A Japanese Gospel Message

by Paul Sadler

Framing the gospel message in a way that makes sense to a Japanese audience is critical in communicating Christ in Japan.

One of the gifts of the Japanese people is being able to assimilate products, fads, and ideas from around the world and then make them uniquely Japanese. I have heard Japanese children ask sincerely whether they have McDonald’s in America, and then react with astonishment to learn that it originated in the United States.

The Japanese readily adopt products, ideas, and traditions from around the world, but they first subtly adapt those things they adopt to make them relate to the taste, aesthetics, form, and needs of the Japanese people. With the gospel message, that process of adaptation seems to still be incomplete. The gospel has been imported and proclaimed, but it continues to be framed largely in a Western model that relies on Western concepts and speaks to Western needs.

The future of the Church in Japan demands a bold proclamation of the good news about Jesus Christ that takes seriously Japanese culture and sensibilities. This article presents my search for that and explores my own attempts to share the truths of the atonement in ways that might resonate more readily with the Japanese. At the same time, it provides for those ministering in other cultures practical case studies of how to begin to contextualize the gospel message more naturally.

Slipper Country
Shintoism, Japan’s oldest religion, constantly reinforces the distinction between the pure and the impure. Christian anthropologist David C. Lewis observes, “Shinto rites in Japan almost always involve some reference to the driving out of impurity and the restoration of purity” (1993, 120).

While most modern Japanese aren’t conscious of Shintoism’s effect on their thoughts or worldviews, their sensibilities toward boundaries of clean and unclean in their home (slippers for the home, separate slippers for the water closet [toilet area], no slippers for the tatami room) are a part of Shintoism’s legacy that even the most irreligious person instinctively observes. Rather than starting with a concept like sin, which in Japanese includes strong connotations of crime, it is often far more natural to begin with the inherent beliefs of the Japanese regarding purity and from there introduce the demand for purity of a holy God, and the purification that Jesus provided through his death on the cross.

In this sense, the gospel presentation starts in Leviticus rather than with the Decalogue, deals with the defilement that results from the evil in our hearts that Jesus spoke of (Mark 7:20-23), and ultimately seeks to show how Jesus’ death on the cross provides what Paul calls “the washing of rebirth” (Titus 3:5) and the gift of the clean, or cleansing, Holy Spirit. Lewis says, “To speak of allowing God to ‘wash’ us clean and to put his ‘clean’ and Holy Spirit within us seems not only to communicate more effectively but also employs the kind of vocabulary used by Jesus himself” (1993, 238).

To avoid reaching back into a religious history that most modern Japanese are unfamiliar with, I begin the presentation by describing a foreign guest coming to visit their home for the first time. They are eager to receive the guest, but there is a dilemma. The guest comes in wearing muddy boots; it is obvious that the guest is either unaware or unconcerned about Japanese sensibilities regarding the cleanliness of their home. When asked, Japanese always respond that they would intervene to stop their guest. At this point, I explain that the guest, now aware of the host’s discomfort, tries to brush off his or her boots, still unwilling to actually remove them. In his or her mind, the boots are not that dirty. Japanese are typically gracious to other cultures, but in this case they always instinctively respond that it is the host’s culture and definition of purity that matters. Just cleaning the boots will not do.

Having established assent to a number of important truths while talking about a completely neutral subject, I then explain that this scene is similar to the dilemma the holy God of heaven has in responding to us. When I ask the Japanese if they are sinners, I get blank stares, but when I read a verse like Proverbs 20:9 and ask if they have kept their hearts pure, I have yet to find someone who claimed inner purity.

I share that our impure lives are like the guest with the dirty boots and that most people respond in one of three ways: (1) they assume that their impurity is not that big of a problem (Matt. 7:21-23) like the guest with the muddy shoes, (2) they try doubly hard to be outwardly pure and hope that the inner impurity will be overlooked (Matt. 23:25) like the guest with the brush, or (3) they turn to cleansing rituals like misogi (ascetic Shinto purification).

These options are often seen by the Japanese themselves as inadequate. But if they still don’t see their impurity as a serious problem, I ask them what would happen if they let people walk in and out of their tatami room (a special room in a Japanese home with rice mats) with boots. Obviously, the rice mats would become damaged and people would feel uncomfortable sitting there for fear of getting dirty themselves. Similarly, I explain that if there is no inner cleansing from impurity, heaven is no longer the paradise that God promises. It would be characterized by the same kind of greed, lust, selfishness, and pride that often makes life so painful.

With a clearer picture of this dilemma, I then present Jesus’ death on the cross as providing a covering for our impurity. Like slippers for a person’s dirty feet, Jesus’ righteousness covers the uncleanness of our hearts. In fact, he actually cleanses us so we can walk intimately with a holy God now, and look forward to eternity in a pure heaven because of what Jesus has done (Isa. 61:10).  

