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A letter from Barbara Easton in Japan

September 24, 2012

Autumn greetings from Nagasaki.

Thank you for your continued support of the mission of Jesus Christ in Japan. Your prayers and gifts are very encouraging and allow mission co-workers to continue to serve God around the world through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Recently I read a comment about looking back, which is a frequent perspective in this part of the world. It is usual to say we should put something behind us and move forward, but sometimes it might be helpful to remember to put something important in front of us and move back for a different view. This summer’s typhoons have missed Nagasaki City, midyear graduation is safely completed, and now we are starting second semester classes at Kwassui Women’s University, where I teach English and Bible-related courses. International students from China and Korea have just arrived on campus, with a background of tensions among East Asian countries over territorial disputes. An American student researcher wrote to ask about changes in relation to missionary activities in Japan since World War II. I would like to share some of my responses to his questions with you.

The most important part of mission work seems to be relating to people in ways that may help them to relate to God. Talking with small groups or individuals is likely to be most effective, I think, as people do not generally respond meaningfully in crowds. As you may know, only about 1 percent of Japanese people are connected with a Christian church, and evangelism is slow work here. One of the most satisfying Christian relationships for me at present is in mentoring a relatively new church member, a parent, who is the only Christian in her family. She is hungrily seeking to grow in Jesus Christ.

Many Japanese do not seem to feel that the local festivals such as Okunchi, which occurs here in Nagasaki October 7 to 9, are particularly religious, but for some Christians there is a strong feeling of discomfort, and especially at New Year when families are expected to visit a shrine together and at the Obon festival for ancestors in summer. In some households, particularly that of an oldest son, the daily offerings to the ancestors at the home Buddhist altar are also a problem because it is often a wife who is the sole Christian in a home, but she is still expected to fulfill the religious duties for the Buddhist family.

I think that most Japanese Christians are brought into faith through some personal relationship with a Christian, possibly in a school setting, as there are many Christian schools such as Kwassui in Japan. Usually a significant Christian relationship seems more likely to occur when someone is experiencing a problem in life with a loss in relationships and is open to change. If people are satisfied in their current situation, they may think of Jesus Christ as having been a wonderfully good teacher but nothing more.

Many Japanese seem to accept religious activities (such as visiting shrines at New Year or at critical times such as before an entrance examination) as part of their culture but without any personal belief in divinity. This can carry over into school situations, where students consider it proper to go through the motions of chapel participation, for example, without engaging directly in faith-based activity. Even our recent religious lecture for staff pointed out the trouble spots in Christian history rather than offering a clear vision for the future.

Although Christians are not viewed with hostility, most Japanese seem to view Christianity as "foreign" in Japan. They do not associate it with a local religion and so it is rather exotic. Christian life activities such as attending church on Sunday seem strange, if not anti-social, because public benefit activities such as neighborhood cleanup and school events are normally scheduled on Sundays for maximum participation since most people do not work regularly on Sunday. Persecution when Japan was a closed nation causes some people to resist committing to Christianity, especially in Nagasaki, where we have memorials to Christian martyrs, and generally it is seen as awkward and difficult for females to become Christian because they are likely to end up married to someone who is not Christian, with attendant stresses as described above.

Relationships grow slowly here, so quick results are likely to be superficial. In the first generation after World War II there seems to have been a lot of openness to Christian mission in Japan, but the developed world since then has become less spiritual as it has become more materialistic. Many of the welfare functions begun through Christian missions have been taken over by government agencies, although there are still Christian hospitals (e.g., Yodogawa Christian Hospital in Osaka). State schooling and higher education have increased to include most students, tending to remove the reliance on Christian schools. Younger people are busy working and do not want to spend Sunday (morning or all day) in some seemingly old-fashioned church setting. Nagasaki with its historic Christian roots is rather conservative.

Last week two pastors from the national level of the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan) came to talk with representatives of local educational institutions with Methodist heritage to see how churches and schools might move forward together to further mission aims.  Please pray that Christians in Japan, and throughout the world, may focus on serving God’s purposes more adequately day by day and work together so that God’s love might spread to all peoples.

Yours in Christ,

Barbara Easton

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 200

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