When Kyoko*, a young Japanese woman, arrived in Australia on a working holiday visa, she held an intense dislike for all religions, regarding them as cults who ‘brainwashed’ their followers. Yet before her visa expired, she had become a Christian, and is now continuing to follow Jesus back in Japan.

During my interview with Kyoko at the Japanese Christian returnee conference near Mount Fuji, she was clear about the main reason for her change of heart. “Most of all,” she said, “it was the people.” Throughout her testimony, she repeatedly emphasised this point: that through the transformed character of the Christians she met, her closed heart became a seeking heart.

Kyoko’s words echoed those of another Japanese returnee Christian, who became a seeker after several months accompanying her Melbourne friend to church. “The character of the people at the church was different, in a good way,” Ayumi told me. “I wanted to find out the reason for the difference.”

On another occasion, a few months into her long-term homestay with our Christian friends in Melbourne, Japanese university student Hiromi was visiting us for afternoon tea. After telling us how kind the homestay family were to her, she paused, then asked: “Simon, why are Christians such loving people?” Her question provided a wonderful opportunity for me to share the good news of God’s love!

These accounts show why Japanese Diaspora Returnee Ministry is so important. With less than one percent of Japanese being Christian, simply travelling to a country like Australia (or USA, Canada, UK, New Zealand) greatly increases a Japanese person’s chance of meeting Christian friends. And when Japanese people are living temporarily outside the highly-conformist society of their homeland, they are more free to explore new ideas, including Christianity.

Of these factors, friendship is foremost. One could paraphrase Jesus’ words thus: “This is how Japanese people will know that you are my disciples: when your words and actions show that Christians have genuine love for one another.”

So although my wife Meg and I are making many contacts amongst Japanese in Melbourne through our English teaching work, we need the partnership of local Christians for the ministry to truly reach its potential. We ask of them the simple yet costly gift of friendship: to make the time to connect with Japanese people as genuine friends. It’s not necessary to speak Japanese, because most visitors have some English, and are keen to practice it.

Thankfully, God is providing us with such co-workers, and we ourselves are continuing to learn how to encourage friendship formation. Since we turned our focus to Melbourne’s south-east area four years ago, we’ve had the help of families, couples and singles from Clayton Church of Christ in reaching out to Japanese families in this district.

Local Christians have helped with activities like English classes, “fun and friendship” afternoons, informal English practice, at-home lunches, and barbecue parties. Invitations to come to a church service spring naturally from such events. We were delighted recently when one couple responded to our invitation by bringing grandparents as well, so that a whole row of seats in the Sunday service was filled by three generations of a Japanese family.

At one friendship afternoon, a young Japanese mother with limited English came over to us, fixed us with a direct gaze, placed her hand upon her heart and sincerely repeated “Thank you” three times. Since returning to Japan a few months ago, she and her family have attended an outreach event in the home of our OMF colleagues.

On a recent trip to Japan, we sought advice from a retired OMF missionary leader who confirmed our experiences, telling us: “For Japanese people, friendship is evangelism.”

We’ve discovered that the fruit of such friendships sometimes doesn’t appear until after the Japanese person returns to Japan. One of our missionary acquaintances at Clayton church led a number of young women to Christ during her term in Japan. She told us that more than two-thirds of these women had previously stayed in a Christian homestay while studying or working overseas. Clearly, the influence of the homestay families was a decisive factor in their later decision to follow Christ.

Friendship allows Japanese people to move past their generalised wariness of religion (understandable, given the many strange and/or dangerous cults that have appeared in Japan in recent decades). Having a Christian friend gives them a lived example of what it’s like to believe in the living God — no simple thing for someone who has heard from childhood of “the eight million gods”. And for those who come to faith while living overseas, having a firm Christian friend can help them negotiate the challenging transition of returning home as a Christian, one of a tiny minority in society based on conformity.

Simon Crittle

Two OMF couples work in Japanese Diaspora Returnee Ministry in Melbourne, Australia: Simon and Meg Crittle (based at Clayton Church of Christ); and Greg and Shireen Seymour (partnering with Melbourne Japanese Christian Church, Canterbury). They are reaching Japanese families, university students, and young adults on working-holiday visas.

* Name changed.

Will you pray for East Asia’s Diaspora?

  • Give thanks for people like Simon and Meg who welcome and make friends with international students and the witness this is to the gospel.
  • Pray for more churches and individuals to take opportunities to  welcome internationals.
  • Pray for those who offer long-term home stay for international students, that their lives would reflect Christ.

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