Church Planting Tokyo Contextualization

A Sense of Inadequacy, Paradigm Shifts and The Hope of the Gospel

“Time waits for no man.”  

In just one month, I will have been in Japan for 12 years (Lord willing).  I came here as a student in 2004, and I’m still learning the culture.  I still struggle with the language, despite 2 years of formal language training in a Japanese university.  And I’m still learning to apply the Gospel to my own heart and to the culture.  Meanwhile, the common grace I observe in Japanese culture never ceases to amaze me!  Japanese culture is elegant and beautiful, and highly sophisticated, that I now find my own culture shocking at times.

Japan is economically, scientifically and technologically advanced, and more influential than most Asian countries.  The Japanese have so eagerly adopted everything Western– from philosophies, baseball, technology to scientific methods. Fast forward, by the 80s, Japanese have adopted even european-styled church buildings with crosses on top, where western style weddings are conducted (and the love chapter 1 Cor. 13 is often read).  According to a seasoned Japanese pastor in Chiba, this is the extent of respect modern Japanese people show to Christianity publicly.  Furthermore, the 1992 movie Sister Act starring Whoopi Goldberg– made the Gospel music an increasingly popular musical genre in Japan. Since then, there have been workshops and gospel choirs formed, attracting non-Christians– and some have miraculously sung their way into the Christian faith.  Today, even popular music schools like Yamaha has adopted gospel music genre into their curriculum.  In this sense, Japanese are able to import various aspects of foreign elements and contextualize in so far as it does not disturb group harmony.  Buddhism itself came from India in the 6th century B.C via Korea, and Japanese have syncretized it successfully with Shintoism, which eventually became a National State Religion by the 8th century.  

Paradigm Shifts in Culture.

According to one writer, Japanese culture have encountered two paradigmatic shifts on two occasions:

…when Chinese/Buddhist civilization was imported in the eighth century, and when Western/Christian civilization was imported in the nineteenth century” (Shu Suzuki).

In the first shift, “the nation’s leaders imported the elements of Chinese civilization with its religion and ideology intact.”  But in the second shift, “the leaders of Japan meticulously and intentionally filtered out the “Christian factors” being imported as part of Western civilization, thus neutralizing them.  This official purging was intensive and pervasive, as denoted by the word “wakon-yosai,” which means “even though we’re outwardly importing Western culture, inwardly our Japanese-ness (Japanism) will not be changed” (ibid.).  

I recall being ignored by my teacher for inferring this “wakon-yosai” concept in a Japanese history class. This, I believe, is one of the many reasons why the Japanese spirit remains to be penetrated by outside foreign elements.  Hence, we see a unique harmony of Japanese tradition and modernity today, without the latter swallowing up the former.  

Japanese are self-sufficient and can go to some of the best universities in the West, and get the best Seminary education possible.  Humanly speaking, I was first intimidated as an Indian (if it weren’t for God’s grace) to reach a people who are far more advanced, well-educated, sophisticated and self-sufficient than me.   I think I can relate a bit to the Israeli spies who once saw themselves as insignificant grasshoppers in comparison to the Nephilims (Nums. 13: 13).  Moreover, in the last 150 years (or more), thousands of missionaries have come, labored and gone before us. These are often missionaries who are more well-educated, well-equipped, well-trained, and well-funded than we are.  When Francis Xavier, first landed in Kyushu in 1549 via Goa (india) he said, “In my opinion no people superior to the Japanese will be found among the unbelievers.”  But 2 years later, he left Japan disheartened, calling Japanese Buddhism “an invention of the devil.”   Missionaries today still use different languages to express similar frustration.  Even in just the last few years, I’ve seen some of them quit, not having seen much fruit in Japan despite much sacrifice.  I can empathize with their discouragements.  Some have gone back home due to legitimate health and other pressing family issues, while many others have gone home with an unhealthy negative view of Japan as a mission field.  The task of Gospel contextualization itself presents a challenge as Suzuki-san points out rather sharply.  He says:

“The Japanese contextualize the gospel in their own way far better than Christian missionaries ever can!  That means we should never have contextualized the message of the gospel in advance, because it then becomes of none effect.  One example of such contextual watering down of Scripture illustrates the larger problem: it is customary for Japanese Christians to avoid discussing the final judgment, focusing instead on topics like consolation and piety. The message of the final judgment is too aggressive to the Japanese, since they tend to avoid aggressiveness in their human relationships. Living in such close quarters on four small islands was made possible by avoiding confrontation as much as possible; otherwise the people could not have enjoyed peace, although it is a false peace. This is the reason why our society is cohesive and group-oriented: the Japanese people prefer to avoid confrontation. Conversely, they can be so polite they will even decline to defend themselves if confronted. These attitudes can lead to dishonesty and a reluctance to engage in counseling from Scripture.”

I can understand the slight frustration that the author expresses here, stemming from his own cultural observation from a Christian worldview.  70 to 80 % of the people who come to us are Japanese non-Christians and we can attest that this is an honest compelling observation made by a Japanese christian physician. I would go slightly further than the author to say that group conformity can be redeemed by the Gospel, because the church is a collective body–a group where we learn to put the interests of the group (i.e, the Gospel) ahead of our individual interests as we are motivated not by fear, or a desire to earn people’s approval, but by grace and truth in Christ.  

The pressure to keep up.

Meanwhile, missionaries also feel the pressure to give good reports of their work in the field to supporters, even though there maybe little to no fruit to report.  This kind of pressure, in part, might be fueled by a business mindset back home, that sees the mission field as an investment that demands good results (meaning that failure to produce can result in loss of future investments).  But the biblical vision of investment goes further than this to “storing up treasures in heaven.”   To be fair, all missionaries wants to see long lasting fruit in the Kingdom but this– as we have seen–can take years.  While there are small sections of the Kingdom that are regularly seeing conversions, it’s still not the norm across the nation.  In the network we’re apart of, there are new and upcoming gospel-centered church plants on the pipeline–for which we truly rejoice.  In cities like Tokyo, the nations are coming to us and Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28).  

Therefore, after we have done all the hard work of contextualization, raising-funds, church planting strategies, prayers, discipleship groups, we are confronted by the stark reality that we cannot aid the work of the Spirit in a man’s heart.  True conversion is God’s supernatural work.  After all, the apostle Paul who had a divine revelation said,

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2: 14).

And all true Christians know too well that if God has called a person to a cemetery to raise the dead, no experts, no good communicator, no marketing, or no musical band can help him.  Only a miracle of God’s grace can awaken the dead (Eph. 2: 1-10).  In this we continue to put our trust.  While this is an exciting time to be in Japan, we are aware that the Japanese (with Abe’s party recently winning the elections) will now be able to rewrite the pacifist text, “including the war-renouncing Article 9” which can curtail freedom of speech on issues “if it is against the public interest.”   These moves are not surprising for the Christian whose head is always buried in his Bible everyday.  But pray with us that the church in Japan will be awakened by the Gospel and prepared to take every opportunity to unite nation wide and make disciples in the languages and forms that modern Japanese people can comprehend. We can create networks, but only the Holy Spirit can create movements.  

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Up next on Grace and Generosity, and Movements.  Check back later.