Japanese Cultural Dynamics: Their Influence on Japanese Abroad and their Impact on their Return

This paper looks at how group identity, deference, and shame shape the Japanese in their responses to the world and impact their time abroad. It offers direction on how to help Japanese friends adjust to life away from home and face the prospect of return.

With his wife Alison, Graham Orr served in OMF Japan from 1993 to 2011, and has served with OMF Diaspora Returnee Ministries since 2013. He leads the Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship and teaches on cross-cultural issues throughout the UK and Ireland. He is author of Not So Secret (Nottingham: IVP, 2012), a primer on cross-cultural evangelism.

Japanese Cultural Dynamics: Their Influence on Japanese Abroad and their Impact on their Return

Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 2 (May-Aug 2017): 36-39


Aki stepped through the door to Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship one Sunday afternoon. Most non-Christians who come for the first time are shy and hesitant but Aki brightly announced to me, “I have already been to worship today. I was walking down Temple Bar and a missionary invited me in.” She used the Japanese word for worship, but awkwardly, as if she were not used to it. For missionary she switched to English. I nodded my acceptance with the non-committal, “Ah so desuka” to which she added, “They gave me a book.” She pulled it out of her handbag; thick and leather bound, it opened to double vertical columns of Japanese with chapters and verses marked with numbers. She closed it again to show me the cover with a gold embossed title in Japanese: The Book of Mormon. “Well done for going,” I replied, “would you like a cup of tea?”

There are as many as 1500 Japanese in Dublin. This is the largest number of Japanese in the UK and Ireland living outside of London. Kaori came to a Bible study within twenty-four hours of arriving. She is the daughter of the pastor whose church we attended while at Japanese language school in Sapporo from 1993 to 1995. Her father dedicated our daughter Kathryn. Saori grew up two train stations from Ichikawa where the OMF Japan office is. Machiko grew up where we lived when pastoring OMF The Chapel of Adoration in Ichikawa. She hopes to go to the Chapel when she returns. I found out Aki came from Western Japan; she was lively and outgoing. Risa is from Kyushu and while in Dublin spent three months on an internship in the Czech Republic. I introduced her to a Japanese pastor there with whom she continued to study the Bible. Ena was from Okinawa, a place I have always wanted to visit.

One of the first questions we ask is, where are you from in Japan? Having lived in three different areas of Japan, this question often provides a connection. Or maybe we have had others from that area come to the Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship.

I grew up in Yorkshire. I studied and got my first job in Oxford, worked in Japan for twenty years and now live in Northern Ireland. Even if you are not from the UK you probably appreciate some of the differences in culture between these places, often marked by accent and attitude.

In Japan too there are variations according to region. Those from Western Japan can be more expressive, open, informal, and chatty. Those from Tokyo tend to be more reserved, more formal, and polite. Those from country areas are more conservative. City folk make relationships more quickly (but not quickly). There are variations in accent. And there are plenty of exceptions to all these types. Everyone who steps through the door of Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship—or wherever you meet them—is an individual with his or her own personality, background, joys, troubles, hopes, and fears. However, there are (at least) three dynamics that shape Japanese people and influence their behaviour wherever they come from. They are: Group Identity, Deference, and Shame.

Group Identity

In many meetings, in a host of different Japanese cultural settings, a common phrase used by Japanese is, Wareware nihonjin wa. It is a self-reference, “we Japanese”, to explain the why of what they do. We Japanese are Buddhist. We Japanese go to Shinto temples. We Japanese don’t push ourselves forward. To Western-influenced ears this may seem an insufficient reason for a particular act. For Japanese, though, doing something because everybody else does it provides a deep-rooted motivation for action. It is foundational for Japanese living, for maintaining harmony in relationships, and for preserving their sense of identity as Japanese.

If you approach the subject of Christianity in Japan, you will frequently receive the reply, we Japanese are Buddhist. There is no rudeness here. It is like me saying I live in Tokyo and receiving the reply, we live in Osaka. It is not an issue of personal conviction but of group identity. The implication is that it is fine for you to be a Christian, simply that we Japanese are not. We Japanese are Buddhist.

Such a statement is made more complicated by the fact that few Japanese know the four noble truths of Buddhism; fewer still follow the eightfold path. When they say they’re Buddhist, they usually mean a family funeral will be taken by the Buddhist priest who will come and deal with the death in a professional manner by chanting in Sanskrit. Using the Buddhist sect the family has always used is more important than the religious content of the ceremony. Group identity surfaces again.

