When my husband and I first came to Japan, we were often surprised by the things Japanese people did or the way they thought. Sometimes we didn’t like their way of doing things and were tempted to criticise. We regularly had to remind ourselves: “it’s not wrong, it’s just different.”
As we’ve learnt more about Japanese culture and tried to adapt to it, many things have become normal for us.
But even now we get surprises. Recently, I was cycling home after dropping my son at school and I had to turn right at a quiet crossroad, but there were school children crossing, so I waited in the middle of the road. As they reached the pavement I was about to set off when the traffic warden, who had been helping the children to cross the road, called me over. Surprised, I dismounted and pushed my bike to him. He told me that cyclists shouldn’t turn right at crossroads.
It took time to understand what I should have done instead—not because I couldn’t understand his Japanese—but because what he was saying was so different to the traffic rules in my own country. How could I have been in Japan since 2010 and not know this rule?! Probably at some point I’d been given a booklet on traffic regulations, full of complicated and unknown Japanese characters, but no one had ever told me in words I could understand that you can’t turn right on a bike at crossroads. [Ed: The correct way is to cross one road at a time like a pedestrian does, not turn from the centre of the road you’re riding on, see the diagram below.]
As I cycled away, my mind ran through all the reasons why the traffic rules in my country are so much better, safer, and efficient. I was upset at this slight to my intelligence, (hadn’t I been riding a bike on roads all my adult life?), and felt that my character had been slandered (as if I would break a traffic regulation).
But then it hit me—the Japanese way isn’t wrong (it works really well when everyone knows the rules and follows them), it’s just different to what I am familiar with. There’s a very strong temptation to proudly cling to what seems normal and therefore “right” to me. But if I’m going to live in Japan, I have to discover, and humbly accept the Japanese way of doing things.
Repenting of my stubborn pride, I determined to accept this new traffic rule, as I had accepted so many other cultural differences since coming to Japan: don’t blow your nose loudly in public; use respectful language when talking to teachers, doctors, or pastors; pick your baby up if they make the slightest noise; don’t put your bag on the floor; don’t talk loudly on trains, and so on. They’re not wrong, just different.
We need to repent of our pride which says “I know better than you do” so that we can build trust and win an opportunity to share the eternal gospel which is “right” and true whichever culture we’re living in.
By Liz, an OMF missionary
Will you pray for Japan?
- Pray for missionaries, that they will resist the temptation to proudly cling to their own cultural rules and adjust humbly to their host-culture’s way of doing things.
- Pray for resilience for missionaries in the midst of so much that is different to what they’re used to.
- Pray for Japanese people missionaries encounter, that they will be gentle and willing to teach.