Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Missions と Japanese; Why Not Focus on the Negative?

A few months ago now, a blog post by Dr. Joseph Kim entitled, 'Why Japan?' made the rounds among those interested in missions among the Japanese. In it, Kim argues that there are many negative issues in Japan that make it a prime mission field. As a response, another missionary to Japan Simon Cozens wrote a thoughtful critique in which he claimed that such emphasis pointed to a colonial 'white-man's-burden' view of missions and was unhelpful in thinking about missions generally, but specifically to the Japanese.

Sazae-san, Japanese and as wholesome as the Amish.
Of course, there is probably a place in the middle--in the past, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with Dr. Kim's blog-post, but after years of serving in missions among both affluent and those in abject poverty my views have changed quite a bit, and I find myself heartily agreeing with Simon's assessment--to a point. Frankly, I feel that Dr. Kim's list is inverted, he begins with the symptoms but not with the disease. However, late in the post he deals with the fact that many Japanese have never heard the Gospel. 

The primary reason that Japan is still a mission field is not because of rates of suicide, sex trafficking, declining birthrates or workaholism--the primary reason Japan is a mission field is because tens of millions of Japanese, in fact the vast majority of Japanese, do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This alone should break the heart of any sincere Christian, and any other social ills are simply a manifestation of this reality.

However, saying this is not enough. I have heard dozens of missionary appeals by men and women headed to Japan in which they emphasize Japan's social ills as a way in which to prompt other Christians to give and pray. I think this is wrong. In fact, in all of the time that I have been serving in missions, I have never met a Japanese young person who was suicidal, nor is it the case that all Japanese are involved in prostitution or are they all hikikomori. 

Doubtless, in a population of 128 million people, there are those that struggle with depression, or sell their bodies, or shun society; but the majority of people that a missionary to Japan will encounter on a daily basis are far less shocking--in fact, they might seem down-right mundane or boring. The fact is, that many Japanese are polite, well-rounded, hard-working, thoughtful and honest. By the world's standard, they are a model people; though still fallen and in need a savior.

The vast majority of Japanese young people are just like the vast majority of young people anywhere in the world--they have dreams, goals, they fall in love, they make mistakes, some of them are even seeking after truth. The Japanese people are a winsome people, with a culture capable of incredible creativity and beauty. Of course their history and culture are also pock-marked with incredible depravity; but so is ours--just ask any Native American or descendent of an African slave.

We should not define any people based on the aberrant actions of a minority of their members--this in some cases is ignorance, but can easily become racism. Especially now that we are living in a quickly globalizing world--where more and more people are able to communicate freely, we should be concerned about how we speak about those that we desire to minister to! I have non-believing Japanese friends that use Facebook and speak and read English at a high level. Have you considered how they would feel if they were to read something I have written to a Christian audience that focused unduly on the negative aspects of Japanese culture? I'll tell you how they would respond--we already have a precedent.

There is a great case study for those who want to see how Japanese young people respond to negative perceptions of Japanese on the internet. For nearly a decade the English Online Edition of the Mainichi Shinbun had a section entitled WaiWai--which translated scandalous articles from Japanese tabloids into English. Mainichi Shinbun is one of the oldest and most respected newspapers in Japan--yet despite this, little oversight was given to what was being posted under the Mainichi name on the English language website. The result was that many of these tabloid articles negatively influenced perceptions of Japanese by English speaking people around the world.

In the summer of 2008, bloggers on the largest Japanese language forum on the internet, 2chan, began translating these articles back into Japanese--to the outrage of those that did not understand English. There were articles about incest, rape, homosexuality, prostitution etc. These articles were written (or translated) for non-Japanese consumption, and in the views of those Japanese on 2chan, did immense damage to Japan's image abroad. I believe their reaction was understandable and justified--especially for those coming from an honor/shame culture who's highest value is harmony.

The outrage over WaiWai (see wikipedia) resulted in suspension and punitive actions against numerous staff members at Mainichi for failing to properly oversee the English language website. 

