to take that step. So we make it a point to get involved with as many different subcultures in Tokyo as we can: artisans, musicians, photographers, college students, special-needs children, and even break dancers!

Inspire others to do something. I apologize if this sounds self-serving, but one of the reasons we do these things is for you! As we interact with people from outside of Japan, we find that many people are interested in Japan and its culture but know very little about it. Part of the issue is the language barrier and part is that the Japanese people put a strong value on being separate from the rest of the world. Japan is probably one of the most homogeneous first world nations, with little desire from the government or general public for looser immigration laws. Many things are talked about being “uniquely Japanese”, even things that aren’t really unique to Japan.

As we experience Japanese culture and share these experiences with you, we hope that we are creating sources of information in English for people who are curious about Japanese culture and inspiring people to care about and pray for the people of Japan. If a few of you are inspired so much to become ministry workers here in Japan, we certainly wouldn’t complain about that either!

Falling in love. Another wonderful tidbit from Tim Svoboda, as seen at the top of this post, is that our primary job is to fall in love with the place we are in. We can’t love the people if we hate the culture. We must learn to value the good things that they value. Of course, we weigh those practices against the Word of God and we do what is right according to Scripture. But it is never wrong to develop a deeper understanding of the culture in the place where you live. The Svobodas spent 30 years in India, so Tim knows exactly what he’s talking about when he says this.

Almost every visitor to Japan leaves with a respect for some part of Japanese culture that they encountered: politeness, generosity, cleanliness, humility, aesthetic beauty. Not surprisingly, everything a person could admire about Japanese culture has roots in the character of God. An ability to connect the things Japanese people admire to scriptural references to the character of God helps break down the false idea that Christianity is a Western religion.

As you follow this blog, you will continue to see a mix of both ministry related and culture related posts about our life here in Japan. What I wanted you to see is that the two are intertwined with one another in ways that aren’t always obvious. Though I’ve only given you a brief overview of the importance of studying local culture as an overseas ministry worker, I hope to give you more in-depth essays on these topics in the future.

Japanese Service and the Intersection of Culture and Gospel

Last year, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “How Japan Has Perfected Hospitality Culture”. The author describes in the article how he personally experienced the incredible hospitality of Japanese department stores, hotels, and restaurants, and from his descriptions, one might come to the same conclusion as he did. But is the hospitality culture of Japan as wonderful as it is made out to be?

One thing that should be noted about the author’s perspective: he experienced Japan as a western tourist soliciting the most high end hotels, restaurants and department stores in Tokyo. One might expect good, even great service from the same level of business in any major international city. Does that experience trickle down to the masses who actually live here?

I frequent our local “Mister Donut”, a popular donut chain in Japan. My friend and I basically use it as our office-away-from-home once a week. I order a donut (or two if I’m feeling spendy) and a bottomless cup of coffee and settle in for a 2 or 3 hour study or work session.

At the register, I am given the same good, if slightly generic level of service you can expect at any regular restaurant, store or service in Japan. I am greeted when I walk in the door, and am treated politely and professionally during the transaction and I am thanked or apologized to at least a half dozen times.

But when it comes to refilling my coffee, the employees are on that task with eagle eyes. Rarely does my cup fall below the half-full line (unless the shop gets incredibly busy, which it does at times) before someone is around to offer me a refill. And when the refill comes, the employee knows I take my coffee with cream and sugar and often knows how many sugars to give me. And the refills keep coming until I’m over-caffeinated and have to ask them to stop.

You bag your own groceries at every supermarket in Japan (which is one service exception oddity I have not figured out) but most clerks will sort your cold items from your hot items and give you plastic bags for your meats that are already scrunched up and ready for you to slide the meat package into. They actually work on the task of scrunching up the bags when nobody is at their register. They have hashi (chopsticks) if you buy a bento (box lunch) and spoons for your yogurt and ice cream.

And of course there is the ubiquitous combini (convenience store), which in Japan, unlike America, is actually convenient. I can walk into a store and pay my utility bills, ship my luggage to the airport, or buy tickets to a baseball game. If I don’t know how to do something, the clerk patiently walks me through it, free of eye-rolling or sarcastic remarks.

So yes, I have generally concluded that living in Japan and at least somewhat disguised as a Japanese person, and using shops and services of the average person, I still receive a level of service far above Western standards. And no catch, right? Not exactly.

One must understand that Japan is a very structured, role-based society. Interactions and levels of politeness are afforded to people based on the relationship between two people in a specific interaction. In the case of service provider to customer, there is an expectation of a level of service and politeness that the provider is to give to the customer. In fact, my wife and I often struggle understanding people at shops because there is a special vocabulary that is used for those provider-to-customer interactions!

On the other hand, there is no similar expectation for the customer. The customer may use the rudest forms of language, as if speaking to a child, or not even acknowledge the service provider at all. Aside from not causing a scene in public (which no Japanese person would do because it would bring shame on them), the customer is basically free to act however he likes. In other words, the service provider must lie like a doormat for the customer and thank him for being walked on.

While this all sounds like a good deal for customers, one should expect that at some point, they will need to play the role of the service provider. Helping out at the school thrift shop. Doing part time consulting work. Greeting people at church. And, oh how the tables turn.

When you are put in the position of service provider, you must learn all the nuances of serving others. The attention to detail, the extra greetings and vocabulary, and the humility it takes to not expect anything in return. As one who was raised in Western culture, I don’t know if I have the capacity to do this on a daily basis.

There are lessons to be learned from this part of Japanese culture. Because the ability to give hospitality and serve others is so ingrained in most Japanese, this is a trait they can recognize and admire in Jesus. For it was Jesus:

 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8

The humility of Christ is something Japanese people can recognize and appreciate. Many have probably gone through times when they struggled with having to humble themselves. Yet Christ Jesus never struggled, though he was God and had infinite power at his disposal at any time, even to the point of allowing himself to be killed on the cross for the wrongs we have committed against him!

Sometimes, we tend to focus on all that is wrong with Japanese culture, but there are many things it gets right. Humility and having a servant spirit is one of those things and we should encourage our Japanese friends that this spirit in them is something they already have in common with Jesus, Son of God! Making these connections help break down the fallacy that Jesus is a “western god” and Christianity a western religion.