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29 November 2019

Let the Gospel Enter the Heart Underneath the Kimono


Responding to Samuel Lim’s article “The Gospel Expressed Through Ritual Materiality for Discipleship in the Context of Thai Folk Buddhism” from a Japanese perspective, Ricky and Winny Leung underline similarities and differences between Japanese and Thai Buddhism. Their discussion considers how Japanese churches have rituals similar to those in the society at large, the influence of communities, the need to address the issue of “suffering”, and the danger of syncretism and the dilemma of building identity.

Ricky & Winny
Ricky and Winny Leung

Ricky and Winny Leung served as youth pastors in their home church in Hong Kong before joining OMF in 2014. During their first term, they were involved in the ministry of church revitalization in the rural area of Hokkaido, Japan.


Through Samuel Lim’s paper and presentation, we saw the vital role of ritual materiality in expressing the cosmology and spirituality of Thai folk Buddhists, and by giving new meanings to old rituals, these can contribute to the presentation of the gospel which helps to bridge one from Thai folk Buddhism to Christianity and to disciple these new converts at least in an essential early step. In one of the articles that Samuel quoted in his paper, Paul DeNeui identified four areas where missionaries can learn from Thai folk Buddhists in doing contextualization. One of these is that “communication involves all signal systems.” That means we should consider questions like, “When the Thai Folk Buddhist hears about Jesus for the first time, what do they actually perceive? Is the setting in the church familiar enough for them to be comfortable, and does it clearly communicate to an outsider? What type of music speaks to the heart of the Thai folk Buddhist?” Asking such questions makes it more likely that the gospel can be communicated through the five senses and through the spatial and temporal signal systems.[1] Lim’s paper similarly illustrates how ceremony as one kind of ritual materiality can bring up the visual and material effect to communicate the power of the gospel and bridge the gap of faith between cerebral and the visceral experiences.

Similarities and differences between Japanese and Thai Buddhism

We cannot examine the differences between Buddhism in Thailand and Buddhism in Japan to any depth. In short, however, Thai Buddhism is Theravada/Hinayana while Japanese Buddhism is Mahayana. There were thirteen schools and fifty-six branches (十三宗五十六派) of traditional Buddhism in Japan.[2] Theravada Buddhism is the oldest form of Buddhism and has a monastic tradition while Mahayana does not.[3] Buddhism itself underwent a process of sinification, becoming confused with Chinese Confucian thought, before being introduced into Japan from China and Korea.[4] Prince Shotoku (聖徳太子, 574–622) officially adopted Buddhism as the religion for the elite of the court in the sixth century. By 686, Emperor Temmu (天武天皇, 631–686) ordered family altars (仏壇) to be erected in every home and Buddhism gradually developed into a cult of the dead. The early schools (Nara Nanto, six schools奈良南都六宗) soon competed with the more magical and esoteric Tendai (天台宗) school of Saicho (最澄, 767–822) and Shingon school (真言宗) of Kukai (空海,774–835), founded in the eighth century with the founders going to China to learn from the Chinese masters. From the twelfth century onwards, Japanese Buddhism was further developed through indigenization, with the founding of Zen (禅宗), and the emergence of Amidism in the Jodo school (浄土宗) of Honen (法然, 1133–1212), the Jodo Shin school (浄土真宗) of Shinran (親鸞, 1173–1262) and Nichiren school (日蓮宗) of Nichiren (1222–1282).[5]

Since Hokkaido’s history only goes back about 150 years, it doesn’t have a long tradition of Buddhism in comparison with other parts of Japan. Having served in Hokkaido during our first term, we would like to share our understanding of Japanese Buddhism and interaction with Japanese non-believers to see whether approaches that work in Thailand can also be applied on Japanese soil. We would also like to respond to the high value placed upon harmony, which emphasizes hierarchy and groupism, and the extent to which this value affects Buddhist seekers and believers in Japan. The way forward will be to look more deeply into issues of Christian identity and national identity which have been touched upon in Lim’s paper.

Japanese churches have rituals similar to those in the society at large but spend little time studying local religions

In Japan, there are festivals or ceremonies linked with Shinto or Buddhist traditions almost every month. In response to some “big” celebrations, like Shogatsu (New Year’s Day), Higan (the day for visiting family graves and holding memorial services for deceased relatives and ancestors), local churches may hold a special service and memorial service respectively.[6] Shinto festivals related to blessing children so that they will have healthy growth are reflected in church ceremonies and services conferring a special blessing on children and child dedication ceremonies are held during worship services. But this does not mean that Japanese churches are keen on ritual materiality when interacting with the local culture.