At birth Japanese take their babies to the Shinto Shrine. They take their new car there too, to have it purified, kept safe, protected. As pastor of a church, I was asked to conduct car blessings too, and did. Kids are dressed up in traditional costumes and taken to a shrine at three and seven or just once at five if you are a girl. Everyone does it because everyone does it. If you do not do it as everyone else does it, there is an odd fear that if something bad happens, you might be blamed.

Many weddings are white weddings, held in a church-y sort of room, with a cross at the front, and a foreign man dressed as a minister-like person. Again, there is not a lot of concern about content but rather a desire to follow popular fashion.

Japanese society is a group society. It may be so more deeply than most others because of the many years of self-imposed separation and isolation from the rest of the world from the 1630s to the 1850s. This period distilled the cultural values of that day; values which persist despite the present, modern-day façade. It is particularly noticeable in the rigorous adherence to ceremony and ritual. There is death ceremony, indeed, many post-death ceremonies. At school there are all sorts of assemblies. In our children’s local primary school there was a pool opening ceremony during the summer term. Everyone was there. Everyone participated. The words read at the pool opening ceremony were the same every year. Within this highly choreographed structure Japanese find an ease, and a place, a group-belonging, an identity.

I am often asked, what religion are the Japanese? I usually reply, a touch provocatively, being Japanese. To Japanese being Japanese means doing what Japanese do. This applies to being a family member, a company member, or a member of the class that graduated in 2004. Such group ties are felt strongly. It is the preservation of these meaning-giving ties that lies behind the second and third influences of deference and shame.


Many of you will be familiar with the Japanese suffix -san placed after people’s names. It is often (wrongly) thought to be equivalent to Mr, Mrs, Ms, or Miss. The suffix serves a more important function than indicating gender or marital status. It indicates that I consider you above me. You cannot, therefore, use it to refer to yourself. Only others can use it to refer to you. For children there are alternative suffixes, but you can’t use them for your own kids. Between kids, you only use it for those older than you.

For someone more respected still and when addressing letters, other suffixes come into use. As a church leader in Japan I also received a suffix. I was –sensei. Literally, one who has lived life a little longer. My given name, Graham, was never used, but sometimes I was Orr-sensei. However, most of the time sentences simply began, “Sensei…” Since Japanese don’t use the word “you”, but rather a name and honorific suffix, even in direct conversation with a person, you have to know people’s names and status to be able to talk to them.

As deference is shown, verbs change and verb endings change. There are subtleties on subtleties. I could go on and on. My point is that Japanese show everyone the appropriate level of respect in everything they do from how they are addressed, to grammar changes, to the length and depth of each bow.

Just in case we think this is easy and automatic for them, the following incident shows otherwise. My daughter Kathryn had a Japanese friend stay with us over Christmas. Her English was excellent, her German even better. I tried many times to switch into Japanese with her. She never wavered in using English. On the third day I said something about using Japanese and she replied, “Yes, but how polite do I need to be with you?” I had made constant comments that she was just part of the family while she was staying with us, but that left her unsure of what to call me if we used Japanese. In English I was just Graham. In Japanese would I be Graham-san, or Orr-san, or Orr-sensei?

If you ask any Japanese person what causes them the most trouble and stress in life, you will receive a uniform answer: human relationships. I have highlighted one small area. Deference is required in all relationships, and it extends to all areas of life from pouring drinks of water at a meal table to what time you are allowed to leave the office after work.

If a person at school, work, or church is a year older than you, it is their opinion that has priority. Yours is best left unmentioned. You do whatever someone above you requests. You do it humbly, without questioning. And you have the security of knowing that the person above you will take responsibility for you. Showing deference in all situations can be quite tricky.


When Aki walked in to the Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship, I wanted her to feel welcome, to feel like she was part of the group. We usually drink tea and chat for the first thirty minutes or so, welcoming newcomers, and catching up with recent news with others. When Aki arrived I didn’t launch into anything negative about Mormonism. Indeed, I actually praised her willingness to go. She had come to us showing the same openness. Any anti-Mormon comments would have made her feel she had done something this Christian group she was presently attending would not approve of. That feeling of shame would make her feel much less accepted by us. Instead of telling her what I thought was right or wrong, we simply welcomed her to join us and watch. She saw how we related to each other. She saw how we read the Bible passage and discussed it openly, warmly, and relevantly together for an hour. All that time she would have been assessing whether this was a group to which she would like to belong. The parameters for that decision would be the quality of the inter-personal relationships more than the content of the study.

