Sunday, June 18, 2017

Japanese Culture Series 12: Iitoko-Dori

Japan is known throughout the world as a country that blends ancient traditions together with modern life into one society. How is this even possible? This is what the Japanese call Iitoko-Dori, and it resonates strongly within Japanese culture. From ancient times Japanese culture has been known to blend elements together from differing world-views to create a unique society. At one time in ancient history Japan was at the end of the Silk Road, which made it the place where many ideas ended up. Traditionally a Shinto nation, Japan later encountered Buddhism as well as Confucianism and Christianity. The 'best' elements were taken from each world-view to combine together into a uniquely Japanese culture. The harmonizing of seemingly conflicting ideas took precedence over focusing on any one idea as the only or best truth to behold.

As Japan opened up to the world during the Meiji Era its leaders realized that they needed to modernize rapidly. During this era they gathered information from Western nations in order to carefully chose the elements of those societies that they deemed were the best and set forth to modernize Japan. Unlike other countries with ancient traditions, they were successfully able to rapidly change their nation while retaining many ancient beliefs. After World War 2 Japan was able to quickly adopt a new belief system of materialism and rapidly rebuild their nation while keeping to many of their ancient beliefs. Even today Japan is known as a country that tries to find the best ideas from other nations to either absorb or improve upon as noted in the successful automobile and electronics industries.

How can this belief impact missionary work? On the positive side there is very little religious conflict. In Japan the people often have a difficult time believing that there is only one truth. In Japanese society it is perfectly acceptable to hold to multiple religions with conflicting ideas by only holding to parts of each respective system. It is said that Japanese are born Shinto, have a 'Christian' wedding, and a Buddhist funeral. However, when rapidly adapting new ideas there has been little regard for the impacts on the people. For instance in modern Japan material success has become the main goal with the cost being a society in which competition is high from a young age, stress is high, work hours are long, and suicide rates are high. Change is slow in this area since ethics are considered to be relative due to a combination of belief systems. Japanese know that these societal conditions are not normal, but will not speak out against them until the entire group desires a change. Please pray that the Japanese will realize that Iitoko-Dori is not the ultimate truth in life!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Japanese Culture Series 11: Aimai

In every culture communication is vital on all levels for daily functioning. One of the distinct ways in which Western and Eastern cultures differ is in the realm of communication style. For example in the Western world, direct as well as open honest communication has become the basis for building understanding with one another. Western culture tends to generally value truth over harmony in communication. (Although that has been changing with the concept of political correctness!) However, in Japanese society the value of harmony has become the basis for understanding one another when communicating. How is harmony achieved in communication? In the place of truth as the prime value in communicating, Aimai, or obscurity exists as the norm to achieve harmony. Why?

Japanese society in general was built around densely populated amounts of people having to work together closely in a small area for survival, hence the need for harmony became necessary. The group became more important than the individual. In a group setting the need for harmony was said to be more important than truth so as to not cause offense as well as division. This characteristic became evident in the development of Japanese culture as ideas from Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism, Secular-Humanism, Christianity, and Materialism all blended together with no one 'truth' overriding another. With these strong influences being incorporated into culture the concept of truth became highly obscured which is especially evident in communication. Even to this day Japanese people tend to have a difficult time clearly saying: “Yes” or “No”! Decisions often take a long time since every small detail of each part of the group must be carefully considered for the sake of harmony. In America indecisiveness is considered a great weakness, however in Japan it is considered very wise!

More complexities arise when the vertical hierarchy of Japanese society is included into the equation. For example in new interactions Japanese people carefully try to ascertain what the social ranking of the person they are talking to is so as to not cause offense. To avoid potential offense it became safer to speak ambiguously rather than specifically. Even though Japanese speak in a very obscure as well as ambiguous style, it is a highly valuable trait to be able to discern true intentions. This is called 'reading the air', or the art of understanding what is actually trying to be communicated from the vagueness of what is actually being communicated! For instance, rather than saying 'No', most Japanese will say 'chotto' which being translated means 'it is a little bit hard for me to..'. So, even though the Japanese person is not directly saying 'No' it is generally understood that 'chotto' is a polite way of trying to get out of something! Rather than pressing the matter for details as to why the person is saying 'chotto', most Japanese will be able to 'read the air' and understand not to pursue the topic further!

