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Going Against the Flow in Japan

“You Christians don’t take part in Setsubun, right?” I was surprised at the awareness my non-Christian Japanese friend had that this was more than a cultural event to entertain children. At this festival people yell out ”Devil out, good fortune in” and hurl beans at burly men dressed in red, wearing grotesque masks and menacing horns.

A few months earlier there had been an autumn festival at our older son’s kindergarten. I discovered that the children were going to be making their own omikoshi, portable shrines to carry around the kindergarten yard in imitation of the Shinto ceremonies that pay homage to the myriad of Shinto deities. I had been at a loss to know what to do, but providentially, our son came down with chicken-pox right at that time, and I thanked the Lord for an easy ‘out’. 

However, on his recovery the hand-made shrines were still at the kindergarten, even though the festival was over. The kindergarten teacher told me that our son should have a turn at carrying one around. I mustered up the courage to say that I wasn’t comfortable with that as I was a Christian. She lost her normal composure, and tried to assure me that this was not a religious event, that it was just Japanese culture, and it would mean nothing to take part in it. 

Religion and culture are enmeshed 
In Japan religion and culture are so enmeshed that many Japanese can’t discern between the two. Traditional festivals invariably have their roots in animistic beliefs or ancestor veneration. How can we missionaries care about the things that are dear to the hearts of the Japanese, but not provoke the Lord to jealousy? 

We read incredulously throughout the Scriptures of God’s chosen people time and time again being drawn into the idolatry of the nations around them. But somehow it doesn’t feel as clear cut in the context of Japanese seasonal festivals that seem to celebrate community and belonging more than being outright pagan ceremonies. The Western fascination with oriental aesthetics can tempt us to focus on the form without considering the spiritual essence of what the form is aligning with. We must stay close to the Lord and sensitive to his Spirit, so as not to find ourselves compromising out of the desire to identify with the Japanese.

When our second son was in the fourth grade at Japanese school he was adamant that he would not take part in Tanabata and wasn’t going to write a wish to some stars in the sky. His teacher was clearly irritated that we considered this religious, but when she realized that our son had clear convictions on this front she actually apologized and commented it was a wonderful thing that he knew what he believed at the age of nine.

It isn’t easy to go against the flow in any culture, but if missionaries are not willing to model courage and discernment, it is unlikely that Japanese Christians will be able to.

By Alison, an OMF missionary

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