Tokyo Tower At Night Modern 7.JPG

Japan's Spiritual Landscape

(Picture of Tokyo by Isaac Madison)

 

Naoto's Article on Japan Mission

Partially edited from Naoto's research paper," Japan Mission"
for Faith Bible Seminary, MDiv course

Japan is well known for its technological advancement represented by companies such as Toyota, Sony, Subaru and Canon. It is less known that the country is considered as the second largest unreached people group in the world, with 99% of its population not having faith in Jesus. Without the gospel advancement, 123 million out of 124.5 million people alive today will end up spending eternity in Hell and receiving God’s wrath.

Japan Key Statistics

This section lays out some key statistics of the nation of Japan. For the purpose of this paper, this section is divided into two parts: national statistics that is more or less relevant to the mission work in Japan; and religious statistics that gives an overview of major religions in the nation.

1. National Statistics

Japan is an island country in Asia, located in the Pacific Ocean east of China. It consists of 6,852 islands, four of which are the main ones.

According to CIA’s World Factbook, the country has the 11th largest population in the world: about 125 million (in 2021), 98.1% of which is Japanese nationals.[1] Tokyo, its capital, with 37.3 million people, is considered the world largest city. The number of the entire population has been declining for over a decade. The New York Times reported over 500,000 fewer population in 2019 compared to 2018.[2] This is mainly due to its extremely low birthrate: 7 births in 1,000 population (2021), listed as the 224th place out of 228 countries in the World Factbook. While not many young people are born, life expectancy is one of the highest in the world, currently at about 85 years. This long-term trend has brought a situation that necessitates “fewer people to replace retiring workers and support them as they age, a situation that poses a serious threat to Japan’s economic vitality and the security of its social safety net. . . . Almost 28 percent of its residents are over 65.”[3] Ueno, a sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, argues in a newspaper article that Japan has no option but to accept the reality of the population decrease as well as a decay of the nation; it will do well if everyone becomes evenly and gradually poor.[4]

Another fact that is peculiar to Japanese population is the cause of death—particularly suicide and karoshi (death from overwork). Suicide mortality rate is almost double the annual global average,[5] and it is the leading cause of death for ages 10–39.[6] Besides, karoshi describes Japanese culture well, namely, that Japanese people are often hard-working, and that they are generally hesitant to say no to others.[7]

Although Japanese economy has been strong, its real GDP is currently ranked 4th in the world, with its growth rate 0.7% (183rd place in the world).[8] This clearly shows its decline from the time when it enjoyed the 2nd place after the United States. Education is compulsory from 1st to 9th grade (until the end of middle school), and literacy rate is 99%. However, English education is not performed well, and 76.9% of Japanese people do not speak English.[9]

2. Religious/Christianity Statistics

Japan allows religious freedom.[10] The two major religions are Shintoism and Buddhism— Shintoism 70.4%; Buddhism 69.8%; Christianity 1.5%; and others 6.9% of the entire population.[11] The percentage for Christianity (1.5%) includes the Christian religion, including Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecost, and even cults such as Mormons.[12] Whereas more than 90,000 Shinto shrines and as many Buddhist temples exist,[13] Evangelical Christian churches number only 7,896.[14] Joshua Project lists Japan as the second largest unreached people group in the world, with a growth rate of Evangelical Christianity at -0.4%.[15] Weekly Protestant church Sunday service attendance is reported to be about 280,000 on any given Sunday, which is 0.22% of the population.[16] The growing number of elderly is also reflected in pastors. Of the present full-time ministers in Japan, 40% are over 60 years old, and close to 70% are over 50.[17] A large percentage of these will retire in several years, significantly decreasing the available number of pastors. There is an insufficient number of younger pastors to fill these vacant spots.

As seen above, Japan as a nation and Japanese Christianity are both facing enormous challenges from the statistical point of view. In the near future, the society will be flooded with senior citizens, and this will be reflected in Christian churches as well. A significantly low number of younger people in the work force will have to sustain this society, and it will inevitably lead people to utter hopelessness and a sense of dead end in life.