How can this impact ministry in Japan? On a positive note cooperation with church projects is high because of harmony as well as not wanting to offend in communication. A strong sense of group unity can help a church face adversity as well. However on the negative side, just as in a church in America that practices love and harmony while abandoning truth, so can be life in Japan in the realm of communication – frustrating. General acceptance exists while at the same time making it difficult to understand what people really believe. Truth becomes a matter of group decision. Also, Japanese people without exposure to the West are not used to direct communication, so it can seem barbaric or rude to them when it does happen! (However the new generation is changing because of increased exposure to the West.) Finally, because Japanese people can be afraid of being excluded from the group, they will often 'go along to get along' no matter how bad a situation can become. Please pray for us as we navigate communication in Japan!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Re-Cap of our time in America

As we embark for Japan again I wanted to take this last blog from the USA to recap our time here since leaving Japan on June 30th, 2015.

When we were leaving Japan Katie had to change her ticket to Asiana airlines so that we could be on the same one-way ticket to Missoula, Montana from Tokyo. Unfortunately it was a last minute purchase, so she was seated far in back of the plane while I was seated in front next to a bunch of Sikhs that did not speak English! None of them wanted to change seats! So, I will never forget asking the flight attendant if I could move back to an empty seat to which she said only if the person next to the empty seat agreed to it! Fortunately he did! Not only that, he agreed to switch places with Katie who was only a few rows away so that we could sit next to each other for the flight home! Off to a good start!

From there we eventually arrived in Missoula, Montana only to spend the whole month there recovering from jet lag and the reverse-culture shock of coming back to the USA. I then gave my SUV to my mother in exchange for her old Toyota Camary as we would be moving south and would not need a 4-wheel drive vehicle. We then drove from Missoula, MT to New Market, TN to stay with Katie's parents and plan our wedding that would be in three months on October 15th, 2015. At that time her parent's pastor Mr. McEntire, generously let me live in their apartment house in Jefferson City, TN for 3 months! Thank you Pastor! Soon after we got married in a little white country church in TN with just close friends and family attending. After that we went on our honey-moon which ended in Jacksonville, FL on November 1st, 2015. I then officially joined the mission board BMFP, and officially became a missionary.

Next, we decided to go help one of our struggling supporting churches in Water Valley, Mississippi for the next three months while staying at their parsonage. This was an excellent experience as we were able to connect with everyone there during a crucial time and were also able to each lead one person to the Lord from the community. With the help of friends we were also able to get our prayer cards, video, poster board, and power point presentations done at this time. Around January 31st, 2016 we moved to Newborn, GA to live with Pastor Jackson at our soon to become sending church, Belmont Baptist. (for me at least, this has always been Katie's sending church). We also found out in January 2016 that Katie would be expecting baby Mary. For the next several months until May we visited every one of Katie's supporting churches so that they could meet me. This took us all around Georgia, to Florida, up to Michigan, across to Maine, and back down to Georgia. As far as we know all of the churches accepted us. During the end of this time we also took a 12 week Bradley Method birthing class in preparation for a home birth.

When July 2016 came around, Katie was over six months along in her pregnancy, so we decided to have her stay with her parents while I drove out to Montana for a month and a half to visit a lot of Montana churches to speak at the Lake Blane Bible camp as well as raise support. At this time we got our first new supporting church as a couple. Thank you Berean Baptist of Helena, MT! I then came back in August to help Katie prepare to deliver the baby at our place in October. On October 12th, 2016 our baby Mary Katherine was born after almost two days of labor related events at the Pastor's house in Newborn, GA. Thank you again Pastor Jackson! Our healthy baby girl came at 7 pounds 5 ounces and 19 1/2 inches long. Much thanks to our midwife, Debbie, and Katie's mom for coming for 2 weeks to help us during this time! We feel so blessed to be parents to our little Mary! She has brought us so much joy!!!

Before Thanksgiving 2016 we moved to Belmont Baptist's mission house. Around this time I joined Belmont Baptist officially. We waited until January 2017 before starting to travel to new churches to raise support so that Katie could heal and the baby could grow. From January 2017 to April 2017 we diligently traveled to Florida, Tennesse, and Georgia to raise the rest of our support until we found out that we were at 100% support. We are also thankful for many new individuals who have decided to help us reach our goal. Thank you everyone! It has been a long road with a lot to learn, but the Lord has been good to us in many ways. We were thankful to have our first year married together in the States. Katie was able to to rest and prepare for her new role as a wife and mother overseas, and we praise God that we saw her thyroid issues miraculously healed during this time! I was able to learn to live by faith, study the scriptures, and read a lot of books about both theology and Japanese language as well as culture. We were also able to do a lot of evangelism during our furlough in the form of witnessing, door knocking, and handing out literally thousands of tracts across the country. Please pray for us as we return to Japan as a family for this next term! Thank you for your faithfulness!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Japanese Culture Series 10: Chinmoku