Depending upon the setting, I develop these concepts further by looking at the promise of cleansing in the day of atonement (Lev. 16:30), the need for appropriate covering in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-13), Jesus’ washing of the disciples feet (John 13:6-11), the purifying work of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:16, Titus 3:5), and the calls to clothe ourselves with righteousness in response to Jesus’ cleansing in our lives (Col. 3:12-14).

Relief from Our Suffering
The festival of the dead, called O-bon, is the single most important celebration in the Japanese calendar. And its Buddhist origins point to a truth that many Japanese struggle to accept: assuming that “there is no Buddhist hell,” many Japanese only view the Bible in terms of its immediate benefits in the here and now. But the traditional origin of O-bon creates a spiritual dilemma in the minds of the Japanese that the gospel answers far more powerfully than any of their own beliefs or practices.

O-bon provides an opportunity to present a penal substitution understanding of the atonement that sees God in mercy sending Jesus to bear our suffering and relieve us from the penalty of our having strayed from his laws and the suffering of judgment in the life to come. In so doing, it is possible to touch on God’s concern to relieve our suffering in this life and his work in empowering us to relieve the suffering of others—both concepts of importance to the Japanese.  The idea for this presentation came from an excerpt of a message quoted in the Lausanne Occasional Paper on Christian Witness to Buddhists (1980).

The Japanese character for O-Bon means “plate”. This is appropriate because the Japanese associate O-bon with the offerings placed on a plate and made to ancestors on this holiday. But that’s not where the word comes from. O-bon is a short form of the Indian Sanskrit word “Ura-bon-e”, which means “hanging upside-down.” Ura-bon-e is a transliterated word, taking the sound of the Sanskrit word straight into Japanese. One might ask why O-bon was originally called the Hanging-upside-down Festival.

Legend has it that Buddha’s disciple had a vision of his deceased mother hanging upside down in great suffering. When he asked Buddha for advice, he was told to place food on a plate to bring temporary relief to her suffering. He dutifully followed the advice, and having felt he had done a little to help her desperate situation, he danced with joy. Today, each summer all across Japan, people dance the Bon-odori to express joy that they have brought a little relief to those who suffer in the after-life. There is joy in the Bon-odori, but also sadness. The Bible, like other world religion teachings, speaks of the suffering that is a part of judgment in the life to come. But the Bible says that the God of heaven and earth is deeply committed to relieving human suffering, both in this life and the life to come.

In Jesus’ day many people saw wealth and an outwardly successful life as the evidence of God’s favor and so were optimistic about life after death. In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus told a story similar to the tradition of Ura-bon-e to show that suffering and comfort in the life to come are based on a different standard than mere success in this life.

A number of things stand out in Jesus’ depiction of the afterlife:

• People either experience great comfort or incredible suffering in the life to come (16:25).
• The decisions we make in this life determine which destiny will be ours. After death, there are no second chances (16:26).
• Those who have gone before us, long for us to take steps to avoid the suffering of the life to come (16:28).
• The Bible is God’s means of persuading us to avoid a life of suffering in hell (16:29).

Building on this parable and its similarities and important differences with the legend of Ura-bon-e, it is possible to both undermine an important objection to the Christian faith, while sharing the gospel in a way that seems more familiar and less foreign than typical approaches. In addition to the parable in Luke 16, the presentation can be developed with references to the basis of our judgment (Rom. 3:23), the penalty of our judgment (Heb. 9:27, Rom. 6:23), Jesus’ intervention to relieve the suffering of our judgment (Isa. 53:4, 1 Pet. 2:23-25), as well as God’s comfort in this life (Job 36:15, Ps. 68:19) and the strength it gives us to in turn comfort others (2 Cor. 1:3-4).

The Warmth of the Kotatsu
The “kotatsu” is a low table with an electric heat element in the bottom to warm those who sit around it. It is one of the most precious means of fellowship in Japanese society. Life in Japan can often be quite cold emotionally, but the kotatsu is a symbol of warmth, intimacy, and security. These are the values the Japanese long for and to which the Bible speaks to powerfully.  

The contrast of this warmth, intimacy, and security is anxiety that accompanies inward alienation and shame. While people feel this shame anxiety in their human relationships, the metaphor of the kotatsu can be used to show that it is a prior and more fundamental lack of security before God that makes people so vulnerable to the threat of shame from people.

Grace Y. May’s presentation of “The Family Table” (Baker 2006, 135-144) influenced my development of this presentation. While the study does not follow her development, talk of her own “family table” and the acceptance she found at God’s table, as well as the discussion of shame from an Asian perspective, provided the impetus for my study. Norman Kraus’ discussion of “shame anxiety” (i.e., the fear of “not living up to individual and group ideals”) (Green and Baker 2000, 153-170) provided important cultural and theological underpinnings to my thinking.

When sharing the gospel using the metaphor of the kotatsu, I start by telling a story of a young boy who would gather with other neighborhood children after school around a large warm kotatsu and talk about the day’s events with his grandfather. I paint the scene of a welcoming grandfather who serves fresh mandarin oranges and barley tea and laughs and plays card games with the children.

