One of the most common questions I'm asked is "Why are the Japanese people so resistant to the gospel?" It's a good question. We hear of the explosive growth of the church in China, India, Africa, and even in the Arab world. Why not Japan? There are many complex issues all interwoven through each other, but here are a few of the key issues.
Conformity: There is a strong expectation to always look, act, and be like everyone else. This can be seen in the uniforms worn by most school children and the amazing order in which they sit in nice, neat rows. It's also seen in the sea of monochrome colors among working adults with their typically nondescript ties. Conformity is deeply ingrained in the Japanese culture, where each person is responsible for the actions of their family, friends, and colleagues. In 1597, following the expulsion of Portuguese missionaries and the crucifixions of 26 Japanese Christians, the authorities instituted a system in which five families were grouped together for public accountability. If a member of this group turned in a Christian, the Christian was killed. If someone outside the group reported a Christian, everyone in the five families was killed. Although Japanese people are now free to worship as they like, this sense of group responsibility remains today. To be Japanese means one is Buddhist and Shintoist; it's an inseparable part of the culture. One Japanese man, upon converting to Christianity, was asked, "You are no longer Japanese?" In a nation where only 0.2% of the people are Christians, sharing the gospel with a Japanese friend is seen as asking them to no longer be Japanese.
Perfection: While visiting with students at Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham recently, after I described the level of perfectionism expected in Japan, two different students asked me, "Is Japan a nation of OCD people?" Well, no it is not. But there is incredible pressure to do everything to the absolute highest of standards. It's no accident that Japan is known for high quality cars and electronics. And where else could someone pay $150 for a perfect melon? The pressure to be perfect in every way is crippling. More than a million young people have isolated themselves in their parents' homes, and nearly 30,000 people commit suicide every year. In a culture that offers no grace for the imperfect, the concept of "sin" is as foreign as shrimp and grits. In this context, sharing the gospel means telling a Japanese friend that he is not perfect -- that he needs help from Someone better than him. Even if your friend is able to admit to being a sinner, he is not accustomed to receiving grace from others, so receiving grace from Jesus is often a lifelong struggle.
Japanese Superiority: Most nations have been on the losing side of war. A culture as old as Japan has typically been humbled by defeat many times over the millennia. Japan has done more than its share of humiliating its neighbors, but has only ever lost one war. And although World War II was certainly humiliating, the conqueror helped Japan to quickly rebuild itself and salvage its honor. Japan does see itself as superior to other peoples. As such, it does not take quickly to ideas from these other cultures, including Christianity.
Ultimately, however, we know that God is not limited by these cultural issues. Jesus said, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out" (John 6:37). God's sovereign election of His people is always effective. As the will of God dictates, Japanese people will respond to the gospel. Isaiah 55:11 says, "So shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it." As the bearers of God's word, we can rest in the comfort that God is ultimately sovereign over the response of all men to the call of the gospel. Japan, too, will one day kneel at the name of Jesus. Please pray that God will soon draw the hearts of Japan to Himself. And please back up those prayers with action, by either going to proclaim the good news of the gospel or by partnering with me or others who have committed to bring the hope of the gospel to this people with so little hope.