Project Japan

Societal Factors
Factors in the Japanese WorldviewWorldview.htmlWorldview.htmlWorldview.htmlshapeimage_3_link_0shapeimage_3_link_1shapeimage_3_link_2
Theological FactorsTheological.htmlTheological.htmlshapeimage_4_link_0shapeimage_4_link_1
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Societal Factors
Political Factors
Christianity’s Contribution to Japanese Life
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To understand the Japanese family and even Japanese society it is essential to know about the traditional family system, which is called Ie, the indigenous term for family; however, it does not convey the exact meaning of the word ‘family’ as we use it in the West.  Ie can be translated as ‘house’ or ‘building,’ but it is also used in a broader sense as ‘family’ or ‘kin.’ It includes an entire structure —the main family and various subfamilies. According to Reischauer and Graig, the pre-modern Japanese family or ie might include a subordinate branch, a family which was under the authority of the main one and other members who were distant relatives or not related at all. The father or family council had absolute authority over individual members. This kind of family structure was particularly prevalent among prominent members of the feudal warrior class, rich merchants, and certain peasant groups. In her book, Understanding Japanese Society, Joy Hendry writes that continuity is a very important feature of the ie. The individual members of a particular house, who need not always be resident there, represent the living members of that particular ie. The total membership includes those of all generations: ancestors who had been forgotten as individuals, those who are recently deceased and still remembered, and descendants yet to be born (22).

Traditional Japanese houses contain a Buddhist altar known as a butsudan at which family members venerate their ancestors deceased individuals of the ie. Thus Ie was a hierarchical family system based on the Confucian principles of honor and loyalty. These applied to all relationships within the ie. Old–young relationships were based on loyalty and indebtedness and were defined in terms of duty. Performance of one’s duties to members of the ie system was considered of paramount importance.  This system affected the relationship between men and women: men had a much higher status.

After the surrender of Japan and the victory of the Allied forces in 1945, the new government abolished the ie family system. Since 1945, the educational system has dropped the absolute emperor/family-state (ie-state) ideology. In the new constitution, the family was defined as a nuclear unit rather than a collection of various family units and women were treated equally so that they enjoyed the same rights as men. I personally believe one of the reasons why the ie system was abolished was to discourage veneration of ancestors.  However the ideas behind ie system are still put into practice especially in rural areas. An ideal ie is a harmonious relationship between the visible and invisible members of the family, both living and dead.

The contemporary Japanese family resembles the traditional Western family with father, mother, and children living in small apartments in urban areas. Japanese people have a very unique concept of home (uchi). It literary means ‘home’ but also, ‘inside.’ Everything outside the home is referred to as soto, which literary means ‘outside.’ However, uchi–soto does not just refer to the literal home or to inside and outside; rather, it is a form of the ie family system. In this case, uchi means home and everything internal to it. It may also be related to cleanliness, beauty and everything associated with goodness. Uchi may also be related to the ie to which someone belongs. Practicing a religion from outside (soto) may effect the harmony of the inside (uchi).

Nuclear families living in large cities also engage in various activities, such as school activities for children, neighborhood activities which are crucial to ensure that group harmony is effected and that the family is not brought to shame and disgrace. For this reason, the average Japanese family may not have enough time left to participate in additional Christian activities such as church services, mid-week prayer meetings or other events.  The requirement of attending church on a weekly basis may be quite burdensome for the average modern Japanese family. This itself  already suffices  to discourage people from accepting and practicing Christianity.

Occupational Factors

The Japanese are known as an industrious people. They work long hours and are almost never absent from their jobs.  This is the image many have of their workforce.  A Japanese employee is generally referred to as salaryman, an English loan word.

Again, it is important to recall that Japan is a group-oriented society. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the group membership and participation.  As mentioned above, the Japanese refer to such groups as uchi, which means both ‘house’ and ‘inside’ and generally refers to the family. However, uchi does not refer only to the family; it can have various other connotations depending on context. The company or the place where people work becomes uchi and the colleagues become family members. This is why group activities, group performance of various services, and company benefits are so important in Japan. Working in Japan requires not only doing your job skillfully, but also fitting in with the company culture. In other words, the Japanese feel it is important to love their company.