Afterwards, over more tea, I gently added a sentence or two explaining that Mormonism is not considered part of the historical Christian church. Even in saying that I smoothed it over with it’s fine if you want to go there, and set the whole conversation in a wider context of explaining church denominations in Ireland. It was deliberately indirect.

Aki came back the next month, began to attend the Bible studies between monthly meetings and visited us in Northern Ireland for a few days as well. She became a fully-involved and greatly-appreciated member of the group. She never went back to the Mormons, though I do wonder what she did with the book. I don’t ask of course because that would probably embarrass her.

My task in welcoming her was to show deference to her for her actions without necessarily condoning the actions themselves. At some point during the year, she must have worked out for herself the rights and wrongs of going to Mormon services and because it was all handled indirectly she did not lose face and could enjoy being part of Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship.

It may seem to western-influenced minds that Japanese avoid dealing with issues when in actual fact they are choosing to deal with them indirectly and invisibly to save public face. When I first lived in Japan, I was hired by a language school in Sendai that made out my contract on two sheets of paper. At the regional immigration office the school’s business manager submitted the top page that fulfilled immigration requirements and omitted the second sheet that did not comply with requirements. I saw what I thought was going on and told the immigration officer it was a lie. I was a young, naïve Westerner who didn’t understand what was going on! I caused the business manager huge embarrassment when all he was trying to do was to help me get a job. In retrospect I can see that the business manager was showing deference to required form and both he and the immigration officer would have known what was going on indirectly but neither could say without causing shame to both sides, embarrassment, and a breakdown in relations.

Deference is shown in all public relations to preserve the harmony of the group, while the underlying private communications are surmised, discerned, and guessed at but never mentioned. When these unspoken codes of conduct are not followed, relationships break and cannot be mended. If someone is found to be involved in a financial scandal at a company, they resign. They remove themselves from the group in shame for having let the company down publicly, and the whole group feels shame that one of their group has been found out publicly. Often the boss also resigns in order to take responsibility for the group’s shame.

All is well as long as the public face is preserved. No one thinks financial mismanagement is not actually happening. The problem, and the accompanying shame, only arises when it comes out and public face is damaged.

How do these dynamics influence Japanese when they travel and live abroad?

How do these dynamics influence Japanese when they travel and live abroad?

Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship

Japanese Abroad

In my own context of the UK and Ireland, most Japanese who come to Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship are on working holiday visas for one year. They are mostly women in their late twenties. In addition, there are two or three families on business and one or two undergraduates. Each has different reasons for being abroad, but a common one we hear is exhaustion and fatigue from an over-choreographed, conformist lifestyle. Aki had been working from 7:00 AM to 12:00 PM every day, seven days a week, as a primary school teacher and was worn out. She wanted to escape for a while to recover and reconsider her career choices. Some are asking deeper questions—what is life about? Who should I marry? What does the future hold?

We have found these young Japanese living abroad to be more open to Christian influence than their contemporaries in Tokyo, but not to a rushed “four spiritual laws” type of approach. The key reason for such openness is their loss of identity. They are no longer part of a group, not among a large number of fellow Japanese, not among their school friends or workmates. They are dislocated from their normal way of obtaining and maintaining their identity. After settling in for a few months, this cultural lost-ness provides them an opportunity to learn. They begin to ask, where do I belong?

The first consequence of this cultural dynamic of group identity is that Japanese abroad are very eager to belong to a group, as Aki’s story well illustrates. The Japanese pastor who trained me explained that for Japanese belonging precedes believing. I disagreed strongly at the time, but have found it invariably to be true. Japanese ease themselves into a group slowly, with care. Once they feel part of the group, accepted, and secure, they are able to explore deeper issues such as what is true while being supported by the new relationships they have built.

The second consequence of these dynamics when Japanese live abroad is that they will defer to your opinion for the sake of your friendship and membership in your circle of friends. When abroad, Japanese are loosed, to a degree, from the groupthink ties of their culture, but they do not cease to be Japanese. They will show you respect and defer to your opinions, especially if you are older than they are. They will rarely say “no”, and “yes” denotes a nodding participation in the conversation, not wholehearted agreement.