In an interview, Prof. Yuki Hideo, at the time director of the NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions, explained that

When Protestant Christianity came to Japan for the first time in the 19th century, the method of evangelizing or teaching the people about Christianity went like this: “The other religions are wrong; the other religions have distorted teachings. Christianity is the only good, true religion; so you must throw away your traditional beliefs and traditional way of life. Instead you must adopt Christian beliefs and the Western Christian way of life.” Once the Japanese converted to Christianity they asked, “Why do we have to learn about the old religions? If we have some remnant of traditional religions, we must try to throw it away”… After World War II the attitude of Japanese Christians became narrower, because during the war compromise was very threatening. We thought, “From now on we must be much stronger in our Christian faith.”[7]

Having said that, we also note that Japanese Christians need freedom to critically examine their Buddhist/Shintoist background and decide upon the inclusion, exclusion, or alteration of the old religious and social forms instead of simply throwing away their culture and old religions. (Some Buddhist notions are profoundly different from, and diametrically opposed to, the Christian faith while other Buddhist doctrines have at least a superficial similarity to Christian teaching. Some practices are so much like certain Christian teachings that they are often treated as though they were identical.)[8]

Influence of communities: Groupism in culture and MUGA in Buddhism

When reaching out to Asian people like those in Thailand and Japan, we should not neglect the strong influence of communities (in the case of Japan, it is groupism) and the concept of MUGA (non-self). In his paper, Lim states that “Understanding the Thai folk Buddhist cosmology is important for any gospel engagement with Thai folk Buddhists because their worldview is interpreted through their notion of cosmology” (38). In the case of Japan, missionaries have to be aware of and tackle the strong hidden influence of groupism that results from the cosmology of Shinto and Buddhism. In our ministry as missionaries in Japan, we have come to know a retired seventy-year-old man who was very keen about studying Christianity. He participates actively in church activities, and even invites his friends and neighbors to the church events. However, when asked whether he would like to become a Christian himself, he replied, “I am the eldest son in my family. My family members come to my house for ancestor memorial service every year. I may become a Christian in another ten years after all my relatives have passed away.” This is not an uncommon reply when we ask a Japanese to become a Christian. Family and community influence is the major stumbling block for Japanese to become Christians. Instead of one’s own interests, interests of family and others are put as a first priority.[9] The meaning of one’s existence depends on family and group. In Buddhist teachings, denying the existence of the individual self is important in order to overcome personal suffering.[10]

Not only does groupism influence one’s decision about conversion, it also impacts leadership selection decisions in both Thai and Japanese Buddhist contexts. An interesting comparison of the necessary attributes and selection approaches of a Christian leader in the Northeastern Thai and Japanese Buddhist contexts reflects how groupism affects leader selection decisions. Buddhists expect that anyone aspiring to a leadership position will receive local acceptance and recognition of their legitimacy and authority. To gain acceptance, the potential leader is expected not only to have qualified leadership characteristics, but also to demonstrate competency in his knowledge of the local religious and cultural matters as well as the ability to lead people to live harmoniously in the context.[11] Similarly, in Japan, the leaders function as spiritual parents. The fundamental qualification for leaders is the ability to listen to God on their own, in their daily lives, and help others listen to God. The former Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, gave a speech on his choice for a new executive party lineup, which showed vividly how the Japanese choose their leaders. He expressed that one of the ideal Japanese leadership styles was creating harmony in a group. One of the strong points of the Japanese workers in international projects of cooperation is being the facilitator who makes a mutual agreement for the team. This function is also a traditional Japanese leadership style for a family, in local community, and even in the national government.[12] Thus, groupism not only strongly influences conversion decisions, but, in the long run, also impacts discipleship training. This should always be taken into account when reaching out to Asian non-believers.

