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Three key cultural dynamics – part two

In my previous article,1 I noted three dynamics that shape Japanese people and influence their behaviour: group identity, deference, and shame. Here, I consider how these dynamics influence Japanese living abroad and returnees and note implications for those of us who are ministering to them.

Aki stepped through the door of Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship one Sunday afternoon. Most non-Christians who come for the first time are shy and hesitant, but Aki brightly announced to me, “I’ve already been to worship today. I was walking down the street, and a missionary invited me in.” I nodded my acceptance with a non-committal, “Ah so desu ka.” “They gave me this book,” she added, pulling a Japanese translation of The Book of Mormon from her handbag. “Well done for going,” I replied. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

Avoiding shame

I didn’t launch into anything negative about Mormonism but rather praised Aki’s willingness to go because I wanted her to feel welcome and part of the group. Any anti-Mormon comments would have made her feel she had done something this Christian group didn’t approve of. That sense of shame would make her feel much less accepted by us. In welcoming her, I showed deference to her for her actions without necessarily condoning them.

So instead of telling her what I thought was right or wrong, I simply welcomed her to join us and watch. She saw how we related to each other. She saw how we read the Bible passage together and discussed it openly, warmly, and relevantly for an hour. All that time, she would have been assessing whether this was a group she would like to belong to. That assessment would be based more on the quality of the interpersonal relationships than the content of the study.

Afterwards, over more tea, I gently and briefly mentioned that Mormonism isn’t considered part of the historical Christian church. Even then, I smoothed it over with “But it’s fine if you want to go,” and set the conversation in a wider context of church denominations in Ireland. I was deliberately indirect in my approach.

Aki returned the next month, began attending Bible studies between monthly meetings, and visited us in Northern Ireland for a few days. She became a fully involved and greatly appreciated member of the group.

She never went back to the Mormons. At some point during the year, she must have worked out for herself the rights and wrongs of going to Mormon services. Because it was handled indirectly, she didn’t lose face and could enjoy being part of our group.

Group consciousness

Most Japanese who come to Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship are women in their late twenties on one-year working holidays. There are also a few families on business and a couple of undergraduates. Each person has different reasons for being abroad, but a common one is exhaustion from an over-choreographed, conformist lifestyle. Worn out after working from seven in the morning to midnight seven days a week as a primary school teacher, Aki wanted to escape for a while to recover and reconsider her career choices. Some are asking deeper questions—what is life about? Whom should I marry? What does the future hold?

We’ve found these young Japanese living abroad are more open to Christian influence than their contemporaries we met when we worked in Tokyo. A key reason is their loss of identity. They’re no longer part of a group; they’re not among their school friends or workmates, nor a large number of fellow Japanese. They’re dislocated from their normal way of obtaining and maintaining their identity. After settling in for a few months, this cultural lost-ness provides them an opportunity to learn. They begin asking where they belong.

One consequence of this cultural dynamic of group identity is that Japanese abroad are very eager to belong to a group, as Aki’s story well illustrates. The Japanese pastor who trained me explained that belonging precedes believing for Japanese. I disagreed strongly at the time but have found it to be invariably true. Japanese slowly and carefully ease themselves into a group. Once they feel accepted as part of the group, they’re able to explore deeper issues—such as what is true—while being supported by the new relationships they have built.

Another consequence is that they will defer to your opinion for the sake of your friendship and membership in your circle of friends. When abroad, Japanese are freed, to a degree, from the group-centered ties of their culture, but they don’t cease being Japanese. They will show you respect and defer to your opinions, especially if you are older than them. They will rarely say “no”, and “yes” denotes a nodding participation in the conversation, not wholehearted agreement.

I sometimes get an email saying how four or five Japanese in some UK city church have believed and asking what the church should do. When I probe further, I usually find that the Japanese have answered “yes” to questions such as “Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God and he died for your sins?” because they wanted to belong and wanted ongoing friendship and didn’t want to upset their kind and generous hosts. My advice to delighted Bible study leaders and pastors is “Don’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

In the first few months abroad, Japanese are disoriented and respond warmly to friendship and encouragement. Welcome them into your circle of friends. Since UK culture is less expectation-laden than Japanese culture, Japanese find an increased sense of freedom. Unfortunately, it will cause them problems when they return home.

Readjusting to Japan

Every one of those students, businessmen, and people on working holidays in Dublin will return to Japan after a few years and experience a shock.

While working at an OMF church in Ichikawa, Chiba, we learnt that many Japanese people come to faith when abroad. Close to a quarter of church members were returnees. But three in four Japanese who become Christians abroad struggle to keep their faith on returning. There are many reasons—an inadequate understanding of what it means to become a Christian out of deference to over-eager preachers, a lack of discipleship in local churches, and an unfamiliarity with Japanese Christian language. However, the most common (and tragic) reason is simply being unaware of how difficult and different Japan will feel on their return.

Overseas, their freedom from the requirements of Japanese cultural groupthink is often central to their finding a new identity and faith in Jesus, baptism, and church membership. On returning to Japan, they are dislocated from this new group and struggle to relocate themselves in a Japanese church. They expect it to be like the church they’ve come to know abroad, but it rarely is. Their experience away, the lessons they’ve learnt, and the new values they’ve adopted are often contrary to Japanese expectations (even church expectations), and when they live out their foreign-learnt values at work and church, they find themselves behaving very differently from their colleagues and fellow Christians. By not showing deference to those around them and not fitting in, returnees quickly find themselves outside the group and loaded with accompanying shame.

To avoid such mishaps, we must take time to prepare Japanese who are returning to Japan, and help those working with Japanese in other cities do the same. Without such preparation, Japanese return home and find they don’t belong in the culture, and, more shockingly, they don’t belong at church. This is a complex issue to grapple with. I’ve found the material published by Friends International UK well-written and universally helpful. Particularly the booklet Think Home2 and their Bible discussions for international students, The ID Course3 (which is being translated into Japanese).

Aki returned to Japan in January 2017 wanting to be involved in educational reform. Aki visited Ireland twice in 2017. She showed signs of struggling to settle back into life in Japan, and she missed speaking English and the friendliness of the Irish people.

Will Aki’s ongoing search for identity and significance lead her to a lasting relationship with Christ and an assurance that she is an integral part of God’s people? Will local Christians, overseas Japanese Christians, and Japanese Christians at home welcome and include her in their circle until she discovers she’s a part of it? Will her unspoken questions about group identity be supplemented by ones about her identity before her Creator and what he has done through Jesus? God may well be using her overseas experience to extend his love to her so that she will find a lasting identity.

We have great hope that God is leading many Japanese people out of their native cultural setting so they can find him. We therefore work to lead Japanese to faith in Jesus, disciple them in Christian truth, prepare them to return home as changed individuals, and encourage them to integrate into a church on returning and to make an impact there as witnesses for Christ.

The original article on which this and the first article is based is available at https://omf.org under the title “Japanese Cultural Dynamics: Their Influence on Japanese Abroad and their Impact on their Return”.

1. Graham Orr, “Three key cultural dynamics,” Japan Harvest (Summer 2018), 12.

2. Friends International Resources: https://friendsinternational.uk/resources/books-to-buy/think-home (accessed March 19, 2019).

3. Friends International Resources: https://friendsinternational.uk/resources/books-to-buy/id-course-student-notes (accessed March 19, 2019).

Photo submitted by author

With his wife, Alison, Graham Orr served in Japan for 18 years and then with OMF Diaspora Returnee Ministries since 2013. He leads the Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship and teaches on cross-cultural issues throughout the UK and Ireland.

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