In my first position as staff in a large Japanese church, with still very limited language, I had to answer the church telephone. My side of the conversation would be: “Hai”, “Hai”, “Hai” ten or fifteen times, with bows (yes, even on the telephone). I would put the phone down but have no idea who called, what they wanted, or even who to tell about it. Hai is a versatile response, sometimes meaning I am on the other end of this conversation, sometimes I get what you are saying (though I don’t necessarily agree), and sometimes it can mean “yes, I agree with you.” It all depends on how you say it. It is a much broader and neutral response than an English “yes”.

Once or twice a year I find an email in my inbox saying how in some UK city church, four or five Japanese have believed and asking what should the church do? While I delight in local churches having such contact with Japanese, I have first to peel back the layers of what has gone on and usually find that in answer to the major questions of belief such as, “Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God? Do you believe he died for your sins?” Japanese have answered, “yes” (thinking it an English equivalent to hai) because they want to belong and want on-going friendship and do not want to upset kind and generous hosts. My advice to delighted Bible study leaders and pastors is “Don’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

In the first few months abroad Japanese are disoriented and respond warmly to friendship and encouragement. Welcome them to your circle of friends. Since UK culture is less expectation laden than Japanese, and Irish culture expects even less, Japanese find an increased sense of freedom. Unfortunately, it is a sense of freedom that will hunt them down when they return home.

Returning to Japan

Every one of those on working holiday visas in Dublin will return to Japan. Undergraduates too. Businessmen too. They may be abroad a year, or two, or maybe as long as five, but almost every single person returns to Japan. And has a shock.

While working in OMF The Chapel of Adoration we learnt that Japanese come to faith in Christ in quite large numbers when abroad. As many as a quarter of church members were returnees. But three in four of those Japanese who have become Christians abroad struggle to keep their faith on return. There are many reasons: inadequate understanding of what it means to become a Christian out of deference to over-eager preachers, a lack of discipleship in local churches, and unfamiliarity with Japanese Christian language. However, the most common (and tragic) reason is simply being unaware of how difficult and different Japan will feel on their return.

Their freedom from the requirements of Japanese cultural groupthink is often central to their finding a new identity and faith in Jesus, baptism, and membership in a church. On returning to Japan they are dislocated (again) from this new group and struggle to relocate themselves in the Japanese church. They expect it to be just like the church they have come to know abroad, which it rarely is. Their experience away, the lessons they have learnt, and the new values they have adopted are often contrary to Japanese expectations (even church expectations!) and when they live out their foreign-learnt values at work and in church, they find themselves behaving very differently from their colleagues. By not showing deference to those around them, by not fitting in, returnees quickly find themselves outside of the group, with its accompanying shame.

To avoid such mishaps, we take time to prepare those returning and try to help those who work with Japanese in other cities to do the same. Without such preparation, Japanese get back home and find they don’t belong in the culture, and even more shockingly to them, they don’t belong in the church either.

This is a complex issue with which to grapple. I have found material published by Friends International UK to be well written and universally helpful. In particular the booklet, Think Home and their Bible discussions for international students, The ID Course. I have translated the latter into Japanese to allow those working with international students across the UK to use it in conjunction with the English version.

Aki returned to Japan in January wanting to be involved in educational reform but didn’t take up an offer to work at her former primary school. In May I came home from a conference to find Aki was staying with us overnight. She had come back to Ireland for a week and travelled up to see us. She said she missed speaking English, had found Irish people so friendly, and that she wanted to come back to Dublin—which she called her second home. She has been granted another working holiday visa, this time for Denmark, where she hopes to do further study. In July, to everyone’s delight, she appeared again in Dublin, for a week this time, accompanied by her mother. She is, however, showing signs that she is struggling to settle back into life in Japan.

Will her continued search for identity and significance lead her to a lasting relationship with Christ and an assurance that she is an integral part of God’s people? Will local Christians and overseas Japanese Christians and Japanese Christians at home welcome her and include her in their circle until she discovers she is a part of it? Will her unspoken questions about group identity be supplemented by questions about her identity before her Creator and what he has done through Jesus? It may well be that God is using her overseas experience to extend his love to her so that she will find a lasting identity. With great hope that God is leading many out of their native cultural setting so they can find him, we work to lead Japanese to faith in Jesus, disciple them in Christian truth, prepare them to return home as changed individuals, encourage them to integrate into a church upon their return, and to make an impact there as witnesses for Christ.


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