Japan’s Spiritual Epidemic
By Alison North,
Cross Cultural Worker with OMF NZ in Japan
The three ‘C’s have had a lot of air time over the past year in the attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19: avoiding closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact. It often feels like there is another set of three ‘C’s that has kept Japan inoculated against gospel spread over the generations.
Complacency: for centuries Japan has adhered to the Confucian tenet of accepting your lot in life without asking questions. Religion is generally formulaic. Critical thinking and spiritual hunger are not naturally encouraged, and most Japanese don’t consider matters of eternity unless something happens to shake their complacency.
Conformity: the highest virtue in Japan is keeping group harmony, and most Japanese wouldn’t consider acting in a way that might jeopardize their sense of belonging.
Compartmentalization: with the lack of a belief in absolute truth, many Japanese have no scruples about behaving in a contradictory way in different situations, and tend to pick and mix from different religious and moral codes without being concerned about compromise.
How can we even begin to penetrate these walls of resistance, these national strongholds? Missionary work can often feel like tapping around a defensive shield, looking for any possible entry point. Frequently it feels like a futile exercise, but recently God has been reminding me that He is well able to work in and through the culture to draw people to Himself.
In December a non-Christian contact Yuko brought her friend Tomomi to meet me. She was seeking spiritual answers. Tomomi was refreshingly not at all complacent; the Holy Spirit had been stirring up a strong hunger in her for spiritual understanding. She also appeared relatively free from the Japanese conventional box of conformity. However, she shared about a number of different forms of spiritualism she was involved in – compartmentalization was an issue for her, and she was used to picking a bit of this and a bit of that. I said, ‘If God really is almighty, don’t you think that it is an insult to Him to have other gods and spiritual icons as add-ons?’ Both women nodded, and it seemed that from that point a new standard had been established. An hour or so later Tomomi surrendered her life to Christ, and went home buzzing with the light and warmth she was experiencing.
When the cost of following the physical three ‘C’s outweighs the benefits, the people groan, and likewise many find the unspoken three ‘C’s of social coherence too heavy a burden to bear. Toshiko is an example of that. She didn’t fit in, and either wouldn’t, or couldn’t, conform to the way things were done in the rural area where her husband’s company was located. Feeling shunned, she chose to move with her children to a city to be free from the pressure, even though it meant only seeing her husband at weekends. She reluctantly put her daughter into a Christian kindergarten, since that was the only place with an opening, and to her surprise she began to experience a totally different community there. During that time, she was introduced to me and started attending Bible studies and English groups at our place, sometimes cycling an hour each way three times a week. Discovering God’s heart over the past three years has changed her worldview and relationships. She is now planning to get baptized along with her 12-year-old son.
We hear a lot about the ‘new normal’ in the face of the unrelenting pandemic. Challenging the status quo has never been easy in Japan, but my prayer is that this time of hardship would be a catalyst for the three ‘C’s of resistance to be exposed and broken down, making way for a new and mighty move of the Holy Spirit. Please join me in praying that the gospel will be so contagious in 2021 that nothing will be able to curtail its spread.