Winny Leung introduces us to two Japanese believers who recount their journeys to faith and what they wrestle with in navigating the relationship between their faith and some Japanese cultural practices. Their stories provide a powerful glimpse into what it is like to be a Japanese Christian and what is needed to equip them to engage with their culture.
Winny and her husband, Ricky, joined OMF in 2014. They serve as church planters in a rural city in Hokkaido, Japan. They are applying for the OCMS MPhil Research Programme and hope to research topics that can help the Japanese churches in the long run.
Seeking God and Growing in Him in My Way: The Stories of Two Japanese Christians
Mission Round Table 16:3 (September–December 2021): 28–30
“Christian terrorist”—the story of Satoru
Even though only one percent of the religious population of Japan is Christian, Satoru was not unfamiliar with the name “Jesus Christ.” In fact, he had far too close a relationship with Jesus in his childhood, so he decided to set him at a distance, not expecting that he would later be led to reestablish his relationship with the Savior.
Satoru was born into a Christian family. From childhood, he was brought to the church by his parents. Sadly, he did not enjoy church life at all. Because Satoru was the eldest among his brothers, his parents expected him to set a good Christian example and they had been very strict with him, particularly about attending Sunday services and reading the Bible. Under the harsh religious supervision from his parents, Satoru’s hatred towards Christianity had come to a flash point! He hated church life. He hated reading the Bible and praying. He hated everything about Christianity! To show his anger and discontent, he used whatever ways possible to disturb the Sunday service. Once, he even sprayed water on the church with a hose! The bad relationship with his parents was a thick wall that blocked the relationship between Satoru and Jesus.
If I relate to Jesus, why are “parents” and “church,” which are the stumbling blocks, included in this relationship? If “parents” and “church” are not taken out from this relationship, it is hard for me to build a relationship with Jesus. Besides, I have to unlearn what I have been told by my parents and children’s Sunday School about Christianity and rethink my relationship with Jesus.
The turning point—an intellectual process
The turning point was when Satoru was a junior high student. He believed that to accept Jesus as his true Savior, there were two things he had to figure out. Firstly, he needed to think through what Christianity meant to him. Secondly, he needed to figure out his relationship with Jesus. What was the true meaning of “Heavenly Father” to him? Did nature and the universe come into being by accident or by intelligent design, or were they created? Satoru desperately did all kinds of studies to find the answers. Finally, he was convinced that it is impossible for such an orderly universe to come into being by accident, so also with humans and animals. He was assured that there must be an “unknown God” who created this world and this God must be the one spoken of in the Old Testament. He was also convinced that since God created humans, they have a relationship with him and also a responsibility to follow him. “Because the Heavenly Father said ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him,’ humans have to follow this order, so will I,” said Satoru.
After undergoing this intellectual process, Satoru confessed his faith. And six months later, he was baptized without any hesitation or facing any objection.
“Even now, just opening the Bible is painful to me.” The experience of being forced by his parents to read the Bible and pray has been a trauma to Satoru. Therefore, he has decided not to pretend to be a good Christian anymore, but rather to be true to himself.
If I pretend to be a good Christian, I feel that I am lying. In those days, God gave me a lot of teachings, one of them was “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Since then, I have decided to read the Bible when I can read, to pray when I can. I feel much freer when doing these.
Unique opinion, common struggle
Satoru is very active in serving the church. He serves as deacon in addition to being the guitarist and overseeing the sound board. He used to serve as a cell group leader. When asked what led him to quit, he replied,
The Japanese churches love fellowship (交わり). But we spend too much time on fellowship, but [Bible] study is also important. It is better to have a good balance. Besides, we should have more studies on discipleship training, theology, worship, and tithing, etc. It is better to study those kinds of basic knowledge…. Our knowledge on tithing is too superficial. We always say, “This sacrifice is the amount that we return to you” in the Sunday service prayer. Yet, this sacrifice represents “our sacrifice to the Lord.” Thus, it is not “return” (お返し) but “to sacrifice ourselves” (自分を捧げる). Therefore, cell group leaders should be those who are well trained.
When asked about cultural struggles that he has encountered so far, Satoru’s answer was not unexpected.
The thing that I struggled with the most was at a funeral. My wife was the only Christian in her family. When I attended the funeral of her grandmother, I was the only person who was suitable to do hashiwatashi. I struggled a lot at that time, but in the end I did it. If I refused, I would give trouble to my wife’s family, and I did not think it’s a good testimony. I believed that if Jesus was there, he would have chosen to comfort the family in sorrow. So, I decided to trust in Jesus and leave this struggle to him. Regarding filial piety and faith in the Japanese culture, I think believing in God is important, but caring about our neighbor is also important.
Well, I could only trust the Lord. The request was so sudden that I could not even prepare or ask for advice from our pastor. But even if I can ask, I believe that there will be many different answers. For those strict pastors, they will say “No” for sure. Some may say “it depends on the situation” or “God will know our struggles. So, it is OK.” There may be no correct answer in the world. Maybe when I die and go to heaven and ask our Father, there I will know the correct answer.