Overview of the History of Christianity in Japan

In this section, the history of Christianity in Japan is briefly described.[18] In 1549, Roman Catholicism was brought to Japan for the first time by Portuguese priest of Jesuits, Francis Xavier. This time, Japan was not a united nation, but rather, a decentralized nation ruled by local military overlords. Xavier considered the first years of his mission successful, and within thirty years (by 1579), the converts numbered 100,000. However, Hideyoshi, one of the most influential leaders who contributed to the unification of Japan, issued a ban on Jesuits.

In 1603, Ieyasu Tokugawa brought the nation under his centralized leadership, and this marked the beginning of Edo (or Tokugawa) Period. Eventually, the Japanese leaders became suspicious of the intentions of European people, as they saw the relationship between their colonization and evangelization. They deported the missionaries back to their countries, and even killed some, leaving the newly converts spiritually fatherless. In 1614, an edict of banning Christianity was issued, and the local leaders (daimyo) were commanded to destroy Christian churches. Not only did this lead to systematic executions of Christians, but also to an isolation foreign policy that prohibited nearly all foreign nationals to interact with Japanese in any way for more than 200 years. Throughout this period, Christians were hiding from the authorities, and thus identified as hidden Christians (kakure-kirishitan).

In 1853, American Black Ships arrived in the port of Edo, and enforced by power the opening of Japan to the Western. Within a few decades, Edo period (Tokugawa rule) came to an end, and Meiji Period (1968–1912) began. With the opening of the nation, Protestant missionaries began its evangelization in Japan in 1858 by the American Presbyterian and Reformed churches. In 1890, the first Japanese Christian denomination, the Church of Christ in Japan, was established. Christianity was steadily spreading during Meiji and Taisho (1912–1926) period. However, in early Showa Period before the end of the World War II (1926–1945), Shintoism became the National Religion. The Religious Organization Law forced Christians to participate the civil religious rituals and conform to Shintoism, which formed another period of overt persecution of Christians.

Post-WWII, the religious laws were abolished, and it contributed to the arrival of a Christian “boom” period which allowed the Catholic and Protestant churches to grow. Foreign missionaries formed independent mission agencies such as Navigators and TEAM in Japan. Today, though the size of Christianity is small, its influence in the society is considerably large. There are Christian schools from “kindergarten . . . to some of the most prestigious universities in Japan. . . . Christian resources such as Bibles, literature and publishing, media ministries, and theological seminaries and Bible schools”[19] are present.

Essential Japanese Characteristics that Hinder Christianity

This section provides a summary of the prominent Japanese characteristics that are particularly hindering to people’s reception of the gospel. These characteristics are grouped into two aspects: cultural and religious. There is not, however, a clear separation between the two; both are tied to and influencing each another. Besides, this analysis is a generalization of the common characteristics seen in Japanese people and culture, and thus it does not apply to all people or all occasions.[20]

1. Cultural Aspects

It may be argued that the overarching cultural characteristic of Japanese worldview is the concept of and desire for wa—“unity by practicing and respecting harmony.”[21] Wa can be explained this way:

“Wa does not seek to embody itself in individual rights or concrete rational law. From the individual’s point of view it is an emotional attachment to the group—the family, community, working team, firm, nation—and an expectation that effort, cooperation, and loyalty will be rewarded by the group’s permanent concern for one’s welfare.” In other words, although people are distinct individuals, in Japanese culture, it is generally best if they want the same thing.[22]


This concept of wa, or harmony, is the foundation of Japanese corporatism and social life. To maintain wa is more important than to be correct—or in other words, disrupting wa is almost always wrong. One who pushes his own desires or ideas to others are annoyed when the others already have unity in their desires or ideas that are different from him.

This overarching worldview, wa, leads to some other major characteristics of Japanese people. Because they seek wa in a group, Japanese people naturally “distinguish insiders from outsiders in daily life . . . [which] promotes group consciousness.”[23] In order for one to be considered as a part of the group, he must disregard his personal interest. Once he is considered as an outsider, it is not easy for him to be accepted as an insider.

