Japanese worldview: identity in a collectivist society
Japan’s group-oriented society has deep historical roots that present specific challenges in ministry with Japanese people
Every worldview is a complex system of how a certain group of people views the world, expects things to work, and defines good and bad. Of course, every culture has aspects that easily align with biblical living and points that go against the teaching of the Bible that are hard work for Christians in that culture to identify and change. A little while ago, I helped a Japanese friend edit his thesis about three aspects of the Japanese worldview that are challenging for Japanese Christians and churches. He explained that the Japanese worldview is deeply rooted in thousands of years of history and cultural development. I found it so fascinating and helpful that my husband and I based our last home assignment presentations on it. I have crafted a three-part series for Japan Harvest from this long thesis in the hope that it will be as revelatory for you as it was for us. The three topics are collectivist identity, multiple-minded spirituality, and hierarchical structures. This is the first article of the series.
Identity in a collectivist society
A Japanese person’s identity is bound to their social community. Relationships with family, friends,1 and the authorities strongly influence how Japanese people behave.2 Three major historical circumstances have shaped this collectivist view of identity.
Ancient Japanese people lived in clusters. They collaborated with neighbours and followed annual farming cycles. To foster good working relationships, elders taught subsequent generations to avoid quarrels and differences of opinion. Since communities worshipped guardian gods and local gods to wish for successful harvests, they believed spiritual unity aided societal success. A community member’s value was found in their contributions to farming and spiritual customs. The failings of an individual member negatively impacted the wellbeing of everyone. Families would hide individuals who were unable to contribute or who hindered the work. Individual concerns or beliefs were less important than the needs of the community and societal relationships.
During the Edo period (1603–1868), the idea that the group was responsible for an individual’s behaviour was formalized in the legal system when the gonin gumi (group of five) system was implemented. Villages were divided into groups of five families who were collectively responsible for several duties, such as paying agricultural tax and controlling the behaviour of individuals. The purpose was to strengthen the community mentality and govern subversive thought. Therefore, the group’s reputation took precedence over individual freedom. More recently, during the Second World War, neighbours in tonari gumi (group of neighbours) were required to monitor each other and expose anyone demonstrating an anti-war mindset. They also worked together for defence against air raids and they shared food distributions. Individual behaviour was a group issue.
Dōzokudan (kin group) is a structure consisting of honke (main house or senior branch of the family) and bunke (derivate houses or junior branches). This household structure was legally prescribed in 1898, based on the patriarchy of samurai classes in the Edo era and influenced by the agricultural community.3 A “junior” house was established through political marriage and took on a subordinate role—receiving land, housewares, and sometimes goodwill for business from the main house. In this system, the importance of individuals was their benefit to the family; all decisions in life, including marriage and career, were evaluated based on the prosperity of the kin group. At the same time, an individual’s identity was connected to the status of their household.4
Identity in modern Japan
This worldview—that assesses a person’s value in terms of their contribution to society, that prioritizes allegiance to their group, and attributes status based on family connections—can still be observed in Japan today. This affects the behaviour of Japanese Christians. Being part of Japanese society means doing the same things at the same time, and to be united means having the same thoughts and ideas. Anyone who acts or thinks differently is fundamentally at odds with society as a whole. Japanese people continue to function with a strong consciousness of community orientation and obedience to superiors. There is also a residual sense that group members should correct errant individuals.
For example, while very few Japanese people farm rice today, society expects them to follow the “rail” (path). For example, students don’t repeat years of school; those who go to university start at age 18 and begin work at age 22. Anyone who is different is labeled “ichi-rō” (one-year delayed) or “ni-rō” (two-year delayed). Someone who disturbs the system is considered a disruptive community member.5
Individual decisions are still dominated by surrounding authorities and benefits for the group. In middle and high school, most students join a club that meets after school and on weekends. The club often takes priority over an individual’s personal desires. So, for example, if a Christian is absent from a school tennis club on Sunday to attend church, they are distrusted and often not allowed to participate in matches.
In the workplace, employees are often expected to remain in the office at the end of the day until their boss leaves. As work relationships have the highest priority, employees can be expected to go drinking with their boss and colleagues after work, and—if a superior requires it—to work on Sundays. Also, just as society was historically organised into groups, workplaces are arranged in teams, so one person’s absence or mistake will be shameful or problematic for the whole team. As in the past, work takes priority over an individual’s faith or spending time with family.6
In addition to all of the above, the power of the family can prevent believers from committing to the Christian faith. The fear of upsetting or shaming their family (impacting the status of all family members) can prevent someone from becoming a Christian or attending church.
So Japanese believers are in a constant battle against societal norms. They struggle to be honourable community and family members, while maintaining their faith. The biblical challenge for Christians is that God calls them to be engaged in this world, but to simultaneously hold non-conformist attitudes.7 In a Japanese worldview, this can be particularly challenging.
