Community is vital

“I want so much to belong. Sometimes I think I kind of belong and then I realize that I really don’t belong. The scary thing for me is that I don’t belong in America. I go back to America and I am totally out of it and I don’t feel like in America that I belong. So it’s like I don’t belong anywhere. Oh, not belonging is the hardest thing to deal with in my 19 years here.” (Female missionary)

While much of dissertation research can be, quite frankly, rather boring, the outcomes can be incredibly useful. For my PhD, I analyzed the individual journeys of 40 missionaries from 16 mission agencies and discovered noteworthy and often surprising patterns of how they adjusted to Japan.1 I found that, on average, it takes 7.8 years for missionaries to feel like they’ve adjusted to Japan. This is discouraging, since many “career missionaries” stay for only two terms, meaning they leave just as they are about to experience adjustment.

The good news is that certain factors can greatly aid this adjustment process, and understanding these can help new missionaries and those of us who coach, train, and mentor them. Here, I examine the important role that communities known as communitas can play in helping missionaries to adjust.

Cultural struggles of the adjusting missionary

One method I used in my research was metaphor analysis. People often resort to metaphors when they don’t have the right words to describe their feelings or a process. I analyzed the metaphors missionaries commonly used during interviews about their adjustment to Japan. Three images were frequently repeated:

Being “outside the club.” Missionaries feel outside before adjusting.

Acceptance/gaining entrance. Adjusting involves moving from the outside to the inside. Once adjusted, missionaries feel “on the inside.”

Guest/home/key: Adjustment involves going from living outside a home to being welcomed into the home.

Missionaries who are adjusting feel like they are on the outside and are not welcomed into a deeper experience of Japanese culture. The extreme differences between Japanese culture and a western missionary’s culture contribute to the sense of isolation during adjustment. Here are three cultural challenges for western missionaries.

1. Strong group mentality

Group mentality is foundational to Japanese society. One missiologist states: “social relationships always take priority over individual relationships.”2 The group mentality and dependence on group members are instilled during early childhood socialization and continues to extend through adult society. Thus, being on the inside of a group is critical to Japanese. Although most Japanese have no conscious desire to exclude missionaries from belonging, the island-nation mentality does not resemble the values of the “melting-pot” way of living seen in places like America and Australia. It is no wonder, then, that missionaries seeking to find a home with security, identification, and connectedness have such a great struggle in Japan.

2. Indirect and hierarchical systems

The Japanese system of building relationships through hierarchical structures often goes against western standards of fairness and rational thinking. Missionaries come to realize that invisible laws govern how relationships form. One missionary said, “You want to be so nice, and you don’t quite know how to do it because there is a whole different set of rules.”

For missionaries seeking to build relationships for evangelism or wanting to find a place to belong, it is disconcerting to discover that the rules differ greatly from the ones they know. Male missionaries, in particular, expressed frustration at being unable to form deeper relationships with Japanese men. The strong value westerners place on equality clashes with the Japanese system of inequality in relationships.

3. Form over function

Missionaries struggle with the Japanese emphasis of appearance over truth, of form over correctness. Foreigners in Japan will not only initially be outsiders, but they will usually not understand the socialization process that Japanese have learned since childhood. While individualistic cultures permit fluid boundaries and the entry of new people, collective cultures like Japan find it much harder to admit new people into groups, particularly those who do not know the rules. The need to follow a certain form, which may not make sense to a western missionary, can cause excessive stress and prolong the missionary’s sense of being on the outside and of not knowing how to get inside.

Japanese churches

As a result, many new missionaries are surprised to find that, while their assigned Japanese churches initially are welcoming and helpful, over time they begin to feel isolated within their church context. This difficult experience is exacerbated by the surprise many experience because they hadn’t anticipated this problem. Many linguistic and cultural challenges make it difficult for missionaries to adjust to established Japanese churches, as well as the difficulty for any outsider to be accepted by an established group. This doesn’t make Japanese churches bad or insensitive, but the situation is simply a cultural reality that can create challenges for missionaries.

The good news: preventing alienation by creating communitas

When missionaries arrive in Japan, they quickly realize that who they were in their home country doesn’t matter very much. In a sense, they have to start over again. The inability to effectively communicate, read, or write, strips missionaries of any feeling of self-importance. They are thrust into situations where their past relationships, formed within the structures of their home society, are no longer significant in defining who they are, and they must form new relationships from scratch.

Missionaries adjust most quickly and effectively when given a chance to belong. Because the challenges of belonging in Japan are high, adjusting missionaries need to appreciate their need for community and be intentional about seeking it.

The word communitas is used to describe what happens when a group of people together adjust to a new unstructured environment and are put in a position where they are stripped of normal hierarchical structures. An example of this is when an army unit is sent overseas or a group of freshmen start college together. Based upon my research, I suggest that if new missionaries can become a part of something new, they will have a much better chance of finding acceptance, belonging, and hence adjusting to Japan. Below, I consider several such places where missionaries can find acceptance.