Another form that the concept of wa takes in Japanese daily life is what is called honne and tatemae. Lee explains, “Honne means ‘informal, personal reality in disregard of social parameters,’ while tatemae means ‘official, public and socially required or politically correct.’ Honne is an opinion or an action motivated by a person’s true inner feelings, whereas tatemae is an opinion or action influenced by social norms.”[24] In order not to disrupt wa in one’s group, what one says publicly (tatemae) often does not reflect what he really thinks or feels inside (honne). This is also related to a concept of giri, “Japanese social and ethical obligations within a group.”[25] Because of the relationships one has with others in his group or society, there can be a silence obligation that pressures him to perform in a certain way, whether he likes it or not.

As seen above, the characteristics such as the concept of insider-outsider group mentality, honne and tatemae, and giri come from the desire to maintain wa in social settings.

2. Religious Aspects

The cultural aspects of Japanese worldview discussed above have tremendous effects on the Japanese views on religions. As early as in the early 7th century, Prince Shotoku has described the relationship between the major religions as, “Shinto is the trunk, Buddhism is the branches, and Confucianism is the leaves.”[26] They were considered as reconcilable, and were adopted and blended into a new form that was uniquely Japanese. This is the reason Japanese people often profess to be a part of both Shintoism and Buddhism.

At the same time, however, many really consider themselves as non-religious. While they may enjoy or feel obligated to participate in different religious rituals, they do not want to commit themselves to any particular organized religion. To them, it is enough to just pick and choose the things they think are good in a religion so that they may feel good—which concept is called, genze riyaku.[27] They are concerned about their happiness that religions may bring to them, as long as it does not require much commitment, and if they can maintain wa with other people.


As such, Christianity runs directly counter to Japanese mind. In terms of wa, Christianity demands the commitment of an individual with his whole being, even at the cost of forsaking wa. Becoming a Christian means that one can no longer worship his ancestors just as his parents and grandparents have done it for centuries. Since Japanese people’s “belief and practices of ancestor worship have been described as the glue that binds the Japanese to each other and to previous generations,”[28] forsaking such rituals means dishonoring to one’s parents and ancestors. Furthermore, Christianity’s belief in absolute God and absolute truth is considered exclusive, and thus they do not like or embrace such belief that threat their wa with others.

In terms of inside-outside mentality, Christians are often considered as outsiders because Japanese people consider Christianity as a Western religion. They may incorporate some aspects of Christianity that benefit their lives, such as Christian-style (Western-style) wedding ceremonies and Christmas events. However, truly believing in the teaching of Christianity is something that they do not consider for themselves.

In a believers’ effort in evangelism, the Japanese honne-tatemae culture makes it difficult to discern whether the person is really interested in the gospel, or he is just pretending to be interested in order to maintain wa. As such, Japanese worldview that values wa is a huge hindrance for them to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Engagement Proposals

Mehn performed a field study of Japanese church reproduction, and concluded:

Some churches, without the cooperation of other churches, in the period of ten years could not reproduce their own church. Church planting workers find the task very difficult, expending 6–12 years or more, to get a church to a degree of stability in active numbers, ministry, organization and finances. This difficulty is compounded in a traditional church planting model by the considerable financial outlay to hire a full-time seminary-trained pastor and acquire land and a building. At present, there are few churches actually reproducing and many of those only have enough resources to start one church and therefore do not multiply.[29]


This study led him to seek new ways, rather than traditional ways, of church planting, that somehow fill the needs of the missing elements in traditional model, including “Increased engagement with the community; A leadership pattern which includes lay leadership and sometimes clergy; Small groups; . . . Reproducing disciples, leaders, and churches.”[30] These are helpful items that a church planter or missionary would have to keep in mind. What follows is a few proposals that this article provides in order for church leaders and missionaries to engage with Japan mission.

