Background on Japan

Prayers at Asakusa Temple, Tokyo
Japanese are almost exclusively Shinto-Buddhist in their beliefs. Shinto is the indiginous, animistic religion of Japan. Similar to numina of early Latin religion, shinto believes that everything has a spirit (tree spirit, river spirit, fox spirit, etc.)  These spirits seem to be largely indifferent to humans and their worship seems to consist mostly of bribing them with monetary offerings to acting in a way that benefits (or at least, does not harm) humans. Buddhism seems to be rather different from Indian Buddhism and is usually only invoked for death rites. I did not hear a consistent theology but it appears that a dead person is prayed for by the living so that the prayers will influence the gods to bring the deceased to “Heaven”, which appears to be slightly more desireable than the “Hell” alternative. Certainly the Christian notion of Heaven being tangibly good does not appear to enter into Buddhist thought, nor can one be certain whether one will reach “Heaven”.

Fox shrines at Inari Shrine, Hirosaki City
My impression is that the older Japanese are firm Shinto-Buddhist believers and the youger Japanese are just-in-case believers. I am told that most of the younger or urban population will claim to be atheistic, yet the shrines are full of prayers for success in tests. And for a few hundred yen, why not offer a prayer just in case? The vast majority of the population knows nothing of the theology that they occasionally practice. It seems that the Buddhist death rites are of particular importance, however. While nobody seems to mind if one does not visit the Shinto shrines, or to a lesser extent, neglect the worship of recent ancestors, during funerals it is imperative to offer incense to the deceased. Failure to pray for the ascention of their souls shows a lack of concern for the deceased and effectively insults them (and the rest of the family).

Judging by the comments of the Japanese believers, the largest family opposition to a family member becoming a Christian is the fear that Christianity is a cult. Once they see that the new Christian does not disturb the social equilibrium, the Christian is often permitted to practice in peace. One woman became a Christian and her husband said he would divorce her if she was baptized before he retired, as he presumably feared that if she were known to be a Christian it would adversely affect his career. As soon as he retired, she was baptized and remains happily married. There is, however, the sticking point of the funeral. Another woman’s husband said that he would divorce her if she did not offer incense at his parent(s)’ funeral. (They have not yet died, so at present, no problems.)

Akihabara Electric Town
In some respects Japan’s spiritual state is similar to that of the West. With the citizens of the largest economies living with the highest standard of living in the history, there is little apparent need for God’s provision. Science, with its seeming offer of a purely natural explanation of the world, is largely responsible  for this opulence, so God is “provably” unnecessary. Without a God, then, Mankind is left only with a need to satiate itself in whatever moral structure it deems best. In Japan, breaking the “moral” rules is not a moral failing; getting caught and adversely affecting the harmony of the group is the failing. So husbands frequently have lovers (often with little effort taken to hide it) and politicians frequently resign because of scandals. Yet it was not wrong to do the action, it was wrong to get caught.

Still, although Japan has the hard-hardedness of the West, it does retain the awareness of the supernatural that the West has explained away. Many people have had visitations from spirits, sort of like “hauntings” in the U.S. except that it is not uncommon. (They go away if the person becomes a Christian.)  There even seems to be a concept of a “living god”, one of which apparently lived in the town where we taught English.

Japan is quite resistant to the Gospel, much more so than the nearby Asian nations. China has many people becoming Christians and a church in either Indonesia or the Philippines (I am not sure which) can usually be self-supporting (about 30 people) in a few years. In Japan the average time for a person to accept Jesus’ message is 10 years. Many rural churches are 20 years old and still not self-supporting yet. However, there is a growing disatisfaction with the open adultery of men, a feeling that the Buddhist priests are money-hungry1, and a concern about the failure of politicians to correct Japan’s decade-long recession that may change Japan’s openness sometime in this generation.

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1  Each temple serves a region and if you live in that region, you pay a temple “tax.” Technically this is optional, but in a strong mono-culture one doesn’t rock the boat, so people pay it. This tax is set by the priests of that temple and many priests charge rather high fees and are perhaps more worldly than their position dictates.