Dealing with the issue of “suffering”

When thinking about evangelism or theology in Asia, the historical and social background of the country should not be neglected. “What does your God think of these sufferings?” is a question that missionaries in Japan are asked from time to time. Soon after the Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake happened in September 2018, a Japanese friend asked, “How could a merciful God, who created the world, allow this earthquake to happen? Did he make it happen?” As Lim explains, how a religion is able to “fulfill different practical needs in daily living” is a big concern for Asian seekers. A Buddhist scholar, Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, mentions that “God as creator is known in Buddhism under the term ‘avijja’. This means the lack of knowledge, or ignorance. Ignorance is the power of nature which is the cause of all existing things and as such the cause of suffering.”[13] Buddhists have concluded that though he is not wicked, God did an evil thing by creating things. Though Shintoism and Buddhism are clearly different in their functions, the rituals and practices of both religions express the inner animistic assumption of the Japanese that one is able to control the spirit world in order to obtain well-being for the present and the future. Ritual and materiality may be, as Lim states, a “tangible and visible way” to serve as a reminder of “what is known about the way the world is, the quality of the emotional life it supports, and the way one ought to behave”. However, in seeking to minister to Buddhists, we must find immediate and significant points of contact in the identification of a common problem—the problem of suffering. This point of contact allows Christians to approach Buddhists in humility as fellow sufferers, in other words, inviting them to come with us along the true path to peace as we express the tangible love of Christ.[14]

The danger of syncretism and the dilemma of building identity

The last point that we would like to respond to from Lim’s paper relates to “the balance of using Buddhist ritual and materiality.” On one hand, as mentioned in the paper, “The veneer of Buddhism practiced through ritual materiality plays a significant role in that it provides avenues for the strengthening of Thai identity by surfacing religious allegiance through one’s engagement in ritual materiality”. On the other hand, apart from regional differences, we should also be cautious about how much and what kind of ritual materiality can be borrowed. Henning Wrogemann notes that symbols are easily identifiable and therefore well-suited to function as a means of expression or evoking a sense of group identity. But, as he also points out, they can be used to exclude other people. This happens when individual symbols are used in such a way as to assert the foreignness of others. Therefore, we must first consider the historical context.[15] The website reports how a Christian missionary has used all kinds of Hindu symbols, Sanskrit terminology, and Hindu practices in trying to make the Christian gospel understandable in India. Hindu-activists who oppose Christian mission work in general have sharply criticized this approach. Christian efforts at inculturation are thus interpreted as an activity by which spiritual violence is done to Hindus and that contributes to the destruction of Hindu traditions.[16]

Of course, Lim correctly states that we should not ignore the fact that Asian believers “are actively engaged with the tangible and material because these are what shapes the character of their faith among other competing belief systems”. The concept of “To be Thai is to be Buddhist” is strong. This is very similar to the thinking of Japanese theologian Kanzo Uchimura when, in 1926, he wrote his famous essay, “Two J’s,” in which he proclaimed:[17]

I love two J’s and no third; one is Jesus, and the other is Japan.

I don’t know which I love more, Jesus or Japan.

I am hated by my countrymen for Jesus’ sake as yaso (Christian), and I am disliked by foreign missionaries for Japan’s sake as national and narrow.

Even if I lose all my friends, I cannot lose Jesus and Japan.

At the Uchimura Kanzo Memorial Stone Church

Both the Thai and the Japanese are closely attached to their community for their identity. We agree that ritual materiality is only a first step for young Christians, and that it is not sufficient and should not be relied on too much. The lesson of fumie (trampling on the crucified Jesus image during the Tokugawa period when Christianity was harshly suppressed) may serve as a good reminder about what we rely on to know our true identity in Christ. Galatians 2:20 is a good verse as an identity statement. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (NIV). It is both Paul’s “Declaration of Dependence” on Christ and contains a concise summation of the gospel. It also affirms the crucial fact that God loves the individual, who is here seen as so significant that God is willing to die even for the one. What is key here is the object of our dependency: Jesus Christ is the Lord.[18]

[1] Paul DeNeui, “Contextualizing with Thai folk Buddhists,” in Sharing Jesus in the Buddhist World, ed. David Lin and Steve Spaulding (Pasadena: William Carey, 2003), 131–4.

