In the aftermath of Japan’s most devastating earthquake and a tsunami that claimed thousands of lives, Christian relief agencies are rushing to respond with both physical and spiritual aid. For many Christian agencies, the tragedy represents an opportunity to share the gospel through actions rather than words. Jeff Palmer, director of Baptist Global Response, said the organization is working to "mount a response that will be effective, [that will] meet needs in overlooked areas and help strengthen the witness of Japanese believers to hope in Christ.”
Christian believers in today’s Japan comprise a very small minority of the population, a reality that spurs aid groups toward creative and compassionate relief efforts."Please pray for wisdom and knowledge as we try and discern how to best help," Palmer urges Christians. "Most of all, please pray for Japan: physically and spiritually.”
A Rocky Road
Christianity has played a relatively small role in the nations’ spiritual history. The faith has barely survived through centuries of misguided and misunderstood evangelistic attempts, years of persecution, and an ongoing resistance to perceived Western influence. Japan’s renowned 20thcentury author, Shusaku Endo, who was well known for his Christian faith, was a rarity in Japanese society. As Endo and numerous other authors and historians have noted, Christianity has not absorbed well into Japanese culture. Today fewer than 2 percent of the population call themselves Christians. And Endo once remarked that, “Christianity, to be effective in Japan, must change.”
While Endo’s perspective can be interpreted in a variety of ways, one thing is certain: Christianity and Japan have not mixed well over the centuries.
Speaking without Words
Today Christian aid and relief groups might represent the best, most effective way to present the gospel in post-tsunami Japan. While the verbal presentation of the gospel has often been met with little more than passing interest and curiosity in the predominately Buddhist nation, relief efforts represent a powerful way to practice the famous admonition of St. Francis: “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”
World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse and countless other relief organizations seek to embody St. Francis’s mantra as they rush to aid the afflicted in Japan. Mitsuko Sobata is a communications and advocacy officer with World Vision Japan. "Last night, I visited one of the shelters housing some 340,000 people who have been evacuated around the city," the officer reported yesterday. "Children are sleeping on cardboard with one blanket in freezing weather. It was very difficult for me to see that. They’re tired and afraid, and the tragedy they’ve endured is overwhelming.”
Not an Easy Path
Most historians point to the arrival of Francis Xavier in Japan in the 16th century as Japan’s earliest exposure to Christianity. At that time thousands of Japanese converted to the faith, but this widespread acceptance was short-lived. By the following century, thousands of Japanese Christians had been brutally martyred, and hundreds of thousands faced violent persecution.
In 1626, Japan banned Christianity. Mission work did not begin again until the 19th century, and the path was not an easy one. As today’s missionaries can attest, Christianity still hasn’t taken root strongly. Today, the fewer than 2% of the population who are Christians struggle to share their faith in a country that is largely unreceptive. Why are there still so few Japanese Christians today?
A Cultural Collision
Many different reasons have been cited for Japan’s poor reception to the gospel, and one perspective in particular seems prevalent. Dr. Minoru Okuyama is the director of the Missionary Training Center in Japan. He feels that Japan’s overall lack of interest in Christianity can be attributed to the culture’s heavy emphasis on human relationships, as well as an overriding desire to preserve harmony in relationships.
During a presentation at the 2010 Global Missions Consultations conference in Tokyo, Okuyama noted that, “Japanese make much of human relationships more than the truth. Consequently we can say that as for Japanese, one of the most important things is harmony; in Japanese ‘Wa.’”
Rather than risk potential harm to the harmony experienced in relationships with their families and friends, many Japanese opt to maintain adherence to religions with deeper roots in the region. Adherents of Shintoism and Buddhism (often both religions at once) comprise more than 70 percent of the population.
Building Relationships through Relief
While traditional mission work has often collided with these cultural leanings, the Japanese emphasis on harmony and interpersonal relationships leaves a door wide open for Christian aid and relief work. Many organizations are starting to realize that, while it has not been easy for the Japanese culture to “hear” the gospel presented in words, “seeing” the Gospel in action might be infinitely more appealing.
Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary for the National Council of Churches, agrees. Kinnamon is focused on a long-range strategy for sustaining victims of the earthquake well after the last aftershock. "Spiritual support and healing ministry will be required long after the initial impact of the disaster," he notes. "Along with everything else, we pray for the faith and patience to remain committed for as long as it takes."
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Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout the Middle East and Asia. She is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to religious freedom, human rights, and philanthropy. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.netor email [email protected].