Reaching Japanese men for Christ

by Dr Ronnie Cairns

"Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children," writes Matthew in his account of the feeding of the multitude.

JapMenForChristWe praise God for many outstanding Christian men all over Japan. If, however, you were to go into a Japanese church, what would impress you is the large percentage of women in the congregation. It is a fact that the Japanese male has proved to be a stubborn challenge when it comes to evangelism. What are the reasons for this? The cultural and corporate background of the country is, I think, relevant.

At the end of the Second World War, Japanese society collapsed and Japanese industry lay in ruins. Under the American and Allied Occupation, the huge industrial conglomerates, the zaibatsu, were broken up. Japan had to find some way of rising from the ashes. At that time not even the Japanese could have predicted that, within one generation, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Honda, Sony, Suzuki would become household names and global brands. The achievement was truly astonishing, a tribute to the skill, diligence, dedication and organising ability of the Japanese workforce.

However, while the corporate structures changed, the corporate culture and mentality of the old zaibatsu survived intact. Business leaders demanded a docile, obedient workforce. Conformity in attitude, thought and behaviour was considered a virtue even reaching into the personal lives of employees.

One of the most notorious examples was Toyota Motor Corporation's Total Lifetime Plan. In many cases, employees who engaged in activities, even private activities, outside the company auspices were harshly criticised by fellow employees for their "disloyalty". As for Christian faith or church attendance, these were seen as discordant and foreign elements in the corporate atmosphere.

This has changed since the early 1990s. Nowadays 'independence', 'individuality' and 'internationalism' are stressed. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was invited on numerous occasions to give lectures at PTA meetings and, to a lesser extent, at company and Rotary Club dinners. I was expected to emphasise such themes in order to reflect the new wind of change.

In spite of surface change, however, basic patterns remain much the same. The brothers in our Ashiya church have to grind out long hours at their workplaces. One brother in his 20s has to be in his salesroom at 7 am and work until 10 pm or later. On Saturdays his work does not finish until the small hours of Sunday morning. He and other Christians do not believe that the workplace is the first priority in their lives, but this is still the corporate philosophy, and as such exerts enormous pressure on their daily programme and personal arrangements.

If this is the situation for a Christian employee you can imagine the barriers standing in the way of a nominally Buddhist employee should he desire to seek Christ.

A book published in 2010(1) by one of Japan's overseas ambassadors and former chairman of its most famous international trading company, declares that young Japanese must realise that work is the point and purpose of life. The writer insists that new entrants to the corporate world must learn to 'work like ants smeared in mud'. It is a work ethic of religious intensity.

As an obvious result of this conditioning, the mental horizons of the Japanese man are seriously restricted. Intelligence and ability are plenty, but originality, curiosity and bold, individual decision-making are alien to his training. He will tend to accept uncritically stereotyped notions of work, society, Japan and, of course, "the foreign religion". Such a mental architecture is naturally resistant to evangelism.

In contrast to this, I have always found a tendency among Japanese women to be more open-minded, more intellectually curious and more willing to think for themselves. They have not usually been subject to the same corporate conditioning as men, and they have more time and freedom to pursue a variety of cultural and educational activities. It is therefore easier for them to take an interest in the Bible and church. Many of them do so with considerable courage, as such interest will often invite a husband's displeasure.

So, what do we do? The Christian men of my acquaintance in Japan represent a fairly balanced cross-section of the population: company workers, professional men, retired men, students. It is significant that the great majority of them were converted as students or as children. The moral is obvious: go for them when they are young!  The university years are those of greatest freedom for a Japanese person.  University evangelism for that reason has been a high priority for many of us. It has proved time and again to be a window of opportunity.

In recent years, many churches and evangelists have seen the value of tailoring at least a part of their witness to times and places that suit the schedule and lifestyle of the salaried worker. For example, lunchtime outreach in the downtown business area of Osaka has made many first-time contacts. Described variously as 'Bible Talk', 'Businessmen's Worship' or other user-friendly titles, the programme frequently includes a reasonably-priced lunch. The venue will often be an office, a restaurant, a hotel or other easy-to-access location.

Anne and I recently attended a dinner in one of Osaka's biggest city hotels. The dinner is organised regularly by a keen group of Christians. Believers are expected to invite non-Christian friends, often paying for their tickets. Christian musical entertainment was provided and a clear gospel talk was given by a pastor from a nearby Osaka church.

A missionary colleague who works in a difficult rural town in Japan has a monthly men's breakfast, which is held in a city hotel. He invites a speaker with a profile that would be of interest to men, and who can present a clear gospel message. The average attendance each time is 20, a very encouraging attendance for a relatively remote rural town in Japan.

When our Lord promised to make His disciples "fishers of men", the word He used was inclusive of both sexes. It nevertheless comes to us as a fresh challenge in the context of Japan. For no barrier, whether cultural, religious, historical, sexual or any other, can stop the Spirit's work. And no conditioning, however intense, can quench the longing for truth and hope in the hearts of men and women.

The barriers are formidable, but even in Japan men are being saved, praise God!

(1) Niwa Yuichiro (2010). Wakamono No Tame No Shigotoron. Tokyo. Asahi

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