Toward a Cross-cultural Identity of Forgiveness

by Gary Fujino

The author looks at individualistic and collectivistic worldviews and explains how the Church can move toward a cross-cultural identity of forgiveness in respective cultures.

Scenerio 1: Conflict erupts between two persons in a Japanese church. A man publicly challenges the authority and character of the leader of the group—in this case, a missionary. The relationship continues in this manner, unresolved, on a weekly basis, for more than a decade.

Scenerio 2: A female missionary repeatedly forgives a Japanese seeker who keeps coming back to her for different things. The missionary gives the requested spiritual nurture, biblical teaching, or even baptismal preparation, only to have the seeker woman reject her as a person by saying, “You’re not good enough.” She then leaves the church for an extended period of time, only to come back again, at which time the cycle repeats. What is going on here?

One explanation for what went on in these two case studies is the Japanese concept known as amae. The term was coined from an actual Japanese word, the word for “sweet,” as in “sweet as sugar.” But Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst Takeo Doi changed the meaning and application of this “sweetness.” He made it into a Japanese-style sense of dependence upon another human being, even to the point of irresponsible indulgence at times. This “mother-child dependent relationship” brings back the warm nurturing feeling of a mother’s womb, Doi says. What is significant is that he sees this kind of “depending on the benevolence of others” (1973, 17) extending both into adulthood and throughout Japanese society. To apply this idea missiologically, if what Doi says is true (and I think it is), then it could be suggested that this type of “need love” dependency (Doi 2005) might be what the two missionaries above encountered on an unconscious level in their respective church conflicts.

In more familiar terms, amae has some ties to what is known as individualism-collectivism. Harry Triandis, a pioneer in the field, describes it in this manner:

Collectivism may be initially defined as a social pattern consisting of closely linked individuals who see themselves as parts of one or more collectives (family, co-workers, tribe, nation); are primarily motivated by the norms of, and duties imposed by, those collectives; are willing to give priority to the goals of these collectives over their own personal goals; and emphasize their connectedness to members of these collectives.

A preliminary definition of individualism is a social pattern that consists of loosely linked individuals who view themselves as independent of collectives; are primarily motivated by their own preferences, needs, rights, and the contracts they have established with others; give priority to their personal goals over the goals of others; and emphasize rational analyses of the advantages and disadvantages to associating with others. (1995, 2)

Thus, in collectivism, one could say that the norms and duties owed to various groups or “collectives” in a person’s life take priority over personal needs and goals. In contrast, with individualism, one’s independence and personal preferences, needs, and rights are motivators where associating with others becomes a matter of choice—either an “advantage or disadvantage” in Triandis’ terms. Although the comparison is sometimes criticized and challenged (Takano and Osaka 1999), under this construct the United States is generally viewed as being more individualistic and Japan as being generally more collectivistic (Morisaki and Gudykunst 1994). So how does individualism-collectivism, hereafter referred to as “I-C,” relate to forgiveness? And to amae? In order to answer these questions, first let me outline a recent comparative study which links I-C to forgiveness. Then let me tie that to amae and then to our earlier missionary examples.

Steven Sandage and Ian Williamson work with Hmong-Americans through a clinical psychology practice in St. Paul, Minnesota. They note that there is “surprisingly little empirical research” available that explicitly links culture and forgiveness. And even now, much of the writing on culture and forgiveness is still on the level of theory (Sandage and Williamson 2005, 41). But out of their practice and in reviewing forgiveness literature related to non-North American contexts, they have created a heuristic and theoretical “outline for contrasting individualistic and collectivistic worldviews as they might influence models of forgiveness” (2005, 44).

While not all of what I have just described fits Japan, this “outline” for I-C and forgiveness gives direction in continuing our discussion. This is because a key idea for collectivism as it is described above relates directly to the Japanese concept of amae. This is the view of a self which is interdependent and socially embedded. This is in contrast to the view of self which is seen as independent and self-reflexive under individualism. Let me explain by using very simplified diagrams of views of the self, one for individualism and another for collectivism.