In Japan, it is believed that the morals and mental attitudes of the individual have an important bearing on productivity. Loyalty to the company has long been highly regarded. A man may be an excellent technician, but if his way of thinking and his morals differ from those of the company, it will not hesitate to dismiss him. Men who enter a company after working for another one at a comparatively advanced stage in their working lives tend to be difficult to mold and their loyalties are suspect (23)  Since this lifetime employment system is a family-like group, it also pervades the private lives of the employees. This is crucial to a sense of group unity because the individual’s total emotional participation in a group helps form a closed world; lack of such a commitment can result in either independence from the group or isolation from it (24). 

Most major corporations also conduct religious rituals. For example, one very famous electronic company has a special sanctuary for worshiping gods and ancestors who became gods. There are also statutes of famous Japanese and international scientists such as Thomas Edison (who is honored as the god of electricity) for employees to venerate. These kinds of rituals are rooted in Japanese culture and are still practiced in many major companies.

During my research, I discovered that some Japanese companies have created their own company religion with rites and ceremonies designed to bolster the work atmosphere and ensure a sense of unity. Most Japanese companies do not want to employ people who are members of religious organizations because they feel that their loyalties will be divided. Thomas P. Rohlen conducted a case study of a Japanese bank and reviewed its management and culture. In his book, For Harmony and Strength, he describes the ceremonies that were conducted at the company. He discusses the various catechisms recited during the entrance ceremony when individuals joined the company. Employees sing the company anthem together. He found out that the bank does not want to employ members of ‘new religions’ that demand considerable time and effort from their members, but not because it considers these religions inherently bad; on the contrary, it views many of them as being positive moral forces. But the bank does not want its employees to have divided loyalties. Furthermore, the religious behavior of the parents of a potential employee is important: the bank is not interested in employing the children of religious zealots (25). Japanese companies have created their own religion and what they practice is no less a religion than that practiced by religious organizations. The habit of not employing people who are members of a religious organization is an indication of the competition that exists between the ‘company religion’ and conventional religions.

To re-iterate, becoming a Christian and practicing Christianity, may not be an easy option for a Japanese to choose, especially for someone from the working class. It is time consuming and may distract that person from his/her duties towards the company and thus effect the harmony of the company as a group.


The Japanese educational system has generated a great deal of debate among scholars and educators. Some praise it and some others criticize it. Some believe that the strong emphasis it places on the group and on unity results in each child’s individuality being ignored. Others suggest that such a highly authoritarian educational system can frustrate their development, or even lead to suicide. The Japanese educational system is group oriented and the cohesion of the group is more important than individual competition in classes. Students are discouraged from asking their teachers many questions because they may be perceived as disrupting the group for the sake of their own personal interests. In sports, the group is also emphasized over the individual.

Once students have been accepted into a school, the Japanese very skillfully avoid overt competition among them and downplay differences in ability. In fact, almost no one fails. However, the ruthless entrance examinations represent competition at its worst and they cast a shadow on student’s lives far in advance of their adult years. They subject them to severe pressure throughout most of their schooling and distort the content of their education. Much of the training that is done in senior high schools is devoted not to learning as such, but to preparing students to pass university entrance examinations.

On the other hand, the Japanese education system provides children with practical knowledge of the importance of unity, harmony, and discipline; this is called moral education. In Japan, going to school is not just about acquiring knowledge; Japanese education emphasizes moral education such as diligence, endurance, deciding to do hard things, wholehearted dedication to a task, and co-operation. For example, children are organized into cleaning groups and expected to cooperate to keep their school clean. Physical education is also very important. Exercise is required every morning.

A choice for Christianity and weekly participation in Sunday services may be time consuming both for the students and their parents, especially for the mothers of children attending schools or high schools.

22. Joy Hendry, Understanding Japanese Society (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004), 24.

23. Chie Nakane. Japanese society (California: University of California Press, 1973), 16.

24. Nakane, 90.

25. Thomas P. Rohlen, For harmony and strength: Japanese white-color organization in anthropological perspective (Berkley: University of California Press, 1974), 72.


Societal Factors

In modern Japanese society there are several factors which have caused organized Christianity not to succeed.  I here discuss three major ones: Japanese family life, and work life, and education.