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Japan: What to know before you go

Want to get prepared to serve God’s kingdom in Japan? Great! Here are some things to think about.

I once asked a Japanese minister from a local church, “What kind of missionaries would you like to work with?” She answered, “Humble missionaries,” and went on to explain, “Those who respect our culture.”

You don’t need a degree in Japanese history and culture to avoid being disrespectful of Japanese culture. But a basic understanding of Japanese history and culture will start you on the right foot.

Since the 1950s, Japan has risen as one of the world’s most economically and technologically advanced countries. This has happened alongside the continuation of historically rich and unique traditional culture. What does this mean for missionaries today? Consider digging into the following questions:

  • How do Japanese people understand honor? Shame? How does that compare to my home culture?
  • How do groups and communities prioritize individuality versus group harmony? Who is responsible for the success and reputation of the group?
  • Does communication in Japan tend to happen directly (low-context) or indirectly (high-context)? How does that compare to my culture’s communication style?
  • What are some of the implicit norms and social rules that govern people’s behaviour in their daily lives?

It’s also useful to have a basic understanding of the two main religions in Japan: Buddhism and Shinto. The mix of these two religions is rooted in Japanese everyday lives. Many homes have both Shinto god shelves (kamidana) and Buddhist altars (butsudan). Throughout the year, these religions come up during festivals and religious practices on special days. Religion is seldom discussed or preached. Instead, it seems to be a moral code, a way of living, almost indistinguishable from social and cultural values.

Though Japan has been described as a notoriously difficult mission field, I have been privileged to see how God has made an eternal difference in lives. Considering mission work and feel called to Japan? Ask God for increasing insight into Japanese culture and ability to communicate the gospel in faithful and winsome ways.

By KP, an OMF Missionary

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