It has been more than 450 years since the first Catholic missionary arrived in Japan and 150 years since the first protestant missionaries, yet Christianity has not grown there. Christians are still only about 1% out of the entire population, in spite of the all-out efforts of missionaries and local ministers to reach out to people. However, I see the beauty that God has given to Japanese Christianity alongside its challenge. Both the challenges and the beauty of Japanese Christianity are worth exploring.
Definition of Shame and Honor Culture
In shame and honor cultures, “right and wrong” is determined by relative evaluations. In other words, there is no absolute value of ‘sin,’ rather, cultural expectations and obligations decide the value of sin. On the other hand, in guilt cultures such as those in Western countries, people usually have internalized convictions about right and wrong.
The Challenge of Mission in Japan
A typical way of evangelism that is familiar to most Christians in the U.S. follows a logical argument—all of us are sinners, Jesus died on the cross to atone for our sins, and we are saved when we believe in Jesus. However, shame cultures do not understand the first step of “all of us are sinners” because they do not feel that they are sinners so long as they live fulfilling the cultural obligations and expectations. The implication here is that this kind of approach is not effective in shame cultures, including Japan, due to the lack of an absolute concept of “sin.”
For instance, it is very common for Japanese Christians to define the idea of ‘sin’ at the beginning of evangelism. The issue is also seen in Japanese language—in Japanese, the meaning of ‘sin’ and “crime” is described by the same word tsumi, but there is no clear distinction between the two in the usage of the word. Moreover, when ordinary people are asked to define tsumi, most consider it to be equivalent to “crime” because the dominant idea of tsumi in their mindset is something that breaks social orders or cultural obligations. So the idea of tsumi is easily associated with “crime,” which involves breaking the social orders. In other words, they are not concerned with the idea of sin because they think it is alright to commit sin as long as they do not trouble others in their culture. Therefore, Christians must teach people the concept of sin; they still commit tsumi before God’s standard, even though they do not commit crimes or trouble others.
Secondly, in shame cultures cultural expectations and obligations often hinder people to take a step to become believers of Jesus Christ. Actions that might disturb the social and cultural order is considered wrong and quite shameful. In fact, I have seen many church members struggle with this issue. My best friend started his theological education to be a minister this year but he had to patiently wait 15 years to gain any sense of understanding from his non-Christian parents in order to settle this issue. After 15 years of praying with tears, his family has started attending church.
The Beauty of Japanese Christianity
In spite of their challenge and difficulties, shame cultures have a biblical virtue in their cultural values—self-denial. Positively speaking, this cultural value will help them become genuine followers of Jesus Christ. Thework of missiological anthropologist Paul G. Heibert reveals that self-denial and humility are ways that shame cultures work to restore and maintain social order.
Perhaps, they learn how to exercise self-denial culturally and inadvertently, which is the biblical aspect in their culture.
Unlike guilt cultures, shame cultures do not depend on internalized or individual conviction to take actions. Instead, they behave along with cultural expectations and obligations, which often involve self-denial and sacrifice. It is quite common for them to give up their own desires and wishes for the sake of others, families, and friends.
I know many people who gave up their interests, desires, and wishes, for the sake of family, church, and community. Although they learned how to practice self-denial and sacrifice for others culturally, it does not mean that they are always happy with their decisions. They are sometimes forced to make a painful decision to give up their desires, but they believe that God knows their sacrifice. I have seen many fruits by their precious sacrifice; sometimes fruits are seen in their lives and sometimes seen after they passed away.
I see the beauty of Japanese Christianity when persons are willing to sacrifice themselves for others as well as for the Lord. Even though no one recognizes or appreciates their sacrifice, it is my prayer that we would all be willing to do the same thing, “knowing that [our] toil is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Co 15:58 NAU)
A native of Japan, Kei Hiramatsu is a graduate of Douglas College, Momoyama Gakuin University, and Asia Pacific Theological Seminary. He has spent time around Asia ministering in missions and evangelism, and plans on pursuing a Ph.D in biblical studies to train ministers in Inductive Bible Study.