Communitas with other foreigners

Language schools

Although considered grueling by many missionaries, language schools are often where many missionaries initially experience communitas. Many courses are full-time and consist of other expatriates who have recently come to Japan and are experiencing similar surprises, difficulties, and joys in adjusting to Japan. Most importantly, all have been stripped of their previous status, so that there is a level playing field for bonding to happen. I remember fondly the amazing friends I made from Brazil, Germany, and China during my first nine months of language study. We laughed, cried, and bonded together over our struggles with the language.

Missionary small groups

The small-group experience (with other missionaries, expats, or Japanese) is a vital place for communitas to happen. The two most significant qualities of these experiences for the missionaries I interviewed were forming relationships with others “in the same boat” who could go “through the fire together,” and finding a place of belonging, acceptance, and encouragement. These types of relationships are crucial for the missionary’s growth and progress.

Paul Tournier wrote: “Jesus himself sought support from three of his disciples when he faced the greatest renunciation in his life, the acceptance of the Passion and the cross. He did not ask for their advice. . . . He asked them to watch with him, and pray . . . I am often amazed at the progress that can be made by a [person] when he finds real support.”3

Missionaries search for connectedness and acceptance. Because the adjustment process lacks structure and status, spiritual oases and bonds formed with like-minded people can be life-giving for many missionaries, who might otherwise face a life crisis.

Communitas with Japanese

Missionary moms with young kids

Interestingly, communitas can occur when missionary moms who send their children to Japanese preschools and kindergartens. In Japan, the kindergarten (yōchien) system is complex, expensive, and time consuming for parents. Many moms new to the system find the process to feel like a full-time job: needing to prepare just the right snacks and lunches, dressing their child in the uniform each day, and attending all the meetings, functions, and school trips that happen regularly.

Yet many missionary moms have found unlikely communitas among the other moms. “They [the young Japanese moms] made us feel a part of everything . . . I didn’t end up feeling lonely because they made a real point of making us feel like we belonged.” Japanese and missionary moms are thrown together into a new life stage where, like their children, they are new and learning together. This communitas serves as a bridge for the missionary mother into the wider Japanese community and as a means for learning more Japanese language and culture. It also provides an entry point into the usually tight-knit community.

Church-planting teams

Church-planting teams provide a unique opportunity for new missionaries and Christian Japanese to bond together as they are thrown together into a new situation.

“[These three women from my church] were helpful and encouraging and hospitable and we just did so many fun things together—it was very precious.”

“[Involvement in cell groups] . . . it was a lot of sharing—this person’s pouring out their heart and I have no idea why they’re crying—and it’s a good motivation for learning Japanese to really understand their hearts, so when you felt like you could bond with this people—that’s when I started adjusting—feeling like I had my community in Japanese people.”

The process of Japanese and foreign members joining together in a new project throws everyone together from the beginning. Church-planting teams form ideal settings for missionaries to learn language and culture, and find adjustment, since from the start they are on the inside of a group that has not jelled yet.

Other Communitas Options

There are other options for missionaries working in churches that are not church planting. Several missionaries I interviewed talked about finding belonging through other community gatherings such as a volleyball club or by joining the school’s PTA. During our first two years as a married couple in Japan, my husband and I worked with a large church in Sendai. As we began meeting our neighbors, we started an evening English class in our home. This became much more than just a class—we had frequent barbecues, informal tea times with the ladies, and long times of fellowship and sharing into the night. We discovered that many of our neighbors were isolated and did not belong somewhere else; these gatherings became a place of identity and bonding for all of us. More than at our established church, we found this gathering time to be a wonderful place for experiencing communitas, learning language, and forming wonderful friendships. Two of our neighbors became Christians during that time.


Missionaries adjusting to Japan face significant challenges, with the formidable task of moving from the outside to the inside. The best way for missionaries to find significant adjustment is by intentionally being part of an experience in which hierarchical structures are removed and everyone is starting something new together. Appreciating the need to place new missionaries into communitas can make a huge difference in helping them adjust to Japan.

1. Susan P. Takamoto, Liminality and the North American Missionary Adjustment Process in Japan. (Fuller Theological Seminary, PhD thesis, 2003), 378.

2. Clark Offner, “A Foreign Christian’s Struggle with Japanese Concepts of Respect, Honor, Veneration, Worship” in Incarnating the Gospel in the Japanese Context, ed. Fritz Sprunger (Tokyo: Hayama Missionary Conference, 1988), 162.

3. Paul Tournier, A Place for You (London: SCM Press, 1968), 180.

Sue Plumb Takamoto and her family live in Ishinomaki, Japan, and are part of the Be One church planting team. Sue found community during her early years in Japan by starting a discipleship group for young women, and a bit later by joining a group of much-older women in her Sendai community who taught her aizome (the art of indigo-blue dying).

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