I was introduced to some startling statistics while I was in Japan. Here is one for you: there are about 500,000-1,000,000 Protestant Christians in Japan. In the greater Tokyo-Metropolitan area, there are over 13 million people. This is shocking to me. I quickly learned that Japan is the most secular nation that is open to Christianity in the world. So the question we must ask is why? What is it about Japanese culture that does not allow Christianity to thrive as it is in the East in places like South Korea and China?
That is the question Samuel Lee asks in his book, “The Japanese and Christianity.” The are a plethora of reasons why, maybe too many to answer here, but I will highlight a few. In Japan, there is something called the “wa.” The “wa” is the harmony of everything around you but in this case, it is the harmony of social dynamics. In this way, the idea is to not let ripples interrupt the harmony of social relationships by introducing tension or nonconformity. This poses a huge problem to the spread of Christianity because Jesus talks very frequently about the truth being divisive and the division it will cause within your family and friends.
The Japanese are also incredibly tolerant of spiritual ideas but less thrilled about organized religion or commitment. It seems that what is attractive is an amalgamation of several different religious ideas combined into a unique melting pot instead of a verified pronunciation of one particular belief. For example, it is said that the Japanese have Shinto births, Christian weddings, and Buddhist deaths.
One of the sharpest points of contention to the author in the book is about ancestor worship. The Japanese have a very high view of their ancestors and in some cases worship them. When Christian missionaries (as the author explains) have come to Japan and told the people about Christianity, they are sometimes willing to change their ways… until they mention they must give up the worship of their ancestors. The author brings up an interesting (although perhaps misguided) point about cultural Christianity. Cultural Christianity reflects that in any system of Christianity, it inherently and unapologetically adopts certain qualities of the culture. For example, Americans are very materialistic and our churches reflect that materialism: flat screen TV’s line our churches which are enormous buildings that would dwarf the humble churches in African or South America while our coffee bar could probably support two missionaries for a year. In the same way, many Americans would become defensive at such accusations much like the Japanese would become defensive about their ancestors. The question the author poses is, is it right for us to be critical about cultural Christianity?
I may not have an answer for that at the moment, but this book provides an interesting dialogue on why Christianity has not become popular in Japan. There are many other reasons but if you are interested in the others, I would encourage you to buy the book!