Friday, September 10, 2021

Shikata Ga Nai: Fatalism and Defeatism in the Japanese Church

This isn't a full length exploration, more of a scribble, but something I have been thinking about this morning. 

Japan has at times been been called the graveyard of missionaries--many Western missionaries to Japan fail to return after their first or second terms. While in graduate school I read a few articles on missionary attrition--some of the reasons for missionaries leaving the field include finances, family problems, marriage problems, and personal sin. But surprisingly, one of the most often cited reason for people leaving the mission field was conflict with teams and local partners. 

Japanese culture and American culture cannot be more different--often when using different anthropological metrics to evaluate cultures, they are often on the opposite extremes. This probably has a lot to do with why many missionaries to Japan seem to wash out. It is very difficult to find a local church partner that understands and appreciates those differences, and is able to work well with missionaries from around the world.

One particular cultural difference that I believe drives a wedge more deeply than any other is the difference in attitudes between Japanese and American culture as it pertains to Risk Aversion. Risk Aversion is a metric used to evaluate how different individuals and cultures relate to risk and change. To avoid going to long in the mouth, in a nut shell, American culture prizes the risk taking entrepreneur, explorer, and inventor; while Japanese culture has historically prized the tradition and consistency and avoided risky ventures. 

A common refrain a Western missionary to Japan will hear from his partner is, "Shikata Ga Nai,' which translates literally as, "there is nothing that can be done,' but has a more fatalistic and defeatist nuance. Change is just something that cannot occur in Japan--there is nothing that can be done about it. It is a statement of unbelief.

When suggesting possible ways to help the Japanese church become more healthy, or individual Christians to grow in their own faith, it is common to hear a laundry list of excuses. Here are a few examples that will likely come up over and over again.

"We tried that before and it didn't work."

"Japanese people are just too busy."

"We don't want to seem like a cult."

"That is an American way of thinking, this is Japan."

It is hard enough when there is opposition to the Gospel and the sincere desire of the missionary to share their faith and be fruitful from outside of the church--but what many missionaries are unprepared for is the inertia and opposition to their ministry from those that should be their allies and partners.

 Almost all efforts to push back on this deep seated fatalism and defeatism are returned with, 'you are not Japanese, you do not understand.' There is only so much of that that a person can put up with before becoming defeatist themselves. 

I don't have any answers other than to beg for your prayers for a fresh move of the Holy Spirit in the Japanese church. There are of course outliers to the general trend, and I would appreciate your prayers as I search for partnerships with Japanese churches and leaders who are willing to take risks and try new things.

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