Total Population: 126 million
Official Language: Japanese
Largest Religion: Buddhist (68.7%)
Professing Christians: 2.2%
However efficient and neat Japan may be, she is not a machine. Having appropriate behaviour at the right time, place and mood creates space in which creativity, humour, passion and talent can flourish.
At a rock music festival, performers and audience alike are highly charged. They scream, jump and dance wildly. After the concert however, when they are slowly let out in batches, each person walks out neatly in rows with neither chaos nor accident.
A shop assistant at the fast food counter smilingly cleans up after the little boy whose mischievous behaviour has overturned his newly purchased milkshake. With kind words of comfort, the shop assistant replaces the boy’s drink at no extra cost. However, the same person is harsh to her junior whose preparation of hamburgers is less than perfect, “How can you serve these to the customers? Pull up your socks!” She yells angrily.
Life in a society like this has its set of challenges. Foreigners simply do not know all the rules. Since many of these social rules are ingrained in the culture, Japanese people often are unconscious of their existence and cannot explicitly explain them to others. The foreigner, therefore, has to slowly discover them as he stumbles through many failures and mistakes.
Naturally, there are also Japanese people who find such an environment suffocating. The conflicting currents of urbanization, modernization and Westernization have created whirlpools in a society in which highly developed pattern of behaviour and ways of life have brought a long period of stability and peace. Changing expectations, lifestyles, values, morality and needs mean that some of the rules and systems that once worked well for society are now a burden to people.
Where then, is the new centre, the new pivoting point for Japan in this great clash of many Titans? In the 21st century, Japan needs to work out an answer from her own soil, and as she continues to find her feet, let us pray with her that she will find them in God so that her sun may shine the brighter as new Japanese colours are woven into her rich tapestry.
Religion in Japan
Operation Japan quotes the number of believers as:
- Shinto 109 million
- Buddhist 96 million
- Christian 1.5 million
- Other 10.5 million
Most Japanese identify themselves as Buddhists and Shintoists at the same time. On the other hand, surveys have also consistently shown that only one-third of the people profess a religious faith. This apparent anomaly can be explained by the fact that many Japanese do not understand “religion” in the same way that Westerners do. Most people are not interested in religious beliefs, but rather practise religion for the functions it fulfils in their lives. It is not uncommon for a person, for instance, to go through three sets of religions rites within a lifetime: a Shinto dedication at birth, a Christian-style wedding, and a Buddhist funeral.
In sum, many people have little problem practising more than one religion, since each religion provides different benefits at different times. The truth value of each religion is secondary. In such a context, the task of preaching Christ as the only way to salvation presents a huge challenge. Pray that many Japanese may come to know Christ as the only One who can meet all their needs. Pray also for all Christian workers to be given spiritual wisdom and power to preach the gospel in a way that is both biblical and culturally understandable.
History of Christianity in Japan
Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. However the shoguns [Japan’s leaders] became convinced that this was to soften them up for European conquest. In 1612 as many as 300,000 Japanese Christians were persecuted and many were martyred. The country was closed to all foreigners for 250 years.
There was a positive response to the gospel in the late 1800s when Japan re-opened its doors to the West. But this was followed by renewed suspicion and rejection. Church growth slowed dramatically in the early 20th century as pressure from within [rationalistic higher criticism] and without [military government] stunted growth.
The post-war years have seen increased evangelical activity, initially from America, with good growth between 1945 and 1960, and more recently from Korea. In line with its pioneering ethos, OMF’s first workers moved into unreached territories in 1951, concentrating on Hokkaido and the Aomori Prefecture. Young people in particular responded, but rapid urbanization led to shrinking churches as new converts left for the cities. OMF today targets Japan’s cities, both mega-cities and smaller cities, though also has work in rural areas. OMF’s headquarters are in the greater Tokyo area. In Japan in general, in the last 10 years, a number of larger churches of over 100 people have been established, and it is encouraging that so far two OMF-related churches have reached that size.
Despite this heartening growth, the general population has remained absorbed in materialistic attitudes and confident in their own religions. A breakthrough has yet to come. Spiritually, Japan remains unresponsive to the gospel. Cultural pressures to conform and the intense work ethos squeeze out Christianity, particularly for Japanese men. About 70 per cent of all churches have an average attendance of less than 30, though membership is double this figure. This is because many people have to work on Sundays and are therefore unable to attend church every week. Nevertheless many of these people who cannot attend every Sunday are active in church during the week. It is said that 90% of Japanese Christians backslide. However, some of these people are ‘discovered’ many years later and are restored to fellowship.
The recent economic slow-down and the recurrent political scandals have shattered many dreams and shown the emptiness of materialism. There has been a renewal of spiritual interest, seen in the fast growth of sects and new religions. Aum is one that has gained notoriety overseas as well as in Japan. Many who have been brainwashed by cults take years to recover if they manage to escape their clutches.
There are no restrictions to witnessing or preaching the gospel.
The Church in Japan
The sincere, polite, hard-working Japanese are often too busy to give heed to the gospel and have little concept of personal sin. Pray that economic shocks, political instability and fears for the future may shake many out of complacency. There are however some housewives with plenty of free time. They enjoy attending foreign cooking classes, English or other foreign language classes or craft classes run by churches. Some ladies are then very open to start an individual Bible study with the missionary, pastor or Christian. For others, the barriers are up ~ they want to continue to worship their ancestors at the Buddhist or Shinto family altars. Pray that these barriers will come down and people will be free to believe.
Pressures ~ by non-Christian spouses not to attend church, by families to worship at the Buddhist or Shinto family altar, by fellow business workers to socialize after work ~ turn many (however reluctantly) away from church, Christian fellowship and time with the Lord. Pray they will be restored.New religions and sects have grown faster than evangelical Christianity. Pray that those involved would be set free.
Japanese Christians have made little impact on the centers of power [industrial, commercial and political] in the land.
Bible training for Christian workers is provided by nearly 100 seminaries and Bible schools. OMF is involved in teaching at Hokkaido Bible Institute in Sapporo. The great hope for the church’s future is the high quality of many of Japan’s pastors and church leaders. However Christian workers in training are at an all-time low and many post-war pastors are retiring with no one to replace them.
The church needs prayer:
- Christians are a tiny minority in a society where consensus is important. Few families come to faith; individuals feel exposed. We need to see whole families believing and establishing family worship.
- The lack of men in the churches. The drive for success and demands of employers make it hard for men to break free.
- About 70% of all churches have an average attendance of less than 30. This sometimes means that there are not enough people to do the various duties at church so at times pastors take on some of these tasks.
Many towns and eight cities are without churches. Numerous country areas are scarcely touched by the gospel. However compared with the situation 10 or 20 years ago there are growing, flourishing churches started by OMF (and other missions) and there is encouragement in the churches. Since 1980 OMF has been praying for a decisive spiritual breakthrough.
Student witness is strategic, but only a quarter of campuses have KGK [similar to InterVarsity] groups. The estimated number of all Christian students is 0.1 per cent. There are also 70,000 Chinese students in Japan, most from Mainland China.
Christian radio and TV are effective in reaching people
A highly literate, reading, commuting society offers excellent publishing and distributing structures for high-quality Christian literature. Japanese writers are needed, especially now after the death of well-known author Mrs. Ayako Miura.