Satoru’s resigned response spoke to my heart, and I felt for him.
“Seeking for unchanging love”—the story of Motome
Raised in a Christian family, Motome was baptized when he was nine by his own decision. Christianity was so natural to him, just like part of his normal life. He had been blessed by the biblical teaching and prayer from his parents. He thought these things were normal, part of common family life. It was not until he moved to Tokyo for university and started living by himself that he started recognizing the difference. “Of course, I knew God and I believed in him. But it was when I moved to Tokyo, I started feeling that God is essential in my life and I felt it from the bottom of my heart.” This was also the moment when his faith grew rapidly, like “a flower in blossom.”
While his faith grew in Tokyo, those were also the days when he suffered a lot. While he was in university, he started dating a non-Christian girl. She used to study in a Christian school and knew a lot about the Bible. Yet, she only knew it with her head, not her heart. In fact, she hated Jesus. What’s more, this girl had another boyfriend while she was dating Motome. Motome was extremely shocked and hurt when he found out. He felt the limitations of humans. He sought for love that would never change. He was reminded that only Jesus’ love, as demonstrated on the cross, will never change. He was longing for such unchanging love, but he also wanted a human’s love. Unfortunately, that girl was not the one who could give him such love. In the end, they separated. Motome struggled and suffered for nearly two years. In those difficult days, Motome was comforted when he worshipped God during the Sunday services.
You are not alone!
Another challenge that struck Motome happened when he was twenty-five—he lost both his health and career. He had been taking medication for two years and suffering from insomnia. To his disappointment, he did not feel any better after taking the medication. Motome started communing with a men’s cell group. It was a group of three members, all about the same age as Motome. After they learnt about Motome’s situation, they earnestly prayed for him. And it was such a miracle—Motome started recovering gradually and he could sleep without taking any medicine! Finally, he could even stop going to the hospital. This experience of miraculous healing has strengthened Motome’s faith and he learnt to accept his own weaknesses. He believes that even if he breaks down, God will give him strength to rise up again.
The same cultural struggle
Motome faced a similar struggle as Satoru, which is the religious practice related to Buddhist or Shinto ceremonies. Since Motome works as a legislator, he is frequently invited to the attend Buddhist or Shinto ceremonies.
Sometimes I am told that I must attend [a Shinto ceremony], but I don’t really want to. Even now, I still feel very pressured and scared. If I do not attend, there will be lots of pressure. That is really difficult. But I think if I keep taking this standpoint, the others will eventually understand.
The obstacles: community building and ancestor worship
From the stories of Satoru and Motome, a couple of things can be observed. Although both grew up in Christian families, their perceptions of Christianity and church life were very different. Of course, the role model and teaching of parents is a crucial factor, but the quality of fellowship and life seem to also be key factors. Besides, both of them share the same cultural struggles. From their stories, two potential factors that affect the church growth in Japan can be suggested—community building and ancestor worship.
1. Community building
From my personal observation, one of the true reasons behind weak growth in Japanese churches is the failure to build up a supportive community for seekers and believers so they can thrive. It is said that the Buddhist or Eastern view of the self is much more community-oriented. Unfortunately, we missionaries unconsciously bring in our own culture of sharing the gospel and ways in Christian growth, without taking into account how new believers can stay in their own community with their new religious identity or enter a new Christian community with love and care.
The blame, however, should not be put only on missionaries. Churches also fail to build cultural bridges into the larger society due to fear of contamination by pagan elements, causing Christians to build walls of self-protection. Churches themselves fail to engage with or respond to the society. Biblical teaching is mainly intellectual and weak in application. Christians may see the importance of doing outreach, but they cannot find suitable examples to follow. As a result, churches are neither able to build supportive community nor engage the “secular” community.
2. Ancestor worship
Fear of the spirit world and of the future is not uncommon in Buddhist Asia. Divination often becomes crucial when a family is dealing with the death of a loved one. To ignore this need is to dismiss the primary conditions and strategic means for reaching the target people. In fact, Francis Xavier, the first missionary to Japan, recognized that ancestor worship was the root of the faith and strength of blood ties in Japan. He understood deeply how Japanese people desire the salvation of blood relations. Western Pure Land Buddhism in Japan had a doctrine of rebirth through the invocation of Amitabha. Because this doctrine was appreciated by the people, this form of Buddhism spread throughout the country and is still popular in Japan today. Early Christian missionaries were not able to reconcile ancestor worship and the Christian tradition. To this day, the problem has not been resolved and it obstructs the spread of Christianity in contemporary Japan.
