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The importance of face in Japan

The importance of showing face

I remember attending my first pastors’ retreat 36 years ago in Hokkaido with JECA pastors and OMF missionaries. My Japanese was limited, the topics challenging, and I floundered. While enjoying the public bath that evening, I was so amazed that Pastor K took the time to talk to me while we were scrubbing together that I forgot to rinse off all the soap from my back before I entered the bath. Imagine my chagrin when bubbles of soap floated to the top of the water and Pastor K quickly exited the bath to leave me alone!

I thought to myself while driving back to Asahikawa: Why did I attend this pastors’ retreat? I got nothing out of it and made a fool of myself.

Since then I have attended many Japanese pastors’ meetings. When serving in Hakodate I would leave home at 3 a.m. to attend a meeting in Sapporo and return very late that same evening. Was the time and energy worth it? Gradually, I came to the realisation that my contribution at meetings (very limited in my early years in Japan) was not as important as my presence. Showing up, showing my face, enabled my Japanese colleagues to trust and value me.

I would like to encourage younger workers: It does not matter how much you understand or are able to say—just being with Japanese pastors at the various meetings is vitally important. Over time you will earn the right to contribute to the discussion and be heard.

The importance of not showing face

Have you noticed that when talking about serious matters, the faces of many Japanese become almost expressionless? Or when angry, the language becomes politer and the annoyed person’s face does not express their inner emotion? This helps the relationship by allowing the other person not to lose face.

Often, what we foreigners (outsiders) are thinking and feeling is easily read by Japanese. Our faces become open books; anger is shown by our facial expressions and raised voices.

We need to try to keep emotions from our faces to avoid being rude, especially when disagreeing with another person or being given a special delicacy to taste. The brief grimace, or turned down mouth, is correctly understood to mean that we dislike the words or the food. Of course we don’t need to lie by saying, “What you say is good,” or “This is delicious.” We can simply and calmly say, “This is very interesting . . . ”

The importance of the smiling face

Sometimes a Japanese person smiles to cover their embarrassment or guilt (sometimes even grief). Realise that the smile does not undermine or reduce the actual felt emotion.

Usually smiling is good, especially when it comes naturally from a heart and mind filled with Jesus’ joy. David writes of Jesus, “You have shown me the way of life, and you will fill me with the joy of your presence” (Acts 2:28 NLT). The word “presence” is prósōpon or Πρόσωπον, meaning “presence; face; countenance.”

As members of God’s Kingdom, we are living out his kingdom way of life and experience the joy of Jesus’ face and presence. We do not need to be like Moses who had to cover his face so that the Israelites would not see God’s glory fading away (2 Corinthians 3:13). May our faces shine with the radiance of Jesus so that those around can know the reality of our living faith!

Dale Viljoen (OMF) came to Hokkaido from South Africa in 1979. After 21 years of church planting, he served as director of language, orientation, and training until his wife’s death. Dale subsequently married Karen Harless (formerly TEAM) and continues to serve in Sapporo.

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