I spent three weeks this summer visiting my home, my country, America. While I was home I visited Arkansas, Valparaiso, Chicago and Milwaukee; meeting up with different friends, family members, and different communities I belonged/belong to back home. I was able to catch up with old friends, make new friends, have relationships and have great conversations about a variety of topics. Some things were trivial, some things were super important such as the Packers fall schedule; we all know that is important. I also had several conversations with people about the programs and initiatives that are being implemented over here in the Japanese churches, and then they asked my opinion of how those programs were going, and what the biggest problem tends to be. Now that is a tricky question. I have only been here a short two years but within those two years I feel I have made many many observations. One of the most important and probably also the biggest hindrance to the Christian church would be community.
Community is a rather important component to ones survival, especially here in Japan. It gives us a group to belong to, giving us our identity. It gives us work and relationships to tend to, giving us a sense of being needed. Our families tend to be there to support and encourage us, giving us a full time cheerleading squad. The communities we belong to play a very important role in our everyday lives. For Americans, these groups or communities may not play as strong of a role. We tend to move around the country, leaving friends and family behind and an occasional email tends to suffice, as we hold ourselves up by our own strength. Or so we think. Japanese people on the other hand know better, they know and value the sense of that community, probably more than anything else in their life. Friendships take a long time to form and cultivate in this culture.
Another important part of the community structure here in Japan is the need to blend in. No one should stand out. In America we all try to stand out, be different and be noticed. In Japan the saying goes, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. This can be attributed to a cultural dimension known as individualism. I book I read in college; Cultures and Organizations by Hofstede discusses many different characteristics/dimensions of culture; things that define different cultures around the world. One of these dimensions is individualism.
Individualism pertains to societies which the ties between individuals are loose; everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family. Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth onward are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. (76).
American = Score 91 Rank 1
Japan = Score 46 Rank 33-35
These scores reflect how strong one is on the individualism scale, thus showing that Japan tends to fall more into the collectivist society. Those groups they are born into are something that need to remain unwavering, and leaving such a group to join another one…is rather taboo. Be the same, stay loyal to the group you were born into and life will be easy.
In college I had a course on international relations, which is where I read this book, and in this class we discussed many of these topics. One thing we discussed was the ease to make friendships, to join these communities. Japanese people tend to be like coconuts, hard on the outside, layer upon layer of hard exterior, taking forever to crack into. And I have cracked a coconut before…trust me, its hard.
But once you finally get through all the exterior hardness there is a soft fruit and milk on the inside where a friendship can form. Americans on the other hand tend to be like peaches. Soft and easy to penetrate on the outside, but once you get into the core…we get harder to crack. Americans are easy to open up their group and accept you in, instant friends. I have met people on airplanes and heard their lives stories before take off. But Japanese people on the other hand…it takes years to really get to know someone. I knew a student for over a year before she said ANYTHING about her husband…they are guarded and careful with what they share. This sort of self preservation, if you will, is extremely difficult when trying to integrate people into new groups ie: bringing people into the church.
Now, many of you that are reading this, I’m assuming have been Christians your whole life. Your family is Christian. Most of your friends are Christian. Somewhere down the line I’m willing to bet some of you even went to Christian schools. We’ve been surrounded by Christianity our whole life, so for us being a Christian is easy, I didn’t lose anything by being a Christian. My family didn’t disown me, my friends didn’t leave me, I didn’t bring shame upon my ancestors. But for a Japanese person who converts…these are some of the issues that they face. Turning your back on hundreds of years of tradition to become a Christian isn’t an easy thing to do. Leaving the community of your old friends and family to join a new community of Christians is not something that happens over night here. It can take years, even decades before someone feels their ties are strong enough to a new group to commit themselves. This is where the challenges arise.
I will continue to write a few entries about this topic because I feel it is rather important in understanding the Japanese church.