Color me surprised: Until this year, I had no idea Japan was the second-largest (only to Bangladesh) unreached people group in the world. It’s the largest unreached nation open to missionaries.
What keeps Japan from being reached?
Our God is indescribably capable of surmounting any obstacles. But what could be the presenting barriers?
Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to learn, taking an estimated 1.69 years/2200 class hours to proficiency.
It’s a deeply held cultural value. MTW reports, “One Japanese man, upon converting to Christianity, was asked, “You are no longer Japanese?” In a nation where only 0.2% of the people are Christians, sharing the gospel with a Japanese friend is seen as asking them to no longer be Japanese.”
Individuals, churches, missions tend to give up and accept the status quo. Generally, Japanese fear that following Jesus will mean losing their cultural identity…Since following Jesus is not considered “normal” in Japan, anyone who does so often expreiences [sic] a great deal of resistance.
Japan Times agrees in their article, “Christian Missionaries Find Japan a Tough Nut to Crack”: “The Japanese…’are afraid of disturbing human relationships of their families or neighborhood even though they know Christianity is best.'”
Cultural Superiority to “Foreign” Christianity
“Christianity is a foreign religion imported from the West.” My experience is that most Japanese believe this. That includes most Japanese Christians. This is why most churches in Japan look and sound foreign. Most of the music sung is translated. The church building and the art is usually very Western looking. One Japanese Illustrated Bible has many full-color photos of Western “Christian” art. Why?
How could the gospel possibly take root in Japan if people believe it is a foreign religion that requires giving up of your culture?
….We all have an identity and it is formed within the context of culture. If God doesn’t like my culture, if my culture is evil, then the implication is that I too am evil and not loved by God. I can’t imagine the burden this must be to people who have had their culture labeled “evil.”
….Christians have done things that have hurt the nation of Japan. Real or imagined, this is an issue.
Japanese superiority reached an apex in World War II–and despite its ancient culture, has rarely been humiliated as in its defeat (see this commentary posted on Reddit). As of this 2015 report by Newsweek, the nation still adheres to blatant racism (“In February 2015, a former adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested that apartheid would be the best solution for keeping foreigners separate and retaining Japanese racial purity”, the article states.) Bowing to Christianity would seem like an affront to a deeply seated and generationally-held national and ethnic pride.
No Foundation for Christian Understanding
Though highly religious in Buddhism, the Japanese have no cultural or worldview context for comprehending biblical truths.
The Japan Times article continues,
A shrewd and outspoken samurai character in Shusaku Endo’s historical novel “Samurai” (1980) put a similar thought much more bluntly. His sullen response to a Spanish missionary’s evangelizing, circa 1610, was, “The Japanese don’t care whether God exists or not.”
Self-sufficiency & Busyness
In his insightful paper “Why are Japanese Christians So Few?” Hiroshi Suzuki delineates a number of cultural issues, including the busyness of Japanese culture and their sense that they can solve problems on their own:
The most frequent response to the gospel in Japan is “I don’t think I need it now. Japanese people lived without Christianity for thousands of years.” There is great spiritual need but most Japanese believe that they can overcome difficulty and need by adopting some skills, or learning a part of the wise living style of others.
Plurality of Christian Denominations
MinistryMagazine.org (a Seventh-Day Adventist publication) explains,
There are now about sixty different Christian bodies teaching the Christian faith in Japan. This in itself presents a somewhat confusing picture to those desiring to study the Christian religion. “All these teachings cannot be truth,” they say. “How can we know which is really right?”
Cultural Practice of On
Pronounced “own”, this cultural practice–closest in English to the word “obligation”–implies that when someone receives a gift, they incur “On”, explains a Christian businessman to Japan. He articulates,
They are obligated to repay it with something of equal or greater value. Obviously, a free gift of infinite value then becomes something they could never repay and thus they should not accept it.
This author agrees: “No one ever gets a free gift in the Japanese culture.” The businessman continues,
Despite their image to the world, the Japanese culture is also very rank conscious. When they interact, they know exactly who is above them or below them in the cultural ladder. God (Kamisama) is held at the highest rank and thus to be served. (Normal people were not even allowed to make eye contact with the Samurai or speak unless spoken to.) The idea that God would serve lowly us is also very foreign to their culture.
What works in Japan?
We’ve gathered few far-from-comprehensive ideas from internet research–and linked to more intensive resources. (If you have experience in this area, please comment below!)
They’re anxious to learn from native speakers.
Group them, then win them.
This popular philosophy for reaching Muslims, with whom community is also a significant factor, is alluded to in this paper, “How to Share the Love of God with the Japanese.” Japanese live in fear of being outside the group,” the author asserts, so he seems to imply that creating tight fellowship may alleviate some of the cultural alienation of being a Christian. He suggests ministry outreaches like coffee shops, which encourage fellowship. Still, we are reminded that rather than en masse, individual discipleship (as opposed to large conversion numbers) is the goal.
Make sure to also see the cultural insights in this paper, as well as linguistic challenges in communicating Gospel terms like “sinner”. Calvary Chapel’s Logos Tokyo also has an interesting document on evangelism to the Japanese people–and it’s online, right here.
Study This Culture.
Japanese culture possesses so many intricacies that can be lost cross-culturally. Ultimately, the best missionaries to the Japanese…are the Japanese. Because there is a great deal of difference, skepticism, guardedness, and even superiority to Western culture, it’s critical that the Bible is presented not in the context of Western culture, but to help the Japanese be fully Japanese–the fullest version of their own culture.
Training in Evangelism Explosion.
This post speaks of a successful evangelism outreach that sparked revival in a local church, following the church gathering (20-30 members) for 40 days beforehand.
What might God desire to do in Japan?
Please, pray for Japan with us.
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