Along with the many deprivations missionaries endure in seeking to reach people in a different culture and country, they also enjoy many side benefits. For example, missionaries to Fiji can enjoy luxuriant jungles and stunning coasts along with warm hospitality of the Fijian people. Missionaries in India can savour mouth-watering (and eye-moistening!) curries and the natural beauty of its rural regions. What about Japan? What are the perks of serving in Japan? For me they would include things like the exquisite food, hot springs, the beauty of the four seasons, the considerate nature of the Japanese people, and heated toilet seats.
One thing that features very high on my list is the rich culture of Japan. Japan has a long recorded history and a highly developed culture. Japanese culture, both ancient and modern, is popular around the world. It never ceases to amaze me that I could walk into a small local bookshop in Australia and find books written by Japanese authors over 1,000 years ago (Murasaki Shikubu’s Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book) along with many books written by contemporary Japanese novelists (e.g., Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa). I can also go to the local library and see shelves of manga, anime, and Japanese movies.
A Christian response to Japanese culture?
As Christians, how should we respond to Japanese culture? Deservingly or otherwise, Christian missionaries don’t enjoy a good reputation when it comes to other cultures—they are often viewed as culture destroyers. There’s no denying that mistakes have been made in the past, but even today, there are some who are suspicious of the Buddhist and Shinto roots of some expressions of Japanese culture (e.g. sumo and the tea ceremony). Christians justifiably celebrate the works of well-known Christians (such as the novels of Ayako Miura and the paintings of Tomihiro Hoshino), but they can overlook non-Christian artists.
A key verse in evaluating our response to any culture (including our own) is Philippians 4:8:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (ESVUK).
I think this verse provides a mandate for celebrating the good, praise-worthy aspects of a culture, while spurning its darker elements. And there is so much that is admirable in Japan’s rich culture.
I feel sad that Japanese people are increasingly adopting Western lifestyles and are neglecting some aspects of their culture. The blame for this cannot be laid entirely (or even mostly) at the feet of missionaries—many other forces are far more influential in shaping contemporary Japanese society. But wouldn’t it be great if there were a Christian-led push in the other direction—towards a greater appreciation and adoption of Japanese culture?
Ways to celebrate Japanese culture
The good news is that appreciating Japanese culture doesn’t have to involve squeezing additional tasks into an already hectic schedule (nor does it necessitate eating natto for breakfast every day or sitting seiza-style for hours on end). All it requires is finding Japanese equivalents of your existing hobbies and interests. For example, if you enjoy gardening, why not have a go at growing a Japanese garden or bonsai? If you enjoy reading novels, you could read Japanese literature. If you’re the sporty type, you could take up a martial art or Japanese archery. If you’re a musician, how about learning the koto or shakuhachi? If you enjoy cooking, try learning Japanese cooking. If you’re a movie buff, why not watch Japanese films? The list is endless.
It would also be great if churches adopted elements of Japanese culture in their life and worship. This could involve relatively minor changes such as having an ikebana display instead of the usual bouquet of flowers at the front of the church, adding traditional Japanese instruments to the musical accompaniment, and hanging up Bible verses written in shodo. It could also mean producing evangelistic material using the media of manga and anime. For the more adventurous, the possibilities are limited only by their imaginations. For example, small groups could celebrate the Lord’s supper in the style of the tea ceremony, weddings could borrow elements from Shinto weddings (while retaining the Christian heart of the celebration), and bon odori could be danced to Christian music (I’ve seen this done in a Japanese church) to the glory of God.
Two biblical provisos
There are two provisos to such a Christian-led renaissance of Japanese culture. The first is that the six “whatevers” and two “ifs” in Philippians 4:8 preclude a wholesale unthinking adoption of any culture. Rather, they require us to carefully consider which aspects we incorporate. In that sense, missionaries will always be guilty of the charge of being culture changers, as they seek to redeem all cultures for Christ. The second caveat is that the gospel must always be central. As with anything, there is a danger that we can become more excited about Japanese culture than we are about what Jesus has accomplished through the cross. Culture should serve the gospel and not the other way round. But within these two conditions, let’s revel in the privilege of enjoying Japanese culture and consider ways we can incorporate it into our ministries.