Japanese Understanding of Salvation: Soteriology in the Context of Japanese Animism

By Martin Heisswolf (Langham Global Library, 2018). 702 pp.

Heisswolf, a German missionary to Japan since 1991, shares the fruit of his research for his doctoral thesis. He discusses Japanese views of gods, implications of the Japanese concept of soul, and ancestor veneration in relation to Christian beliefs. In this encyclopedic study, Heisswolf begins by exploring the context of salvation. He presents word studies on kami (; god) and Japanese words for the soul. Part 2 focuses on “Peace as a Central Concept of Soteriology.” Here, Heisswolf considers the Japanese concept of peace, wa (), before looking at the biblical concept. Part 3 is a wide-ranging discussion of “Four Aspects of Salvation in the Context of Japanese Animism,” which covers the theological aspects of the concept of sin as well as the cosmological aspects of divination and shamanism. He then considers the sociological aspects of the concept of shame and the anthropological aspects of sin and impurity. The final section discusses the dimensions of salvation. Here, Heisswolf discusses the animistic focus of salvation in this world (“this-worldly benefits”) and the differences with the Christian understanding of salvation.

The bibliography lists resources in Japanese, German, English, and French, with entries as recent as 2016, including an abundance of resources in German. We are indebted to Heisswolf for translating this book into English. He has a 33-page subject index, a Scripture index, and an 18-page index of Japanese words (both romaji and kanji). I appreciated the helpful discussions of ancestor veneration, collectivism, shame, and sin. The book contains an incisive analysis of Kazoh Kitamori’s “pain of God” theology. At times, however, I wished for a bit more integration (in the discussion of peace, for example). Heisswolf acknowledges the lack of practical application and says this is “the call for another book. This book-to-be must correct the bias of this present book on theory, if it wants to venture into missiological, pastoral, and social praxis” (p. 486). I look forward to Heisswolf’s next book. JH

Reviewed by Don Schaeffer for the Winter 2019 issue of Japan Harvest magazine

Reviewer rating is 5 of 5 stars ★★★★

Don Schaeffer and his wife Hazel serve with the Christian & Missionary Alliance and came to Japan in 1984. They have planted churches in Saitama Ken and served in mission leadership.

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