[2] “日本の仏教,”日本の仏教 (accessed 11 September 2019). In 1939, the Japanese Government passed the Religious Bodies Law (宗教団体法) which placed religious organizations directly under the control of the government from the following year. The thirteen schools and fifty-six branches were grouped into twenty-eight schools. After World War II, the Religious Bodies Law was repealed and on 28 December 1945, the Religious Juridical Persons Law (宗教法人令) was issued and its implementation in 1951 gave a green light to total religious freedom. As of 31 December 2017, the Japanese Buddhist school with the largest number of adherents is Jodo (浄土宗) with 22,627,000 adherents. The second and third largest schools are namely Nichiren (日蓮宗, 11,598,000 adherents) and Shingon (真言宗, 5,360,000 adherents). 宗教年鑑 (平成30年版), Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan, (accessed 20 September 2019).

[3] Kyle Faircloth, “Mission to Buddhists,” in Theology and Practice of Mission: God, the Church and the Nations, ed. Bruce Riley Ashford (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2011), 252–3. Kyle named some basic philosophical teachings of Theravada Buddhism like Anicca (nothing is permanent), Dukkha (existence is suffering), Anatta (there is no personal soul), the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eight-fold Path.

[4] Mitsuo Fukuda, Developing a Contextualized Church As a Bridge to Christianity in Japan (Wide Margin: 2012). [Kindle edition]

[5] Mark Dominey, “Anätman as a Metaphor for Japan: The Challenge of a Buddhist Non-self Culture for Missions,” in Sharing Jesus in the Buddhist World, ed. David Lin and Steve Spaulding (Pasadena: William Carey, 2003), 185–90. Dominey explains in his article how the law which banned Christianity in the Tokugawa regime (1600–1868) legally linked families to the neighborhood Buddhist temples and the modern funerary cult developed. As he says, “Japanese Buddhism, as it is popularly known, can surely be characterized as the most simplified and least troublesome path to buddhahood. This is not merely because of Mahäyäna’s reliance on tariki (salvation through the merciful efforts of boddhisatvas), but the path of austerities has been whittled down by successive schools of thought to such an extent that most Japanese priests now marry, many eat meat, and (in the case of the Jödo Shin sect) it is popularly believed that one merely has to declare, ‘Namu Amida Butsu!’ (‘Praise be to Amithabha!’) a single time (as opposed to the more constant chanting found in other sects such as Nichiren) in order to assure oneself of future buddhahood. For most, enlightenment is not attainable in this life, but is guaranteed after death on the basis of the rites performed by the descendants…. ‘becoming a Buddha’ in Japan is absolutely synonymous with death. But even then there is no real ‘extinguishing’ … of the individual, but a continued existence as a buddha with a unique funerary name (kaimyö) signifying enlightenment.” Dominey, “Anätman as a Metaphor for Japan,” 189.

[6] “Customs, Festivals, and Observances: The Japanese Year,” Nippon Communications Foundation (14 July 2014), (accessed 11 September 2019).

[7] “Christianity and Japanese Culture – Two Interviews with Yuki Hideo,” Japanese Religions 38, nos. 1 and 2 (Spring and Fall 2013): 84,,%20Interview%20JCAN.pdf (accessed 11 September 2019).

[8] David H. Hesselgrave, “Reaching Japanese Buddhists: Where do we start if we want to do better?,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 10, no. 3 (July 1993): 140–1, (accessed 14 October 2019).

[9] 勝本正實 (Katsumoto Masami), ≪知っておきたい:日本の宗教とキリスト教≫(いのちのことば社:2018), 60.

[10] Mark Dominey, “Anätman as a Metaphor for Japan,” 191.

[11] Chansamone Saiyasak, “Understanding and Strategizing Christian Leadership Development for the Thai Buddhist Context,” in Developing Indigenous Leaders: Lessons in Mission from Buddhist Asia, ed. Paul H. De Neui (Pasadena: William Carey, 2013), 141–2.

[12] Mitsuo Fukuda, “Empowering Fourth Generation Disciples: Grassroots Leadership Training in Japan and Beyond,” in Developing Indigenous Leaders, 60.

[13] Faircloth, “Mission to Buddhists,” 255.

[14] Faircloth, “Mission to Buddhists,” 242.

[15] Henning Wrogemann, “Is Inculturation Permissible? Concerning Symbolic Forms and Their Use,” in Intercultural Theology Vol. One, Intercultural Hermenutics (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), 97.

[16] Wrogemann, “Is Inculturation Permissible?,” 98.

[17] Shibuya Hiroshi and Chiba Shin, eds., Living for Jesus and Japan: the Social and Theological Thought of Uchimura Kanzo (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

[18] Dominey, “Anätman as a Metaphor for Japan,” 201.

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