Bumping into tomodachi

I‌t’s the little words that are surprising. The ones with very short dictionary entries that pop up casually in daily life. The simple nouns that seem so concrete and guileless. Those are the words that are so shocking when, after years of being in Japan and using them, they turn out to be carrying unexpected cultural freight. When we learn another language, we may be aware that dictionaries are only a starting point and that semantic domains do not overlap perfectly, but we only make individual discoveries as we awkwardly use and bump into words in different contexts. The word I bumped into recently was tomodachi.

Tomodachi? That’s easy: friend. Tomodachi comes up very early in Japanese language learning. We know that word, right? However, I started to doubt my understanding of it after being asked to do a small-group talk at a youth camp for Japanese high school students. The title of my session was “Friends”. The title was in English, but I would be speaking in Japanese.

I knew it was a broad topic, but I started to realize that the cultural differences could well be immense. What do I know about making friends in Japan? I was never teenager in Japan, and I have never been inside a Japanese high school. Beyond that, though, I started wondering whether I really had a grasp on the word tomodachi itself.

About the time I began preparing for this talk, I read something on friendship in ancient Greek culture. In ancient Greece, there were many hierarchical relationships, but friendship was a relationship between equals. Greek friendship did not cross hierarchical boundaries. This made me wonder how the still-present hierarchical structure in Japanese culture affected the definition of tomodachi.

Small group about tomodachi

The day of the small-group session arrived, and five young ladies had signed up for the Friends session. Since I knew there was much I did not know, I spent most of the time asking questions, listening, and letting them talk to each other. We talked about what makes a good tomodachi, the difference between tomodachi (友達)and nakama (仲間, which also can be translated “friend”), and some of the difficulties with technology and friendship today. They also wanted to discuss how to tell a friend at school that they were a Christian.

It was a good conversation, and I learned a lot from those five high school students. I was the adult leader of the session, though, so I tried to bring things together at the end with a quick devotional on Jesus and friendship. But their answer to my opening question almost took all the wind out of my sails. I asked, “Did Jesus have any tomodachi?” and received the immediate answer of “No.” No hesitation. Jesus had no tomodachi. It was an awkward opening, since my devotion looked at people who were Jesus’ friends like the people he sat down to feast with—Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and the disciples. The devotion was supposed to climax at John 15:9–15, where Jesus calls the disciples tomodachi. It says “tomo” in the Japanese translation (the literary form used for tomodachi), so Jesus obviously had friends, right? The faces of the students in my group, though, said that they were humoring me—“If you say so, missionary man.”

The immediate “no” I got when I asked whether Jesus had any tomodachi stuck with me. Having friendship is a high value in English-speaking societies. We would probably think that Jesus was in some way pitiable or lacking in humanity if he never had any friends; a person relationally cut off from the rest of human society. So, what really is the meaning of tomodachi, if it is not the same as our English word “friend”?

What does tomodachi mean?

Like the Greek context, tomodachi in Japanese carries an element of hierarchical nuance, it is a relationship between people on the same level. The definition in the Great Japanese Dictionary begins with 対等の立場, an equal footing or situation.

On the bus on the way back from the camp, I sat with a school teacher and asked him about who he could be tomodachi with. In English, I could say that I was friends with my boss and it would be considered a positive thing to say in many situations, but he could not say his boss was his tomodachi, no matter how good their relationship was. Tomodachi did not work across a hierarchical boundary. A pastor, student, or boss could not be called a tomodachi.

Afterwards, I asked a couple of Japanese pastors about this. One told me that if she heard me say that my boss was my tomodachi, she would think that I either did not know what the word tomodachi meant or that I was saying something rude. The other pastor told me about a time that the head of his denomination came to visit him at seminary in the United States. Another student walked up to the two of them and said, “Hello, is this a friend of yours?” and the pastor answered, “Yes.” He realized, though, that in Japanese he would never say that the head of the denomination was his tomodachi.

If Jesus is not on the same hierarchical level as anyone around him, then it would be obvious that he had no tomodachi. He could have other relationships with people. They could be very good relationships, but they would not be relationships one could describe as tomodachi. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is above everyone else, so he has no tomodachi.

How do we understand John 15:15?

Well, what do we do about that passage in the gospel of John where Jesus calls the disciples his friends? The word is philoi in Greek, which is translated “friends” in most English Bible translations. It’s rendered tomo in the Japanese translation. Jesus calls the disciples friends, so obviously they are friends, right? After the reaction I got from my five high school students, I decided to tweak the devotion a little and try it again in a Sunday school class with three Japanese junior high students and an adult helper. This time, I tried to leave the question of whether Jesus had friends or not much more open. The junior high students didn’t give me much of a reaction, but the adult helper was very concerned at the end to clear up one point. She wanted to make sure that I was saying that Jesus could call the disciples tomodachi, but the disciples would not call Jesus tomodachi. As the “higher” person in the relationship, it was okay for Jesus to call the disciples tomodachi, but the disciples would call Jesus “Lord” not “tomodachi,” right?

She brought up an interesting interpretational point. From my American point of view where lack of hierarchy is assumed, I read John 15 and thought, Jesus says they are friends and so Jesus is their friend. The disciples can call Jesus “my friend.” However, from a hierarchical point of view, Jesus can call the disciples tomodachi, but still not really have any tomodachi, because he remains above and the disciples will continue to think of him through the lens of “Lord.” They cannot call him tomodachi.

Is there a right interpretation here? It could be that the cultural context of Jesus’ world is much closer to the Japanese understanding than our Western cultural contexts are. It could be that Jesus’ culture reads the interaction in John 15 as that of a generous superior to a group of inferiors, which did not change their hierarchical relationship: a metaphorical use of tomodachi. On the other hand, Jesus could have been subverting the hierarchical relationship between master and disciple, as he subverted other cultural relationships. Or is that wishful Western thinking?

Whatever you conclude about how to understand John 15, the Japanese meaning of the word tomodachi has implications for missionaries. There is an emphasis in missions right now on relationship. However, we need to be aware that the expectations of relationships and the relationships that are possible for us to have may be defined very differently from culture to culture. If we expect to make friends and find we cannot become tomodachi because of the position we hold within a Japanese community (like sensei), we may be disappointed. Being aware of the definitions and understandings that those around us hold about relationships can temper our expectations and lessen our cross-cultural frustrations. Taking time to listen to the little words afresh can help.

Zachariah Motts is a missionary with World Gospel Mission and has served in Japan almost six years in total. He grew up in Ohio and currently lives in Tokyo with his wife and daughter.

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