Project Japan

Societal Factors
Factors in the Japanese Worldviewshapeimage_3_link_0shapeimage_3_link_1shapeimage_3_link_2
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Societal Factors
Political Factors
Christianity’s Contribution to Japanese Life
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    Three major categories of groups are vital for a Japanese person. He or she must belong to: family and neighborhood and have some sort of vocational affiliation such as a company or a school, college or university. In Japanese culture, decisions are made based on corporatism within and between these categories. Personal decisions are not allowed to disturb the harmony of these groups even when such decisions are logically beneficial to the individual decision maker. Here the concept of wa becomes important.

Wa recognizes that people are not one, yet it expresses the desire to be one by practicing and respecting harmony. In other words, although people are distinct individuals, in Japanese culture, it is generally best if they want the same thing. This deep level of sharing underpins the desire for harmony in interpersonal relations and the consideration of other member of the group. In the context of wa, most Japanese might feel that if they become a Christian they will relinquish some of their ‘Japaneseness’ and abandon the group wa. Christians can be perceived as being antisocial and selfish for disrupting the harmony of the family unit by refusing to observe many traditional Shinto and Buddhist rituals, especially those of praying to spirits and reverencing the dead (2).  During his presentation at the 2010 Tokyo Global Mission Consultation, Minoru Okuyama, the director of the Missionary Training Center in Japan, indicated that the Japanese are afraid of disturbing the human relationships within their families or neighborhoods by becoming Christian. Okuyama emphasized that one of the most important things in Japan is harmony or wa. He indicated that those who disturb it are bad, whether they are right or wrong (3). Therefore it is quite hard for a Japanese to decide to become a Christian, for his/her choice means disturbing that harmony. There is a saying in Japanese, deru kugi wa utareru, which means “the protruding nail will be hammered down.” This proverb is a very good example of the manner in which individuals are trained from an early age. Disturbing the group by being too individualistic or out of step with others is considered selfish.

The corporatism/individualism dichotomy can also be found in the concepts honne and tatemae. Honne refers to ‘informal, personal reality in disregard of social parameters’, while tatemae means ‘official, public and socially required or politically correct.’ Honne is an opinion or an action motivated by a person’s true inner feelings, whereas tatemae is an opinion or action influenced by social norms. Thus, honne refers to a person’s deep beliefs or intentions, while tatemae refers to motives or intentions that are the result of social attunement, those that are shaped, encouraged, or suppressed by the norms accepted by the majority. These two concepts are often considered dichotomous and in conflict with the genuinely held personal feelings and convictions of those who are socially controlled. It can happen that a person in his/her honne chooses Jesus Christ silently and continues with this usual lifestyle without disturbing the group harmony. He or she does this by suppressing the honne in such a way that his/her decision will not be openly noticed by the groups to which the person belongs. 

In short, Christianity in Japan cannot succeed if it disturbs the spirit of corporatism and undermines the individual’s sense of belonging to these groups. For instance, when a person becomes a Christian, they stop attending ancestor related ceremonies and rituals. Yet, this act is regarded as a disgrace to the family. Another example is that companies hesitate to employ people who are active members of a religious group. They do this because it is thought that, if they are already a committed member of a religious group they will not be completely devoted to the company; in other words, they will be opposing the spirit of the company.


In Japanese culture truth is often viewed as relative. The Japanese evaluate information on the basis of its relational context (4). Fukuda calls this contextual logic: no religion, no view is taken to be absolute. Throughout their history, the Japanese have developed an important way of allowing the religions of Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism to co-exist. This is called shinbutsuju shugo a harmonious fusion of Buddhism, Shinto and Confucianism initiated by Prince Shotoku (574 A.D. – 622) (5).

It is difficult for the Japanese to accept the concept of an absolute God, presented by an absolute gospel and pointing to a paradise exclusively for those who choose to accept the absolute gospel. But it is also not considered acceptable to think that there is only one absolute law written in one absolute and infallible word of God.  In fact, being committed to this places one outside the Japanese worldview. Even the concept of a creator God who is independent of all things is external to it.  Thus, Christianity with its message of absolutism is only accepted with difficulty. 


The concept of harmony is also reflected in the way in which the Japanese view religion. Their understanding of it differs from that of the West. The way they view concepts such as god (as mentioned above), rituals, supernaturalism and life after death contradicts the Christian doctrines introduced there by the Western missionaries.

The Japanese people do not understand religion simply by separating it into individual components. Fukuda suggests that Shinto, Buddhism, etc. express different facets of a single, syncretized Japanese religion (6). But the average Japanese views religion as one entity which contains diverse religious traditions within it –Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity and various new religions as well as the less formal traditions of Confucianism and Taoism and the belief in folk traditions (7).  Earhart formulates this as one “Sacred Way” that includes various traditions within it (8). 

