“What’s in this one?” I asked, lifting the lid of the tiny porcelain jar. The contents looked different from anything I’d seen before—a wet mass of squishy pallor sitting in something yellow.
“It’s raw squid,” replied my Japanese friend.
I hadn’t ordered this! But apparently, the mysterious letters on the menu beside me outlined not a list of meal options, but rather, a sort of culinary prescription.
Gingerly, I picked up my chopsticks.
I glanced across the table at my friend, her chopsticks swishing squid around her jar the way an artist might twirl a brush in paint. Following suit, I raised one limp noodlelike strip from my jar and held it dangling at a distance. Then I closed my eyes, popped it like a pill, and swallowed.
The squid tasted like it looked: wet and squishy, with a mild fishy flavour somewhat masked by the yellow something. It wasn’t too bad, but I’d rather stick with a stack of Canadian pancakes and maple syrup.
“I don’t really like raw squid,” my friend suddenly commented.
Now she tells me!
The Foundations for Cultures’ Thinking: A Little Recap
So, what eccentric errand had me munching molluscs in Japan? It was just the next phase of my mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ experiences in secular universities.
So far, I’d spoken with campus Christians in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines. Along the way, it didn’t take long to figure out that the first three nations have founded their worldviews on man’s word, as opposed to the only other foundation for thought, God’s Word. Like other Western countries, they’ve dismissed God’s Word as scientifically irrelevant thanks to years of embracing evolutionary interpretations of science that contradict a Christian worldview at its very root, Genesis 1–11. Now, as Ken Ham’s book Gospel Reset explains, the gospel seems as foreign to Westerners as it did to the Greeks of Paul’s time. The Greeks, like modern Westerners, had no foundational understanding of God’s Word from the beginning, unlike the Jews of that era. So, the Jews responded more readily to the gospel.
I recently watched this phenomenon play out in the Philippines, a nation which, like first-century Jewish society, is culturally familiar with God’s Word from its beginning. I witnessed firsthand how much more open the Philippines are to the gospel, therefore, compared to the Western nations I’d visited.
With these lessons in mind, my next task was to find out the foundation for Japan’s worldview, and what that means for Japanese Christian students. To start, I spoke with a retired professor and Japanese diplomat who attended a church I “happened” to visit.
Spirituality in Japan
“During the modernization of Japan,” the white-haired professor began, “we imported science and technology from European countries, but did not pay attention to the spiritual dimension of these Christian nations. That was our greatest mistake.”
“So, what do people here believe?” I asked.
“It’s kind of syncretism,” he replied, explaining that religions like Buddhism had been imported to Japan during its modernization. “But the native Japanese religion is Shintoism: the worship of physical, natural things. Beautiful mountains, rivers and rocks are ‘god.’ Still in Tokyo, there’s a major Shinto shrine where eight million citizens worship on New Year’s Day. On other days, they’re ‘non-religious.’ So, the reality is that only 0.4% of Japan’s total population are Christians, including [those who say they are] Catholic and Orthodox . . . But only half are churchgoers—0.2%.”
In a nation relatively free from active persecution against the church, why could there be so few Christians? The answer, it turns out, lies in a bit of history.
Why God’s Word Never Became Japan’s Foundation
“Before the Japanese encountered [Westerners],” the professor expounded, “the emperors were very much sensitive about invasion from the West. All the nations outside Western Europe were being colonized by Western European powers, with only two exceptions in the world: Thailand and Japan.”
Thailand, he pointed out, lay in convenient equilibrium between French powers to its east and British control to its west. But Japan, being an island, had to resist colonization through only its tremendous efforts. Part of these efforts included forbidding Christianity and kicking out foreign missionaries, thanks to institutionalized Christianity’s cultural association with colonialism.
“For three centuries,” he continued, “the leaders educated the people of Japan that Christianity is dangerous. That is a big factor in why the Christianization of Japanese people is still very slow.”
History Affects Christian Students Today
A few days later, several students at a Christian women’s college unfurled a few more layers of Japan’s complex spiritual history for me.
“In 1612, the government made a law prohibiting Christianity,” said one girl. “Since then, there were lots of hidden Christians. Many people here still have those prejudices toward Christianity.”
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the students explained, fires of persecution raged against Christianity with terrifying ferocity.
“The government made a plate called a Fumi-E, which had a picture of Jesus on it,” said another girl. “They asked everyone to step on the plate. Those who hesitated—the faithful Christians—were killed.”1
While Japan no longer ranks among the world’s top 50 countries for Christian persecution,2 the perceived association between Christianity and foreign politics lingers still.
“I’m in an American culture course,” said one student, “and the history is influenced by Christianity very much. So, in almost every class we hear things related to Christianity. The teacher, who is Buddhist, is a conservative person who doesn’t criticize Christians. But the other students agreed to criticize Christianity, asking ‘if Christians are so kind, why did they kill native people where they travelled?’ They said that Christians used the Bible to justify their murders.”
Christianity, Sins of the Past, and Students’ Need for Apologetics
Tragically, we recognize that professing Christians HAVE participated in atrocities in the past. But the fact that people cause evil in the name of Christianity, no matter how unfortunate and hypocritical that may be, is ultimately irrelevant to whether the claims of Christ are true. To find out whether any worldview is morally or logically correct, we must look at what happens when that worldview is consistently lived out. For Christians, that means examining the life and teachings of Jesus. When we do so, we find that his actions and commands for believers—including “do to others as you would have them do to you”—hardly justify evil deeds.
In fact, recent historical research suggests that, frequently, protestant missionaries not only criticized many immoral social ills (including slavery) based on Biblical teachings but they also played roles in many nations’ later development and democratic flourishing.3 Conversely, if secular worldviews are right to say that God doesn’t exist and that no human is made in God’s image, then from what ultimate moral foundation can we criticize anyone’s actions or beliefs?
Thinking about these questions is part of apologetics, the intellectual defense of the Christian faith. Apologetics equips Christians to answer objections and misconceptions regarding their faith—like the idea that the Bible somehow justifies political atrocities. This is especially important for Christians in nations that, like the first-century Greeks, have no foundational familiarity with God’s Word. Speaking to these Japanese students, therefore, reminded me yet again why Christians around the world need the intellectual foundation of apologetics to navigate “Greek” classrooms and cultures.
The Moral of the Story
At first, Western nations like Canada might seem as different from Japan as, well, maple syrup and raw squid. They do, however, share an important similarity: cultural worldviews founded on man’s word rather than God’s. While these nations arrived at the foundation of man’s word different ways, with Western nations gradually abandoning God’s Word and Japan never embracing it in the first place, the results for Christian students in both places are remarkably similar. Apologetics training to defend the foundation of God’s Word, therefore, is critical for Christian students even a world apart.
What other lessons would Japan hold for Christian students around the globe?
Stay tuned for part 10!