In Japanese culture a strong emphasis on silence permeates throughout society. The concept of Chinmoku, or silence, has great cultural value in day to day Japanese life. One of the first distinctions a visitor to Japan will notice in comparison with most places in the world will be that Japanese people are generally very careful about how they communicate verbally. This often gives the appearance of low levels of verbal communication wherever people are gathered. Why? Chinmoku can be attributed to the substantial Zen Buddhist emphasis which teaches that silence in communication tends to lend one to truthfulness. Japanese society therefore views silence as a highly favorable trait to the point where almost every traditional art has a period of quiet reflection included therein. Knowing how as well as when to be silent is key to Japanese life.

In America a popular saying about talking too much is quoted as follows, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” The Japanese people take this to a serious level by carefully applying it to the group setting. By limiting verbal communication it is thought that group harmony is increased with less chances of conflict with other people occurring. Also it is important to be aware of who is around you in the realm of social hierarchy, and thereby limiting what is said so as to show respect to those in a ‘higher’ social rank.

How can Chinmoku impact missionary work? On the positive side Chinmoku can be of great importance when trying to understand people because ideally they will say only what is most important or will use more time to communicate in the best possible way. However, on the negative side Chinmoku can be used to hide true intentions, feelings, or be used to be particularly vague so as to not cause offense. Since silence can be used to avoid conflicts in Japan, there can be great pressure to avoid talking about or even preaching about certain topics in the Bible. Also, such is the extent of Chinmoku in society, that if crime or bullying occurs in public many times Japanese people will simply ignore it or remain silent about what goes on. Silence can also be used to end relationships or show disdain. Because Westerners place more emphasis on direct communication they can be frustrated by the Japanese emphasis on silence! Please pray for us as we navigate this Chinmoku culture!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Japanese Culture Series 9: The Do

In Japan the Do (pronounced ‘dough’) spirit exhibits distinct Japanese cultural values as well as their unique way of learning. Originating from a combination of thought from Ancient Chinese Taoism as well as Zen Buddhism, Do literally means “the way” or way to be followed. The Do spirit follows a distinct pattern as follows:

1) A formal rule-bound pattern to be followed.
2) A constant repetition of the pattern.
3) Mastering the pattern through different levels.
4) Perfecting the pattern.
5) Going beyond the pattern, and becoming one with it.

Practice of whatever is being taught takes place in a setting which the student is to be quiet, respectful, obedient, and mirroring of the instructor. Whether it was learning art, weapons training, writing, the tea ceremony, or religious mantras the student simply had to follow set established patterns to learn from the teacher. In Taoism as well as Zen Buddhism little emphasis is placed on critical thought or intellectual reasoning, but rather on absorbing already established ideas set forth by the teacher through repetition. In this way Japanese thought differs dramatically from Western thought which prides itself on reasoning and analysis.

How can the Do spirit impact missionary work? On the positive side Japanese are very good at learning massive amounts of information in a short time. Because of the Do spirit, Japanese people are highly detail-oriented and dedicated in all things that they set out to accomplish. On the negative side Japanese people do not place high value on reasoning or intellect, so it becomes difficult to try to “convince” them of the truth through typical Western means. Also, in a church setting emphasis can be placed on doing many things without much thought placed on the “why”. Please pray that we can understand how to minister to those that have the Do mindset!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Ancient Japanese Christianity

In recent times a new R-rated Hollywood movie coming out by the name of Silence has been mentioned to me as something that I need to see as a missionary to Japan. This movie depicts a dramatization of Japan’s history when Jesuit priests as well as early Japanese Catholic converts were being tortured and killed for their beliefs. I have read plenty about Japanese martyrdom to be aware of what the movie is portraying and do not need to see a graphic R-rated movie about the subject! In a nation with no concept of forgiveness or grace it is not hard to imagine that brutality would be a regular practice a few hundred years ago.

However, I wanted to pass along some little known history about Japan. I read that Francis Xavier was able to see as many as 3 million converts to Catholicism in 16th Century Japan because of the foundation of Christianity that had already been laid by people hardly anyone knows of that came one-thousand years before his arrival!