Identities in Christ
Of course Christians in every culture need to have their identities, cultures and relationships transformed by the gospel, just as much as Japanese Christians. But the specific, practical application of the Bible needs to be relevant to each worldview. In his letter to Philemon, Paul addresses a hierarchical, class-based relationship amongst people from a similarly group-oriented culture, so it is useful for addressing the Japanese context. He teaches Onesimus, Philemon, and all church members to base their self-identity, their way of relating, and how they value others on their standing in Christ.
Paul describes himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (NIV), “an old man”, “a partner”, and someone in need of refreshment and support, but, at the same time, someone in a position to give orders in the church. He does not devalue himself because of his inability to contribute while in chains or the shame of that circumstance. In fact, Paul appears to find his value in being a prisoner of Christ and views literal chains and perceived weakness as irrelevant to his identity. Paul describes everything in relation to God; he views life from the perspective of being “in Christ”. This gives him a personal value apart from his contributions in this world.
As Japanese Christians develop this same view of personal value, they will be better equipped to stand firm in Christ against the pressures of collectivist thinking. They need a deep understanding of God through studying his Word. As God’s power, sovereignty, and love become more real to the believer, they can live confidently as a child of God, holding onto his promises instead of basing their sense of value on their contributions to society.
Pastors and church leaders need to teach members how to read and interpret the Bible correctly, and encourage them to study on their own. As they do this, true repentance will transform their hearts and fill them with joy and thankfulness. They will know that they are reconciled to their heavenly Father and are forever secure in the unchanging love of God. Rather than the changeable pressure of surrounding opinion, they will be able to rely on a loving God to give their life value.
Relating as groups
Paul calls Philemon his “dear friend”, “fellow worker”, “brother”, and “partner”. He appeals to Philemon to shift his mode of relating to others from one that desires to control to one based on his relationship in Christ. Paul entreats Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “as a dear brother”, grounding his appeal in love. This community of people, the church, is not for the purpose of judging and controlling, but for the purpose of loving and refreshing.
When a Japanese person sees a group of Christians together, they should be struck by the Christians’ indiscriminate love. But too often, Japanese people don’t go to church for fear of not being good enough or of being judged. It is important that churches do not simply become another place of judgment and control in a person’s life.
To help Japanese Christians develop a biblical worldview, they need discipleship that teaches them to apply the Scriptures to their everyday life. Rather than being controlled by a social group, Christians can encourage each other to submit to God’s expectations, surrendering to his judgement not men’s.
Value of others
Paul accords status to people because of their standing in Christ. Under Roman law, slaves were regarded as the property of their masters and were expected to bring economic benefit to their owners.8 In spite of Onesimus’ background as a slave who had stolen from his master, Paul calls him “my son”, “my very heart”, and “a dear brother”, thus indicating spiritual equality. Paul accorded both Philemon and Onesimus the status of beloved brothers and equal partners according to their new relationship in Christ, rather than their economic or familial positions in this world.
Sometimes Japanese churches value people according to their worldly position, rather than as brothers and sisters or partners. Furthermore, just as families did in the past, churches are tempted to compare and compete with other churches. They may find status in their numbers, “holiness”, influential members, or the important reputation of their pastor.
But Paul uses intimate and value-bound terms of relating in the book of Philemon. Through this he demonstrates that believers have become a new family. God has given them the status of his children. The national Japanese church would be strengthened with discipleship on relating as the family of Christ.
This collectivist aspect of the Japanese worldview gives Japanese people a tendency to value themselves and others based on their social contributions, to control others through social groups, and to accord status based on social standing. A Christian worldview finds our value in Christ, our everyday behaviour dictated by God’s expectations, and our status as members of God’s own family. The challenge identified here suggests Japanese Christians need discipleship and encouragement focused on how to joyfully live out their identity as children of God in their everyday lives and relationships, and not to fear those who look on.
1. Hajime Nakamura, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan, Indian ed. (Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1991, 1964), 409.
2. Graham Orr, “Three key cultural dynamics,” Japan Harvest, Summer 2018, 12.
3. Lianhua Shen, Patriarchal family institution of Japan – In the center of [the family] relationship in farm, Chiiki Seisaku Kenkyu, Vol. 8 No. 4 (March 2006): 100, 103, http://www1.tcue.ac.jp/home1/c-gakkai/kikanshi/ronbun8-4/shen.pdf [Japanese language resource]
4. Hayao Kawai, “Nihonjin” to iu Yamai, shohan. ed., Ushio Raiburari (Tokyo: Ushio Shuppansha, 1999), 156-158.
5. Orr, 12.
6. 会社の仕事を通して自己実現をする会社至上主義の時代が終わりつつある日本,” ホワイト零細IT企業への転職, http://white-reisai.com/?p=41858, Feb. 19, 2018.
7. John R. W. Stott, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2010), 90.
8. Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, 20th ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 143-147.