Recently, Peter B, a long-time friend posted an article on my Facebook newsfeed about the declining birthrates among Japanese, and asked for my thoughts. I took the opportunity to use personification to explain my why I believe focusing on the negative aspects of a culture can significantly damage our witness to people from that culture, as the following excerpt will show:

Peter: "Wanna add anything to this commentary on Japan's social bankruptcy?" 
Ian: "While I have been tempted several times to write on the social ills of the Japanese I have always been restrained. I love the Japanese; as does the Lord. It has never been my experience that fixating on someone's failures and weaknesses is helpful in introducing them to Jesus. I world rather motivate people to prayer for the Japanese by sharing how much God loves them and how beautiful their culture is than by putting they dirty laundry on display. When I meet a new person I would rather hear about the things they are proud of--looking at the family photo albums than going through their medicine cabinet. Plus, if we were to honestly compare our country with Japan, the social ills of the USA are much darker than in Japan--whether it is suicide, pornography, broken marriages and families, psychological problems etc. the USA makes Japan look like a Disney movie... namely with the complete absence of gun violence."
Peter: "So it sounds like there's a LOT you'd like to add to this commentary on Japan's social bankruptcy, all of it positive. What, for instance?"
Ian: "Well, America is far from a Christian nation, but lets use a bit of personification. Imagine that 'Christian' USA were to desire to lead 'heathen' Japan to faith in Jesus. If 'Christian USA' were to lead with judgementalism by pointing out all of the shortcomings in Japan's social fabric, it would be quite hypocritical, especially considering the many shortcomings of modern American life. Sure Japan has a huge pornography industry, but do you know who has the biggest? Sure Japan has problems with broken families and rising levels of divorce--but who is leading the charge in the field? Sure Japan has sexual deviancy; but so does the good old USA. How about declining population? If we didn't have porous borders and steady immigration, population would be stagnant in America as well. Here's the rub, we're measuring the problems in Japan against a perfection that even our own country falls short of. We believe that all Japanese women should enter the workplace, because we have an idol of materialism and constantly growing GDP, we believe that population growth is good because it feeds economic growth, we believe that blurring gender roles is good because it means equality. We think Japan is backwards because it has chosen not to embrace economic growth at any cost. What does that say about our values? Maybe Japan's immigration policies are archaic--or maybe they value their culture and don't feel the need to globalize for globalization's sake. Back to the 'Christian' USA thing--just as if this were a person evangelism encounter, it would be blatantly hypocritical to focus on the negative aspects of Japanese culture without first being humble and honest about the failures of the American Church and the decline of American culture--that is why I don't focus on the negative. The truth is, all of the problems in both America and Japan have the same source, and the same solution. They are all born out of the fallen nature of humanity and the only solution is the blood of Jesus Christ that washes over all sin."

A few closing thoughts. The first is, Japan needs missionaries because it needs Jesus, not because of its social ills. Secondly, assume that whatever you write or say about the Japanese in the context of Christians, especially on the internet, can be heard and misunderstood by those that we are trying to share our faith with. Thirdly, we should not measure Japan's society by measurements we would be uncomfortable admitting our own has significant shortcomings with. Finally, the Gospel is primarily a positive message rather than a negative one; by focusing on the negative, we can be trapped into seeing the Japanese people through uncharitable worldly lenses rather than Gospel lenses--these are people that are created in the image of God and beloved by the Father, let us show them the same level of grace, mercy and unearned generosity which the Lord has shown to us!

Let us take one step past just 'not being negative,' let us aspire for something greater. I hope that if a non-Christian Japanese person were to read my blog posts or hear me speaking about their nation and people, they would hear love, not judgement. I hope that if someone who doesn't know Jesus reads what I write or listens to what I say on the topic of missions, they will not be offended, but instead intrigued. I would hope that when they hear what I have been thinking and praying about, they would want to know the God who has inspired my heart.