I grew up in a rural part of Japan where there are many shrines and temples. Every year there are festivals associated with a shrine or temple. This is part of Japanese culture and the local community. They are especially attractive to families with young children. One of the big challenges for the church in Japan is to seek opportunities to be relevant to the culture. Some churches take a few of these festivals as a gospel opportunity and offer a Christian version.
Examples of Christian substitutes for Japanese festivals
For example, on Tanabata (Star Festival; 7th July) many Japanese people present wishes to the stars. At this time, the pastor at one church I’ve attended explained to visitors and seekers at the evangelistic event for children that Christians pray to the one and only God, the one who made the stars. After we said our prayers, we hung our prayer requests addressed to Jesus on a bamboo pole, just as one would at Tanabata.
Another example is during the festival called Shichi-go-san (literally “three, five, seven”). On November 15 many children aged three, five, and seven are taken to a shrine to be blessed. Some OMF missionaries invite the church children and their friends to be blessed in church. We have also arranged for family photographs to be taken against a pleasant background (both are important aspects of this festival). Church leaders conclude the ceremony by giving each child a sweet in the same shape as those received at the shrine, with a tag saying: “Jesus loves you”.
Hinamatsuri (Dolls Festival), perhaps, the most popular festival, is held on March 3. To many, particularly women, this festival is associated with happy childhood memories. In several places, the Doll Festival is practised closer to its original form. For example in Tottori, it is known as “Nagashi-Bina” (float-away doll) festival. According to religious tradition, it is believed that a priest would transfer the impurities onto a doll and then the girls sent it down the river into the ocean. Like so often, most people just participate in a local cultural event, only a few see the religious meaning behind it.
When my husband learned about Nagashi-Bina, he pointed out some similarities to the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). Once a year Israel’s high-priest purged the sanctuary, placed all the impurities and the sins of the people onto a scapegoat and sent it away to a remote place. The ritual, of course, was fulfilled in the one who knew no sin and for our sake was made sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21, author’s paraphrase).
Engaging with culture
It is interesting to see churches making efforts to engage with our culture in order to build bridges for the gospel. Of course, there is a danger of syncretism and caution has to be exercised. We often wonder how Paul, the great missionary, would have contextualized the gospel message in Japan. But it is an exciting process to discern what aspects of the local culture/religion can be redeemed and made fruitful for the gospel and what needs to be rejected.
By Haruhi and Michael, OMF missionaries
Will you pray for Japan?
- Thank God for the rich legacy of contextualizing the gospel that Hudson Taylor left us.
- Pray for missionaries to engage creatively with the Japanese culture to build bridges for the gospel without compromising its truth.
- Pray that missionaries and Japanese Christians fully embrace Japanese virtues (such as humility, loyalty, obedience, aesthetics) in order to make their own contributions to the kingdom.
- Pray for Japanese churches to make full use of the great Christian festivals.