At age 28, Hiromi Sōma became a Christian while living in England for a year. Hiromi was delighted that her deeper questions about life had been answered, but was unprepared for what lay ahead. A Japanese pastor had hesitantly tried to warn her about the trials to come, but she had been confident: “I’m okay because Jesus is always with me.”
Jesus was indeed with her—but Japan hit Hiromi like a rock in the eye—she faced the shock of her life on returning. Her rural, Buddhist family strongly opposed her new faith—insulting her and demanding change. When it came to Buddhist rites such as funerals, feeding the ancestors, and grave-site visits, Hiromi refused them all, not realizing she could do some things and discard others. She opened a Japanese Bible for the first time and was jarred to find vertical writing and incomprehensible terms such as “righteousness.” The honorific word kami used for God was jarring because she’d been taught in England that God was her friend. In church, she kept voicing surprise at various customs and put everyone off. It all was so upsetting that, after a time, Hiromi found herself in a psychiatrist’s office, receiving medication for depression. In God’s providence she recovered, and now, 20 years later, she works with OMF in England, preparing returnees for re-entry.1
Hiromi’s story is not unique. In fact, each year as many as 1,000 Japanese become Christians while living overseas, a rate 20 times higher than what occurs in Japan.2 The reasons are intriguing: lighter working hours and more free time to think about life; feelings of vulnerability from living in a foreign culture; the relative normalcy of Christianity in Western nations; and first-time exposure to Christians and the gospel. It all creates a welcoming and inviting atmosphere for Japanese to believe, and many do. However, they are unprepared for the difficulties that await back home.
Where are all these Christian returnees, what happens when they come back, and how can we better help them integrate into their own culture?
Where are all these Christian returnees?
Of the 1.35 million Japanese living overseas, about 1,600 return to Japan each year having either believed in Christ or become a serious inquirer into the faith. This is the claim of Chihiro Okada, the Japan Director of the Japanese Christian Fellowship Network (JCFN), an organization dedicated to helping returnees live healthy Christian lives in Japan. Of these 1,600, about 20% become involved in a church in Japan, but the other returnees either never visit a Christian community or have a disturbing experience at one and don’t continue. Why is this?
Problems returnees face
Busyness. One obstacle is the insanely busy life of a Japanese worker. The returnee Christian or seeker had a relatively free schedule overseas. If they worked, they got home at reasonable hours, had weekends and holidays off, and vacation time. Back in Japan, the work hours again stretch long into the night and into weekends, often into Sunday, leaving them with little time to seek out Christian community.
Family opposition. Many returnees face family opposition. “In England, it is so normal to be a Christian,” says Hiromi. “But in Japan, not just Christianity but religion in general is often viewed with suspicion and even hostility by family members and friends.”
Lack of fellowship. Returnees often lack a Christian friend. Japanese are group-minded people, and most do not want to walk into an unfamiliar social setting of a church alone, without anyone to sit with them and introduce them to the group. Reluctance to go alone to church is another pre-church obstacle to the returnee getting connected here.
But let’s say the rare returnee does manage to overcome these pre-church obstacles. They find time in their hectic schedule, locate a church, and screw up their courage to go, even though alone. What do they find?
Strange customs. To a returnee, much is foreign about the typical Japanese church. One returnee was bothered by the need to wear slippers in church; to her that made church seem formal and cold. Another felt the Japanese custom of tithing in envelopes that are then stamped by the church made it seem like paying lesson fees. To a third, having their name entered in a notebook as they walked in created the atmosphere of a school. To a typical Japanese churchgoer, these complaints may seem trivial, but to the returnee Christian who has attended a megachurch that never took offerings, had a rock band and where everyone wore shoes, the contrast is stark.
Stylistic differences. I’ve mentioned the megachurch; this leads into some stylistic differences that account for the returnee’s discomfort here. Typically, overseas the music is led by a rock-style band. The words appear on a screen; the songs are upbeat with simple lyrics. Worshippers are expressive (though not in all traditions). Here, they often find a simple piano or organ, and hymnbooks.
Language differences. In churches where returnees are saved, they are brought to faith because the Bible and gospel have been made understandable to them. In typical Japanese churches, the sermons are complex. Hymn lyrics are archaic and often incomprehensible even to Japanese. And prayers use formal, elevated language in addressing God, whereas overseas Jesus was spoken to more casually, even as a friend. One returnee observed with some surprise that here, Jesus is a sama (honorific suffix).
Vertical and horizontal. Churches here value the vertical relationship with God in worship, but seem to cultivate less the horizontal relationships with one another. Overseas, many Japanese are saved through participating in an attractive Christian community. So a returnee who comes to church here expecting community is often puzzled to find a lack thereof.
So what can be done?
From Hiromi’s perspective, three different parties must do their part to welcome the returnee home: the sending body overseas, the returnee, and the receiving body in Japan.
Overseas sending body
The overseas sending body has a responsibility to prepare the returnee for the challenges they will face back home. Returnees need to be educated about family opposition and how to navigate, for example, Buddhist and Shinto rites. They need teaching about priorities to avoid over-busyness. They should read the Japanese Bible and experience Japanese worship before they come back (Hiromi provides worship experience at JCFN conferences in England). Finally, before they return, try to connect a returnee with at least one Christian near where they’ll live.
What can the returnee do? First, they need to take Christ’s call to discipleship seriously. Yes, there may be opposition, and yes, the Japan working life is hectic. But God has helped returnees to follow Jesus, even in Japan. Second, the returnee needs to be patient with the Japanese church. Some things they notice don’t have a biblical basis, but other things such as music style and footwear are more matters of taste and are legitimate variations between cultures. Third, returnees can educate themselves about reverse culture shock and expect to struggle at some point.
Church in Japan
What can be done on the Japanese side? First, the church here can work to understand the needs of the returnee. Churches here can be quite different from overseas churches; congregations here should not be threatened by this but rather seek to listen and understand. Second, through listening they can seek to remove non-essential obstacles to the returnee’s sense of comfort. Rather than automatically recording their name at the door, for example, they could make it optional for a visitor to write their information down. Third, the Japanese church can welcome the joy returnees often display and employ this in spiritual service.
Another group plays a critical role in welcoming returnees: missionaries. Of all the Christians living in Japan, we best understand the stresses and strains of moving from one culture to another. We can, and often do, become bridge figures for the returnee, providing understanding of their experience overseas while connecting them with Christian communities here. English cafes, English Bible studies, and children’s English classes taught by missionaries have all proved effective ways to attract Christian and seeker returnees, and shepherd them into the church. Let us pray and see what opportunities arise.
Much to celebrate
Despite all the challenges facing returnee ministry, there is much to celebrate. For one, we can praise God for the many Japanese souls added to his kingdom each year overseas. And we can hope and pray for the blessing they can be here. Hiromi concludes, “The body of Christ is meant to be diverse, where we all learn from one another. There should therefore be a place for the returnee in Christ’s body in Japan, because they come with very different perspectives to the table. This may be threatening at first, but is actually exciting and a chance for everyone to grow.”
1. Hiromi Sōma is praying for a Japanese co-worker, if any should feel so called (as of the Spring 2019 print issue of Japan Harvest magazine).
2. Estimated numbers based on an interview with Chihiro Okada, Japan director of JCFN.
Photo supplied by author
Matthew Cummings, an MK born and raised in Japan, is a church-planting missionary in Sendai with WEC International. He and his wife, Annette, have five wonderful kids. Matt enjoys basketball, tennis, and Skyping with friends.