I have been reading a fascinating book on Japan and its faltering economy and culture entitled Shutting out the Sun, by Zielenziger. It describes the various ways Japanese culture seems to be failing, economically and sociologically. The economic growth rate on average has been under 1% for 15 years. Japan’s birthrate is the lowest in the industrialized world and the population has been shrinking since 2005. Japan suffers one of the highest suicide rates in the world and 1-2 million mostly young men have become recluses in their own homes, called the “hikikomori” or “withdrawn ones.” Two of the brothers of one of my students are Hikikomori and one of them committed suicide 2 years ago.
In 1853, the American admiral Perry forced the “hermit kingdom” into the modern world. For 47 years after this opening Protestant missionaries worked in Japan with considerable success. An average of 5000 people were baptized every year. But Japan remained a very mono-ethnic and intensively group oriented society. Then in 1890, new laws were promulgated that enshrined Shinto in a new political structure. Political and religious unity became synonymous and the group culture became even more intense. Baptisms dropped immediately to about 1000 per year and have never recovered.
This intense group orientation continued after World War II and led to a lack of diversity, both ethnically and in the arena of ideas. This lead to the stifling of creativity and the crushing of individuals. Bullying is normal, not only in schools, but in the workplace. Those who do not conform are frozen out of the society in a blanket of silence and shame. And the system, once the envy of the industrialized world, is failing.
What does Jesus have to say about this? Zielenziger makes the startling assertion, backed up by many Japanese commentators, that Japan desperately needs outsiders to bring new social and intellectual ideas into Japanese culture. He even mentions a Japanese woman who was set free from her bondage to the system through faith in Christ. We are now living in that woman’s home here in Nagoya. There is a growing awareness that social isolationism is killing Japan. I think Jesus is saying that this is a kairos moment for Japan. There is an openness and searching for answers outside of the existing system.
How do we communicate the Gospel of Christ in the Japanese context?
David Cashin, Professor of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University, is on sabbatical this semester. The first stop on his journey was teaching and ministering in Japan in the summer.