1. Relationships Building in Smaller Group Environment

Since wa is engraved in the Japanese minds, Japan mission must begin with creating biblical wa among the group of Christians, whether it is a church or a small group. As Jesus commanded to His disciples at the night before His crucifixion, believers must “love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This biblical love and unity among the local group of believers is a strong testimony of the love of God, and it should give nonbelievers a sense of wa that they may experience upon joining the group. Believers also should exercise love for unbelievers by demonstrating that they are followers of Jesus, and remaining to be available and willing to provide help to those who need it regardless of their possibly hostile attitude.

2. Disciple-Making

Jesus’s Great Commission is not easy to achieve, but it is a simple command, namely, to make disciples (Matt 28:19). No strong church is built without proactively engaging in disciple making. Since Japan is facing an issue of aging society, church ministry must aim to help grow spiritually mature young men who would consider using their lives for the Lord in vocational ministry. This involves strategic training both in theological education and in practical ministry. While they give training to lay people in the local church, leaders must always be on the lookout for potential men who may qualify for the role of an elder. Ideally, these men should be trained in English skills also, so that they may go to Faith Church/Seminary for a few years of pastoral and theological training, after which they go back to Japan for vocational ministry.

3. Local Community Engagement through Counseling

With the society’s decline in economy and vitality, more and more people would seek help from others for survival. A local church should develop a counseling ministry, first to provide help for its members, and then to train believers in counseling skills. As they gain skills, experiences, and capacity, they will seek to offer counseling for unbelievers who desire it, while securing the methods to protect themselves from possible disputes (at a greater level than when targeting its own members). As Japanese economy shrinks and the local church’s engagement in business model (such as running a coffee shop or a community center) would be difficult to sustain, counseling needs will continue to rise, and it could become a financial source for the church.

Conclusion

This article considers the country of Japan and its need for the gospel advancement. First, it lays out some key statistics of the nation which is relevant for mission. Japan is the second largest unreached people group in the world, with a population of 125 million people, out of which 123 million or more are heading to eternal condemnation in Hell. Second, its history of Christianity is briefly summarized. Christianity in Japan has experienced multiple periods of systematic persecution by the government, and yet has persisted until today. Although Christianity is still small, it has the complete Bible in its own language, and Christian education in universities and seminaries are available. Third, key Japanese characteristics that hinder the gospel advancement are considered. The concept of and desire for wa—surface-level unity in group contexts—govern the Japanese worldview, as well as affect the religious engagements (or disengagement) of the people. Finally, some proposals for mission-engagement are provided. Christians must grow in creating biblical wa among themselves, so that nonbelievers may be attracted to joining the group of truly loving community of believers. In order to produce such community, disciple making is essential. Helping young men to grow in spiritual maturity, and helping them eventually go to Faith Church/Seminary for a mid-term ministry training is ideal. Lastly, a church-based counseling ministry provides a place where nonbelievers may seek help when they come to the end of the rope in their lives.

The above research and proposals require more extensive studies and mission plans. It is a hope of article to be, for Christians, an introduction to Japanese devastating cultural and spiritual situations, so that it leads them to pray for the local churches and for the nation of Japan. May the Lord be gracious to this people group, so that His glory will shine in the salvation of many who would come to Jesus Christ.


[1] Central Intelligence Agency, “Japan,” The World Factbook, 4 May 2021, https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/japan/.


[2] Ben Dooley, “Japan Shrinks by 500,000 People as Births Fall to Lowest Number Since 1874,” The New York Times, 24 Dec 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/24/world/asia/japan-birthrate-shrink.html.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Chizuko Ueno, “Let Us Become Evenly Poor” (my trans.), Tokyo Web. 11 Feb 2017, https://www.tokyo-np.co.jp/article/3201.

[5] World Health Organization, World Health Statistics 2020: Monitoring Health for the SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2020), 52.


