Japan - Below the Surface

by Timothy Marcy


When you think of Japan, what immediately comes to mind? Mount Fuji? Sushi? Toyota? Sony? You may be aware that the Japanese are by and large well-educated, hard-working and financially prosperous. Their scientists are world-class and their technology cutting edge. You may even know that, since the Second World War, Japan has been one of the safest and most peace-loving nations in the world. The crime rate is low.1 Individuals and communities are, as a rule, clean, neat and orderly.


Just below the surface, however, there are many things you may not know about Japan. For instance, did you know Japan has the ninth highest suicide rate in the world? On 11th March 2011, a massive tsunami struck north-eastern Japan and about 25,000 lost their lives. That number is staggering, but equally gripping is the fact that in that same year there were more than 35,000 suicides. According to government statistics, every year from 1998 to 2011, more than 30,000 Japanese people took their own lives.2 Therefore, in a manner of speaking, there is a tsunami in Japan every year - a tsunami of suicides.



When my wife and I arrived in Japan several years ago, we came face to face with this issue of suicide. Soon after arriving we went out for coffee with a man who was my English student back in the early 1990s. A few weeks later we received a phone call from him. He got right to the point and told me he was about to slip off a chair and hang himself. By God's grace I convinced him not to follow through. Since then, he has undergone treatment and regained stability in his life.


So why do so many Japanese end their own lives? More than 60 factors have been identified, with at least four being present in each case. Some of these are unemployment, overwork, debt, relationship problems, family discord, caring for elderly parents and depression.3 Since Japanese identity is so bound up in group harmony and acceptance, hope for the future disappears and a person chooses the option that will cause others the least shame or disappointment - he removes himself.



Another, less drastic, way of removing oneself from society is called hikikomori, which literally means 'pulling oneself into seclusion'. It's a kind of living suicide, in which a person shuts themself up in their room and refuses to interact with others. This problem is widespread among young people who, because they feel that they have failed to fit in, have been bullied or persecuted to the point of despair.4


Cases ofhikikomoriare becoming more common among adults. During our first year in Japan we were introduced to Mrs T, who had essentially dropped out of society. Overwhelmed with hatred for her husband, who had betrayed her, she entered a depressed state. She was treated with medication and ended up sleeping most of the day in her apartment. After talking with her several times, she put her faith in Christ. Since then she has experienced increasing freedom as her understanding of forgiveness deepens.



We are seeing people come to Christ and are excited about this, but compared to the total population, Christians in Japan are like a drop in the ocean. Of Japan's 126 million people, only 0.25% are evangelical Christians.5 In more practical terms, if 400 Japanese pass you in the street, only one will be a genuine believer. With the gospel being preached in Japan for 450 years; why are there not more people, like Mrs T, embracing the hope of the gospel?


The simple answer is that like everyone else, the Japanese are born sinners and resist God and the gospel. But what makes the Japanese different? From our perspective, Satan has a vice-like grip on the Japanese through various devices, but topping the list are tradition and pride, perpetuated through two ubiquitous forms of idolatry.



First, traditional idolatry. Japan's two major religions are Shintoism and Buddhism. The average Japanese owns no scriptures for either religion. But this doesn't matter, since far more important than what they believe, is what they do. For instance, the average person doesn't bow and pray to a cold, stone image of Buddha because they have compared the tenets of all major world religions and concluded Buddhism is most worthy of devotion. They do so because their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother did so, and they are expected to follow suit.


Anyone who doesn't follow course and offer incense and pray to their ancestors is considered disloyal to the family, and less-than-Japanese. Those whose hearts are attracted to the gospel often resist it because they fear the reaction of their families. The continuance of traditions on the one hand and fear of persecution on the other, keep generation after generation in a spiritual grip.


Second, there is contemporary idolatry. In today's Japan, education has become a god. With a good education, you get a high-paying job. Work, money and consumer goods have become gods. But from my perspective, the ultimate god in Japan is simply being Japanese.


At the end of the Second World War, Tokyo was nothing but ashes and rubble. In 65 years, Japan has risen from the ashes of defeat to create the world's third largest economy.6 Being part of this small island nation, which at one point controlled half of Asia and has made itself a modern economic superpower, is, in my opinion, the greatest idol in Japan.



What the Japanese have accomplished economically is, on one level, awe-inspiring. And yet on the day you read this article, about 75 Japanese will end their own lives. They've made for themselves impotent gods and empty hopes. While the majority of Japanese are financially stable, spiritual poverty is visible everywhere you look.



The number of mission workers in Japan is few. We should obey Christ's command and pray for more gospel workers. Where is the next generation of labourers for Japan?


The Japanese constitution guarantees religious freedom - at present. How long this will last, no one knows but, as of now, Japan is still issuing missionary visas.


In Japan there are around 150 Japanese-led assemblies. There is only one assembly for every 840,000 unsaved Japanese. The Japanese church does not have adequate resources to fully evangelise their own people. This makes Japan an unreached people group.7


Please consider more deeply the spiritual needs of Japan and, before the Lord, see how He would have you participate in the work of the gospel in this country.


1.The Japan Times: 'Crime rate in Japan falls for the 11th straight year.'www.JapanTimes.co.jp/news/2014/01/10/national/crime-legal/crime-rate-in-japan-falls-11th-straight-year/#.U3OGyyhzehR

2.The Japan Times: 'Suicide Rate in Decline.'www.JapanTimes.co.jp/opinion/2013/02/04/editorials/suicide-rate-in-decline/#.U2eXHK1dUQQ


4.Kremer, William, and Hammond, Claudia: 'Hikikomori: Why are so many Japanese men refusing to leave their rooms?' BBC News.www.BBC.com/news/magazine-23182523

5.OMF International: 'Japanese.'www.OMF.org/omf/us/peoples_and_places/people_groups/japanese

6.Bergmann, Andrew: 'World's largest economies.' CNNMoney.Money.CNN.com/news/economy/world_economies_gdp

7.Joshua Project: 'People Group Listings.'JoshuaProject.net/listings/Population/desc/25/allctry/allcon/allreg?jps2=5&jps3=5

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