“Can I tell you a story about the challenges of being a Christian in Japan?” asked the white-shirted young man, a graduate from a local university.
“Absolutely,” I answered from across the table laden with all manner of sushi fillings, including meats both cooked and raw. A group of about 15 Christian young people had gathered around the feast, rolling sticky rice in seaweed while swapping stories about following Christ in Japan.
I’d anticipated hearing some interesting reports during my ongoing mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days, documenting Christian university students’ experiences in different countries. But I never expected to hear a story quite like this.
A Little Background Information
Japan’s Worldview Foundation
“The village where I’m from is Shinto oriented,” the young man explained. “European villages have a church in the centre and houses around; we have a Shinto shrine in the centre and houses all around. The villagers don’t regard Shintoism as a religion, but as their culture.”
And Christianity represents the culture of foreigners, I remembered, thinking back to the history lesson I’d learned from a Japanese professor a few days earlier. I’d been in Japan long enough to know that Christianity is considered Western, even though Western cultures have largely abandoned God’s Word as the foundation for their thinking. That process, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, unfolded as Western cultures (and even some churches) progressively relegated Scripture to the dustbins of mythology, displaced by humanistic interpretations of science—including concepts like evolution and “millions of years”—which contradict the biblical creation account in Genesis 1–11. But because Genesis 1–11 provides the basis for every other major doctrine of Scripture, abandoning that foundation meant that the West could choose only one other foundation for its thinking: man’s word. So now both most of the West and the East (including Japan) base their cultural worldviews on the same shaky foundation.
Japan’s Collectivistic Culture
Despite sharing the same worldview foundation of man’s word, however, Japan and Western cultures differ in other important aspects. For instance, Western cultures have traditionally been individualistic, while Japan is collectivistic. Individualistic cultures revolve around (you guessed it) individuals, valuing independence, personal identity, and the mantra, It’s all about me. Collectivistic cultures, however, revolve around (yep) collectives, valuing teamwork, clan identity, and the mantra, It’s all about the group.
In fact, collectivistic cultures are so group-orientated that group defines self. If you grow up as a collectivist, you learn to define your identity by your community, family and circle of close friends. You must protect that identity, please your ingroup, and avoid shaming them at all costs. So, abandoning mainstream thought to follow Christ in non-Christian collectivistic societies often means severing ties to your culture, community and family—your very identity.
Altogether then, Christian students in countries like Japan often face an extra layer of challenges compared to Western Christian students. Christians in both Japan and the West encounter challenges for embracing a worldview which is foundationally different from their cultures’. But in the West, this kind of nonconformity can sometimes be defended as “showing independence.” Moreover, the West is so individualistic that truth itself is usually considered a personal choice. In Australia and New Zealand, for instance, Christian students told me that their secular peers typically adopt the mindset, “You believe what you want to; just don’t force your beliefs on me.”
In Japan, however, Christian students not only base their thinking on a completely different foundation than others do, but they’re also nonconformists in a culture where conformity (a.k.a., harmony) means everything. As the university graduate explained,
“I grew up as a Christian, so I value putting God first, being a friend to those without friends and crying with those who cry. But in Japan, we are told from elementary school to form a ‘great circle,’ and to exclude those who don’t fit into it. So, I’d get excluded and bullied, not only by students but also by teachers.”
The Graduate’s Story
Even though this graduate’s whole family followed Christ, swimming against the cultural current still posed great difficulties for him—not only in university, but right from elementary school.
“Many elementary schools teach kids to start their meals in a Buddhist way,” he said, “by putting their hands together and saying, ‘I’m going to eat you, food that’s in front of me.’ It’s a way of thanking the souls of the food, based on animism.”
Quite contrary to Biblical teaching, animism is the belief that all things are alive and possess a spirit. So, unable to participate in an animist ritual before meals, this student would instead thank God for his food. Not only did his teacher tell him to stop, but she added that the sight of him praying made her feel like throwing up.
“When our class hamster died,” this graduate continued, “the students wanted to do a Buddhist style funeral for it. Everyone was bowing to the dead hamster as part of the ritual, while I stood back, praying. I didn’t want to bow to a hamster. The teacher walked up and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I answered that I was doing the funeral in my style, but she told me, ‘You should do it in our style. Do not bring your religious style to our classroom.’”
“There were a lot of times I just wanted to quit being a Christian,” he confided, “to fall into the shape of the world and say, ‘He’s not my God.’ How many times I thought that would be easier! But while I didn’t have many peers at my church, the elders there were really supportive. They had been Christians since WWII and they knew how hard it was to follow Christ, but they also told me how blessed they were and what God did for them. They loved to tell the story of Elijah on Mount Carmel, standing for God among the Baal worshipers. Without that story and without those elders, I might have lost faith during my younger years.”
The Importance of Mentorship
Wait a minute. Here, the theme which had been repeatedly surfacing since my first conversations with students in Canada was appearing again, as distinct as the taste of the seaweed I’d just been consuming: Christian students need meaningful connections with older mentors. I’d heard this message in all the Western nations I’d visited which have culturally abandoned the foundation of God’s Word in favour of man’s. And now, I’d heard it in another culture too—a totally different culture—which nonetheless rests on the same foundation of man’s word.
As my previous conversations in Japan confirmed, one vital way to help Christian students navigate cultures founded on man’s word is apologetics training. Apologetics is the intellectual defense of the Christian faith, part of what I call the intellectual foundations that Christian youth need for keeping their faith throughout secular education. But youth also need interpersonal foundations, a Christian support network including family, peers, church, and—like this graduate discovered—older mentors.
Older adults have stories to share, and we younger Christians need to hear them. Mature Christians’ testimonies, experiences, and commitment can ignite our faith, fuel our conviction, and launch our walk with Christ to the next level. This side of mentorship doesn’t have to be complicated to be valuable. As the Japanese graduate discovered, mentorship can be as simple as little interactions where one generation declares God’s faithfulness to another.
The Moral of the Story
Granted, not many Christian students at secular university will (hopefully) face a faith-compromising hamster funeral. They will, however, face other pressures from basing their thinking on God’s Word, the foundation which their cultures reject. But no matter where students encounter those pressures, whether in individualistic cultures like Canada or collectivist cultures like Japan, they can draw tremendous encouragement from older Christians—and from their stories.
Who knows? Even the simplest story of God’s faithfulness might just be a lifeline for someone’s faith.
(Stay tuned for part 11!)