Samuel Lee states that one of the reasons why Christianity is not widely believed in Japan is the strong pressure from the larger community or society, where personal decisions are not allowed to disturb the harmony of these groups even when such decisions are logically beneficial to the individual decision maker. Christians can be perceived as being antisocial and selfish for disrupting the harmony of the family unit by refusing to observe many traditional Shinto and Buddhist rituals, especially those of praying to spirits and reverencing the dead. For most Japanese, gods are not to be worshipped, but have to be treated correctly. Correct treatment entails rituals of respect, veneration, propitiation, and offerings that are performed by the living on behalf of the dead to gain access to the life-giving powers of gods. In traditional Japanese thinking, if ancestors’ spirits are worshipped properly through religious rituals, funeral ceremonies, and offerings, they can transform into gods (仏) and protect the family for generations. Though Mariana Nesbitt argued that for the urban dweller, this overwhelming obligation to help the ancestors gain nirvana ( 涅槃 nehan) is not uppermost in their minds anymore, it is obvious that there is still a sense of dependence on the dead, but mainly for psychological comfort. The comfort seems to be found in knowing that the customs have been observed satisfactorily. It is said that in order for the dead to remain fresh in the memory, it is necessary that some object of reminiscence, such as a house, a legacy, or a grave, remain within the daily reach of the descendants. To deny this aspect of ancestor worship is to deny one of the deepest means to self-identity among Japanese people.
Their stories tell something
Each Japanese Christian has his own story and each story tells how one grows in faith in his unique way. There are tears, smiles, and struggles in the stories, but—most importantly—they are not alone! God’s mercy and grace are always with them. And their stories communicate to us missionaries important messages. I pray that through listening and studying more stories of the local believers, we can be rethink and derive more effective mission strategies that better help the Japanese churches.
The stories are based on interviews that I carried out with two Christians living in Hokkaido, Japan. Names have been changed in the stories.
 According to “Annual Statistics of Religion 2020” (「宗教年鑑 令和2年版」) issued by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan, in the religious population of 183,107,772 people, 1.0 percent (1,909,747) are Christians. See 文化庁,「 宗教統計調査」, 35, https://www.bunka.go.jp/tokei_hakusho_shuppan/tokeichosa/shumu/index.html (assessed 1 September 2021). Since it is normal for the Japanese to believe in more than one religion, the religious population is far larger than the figure for Japan’s population (about 125 million people in 2020). Another figure, which was published by Tokyo Christian University in April 2019, shows the Christian population in 2017 (including Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) was 0.83 percent (1.05 million people). See 日本宣教リサーチ, 「JMR 調査レポート(2018年度) 」, 2019 年4月, 東京基督教大学 国際宣教センター, 8, https://www.tci.ac.jp/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/JMR_report_2018.pdf (assessed 4 September 2021).
 Hashiwatashi (箸渡し) is a Buddhist practice at funerals. After the dead body is cremated, two family members use wooden or bamboo chopsticks to pick bones up one by one (in order) simultaneously into a cinerary urn. By doing this, the dead person is believed to pass from this world (この世) to the other world (あの世)smoothly.
 Sheryl Takagi Silzer, “How Buddhist Spirituality Influences and Shapes Asian Cultural Practices: Missiological Implications,” in Seeing the Unseen: Spiritual Realities in the Buddhist World (SEANET Book 12), ed. Paul H. De Neui (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2016), Kindle ed.
 Gioia Michelotti, “The Search for the Best Way to Win Japan,” Missio Nexus, 1 July 1995, https://missionexus.org/the-search-for-the-best-way-to-win-japan/ (assessed 13 July 2021).
 Mitsuo Fukuda summarizes that there are three common ways of outreach that have been used by the Japanese churches: large outreach events, tract delivery, and interest classes (e.g., cooking class, English class, or sports). Once Christians have invited their non-believer friends to the church, they normally pass the job to pastors or missionaries. Fukuda points out that this is a reason for slow church growth. See 福田充男：《野生のキリスト教》（日本：いのちのことば社，2018）, 38–39.
 Alex G. Smith, “Buddhist Spiritual Realities: Divining and Discerning the Future,” in Seeking the Unseen: Spiritual Realities in the Buddhist World, SEANET Book 12, ed. Paul H. de Neui (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2016), Kindle ed.
 Naoko Komura, “Christianity and Ancestor Worship in Japan,” Studies in World Christianity 9, no. 1 (April 2003): 60.
 Komura, “Christianity and Ancestor Worship in Japan,” 65.
 Samuel Lee, Understanding Japan Through the Eyes of Christian Faith, 4th and rev. ed. (Amsterdam: Foundation University Press, 2011), 89.
 Ian Reader, Religion in Contemporary Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991), 27.
 宮家 准著，趙仲明譯：《日本的民俗宗教》（南京：南京大學出版社，2005），頁149。
 Mariana Nesbitt, “Japanese Ancestral Practices: A Contextualized Teaching Tool on the Afterlife in the Local Church (Hibachi Theology)” (MTh thesis, South African Theological Seminary, 2007), 55–56.
 Komura, “Christianity and Ancestor Worship in Japan,” 64–65.
 Komura, “Christianity and Ancestor Worship in Japan,” 67.