After learning Japanese and being immersed in the culture for many years, you will probably reach a stage where you feel more or less comfortable with your language proficiency and knowledge of the culture. While you might not be able to discuss quantum physics in Japanese, you can do everything you need to without breaking into a sweat, and life in Japan can feel more normal than life back ‘home’. That’s a great stage to reach as it means you can focus on doing ministry, which is, after all, the goal of all the preparatory learning.
But don’t stop learning the language or the culture. While language learning may no longer be the priority it once was, don’t neglect it altogether. Your language level will plateau unless you actively make efforts to improve. This doesn’t mean you need to devote hours to learning—brief daily sessions can often be enough—but it does mean developing a mentality of continually striving to improve. That is important since improving language and understanding will add greater depth and perception to your ministry.
Tips for improving
Seek feedback from native speakers. If you’re preaching or leading Bible studies, ask one of the Japanese listeners to jot down any recurring mistakes you make or unnatural expressions you use and share them with you afterwards. For any emails you write in Japanese, ask receivers to point out one or two revisions in their replies.
Strengthen your weak points. Identify areas you are weak in and work on them. If your ministry mainly involves listening and talking, spend some time on reading and writing.
Challenge yourself. Put yourself in situations that stretch you. To extend your comprehension and vocabulary, watch programs and read books on unfamiliar topics. Even though my wife is Japanese, I regularly take free talk lessons on Cafetalk.com, a website that connects language learners with teachers. I need the discipline of not having the option to speak English because it’s too easy to slip into English when talking with my wife about difficult topics. Also, she can understand my garbled Japanese, whereas other Japanese speakers might not.
Keep asking hard questions. Improving cultural understanding is as important as enhancing language ability, since the more you comprehend the culture, the better you will understand the people you are ministering to and how to reach their hearts. Continue to ask probing questions about the culture and the way Japanese people think. Why are Japanese people more likely to hand in a lost wallet than Westerners are? What do they think about the supernatural and what happens after death? Why do they tend to be risk adverse? And the ultimate question—why are there so few Christians in Japan? To find answers to these questions and others, discuss them with Japanese friends and consult books on Japanese culture.
Simon Pleasants works as an editor in the Tokyo office of a scientific publishing company. Originally from Wales, UK, he moved to Australia in 1988. He helps maintain several Japanese-related websites, including Reaching Japanese for Christ.