The Challenge with “Japanese Christianity” in the 21st Century

Have you ever been late to a party before? I mean like, really late. When you get there, most of the food has been eaten, some of the best jokes have already been told, and the defining moments of the night have already happened. A few people may have even left already. Sure, you have a good time, but you also feel like you missed something.

Sometimes it feels like that with what I’m trying to do through this blog. I feel like I’m about 150 years late to the party. The question of a Japanese expression of the Christian faith is something that the Japanese really began wrestling with when the country was forced to open up in the 1860s to the world after 260 years of isolation. They modernized in the timespan of a few decades, ingesting centuries of western literature, art, philosophy, science, history, religion, and socio-politico-economic thought. As they took in all this new information, they had to ask the question, “How do we maintain our Japanese identity in the face of all this outside influx of knowledge and culture?” Although there were some people who championed the idea of a Japanese Christianity, like Uchimura Kanzo, the Japanese of the time eventually came to the conclusion that their Shinto-Buddhist religion was what made them Japanese, and the distinctively Christian influences were filtered out. Back during that time, I imagine it was pretty easy to distinguish between what was Japanese and what was not. Kimonos were Japanese, suits were western.

Fast forward past World War II and the Allied Occupation to the present day, and you have a beautiful kaleidescope of cultural influences and innovation that is contemporary Japanese culture. But it is because of this that thinking up a Japanese way to follow Jesus seems so much blurrier and confusing. Baseball has become the largest sport in Japan, but it was introduced to them by the Americans during the Allied Occupation. What were once western suits have now become the iconic attire of the Japanese salaryman.

And not only that, but things that have been considered very Japanese in the past now seem to be seen as out of date, or at best reserved for special occasions. Earlier in my naive inexperienced love for all things Japan, I thought it would be cool to have a church building that looks like a shrine, and to attend service wearing a kimono, and worshiping Jesus with a shamisen–which probably sounds outrageous to actual present-day Japanese.

For both of these reasons, it seems like it is so much harder to determine in present day Japan what is “Japanese” and what is not. I feel like we almost need a completely new definition or way of thinking about what “Japanese” is. Or maybe we should say, what “contemporary Japanese” is. Because, as easy as it would be to slap some old Japanese traditions on Christianity and call it Japanese Christianity, and while I think that those traditions do have a part to play, I think that, overall, a Japanese way of following Jesus must go deeper than the surface level, beyond the outward traditions, into present-day Japanese trends, attitudes, values, culture, social scripts, and more.

I might be late to the party, but I hope to be here long enough to figure out some pieces to this puzzle, God willing.

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