Japan, the land of contrasts:
- Breath-taking mountain scenery not far from sky-scraper cities;
- A delicate kimono-clad lady rubbing shoulders with dangerous ‘yakuza’ (mafia type criminal gang members);
- Modern transport keeping time to the second used by leisurely-paced rural farmers.
Despite all the beauty and efficiency there are wide barriers between the Japanese people and the Living God. This is a land that needs to know the Creator God and Savior Jesus Christ.
- Population: 126,549,976
- Density: 336 per sq. km
- 99% Japanese [the other 1% are mostly Korean]
- nearly 80% live in cities
Only 13% of the land can be built upon, so real density is much greater. In and around Tokyo, the capital, live about 30 million people.
- Buddhist/Shinto/New religions 84%
- Non-religious/other 15%
- Christian 1%, of whom Evangelicals 0.32%
Operation Japan quotes the number of believers as:
- Shinto 109 million
- Buddhist 96 million
- Christian 1.5 million
- Other 10.5 million
making a total of 217 million, whereas the population is somewhat over 126 million. The reason for this is that most Japanese people follow a combination of religions. Generally Japanese only attend Buddhist temples for funerals, Shinto Shrines for baby and children’s blessings, and for weddings, but otherwise in their day-to-day life have little to do with these religions. Many families have Buddhist family altars and/or Shinto god shelves at which they make offerings and pray for the spirits of their ancestors. Previously marriages were generally performed in the Shinto tradition, but in recent years as many as 60% of these are Western, Christian-type ceremonies in specially built chapels in large hotels.
In the latter half of the 19th century Shinto was made a state religion, stressing worship of the emperor as a divinity and the racial superiority of the Japanese. After World War II Shinto ceased to be the state religion, but there is currently a resurgence of a nationalistic Shinto.
Japanese is used throughout the country, although certain parts [including Aomori Prefecture where OMF is working] have such a strong dialect that Japanese themselves have difficulty understanding it. Learning Japanese means tackling three scripts ~ 5,000 ‘kanji’ Chinese characters (though only about 2,000 are normally used), ‘hiragana’ which gives the grammatical meaning to sentences and ‘katakana’ which is used for borrowed words and foreign names. The Japanese language has different levels depending on whether you are speaking to a respected superior, an employee, a child or a friend. So learning Japanese takes time.
Japan consists of four main islands and many smaller ones lying in a crescent to the east of China, Russia and Korea. It is one of the most northerly of all the countries in which OMF works.
Earthquakes are frequent throughout Japan. Most are minor, but large ones can cause devastation, such as the Kobe disaster of 1995 when 5,000 people were killed. There are also 40 active volcanoes around 1,500 seismic occurrences per year and a few tsunamis [tidal waves caused by seismic movement].
Japan’s climate varies widely because the country covers 15° of latitude. Temperatures range from about -20ºC to +30ºC in the north, to about 0-39°C [32-102°F] in the south. There are short summers and severe long winters in Hokkaido and the northern part of Honshu, and hot and humid summers and mild winters with little snow in Tokyo and further south. From August to October typhoons occur which can cause great damage.
Japan is an ancient civilization. Although influenced by China and Korea, it has developed its own highly refined and detailed culture.
Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. However the shoguns [Japan’s leaders] became convinced that this was to soften them up for European conquest. In 1612 as many as 300,000 Japanese Christians were persecuted and many were martyred. The country was closed to all foreigners for 250 years.
From the late 1800s to the end of World War II, Japan sought expansion, initially into Korea, China and Taiwan, and then throughout most of Southeast Asia. Occupied by the United Nations [chiefly the U.S.] after the war, the country inherited many Western qualities. It experienced astonishing economic growth and leads the world in many industries, especially hi-tech and manufacturing. Japan is now the second most technologically powerful economy in the world.
After decades of rapid economic expansion, growth ground to a halt during the 1990s, and many Japanese are becoming disillusioned with the hopelessness and emptiness of their lifestyles.
Christianity in Japan
There was a positive response to the gospel in the late 1800s when Japan re-opened its doors to the West. But this was followed by renewed suspicion and rejection. Church growth slowed dramatically in the early 20th century as pressure from within [rationalistic higher criticism] and without [military government] stunted growth.
