“When I started to read the Bible I was amazed how much it had to say about death. In Japanese society we just don’t get to talk about this, and we don’t have any good guideposts to help us think about it,” said Keiko.
This wasn’t really relevant to the Bible talk I had just given, but it sparked a lively discussion amongst the ten women in the room. None of them had grown up in Christian families, some were recent converts, and a few were non-believers. They all agreed that it was a problem that death was such a taboo subject in Japan. A number gave testimonies of how faith in Christ had taken away their fear of death and that in their view Christians approached death much better than non-Christians. I quietly chuckled to myself at this group of Japanese women talking without restraint about a ‘taboo’ subject and thanked God for Keiko and her lack of normal Japanese inhibitions.
There are many topics in Japan that are off-limits in polite conversation. It sometimes seems the enemy’s greatest strategy in this country is keeping people quiet. Perhaps missionaries have also played into Satan’s hand and confused the call to comfort people with making people feel comfortable? In our desire to contextualise the gospel for Japanese people, we can over-value harmony, and therefore not model courage and boldness in difficult discussions, and we can miss opportunities to expose wrong thinking.
In my English and Bible classes with Japanese women, I like to ask what they think about controversial topics. It’s quite common for them say, “We don’t discuss that amongst ourselves, but I think . . .” or “Nobody wants to rock the boat, so we don’t go there, but we should.” Japanese women are generally guarded about what they share; they’ve been taught to maintain a good outward veneer and to keep the harmony in relationships. But in the right environment of trust, many are eager to share their thoughts.
The inability to speak out is not limited to women, but women have frequently been without a voice and haven’t been in positions of influence, inside or outside the home. Society’s unspoken demand has been that they keep family secrets (including prostitution, pornography, infidelity, and abuse) inside the four walls of their homes. But the injustices have also, to some extent, been perpetuated by the silence of women.
Although Japanese women now enjoy rights and opportunities comparable to the West, many women continue to suffer in silence, unable to speak up about abuse or manipulation, or to confide in people about poor choices that they themselves have made. Women are often still afraid to ask questions because of fear of rejection; unable to get healing because they haven’t found a safe place to share, to confess, to belong, to receive God’s forgiveness and acceptance.
My experience with the conversation initiated by Keiko showed that taboo subjects can be discussed with both gentleness and sensitivity. Japanese women are good listeners and have a lot of compassion. Churches, if they are intentional and willing to be counter-cultural, could create safe places where both believers and non-believers can be vulnerable and honest, and where God’s light can reach into the hidden recesses of people’s hearts. Sometimes it just takes one brave person.
By Alison, an OMF missionary