I received a lot of advice from others, both while preparing to come to Japan as a missionary and after arriving. Although much of it was helpful, I discovered that many people harbored prejudices against Japanese people that were more of a hindrance than a help in helping me to prepare to minister in Japan. In particular, I was told that Japanese were friendly and polite but also reserved and hesitant in opening up to others and didn’t like hugs.
Wrestling with my fears
When I first came to Japan, my heart and head were filled with things I’d heard and learned about Japanese people and culture. Growing up in Germany, I never had much contact with Asians, and thus I was preparing to enter an unknown world.
I realized I had a growing fear of the Japanese, who are typically viewed as being shy, stiff, and fastidious about details. As a person who likes personal contact and hugs, a huge fear grew in me that Japan would leave me emotionally empty. How would I survive when even making new friends would be totally different from what I was used to? Would God be enough to meet my emotional needs, although I can’t see or feel him? Would I feel totally lonely and isolated? I prayed that God would not let these thoughts take root in my heart, but it wasn’t easy when others were confirming my fears.
I sought solace in the fact that I’d be working in a dormitory for missionary kids who go to a nearby German school. I’d thus be living in a German subculture and would be able to decide how involved I would be with the Japanese culture. That would allow me to ease my way into things.
A pleasant surprise
To my surprise, when I came to Japan in September 2016 I found the Japanese people I met weren’t afraid to talk to me—rather they were friendly, open, and happy to meet someone learning their language. Gradually, my fear of being rejected decreased because I discovered that they took me just as I was—a foreigner—and accepted that I might not act like them. This was true, whether it was Japanese people at my international church in Yokohama, my language teacher, or women at my dancing classes. People have been interested and welcoming, and I’ve had great opportunities to try out the new words I’ve learned.
A bout of culture shock
After living in Japan for about five months and feeling that I’d adjusted quite well, I was hit by culture shock. Before that, I had naively thought that since I hadn’t been homesick, I might skip that phase of adapting to a new culture. I was utterly wrong! I started giving in to my anxious thoughts and also angry ones such as: Why are Japanese people so reserved? When I do something wrong in public do they talk about the stupid foreigner behind my back? Didn’t some people say that Japanese don’t like foreigners anyway?
It was a big step backwards; I even started doubting whether this was really the place God had called me to serve. If that weren’t enough, I got a really bad cold and had to wear a mask in public. I felt like crying because I was sick and had to do something I didn’t feel comfortable doing. I also felt like screaming—why would people expect me to wear a mask when I neither want to nor understand it? I felt like a little child.
Love drives out fear
Feeling misunderstood and lost, I asked myself: Are these thoughts from God? Didn’t he create the Japanese in his image and doesn’t he love them just as he loves me?
God started opening my eyes to see that he views each person as an individual. He is not a fan of stereotypes, either. God doesn’t think in patterns as I do. He reminded me of a common discussion in Germany: how to cope with all the refugees fleeing from their home countries. Some people are controlled by fear, superstition, and prejudices. But I’ve always hated that attitude because you reject others without knowing their story. Once you get to know someone personally, you can overcome that fear and just love them.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18 NIV). This verse states that fear has to do with sin. Fear comes when we haven’t experienced how real God’s love is. Am I frightened and draw back because of stereotypes others had told me, or I had read in a book, or I believed I had observed myself? God’s love is bigger than my fear, and it helps me overcome this hesitation.
God has helped me to love this culture and people and is driving my fear away step by step by helping me get to know more about them.
Other important lessons
I remembered someone pointing out that some Japanese people would probably like to meet someone who is more outgoing than they are. Who knows if some of them need a person with that type of personality to tell them about Jesus? Jesus would not hold back from meeting others out of fear he could not meet their expectations.
I also realized that I shouldn’t expect Japanese people to be like me. I had to learn that it’s not good to secretly think that my way is better than theirs. The most helpful piece of advice I received was to remember that things aren’t better or worse—just different.
Another encouragement was my weekly Zumba (an exercise/dance fitness program) classes. (If you like dancing, I highly recommend joining a class so that you can both have fun and stay fit.) The class members surprised me with their joy. I never expected Japanese women to be so outgoing. In the beginning, I was shocked that we were all supposed to follow the teacher’s steps, but suddenly one of them turned to me, smiled and danced with her back to the others, enjoying herself a lot. Was this the kind of person I was so afraid of?
Michaela Ziegler is from Germany, is 23 years old, and about to finish her B.A. of Culture and Theology. She’s with Liebenzell Mission and cares for missionaries’ kids in a boarding home at the German School in Yokohama.