The post-war years have seen increased evangelical activity, initially from America, with good growth between 1945 and 1960, and more recently from Korea. In line with its pioneering ethos, OMF’s first workers moved into unreached territories in 1951, concentrating on Hokkaido and the Aomori Prefecture. Young people in particular responded, but rapid urbanization led to shrinking churches as new converts left for the cities. OMF today targets Japan’s cities, both mega-cities and smaller cities, though also has work in rural areas. OMF’s headquarters are in the greater Tokyo area. In Japan in general, in the last 10 years, a number of larger churches of over 100 people have been established, and it is encouraging that so far two OMF-related churches have reached that size.
Despite this heartening growth, the general population has remained absorbed in materialistic attitudes and confident in their own religions. A breakthrough has yet to come. Spiritually, Japan remains unresponsive to the gospel. Cultural pressures to conform and the intense work ethos squeeze out Christianity, particularly for Japanese men. About 70 per cent of all churches have an average attendance of less than 30, though membership is double this figure. This is because many people have to work on Sundays and are therefore unable to attend church every week. Nevertheless many of these people who cannot attend every Sunday are active in church during the week. It is said that 90% of Japanese Christians backslide. However, some of these people are ‘discovered’ many years later and are restored to fellowship.
The recent economic slow-down and the recurrent political scandals have shattered many dreams and shown the emptiness of materialism. There has been a renewal of spiritual interest, seen in the fast growth of sects and new religions. Aum is one that has gained notoriety overseas as well as in Japan. Many who have been brainwashed by cults take years to recover if they manage to escape their clutches.
There are no restrictions to witnessing or preaching the gospel.
OMF Strategic Priorities
· Church planting in strategic areas in association with the Japan Evangelical Churches Association.
· Training, developing and equipping missionaries and Japanese for effective ministry.
· Student work in conjunction with KGK [similar to InterVarsity].
· Church planters and evangelists
· Teaching English
· Student evangelists
· Short term opportunities [4 weeks to 3 years] opportunities
· Support ministries: secretarial, accountancy, doctor as Medical Advisor to OMFers, IT.
· Youth work
· Nurses work ~ to work with Japanese nurses
How to Pray
The sincere, polite, hard-working Japanese are often too busy to give heed to the gospel and have little concept of personal sin. Pray that economic shocks, political instability and fears for the future may shake many out of complacency. There are however some housewives with plenty of free time. They enjoy attending foreign cooking classes, English or other foreign language classes or craft classes run by churches. Some ladies are then very open to start an individual Bible study with the missionary, pastor or Christian. For others, the barriers are up ~ they want to continue to worship their ancestors at the Buddhist or Shinto family altars. Pray that these barriers will come down and people will be free to believe.
Pressures ~ by non-Christian spouses not to attend church, by families to worship at the Buddhist or Shinto family altar, by fellow business workers to socialize after work ~ turn many (however reluctantly) away from church, Christian fellowship and time with the Lord. Pray they will be restored.New religions and sects have grown faster than evangelical Christianity. Pray that those involved would be set free.
Japanese Christians have made little impact on the centers of power [industrial, commercial and political] in the land.
Bible training for Christian workers is provided by nearly 100 seminaries and Bible schools. OMF is involved in teaching at Hokkaido Bible Institute in Sapporo. The great hope for the church’s future is the high quality of many of Japan’s pastors and church leaders. However Christian workers in training are at an all-time low and many post-war pastors are retiring with no one to replace them.
The church needs prayer:
§ Christians are a tiny minority in a society where consensus is important. Few families come to faith; individuals feel exposed. We need to see whole families believing and establishing family worship.
§ The lack of men in the churches. The drive for success and demands of employers make it hard for men to break free.
§ About 70% of all churches have an average attendance of less than 30. This sometimes means that there are not enough people to do the various duties at church so at times pastors take on some of these tasks.
Many towns and eight cities are without churches. Numerous country areas are scarcely touched by the gospel. However compared with the situation 10 or 20 years ago there are growing, flourishing churches started by OMF (and other missions) and there is encouragement in the churches. Since 1980 OMF has been praying for a decisive spiritual breakthrough.
Student witness is strategic, but only a quarter of campuses have KGK [similar to InterVarsity] groups. The estimated number of all Christian students is 0.1 per cent. There are also 70,000 Chinese students in Japan, most from Mainland China.
Christian radio and TV are effective in reaching people
A highly literate, reading, commuting society offers excellent publishing and distributing structures for high-quality Christian literature. Japanese writers are needed, especially now after the death of well-known author Mrs. Ayako Miura.