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Japan’s Ganbaru Spirit

“Otōsan! I really don’t want to study four times a week at cram school! Primary school is enough. I want to play with my friends,” 11-year old R. complained to his father at the dinner table.

“Ganbare, Son! Trust me. It’s important for your future.”

Later that evening when I was alone with Mr. K., I gently tried to say that I think it is a waste of time and money when children have to study against their will. He told me that learning is important, but perhaps even more important in Japan is the training to persevere, to remain committed, and be able to put up with something that one does not like.

He said, “These are essential virtues when you want to work for a good Japanese company. If we spoil our children, they will not be able to cope with the demands of a professional life in the future.”

Sometime later, our pastor confirmed that individuals who are hard-working, reliable, and submissive are often more valued in Japanese society than those who are efficient, creative, and critical.

Our pastor also said that these highly valued traits used to be key samurai virtues. I was intrigued to find that one of Japan’s most influential Christians, Uchimura Kanzo (1861–1930), was convinced that the “samurai-spirit”—which holds loyalty to one’s shogun, parents, and society as the highest virtues—can easily be applied to Christian discipleship. Uchimura would even go so far as to say that the genuine “samurai-spirit” is essentially Christian in spirit (cf. Matt. 16:24).

Uchimura was aware that blind and misdirected loyalty can easily be misused and become dangerous. This did not deter him from advocating a transformed “samurai-spirit” as a way of understanding Christian discipleship. Christ’s disciples are not primarily loyal to the family or the nation, but to Jesus and his kingdom. Loyalty to Christ freed Uchimura from any socially-prescribed obligations and provided him with a new identity in Christ.

It took me a while to see that Mr. K. and many Japanese who think like him, are not necessarily wrong, just different. Mr. K. helped me to see, via the essence of the “samurai-spirit,” that the “ganbaru-spirit”1 has potential to apply to Christian life and ministry, if it serves the training of commitment, perseverance, and the greater good

Overseas mission is not a one-way affair. If missionaries are open to it, they can discover precious opportunities to learn from our host culture and grow together as disciples of Christ.

By Michael, an OMF missionary

  1. “Ganbaru (inf.) ganbatte (imp.):” is a widespread Japanese expression that is difficult to translate. Depending on context it comes close to: “Try your best,” “Keep going!” “Hang in there.”

Will you pray for Japan?

  • Pray that Christians in Japan will be able to apply the “ganbaru spirit” to  Christian life and ministry in a God-honoring way.
  • Pray that Christians will be loyal primarily to Jesus and his kingdom.
  • Pray for new missionaries as they adjust to the “not wrong, just different” aspects of a new culture.

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