Crisis comes one day when the boy, trying to make his friends laugh, makes fun of his grandfather, only to realize that he is standing right behind him. Seeing his grandfather’s obvious sadness at the insult, he rushes from his home in embarrassment. After school the next day, he walks home as usual, but as he approaches his grandfather’s house and hears the sound of laughter, he crosses over to the other side of the road, not wanting to be reminded of what he had done.

His avoidance continues, and over time he thinks less and less of his grandfather. He looks for new ways to spend time after school and convinces himself that he really isn’t missing anything. But inside he is disappointed with himself and tried to make up for it by excelling in school and in sports. But he can’t help but feel a sense of shame, inner loneliness, and anxiety. His grandfather sees the changes taking place in his grandson’s heart and refuses to give up on him.  

If he doesn’t act, he knows his grandson will be lost to him forever. So, together with his son, he devises a plan to cover his grandson’s shame, and restore him to a place of honor and acceptance at his kotatsu.

After telling this story I share that today many people, like the grandson, deal with inward feelings of shame, loneliness, and anxiety. We can lead very successful lives and yet feel disappointed with ourselves. We can have many of the things we’ve dreamed of and yet feel that something in our lives is missing. The grandson’s story is in fact our own. His story points to the reason the world often feels so cold and insecure.

I then tell the biblical narrative of a people who had wandered from the warmth of God’s love and abundance (Jer. 31:3) and so brought upon themselves a shame (Gen. 3:7-8) that can manifest itself in low self-esteem, fear of rejection, or inner loneliness and anxiety.

Separated from God, the world becomes a cold place. It is in God’s presence that humanity fosters qualities of love and acceptance, grace and kindness. Separated from it, we look to the world for warmth and intimacy, but often have to compete for acceptance, face harsh control and unkindness from the various groups we commit to, and in turn often feel a sense of powerlessness and anxiety.

Just as the boy avoided his grandfather, many people avoid God perhaps because thoughts of him bring up buried feelings of shame and unmet obligation. But God is filled with love for us and feels anguish over the pain and anxiety caused by our separation from him. While he will not overlook our actions, he developed a plan to restore us to a place of honor before him (Luke 13:34).

I explain how Jesus, in a sense, left the warmth of heaven’s kotatsu and entered the coldness of our world. He willingly endured the things that cause us anxiety and shame for our sakes, in order to show us how a return to God could provide us with the warmth to thrive in a cold world. He was born in disgrace in a stable, raised in a poor family, rejected by his friends and relatives, betrayed by his own disciple, and finally crucified by the very people he came to love (John 1:11, Mark 14:64, Luke 23:34).

But Jesus’ death was not just a demonstration of humanity’s shame, but also a triumph of God’s love. Jesus died for us. Like a parent who takes responsibility for the insult his or her child has caused a neighbor, or the president who resigns to bear the responsibility for the company’s offences, Jesus took our shame upon himself. He took responsibility for our offences, and died in our place on the cross. In so doing, he opened up a seat of honor and acceptance for us before God (2 Cor. 5:21). We can return to the warmth of the kotatsu, and enjoy its security for all eternity.

When ministering to the Japanese, one is soon struck by the longing for security and acceptance, as well as the anxiety of rejection. If the gospel is to be felt, it must address this fundamentally relational dynamic and hold out the gospel as the only sure hope for these basic longings.

The Road Forward
I’m still searching for how to share the good news about Jesus Christ in ways that build upon, rather than fight against, the innate Japanese sense of truth and goodness. But I hope these attempts will move the Japanese contextualization discussion forward and stimulate others to improve upon my work.

As more people, particularly more Japanese Christians, begin to think deeply about the cultural traditions, beliefs, and longings of this great people, and see where these intersect with the many metaphors of the atonement in the Bible, I’m convinced that the Church in Japan will be equipped to share the gospel more naturally and effectively.

I long for the day when the good news about Jesus is as deeply entrenched in Japanese culture and thought as the many other things that have been successfully adapted for and adopted by the Japanese people. And I long for the day when the gospel is so widely accepted in this country that Japanese school children can ask in earnest, “Do people in America know about our Jesus?”

Baker, Mark D., ed. 2006. Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Green, Joel B. and Mark D. Baker. 2000. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic.

Lausanne Occasional Paper “Christian Witness to Buddhists.” Report of the Consultation on World Evangelization, Mini-Consultation on Reaching Buddhists held at Pattaya, Thailand, from June 16-27, 1980. Accessed August 12, 2013, from www.lausanne.org/all-documents/lop-15.html.

Lewis, David C. 1993. The Unseen Face of Japan. Tunbridge Wells: Monarch Books.


Paul Sadler has served with Fellowship International for the last thirteen years as a church planter in Japan, where he also leads the Church Multiplication Team for Japan Baptist Fellowship. He can be reached at paulsadler@tsukubagrace.org.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 26-33. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use visit our STORE (here).

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