I should preface this post by saying that these thoughts are simply based on my observations over the past two years of asking questions and listening to our Japanese friends and family. It is quite possible that some of these thoughts are mistaken or incomplete. I am constantly learning more, and being challenged to change and refine my understanding of the world as I see their completely different viewpoints.
Why is it so hard for the Japanese?
Why is it so difficult for them to accept Christ? It seems as though they have a strong sense of right and wrong. So, though they did not have a word for sin before Christians came to Japan, they had an understanding of good and bad. It was relative to society (not absolute), but present none the less. So the problem wasn’t understanding or translation.
I think the issue is how you are saved from sin. Work is evident in all aspects of Japanese society. You copy your leaders; they, in turn, copy the work hours their leaders put in; and so on. This self-perpetuating attitude does tend to hinder the idea of free salvation.
Maybe because of Japan’s history with Buddhism, sin is not inherently, eternally wrong because you are always trying to improve. This idea of rebirth in a gradual approach towards perfection is definitely counter to Christ’s once-and-for-all salvation. The idea that one can and should earn everything is important in Japan.
Parents shower their kids with gifts, and big ones, in the West. For good or for ill, this is what is done: all in the name of happiness. In Okinawa it seems that the gifts given are smaller, and considered significant. Between friends, gifts are given with an expectation of some sort of equivalent gift in return. Reciprocation is the order of the day. Obligation-free gifts don’t exist.
Tradition makes change difficult. But tradition also helps to create the identities of the different people groups, and family groups. An enormous amount of change would be required for people to accept and receive free gifts. This change is the cost of Christianity, in the Japanese mind. In some cases, this translates to costing their very identities. A Japanese person’s identity is solidly based on the traditions of society and family, and only if this is shifted can extensive change occur. Many people are not ready to invest their identity in any god, let alone a foreign One!
Great transformation in Japan would require top-down transformation to occur, whether in family or in society. However, top-down change cannot occur without movement from below, so that everyone can move at once. In this way, the “wa” (social harmony) is not disturbed.
Only the truly courageous, rash, hurt, or isolated make the change… or indeed can make the change.
This new generation is a great hope for Japan. It is a generation with little hope for the future. The country’s economic power is dwindling. Military power has not existed in their lifetime. Their gods have not helped them in times of trouble (see here for a satirical piece written by a Japanese person, on her gods). As a result, many do not even believe in the national religions. The family cannot provide hope for the future. Education guarantees nothing. Obtaining a job is no longer a means for security. The future is bleak. It is now that the message of Christianity needs renewal. It needs to change from what it has been, and what it is viewed as, to what it needs to become: a free gift of God.