Making Space for Transcendence in Secular Japan

Yūki Kawauchi enjoyed a surprise win at the 2018 Boston Marathon. He became the first Japanese man to win in Boston since Toshihiko Seko in 1987, the same year Kawauchi was born. He had not been expected to win and part of his success was likely due to his resilience in difficult weather conditions. After he won, he said this in an interview:

「瀬古さんが最後に優勝した87年に生まれたので運命を感じている。」

“I feel destiny [unmei] because I was born in the same year that the previous victor, Seko-san, won.”1

In the moment of his greatest personal triumph amidst the most difficult of circumstances, Kawauchi looked up and out for answers to explain his victory. His marathon experience created space for transcendence.

Secularism in Japan

Secularism, in the form of indifference or rejection of religious considerations, is growing around the world. In Europe and North America this is notable because there are conversions out of religion — for individuals and institutions. People who grew up in religious homes are walking away from their faith in university. Historic church buildings are being converted into dance clubs and condominiums and cities increasingly embrace a secular agenda. Many Christians in the West feel the pressures of secularism from the culture as well as from within themselves.

However, the most secular countries in the world are not found in the West but rather in the East.2 China and Japan are listed as the populations who feel the least religious in the world.3 This may seem strange in a place like Japan which some groups have listed as 68% Buddhist,4 but if you ask the average Japanese person on the street,5 they will likely tell you that religion plays no real importance in their lives. It’s not that Japanese are atheists. Far from it! Most Japanese believe in spiritual things (like ghosts and spirits) and are quite consistent in participating in religious festivals and rites. However, religion is irrelevant to their daily lives.

Charles Taylor, a respected philosopher and winner of the 2008 Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy, offers vocabulary for secularism helpful for understanding the (non)religious experience in Japan. People in Japan, especially urban Japan, live out a form of what Taylor describes as “exclusive humanism”6 within an “immanent frame.”7 However, Taylor’s story of secularism in the West ties secularism closely to individualism, but in Japan the story is different.

In Japan, exclusive humanism is expressed collectively. It’s one of the things that Westerners love most about Japan but have no idea how to practice themselves. It’s why Japan has so little crime, why things run so efficiently, and why the streets are so clean. In Japan, one is not an individual with an identity who chooses to participate in a community. Each person is a part of a community in which they find their identity. Exclusive humanism in the West looks like extreme individualism. Exclusive humanism in Japan looks like extreme collectivism.

The immanent frame is bolstered in Japan by a modern technological society. Rural communities are rapidly dissipating as urban migration continues. Within the city, the only thing that really matters in society is success. The safest means of achieving success is to get a company job and serve that company faithfully. In so doing, a person will bring honor to their family and the blessing of security. Churches have struggled to grow in Japan in large part because churches do not have businesspeople as members. Businesspeople are not in the church because they have never heard the gospel. They have never heard the gospel (in part) because they work incessantly and any semblance of free time is spent on numbing entertainment to help them get through more work. This is a grim depiction, but I’ve heard even more grim versions from Japanese friends who actually work in these companies. There is no space for transcendence.

Within this pressing, immanent frame, people never even think to ask transcendent questions. The old gospel presentation questions like, “If you were to die tonight, where do you believe you would spend eternity?” or “In your personal opinion, what does it take for a person to get to heaven?” are not only under-contextualized — they aren’t even intelligible. Few are lying awake at night wondering, “Is this all there is?” The rhythms of the urban company life allow no space for such pondering.

The rhythms of the company are actually “secular liturgies,” to quote James K.A. Smith.8 These liturgies express worship in the form of exclusive collective humanism; worship is expressed all day and everyday. Religious devotion to companies. Walking the labyrinth of department stores. Catechizing students in cram schools, aspiring to good scores on entrance exams. All for the good of society and to secure a place. There is worship in all of it. Underlying everything is a stressed but persistent cultural nationalism. Imperial Shinto indoctrinated a population to worship the State—“a magnified tribalism, the glorification and deification of the collective Japanese self.”9 Now, while the State is no longer officially worshipped, worship continues directed towards the collective Japanese self. The real religion in Japan is being Japanese.

But worship is not meant to make us look to others for meaning. Worship is meant to make us look up and out, “that [we] should seek God, and perhaps feel [our] way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27 ESV). Modern Japanese society is a crushing secularism that seeks to suffocate God-longings in human hearts, “yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (continuing v. 27). God has not gone missing. Reformed missiologist J.H. Bavinck poses the question we must ask to minister in this context: “What have you done with God?”10 Where is God in secularized Japan?

Making space for transcendence

How does one preach the gospel in secular Japan? It must begin with making space for transcendence. Here are two examples of people seeking that space:

A Japanese young man expresses his love for black gospel music. When asked why he loves this music even though he is not a Christian, he answers, “Because when I hear it, I feel something.”

A Japanese non-Christian counselor expresses her newfound interest in religion to a Christian counselor she meets. She explains that many of her conversations with clients are so deep and personal that they even feel spiritual. She wants to know more about Christianity.

Sports, art, travel, counseling, nature, community, and more can create space for transcendence. They beckon us to look up and out, stirring a longing inside of us that cannot be satisfied by anything in this world. The secular liturgies of the immanent frame numb the human heart. But there are God-longings in all of us. As Augustine famously stated, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”11

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Medium.


1. “川内、瀬古以来の偉業「87年に生まれたので運命を感じている」/マラソン, Sanspo.com (Japanese website), April 17, 2018

2. Oliver Smith, “Mapped: The world’s most (and least) religious countries,” Telegraph.co.uk, January 14, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/maps-and-graphics/most-religious-countries-in-the-world/

3. Ibid.

4. Joshua Project, “Country: Japan,” accessed May 8, 2019, https://joshuaproject.net/countries/ja.

5. That Japanese Man Yuta, “What Japanese Think of Religions (Interview),” YouTube Video, 7:28, January 2, 2018

6. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 19.

7. Ibid., 542.

8. James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 27-56.

9. Henrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications,1956), 258.

10. J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1993), 253.

11. Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.1.

Brett Rayl (US) has served as a missionary through Mission to the World since 2012. He serves as the Executive Director and Team Leader for Christ Bible Institute in Nagoya.

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