the group trumps everything

people waiting for shinkansenJapan is unique in modern cross-cultural ministry. It is one of the only unreached places in the world (maybe the only) where there are no concrete barriers to the spread of the Gospel. People in Japan are well educated, have no lack of access to basic necessities, and have all the infrastructure needed to support a modern nation. Governmentally, Japan has total freedom of religion and a Japanese person converting to Christianity would face no overt or direct persecution. All of the barriers to accepting the Gospel come from inside the people themselves.

As Japanese culture developed over the last few hundred years, a strong sense of group became deeply embedded. Every Japanese person is a part of various groups that form overlapping concentric circles – I am a part of my department which is a part of my division which is a part of my company; I am a part of my family which is a part of my neighborhood which is a part of my city; etc. Part of the nature of being Japanese is to be constantly thinking about your obligations to your various groups and how to fit in to these groups and be like everyone else. Most Japanese see Christians, the Bible, and Jesus in a very favorable light. But becoming a Christian – and thus becoming different and unable to fulfill some of your obligations – is too much to bear.

The Japanese people are known for their politeness and generosity. We have often thought that it is impossible to out-give a Japanese person. They believe that gifts and acts of hospitality and generosity are the grease on their relationship wheels. Because Japan is a ‘high-context’ culture, meaning that almost all people living on the islands are ethnically Japanese, the idea of what is Japanese and what is not is very strong. They have developed what they believe is a right way to do everything and they do everything in that way.

Because they have such a deep level of understanding about what it means to be Japanese, there is often a lot of unspoken communication that occurs in Japanese circles. One mark of their politeness is that they never say anything very directly, because that would insult, or shame, the person they are talking with. This means that conversations can sometimes be vague and a bit unclear. In their mind, it is far better to be unclear than to have offended someone with directness.

A hallmark of the Japanese culture is that they can tend to be a very reserved people, guarding their feelings and opinions carefully so that only the most acceptable ones show through. Because of this, it can be difficult to get to know a Japanese person, and may sometimes take years to really uncover what their true opinions are. It is said that this is even more so the case in the rural areas of Japan. For the foreigner coming in, relationships and longevity are probably two of the most important things they can focus on.