[6] Kyodo, “Suicide Now Leading Cause of Death among Children Aged 10 to 14 in Japan,” The Japan Times, 22 Mar 2019, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/03/22/national/suicide-now-leading-cause-death-among-children-aged-10-14-japan/.


[7] Because of the society/company’s pressure to overwork extremely long hours, death from overwork has been a long-term societal problem in Japan. One of the extreme cases is a death of 31-year-old female reporter in 2013 who worked 159 hours of overtime in a one-month period. 80 hours of working in a week is not abnormal. “Part of night duty was creating the fake work logs---the ones shown to labor inspectors. There was even a manual for doing it.” Jake Adelstein, “Japan Is Literally Working Itself To Death: How Can It Stop?,” Forbes, 30 Oct 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/adelsteinjake/2017/10/30/japan-is-literally-working-itself-to-death-how-can-it-stop/?sh=751c46b42f14.


[8] CIA, “Japan.”


[9] Don Wright, Operation Japan: Prayer Guide, 5th ed, (Operation Japan, 2019), 10.


[10] U.S. Department of State, “2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Japan,” https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/japan/.

[11] CIA, “Japan.” Identification of one’s religious belief and affiliation is difficult, and thus one can find many different data. The total number exceeds 100%, as many people practice both Shintoism and Buddhism.


[12] Surprisingly, Mormon is listed as the single biggest Protestant Christian denomination, in the latest data gathered by Japanese government. Agency of Cultural Affairs: Government of Japan, “Religious Yearbook, Reiwa 02,” Religious Yearbook, https://www.bunka.go.jp/tokei_hakusho_shuppan/hakusho_nenjihokokusho/shukyo_ nenkan/pdf/r02nenkan.pdf.


[13] Wright, Operation Japan, 99.


[14] Ibid., 12.


[15] Joshua Project, “Progress Scale: 1–Unreached,” https://joshuaproject.net/progress/1?s=Population&o= desc.


[16] John Wm Mehn, Multiplying Churches in Japanese Soil (Littleton, CO: Willian Carey Library, 2017), 1–2. This number is virtually the same as the one Operation Japan provides (0.21%). Wright, Operation Japan, 11.


[17] Wright, Operation Japan, 72.

[18] Samuel Lee writes a good summary of Christianity’s history in the chapter 2 of his book. Here, a brief review is presented based on his summary. Samuel Lee, The Japanese & Christianity: Why Is Christianity Not Widely Believed in Japan? (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Foundation University Press, 2014), 15–38.

[19] Mehn, Multiplying Churches in Japanese Soil, xvii.


[20] The discussion in this section is adapted from chapter 3, “Factors in the Japanese Worldview” in Lee, The Japanese & Christianity, 39–70.

[21] Lee, The Japanese & Christianity, 40.


[22] Ibid.


[23] Ibid., 43–44.

[24] Lee, The Japanese & Christianity, 46.


[25] Ibid., 45.


[26] Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno, The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2002), 53.

[27] Mehn introduces a book of which thesis is that “genze riyaku, which means ‘this-worldly benefits’ or ‘practical benefits in this lifetime’ is the central element to Japanese religion.” John Wm. Mehn, Sowing the Gospel in Japanese Soil: Understanding Japanese Religious Beliefs (Pecatonia, IL: Gospel Rest Resources, 2019), 22.


[28] Ibid., 24.

[29] John Wm. Mehn, “Characteristics of Leaders Reproducing Churches in Japan,” D.Min. major project (Deerfield, IL: Trinity International University, 2010), 14.


[30] Mehn, Multiplying Churches in Japanese Soil, 99.

 
Meiji Torii_edited.jpg

Photo - Torii gate at Meiji Shinto Shrine
by Isaac Madison

The modern Japanese culture is a mix of the new and the traditional. Japanese people mainly rely on their own efforts, but usually also have high affection and respect towards the beauty and magnificence of nature, due to traditional Shinto and Buddhist influence. This can be seen in many Japanese movies, anime, music and artworks. Japanese have a special attraction toward details, beauty, nature and hard work.

 

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