On the other hand, Buddhism and Confucianism, which are foreign belief systems, are seen as part of Japanese culture. Miyake suggests that the Japanese people have long accepted other religions incoming from other countries, mainly the Korean Peninsula and China. They were able to add them into their own folk religions. When they received a new religion, they did not deny their own folk religions but rather modified the incoming faith to some extent so that they could easily incorporate it into their existing religious life (9). Yet, Christianity with its centuries long heritage in Japan, it is still viewed as foreign.  Its incorporation has not taken place. 

Most Japanese associate Christianity with the West and consider it to be incompatible with Japanese culture. While they tolerate the Christian church personally and legislatively, many feel that Christianity does not really belong there.  This sense that Christianity is foreign to the culture has to do with the fact that the Japanese culture generally tends to be inclusive; in contradistinction to this, Christianity takes a peculiarly exclusive approach when it comes to the concepts such as God and salvation. In sum, the Japanese people do not think of themselves as belonging exclusively to one religion. Most believe that everything is interlinked and interrelated, several traditions may be combined into a single religious activity, or a person may resort to one tradition for one specific purpose and then rely on another for another (10). Christians, however, have difficulty any participation in traditions that are of the limits of their doctrines. The Japanese may culturally and traditionally accept the Christian God into their belief system as one of many gods, but Christians see Jesus Christ as the only way to come to God and the only way to salvation. Such worldviews have hindered Christianity’s expansion in Japan and make it hard for the Japanese to give it full credence as a Japanese religion.

Further, there is a crucial difference between the Japanese and the Christian views on the existence of God as this relates to the meaning of life. Fukuda suggests that, in the Christian world, it is the existence of God that gives ultimate meaning and value to everything. Nature and humanity, then, derive meaning and value from God but at the beginning of creation they were damaged by sin of man. The Japanese worldview, however, insists that human life and nature are valuable in and of themselves, and sin is understood as a partial, contemporary, surface stain. Human life is an entity in and of itself and valued without any relationship to a transcendent God (11). In the context of such a view, original sin, the fallen man who has lost his relationship with the creator becomes less relevant. The need for salvation as it is portrayed in Christianity is thus also seen as less relevant. God is not a singular being. Gods for the Japanese are life forces, sources of the manifestation of the energy that is found in the world and people are those who benefit from such life force. People are expected to be the upholders of life and its goodness (12). These gods are unpredictable as is nature, and like humans, they are disposed to jealousy, rage, and other disturbing habits that can interrupt the flow of life and cause problems. In order to harmonize with them the Japanese perform rituals to honor, venerate and thank them. This ensures the balance and harmony between gods and man (13). 

Bad fortune occurs when humans disrupt this harmony with nature and gods. This makes the Japanese fear that malicious spirits might damage the living. Counter-rituals with strong purification and exorcist themes are performed against the unhappy spirits, so that hindrances may be removed and unhappy spirits calmed (14). Gods are not to be worshipped, but they have to be treated correctly. Correct treatment entails rituals of respect, veneration, propitiation and offerings which seek to gain access to the life giving powers of gods (15). This is not about a personal relationship with God in a Christian sense, but the correct treatment of the gods. Such a view is borne out of fear of misfortune, calamity or the need for good health, luck and fortune. Becoming a Christian can therefore undo this harmony with nature, and with the territorial and family gods. This, in turn, may trigger anger on the part of the gods and spirits that are and have been present to the family or territory for generations.


1. Noriyuki Miyake, Belong, Experience, Believe: Pentecostal Mission Strategies for Japan (Gloucester: Wide Margin, 2005), 12.

2. Samuel Lee, Understanding Japan Through the Eyes of Christian Faith, Fourth and Revised Version (Amsterdam: Foundation University Press, 2011), 89.

3. Michelle A. VU, “Mission Leader: Why So Few Christians in Japan?” Christian Post Reporter, May 18, 2010.

4. Mitsuo Fukuda, Developing A Contextualized Church As A Bridge to Christianity in Japan (Gloucester: Wide Margin, 2012), 52.

5. Ibid.

6. Fukuda, 45.

7. Fukuda, 44.

8. H.B. Earhart, Religions of Japan: Many Traditions Within One Sacred Way (New York: Harper and Row, 1984).

9. Miyake, 9.

10. Earhart, 22. 

11. Fukuda, 45.

12. Fukuda, 79

13. Ibid.

14. Fukuda, 87.

15. Ian Reader, Religion In Contemporary Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991), 27.


Factors in the Japanese Worldview

The Japanese worldview is more or less in conflict with the Western one.  This can be traced to conditions in various areas such as religion and culture. In what follows, I discuss some areas where these two worldviews clash.

Corporatism / Individualism

Corporatism is central to the Japanese worldview. Mutual benefits are sought between the group and individual and harmony is a regarded as a crucial element of life. Unless one grasps the importance of this sense of belonging to a group, it is difficult to understand the mentality of a typical Japanese person (1).