My father-in-law gave us a Smithsonian Japanese Lecture Series which indicates that there were three major waves in Japanese history, in which Japan went from being an open country to a closed country. During the first wave, Japan was at the end of the ancient Silk Road, which made it a desirable trade location. Because of this apparently ancient central-Asian Christians came to live there! It is thought that these Christians were descendants of the converts of the disciples Thomas and Bartholomew who went far east as well as north to spread the Gospel. This ancient Assyrian as well as Indian church had many contacts throughout Asia including China, Korea, and Japan.

Currently, most Japanese are falsely taught that Francis Xavier was the first to come to Japan to introduce “Christianity”. However, as much research appears, that story is becoming harder to keep. If the story of Francis Xavier introducing “Christianity” from the West becomes dispelled, while the idea of ancient Christianity becomes accepted, then the notion that Christianity is a “Western” religion in Japan will be dismissed! This is important to missionary work, because it will help Japanese realize that Christianity came to Japan before Buddhism! Please pray that this information will make breakthroughs in Japan!

If you want read more about Japan’s very first Christians I’m enclosing a link to two articles:

Japan Times Article on Ancient Christianity

CBN Article on Ancient Christianity

Friday, December 16, 2016

Japanese Culture Series 8: Zoto

In the United States soon we will be celebrating Christmas, a real occasion for celebration of Christ’s birth often accompanied with the giving of gifts. However, in Japan, Zoto, or the custom of gift giving, strongly prevails in everyday life. On every important occasion gifts are given in great quantity all over Japan. From seasonal gifts such as during New Years when hundreds of cards are sent out as well as money gifts for children to ceremonial gifts of religious significance to gifts of occasion for certain phases of life such as graduations, the Japanese conscience is keenly aware of gift giving. As much as eighty-five separate occasions exist for which it is appropriate to give a gift. On average a Japanese salary man spends about $2300 a year on gifts! Why is such importance placed on gift giving?

In Japanese life gifts can be used to express congratulations, apologies, appreciation, consolation, and as necessary forms of obligation to maintain relationships. (On my first trip to Japan I learned the importance of giving a gift as a way to seek reconciliation after a social faux pas!) Though Japanese are often seen as people that do not verbally express themselves as often as other people groups, they are keenly aware of non-verbal communication to a very high degree. Relations can be better maintained through the giving of gifts in this type of society. For that reason when one travels throughout Japan a regular site is that of the gift shop. Regional gifts are especially prized. When a gift is not brought back from a journey or business trip for co-workers, family, and other groups they may be a part of, one can quickly be viewed as terribly inconsiderate!

So, how can this impact missionary work? Because Japanese people are very considerate in the area of gift giving and receiving they will generally take great time to appreciate a gift given to them. This can be advantageous for occasions to meet people for the purpose of evangelism as well as the giving out of Bibles in a formal way. Gift giving can be an in-roads into establishing a relationship with a stranger. On the negative side, because of the expectation of gift giving, costs can mount up when desiring to maintain relationships! Please pray for us as we navigate the gift giving world of Japan!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Japanese Culture Series 7: Shudan Ishiki

In Japanese thinking the concept of Shudan Ishiki or “group consciousness” is vitally important to every day life. Every interaction is closely tied to being aware of what the group thinks and does as opposed individual actions. In other words, in Japan, the group is more important than the individual. Two dominant categories exist in Japanese thinking: the uchi and the soto. Uchi being those inside the group (family and associates) and soto being those outside the group. Life consists of remaining in the uchi while avoiding soto status. Because Japanese people tend to think as a group, what benefits the group is seen as the correct thing to do, even if the individual suffers from the decision. For example, if a Japanese company decides that it is beneficial for the company to send a family to live in Mexico for the next three years then the individual will need to comply lest he face great shame and loss of employment!

Loyalty to the group is essential which can be good or bad depending on the group’s core values. Often times it is more important to retain group solidarity to maintain harmony rather than oppose the group even if opposition is the right thing to do. If an individual opposes the group, he risks being excluded from the group, which often times is unbearable for those living in a group-oriented society. A common saying exhibiting this in Japan is, “The nail that sticks up is pounded down”. The nail being representative of an individual.

How can this impact missionary work? In general a strong group culture tends to create a unified church. New decisions within a church tend to take a lot of time as everyone has to agree before it can be done. But, when the decision is made everyone is in agreement. Church discipline on the other hand may be difficult as maintaining harmony is vitally important, unless the power of the group could be used to help change the individual to fit group standards. However, there are some issues with group culture as well. In the instance of evangelism an individual may not want to become Christian because it would likely place him outside the group in his family structure if they are not Christian. (Even if becoming Christian is the right thing to do!) Once a certain level of comfort exists within an established group there appears to be little need to take risks that would threaten the group, which could be another hamper to evangelism. Please pray for us as we learn to work with the Japanese church!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Japanese Culture Series 6: Bushido

Perhaps more than any other term, Bushido is most commonly recognized by Americans when it comes to Japanese culture. Bushido or ‘way of the warrior’ has been dramatized by anime, manga, samurai movies, and war history. But what exactly is Bushido characterized as in modern Japan? First, some background:

From Japanese history during the Edo period a combination of Zen Buddhism and Confucianism created a moral and ethical system to govern the samurai class. Much like the feudal chivalry system known to the Western world, Bushido was a code that really dictated all aspects of life to its adherents. Among the concepts involved were those dictating interactions between people, property management, and governmental relations. For instance, great loyalty to one’s local ruler or overall government was essential in this teaching. Also, a system of honor to manage every day interactions was essential to the degree that it became more important than life itself. So then, when something deemed dishonorable occurred, rather than to dishonor oneself or family it was seen as more noble to take one’s own life through ritual suicide than to live through the great shame of being dishonored. How have these concepts passed into modern times?

In modern Japan Bushido has greatly contributed to the overall unique Japanese national character. This has both positive and negative connotations. Unquestioning loyalty to one’s leaders, honorable interactions with others, and avoiding shame at all costs have become essential elements of Japanese culture where it is said that a system needs to be maintained to ensure cooperation on a small island with a dense population. This has led to a mindset that values maintaining the system above the individual need which is seen as a lesser priority. Even in modern times suicide can still be glorified as an acceptable way to escape pain! Perhaps this is part of the reason why suicide rates in Japan are still highest among the modern world.

How can Bushido impact missionary work? Not only the issues from obvious romanticized views of suicide in culture, but also extreme unquestioning loyalty can be a hindrance to spiritual growth as it tends to close down clear communication in favor of maintaining harmony. Also, Bushido elements may sound good from a non-spiritual prospective, however they promote self-reliance upon the flesh to produce outward character change rather than inward reliance upon the spirit to produce outward change by yielding to God. Is a person trained by society to act a certain way genuine or acting to avoid shame of others? As in our own culture self-reliance must be countered with Christ-centered spirit reliance! Please pray for spiritual breakthroughs to occur as the Gospel reaches Japan!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Japanese Culture Series 5: Amae

In Japan the concept of Amae, or depending on the benevolence of others, strongly permeates society. This assumption of benevolence as well as strong sense of harmony helps to form part of the distinct Japanese culture. Because Japanese people are strongly communal there exists strong bonds as well as certain expectations within certain groups in society. In America there generally exists a similar sense of benevolence to others, but not to the extent that it impairs our desire to be independent, which is considered a great virtue in our society. However, in Japanese society the group is vastly  more important than the individual.

For instance, in one’s family Amae is strong because it is assumed that a family member can depend on benevolence much in the way that a baby can rely on its mother’s care. A close inner group such as the family is expected to extend this benevolence to other family members. This can also work in the reverse way to cause great guilt if a family member goes against the group’s wishes. For this reason Japanese people often have a difficult time saying no. Because of the fear of breaking a bond, a no answer must be exhibited carefully.

How can Amae be an issue? Many young Japanese men growing up prefer the comfort of the family group over the rigorous demands of Japanese society. These issues as well as others have created a class of men known as “Hikikomori” who decide rather to stay at home and rely on their family to take care of them. This is a serious issue in Japan as about 2 million men are staying at home rather than contributing to society! Amae can also present issues for missionaries.

How can Amae be an issue in missionary work? Often times the Amae relationship is expected from a pastor to a church member, which can greatly increase the amount of time he is to spend on sheparding, and therefore limit time for other responsibilities. Because of this expectation evangelism may be neglected not only due to time factors, but also because of the difficulty it takes for new people becoming a part of the group. As missionaries we will need prayer for how to balance our time spent helping both people in the church as well as those outside of the church. We will also need prayer to help people outside of the church transition into the church culture.