In a strictly “one-on-one” relationship, if two individuals were drawn as circles, the two would exist as separate and distinct from one another. This is the more independent and individualistic setting described by Triandis. He speaks of “loosely linked individuals” who “prioritize personal goals” over those of the collective or group. From the view of the person from a more individualist culture such as the U.S., the relationship between the two might look like this:

But for the Japanese in the same “one-on-one” relationship, from the perspective of an interdependent self, the two circles would not be seen as existing separately or as being clearly distinct from one another. As shown by these circles, the way in which the two persons would be seen to exist would probably look more like this:

This is what is meant by interdependent when speaking of the view of one’s self. What is depicted here might be called a “blurring of boundaries” between oneself and another. This is how amae manifests itself in Japan. This is the “mother-child indulgent dependency” of Doi.

The interdependent self described here can be visually imagined as a pregnant woman with baby in tummy. This is collectivist interdependence between two human beings. With the mother image, they are actually physically together although two separate individuals. This is how amae works culturally. The key to this kind of interdependent view of self as it relates to the Japanese context is to remember that Doi sees this dependency as extending into adulthood and throughout society. So, for example, take the image of the pregnant mother but place that image into a relationship with persons of your same age, gender, education, social upbringing, etc., and then think of the circles, oversimplified though they may be. We who are raised in North America often interact with other people on the level of my first drawing of two separate circles. But many Japanese interact with others more on the level of the second drawing, where the circles intersect and the boundaries between oneself and others become blurred. One’s sense of dependency toward another is mentally and emotionally like the image of a fetus inside its young, pregnant mother.

The interdependent versus independent view of self connects directly to both identity and forgiveness. In cross-cultural contexts like Japan (and the U.S.!), forgiveness is influenced not only through culture but, by extension, through one’s identity. In other words, the way in which we view ourselves, whether independently or interdependently, can influence how we forgive others and even how we receive forgiveness. Let’s go back to the two missionary examples.

In the first case study, my ethnographic interview with the missionary revealed that not only had this unresolved conflict in his church been going on for more than a decade, but the escalation in feelings that they mutually experienced and displayed in front of the group was so volatile that a couple of times the Japanese man “really exploded and stuff.” He recounted, “One time, he even punched holes in the wall in the place we were renting.” This is an extreme example of how the blurring of boundaries between the missionary’s self and the Japanese man’s self became so interdependent that even if violent behavior occurred, it was accepted—though never resolved—and the relationship continued. The significance of the way amae dependency manifested itself here is that this was in front of and a part of the small group the missionary was leading. In other words, this was not just about two “individuals,” but about the “collective.”

In the second case study, the missionary told me that the seeker woman came back at least three times over a period of five years. The Japanese woman would leave for no reason; however, the missionary’s expectations were also clear. She said, “I am not going to her when she doesn’t want to come back. I wait. She has to come. We can’t always run and watch what she is doing.” But she also wouldn’t have been surprised if the woman returned even though it would probably mean more pain. Scott Moreau, Gary Corwin, and Gary McGee missiologically tie I-C to friendships, and to forgiveness, with how to get along with other persons in a more collectivist setting:

Those who are working in a new culture must take the time to see how forgiveness and repentance are expressed within that culture so that they know how to read cues that are key to the survival, let alone the growth, of relationships. (2004, 240)

My female missionary respondent seemed to be acting along this line, trying to respect the culture and serve it through repeated forgiving in the relationship even when it hurt. It is possible here that the need to amaeru (or depend upon) by the seeker woman had been obstructed by unconscious, yet clear, boundaries that had been set up by the missionary. If so, the seeker’s need was still there, but since “lines had been drawn,” the ability to depend upon was lost, and so was the relationship—at least for now. The Japanese seeker had lost a part of her interdependent identity by being disallowed to blur her boundaries with the missionary. That’s why she kept leaving the church. She couldn’t satisfy her “in the tummy of my mommy” need for indulgence. However, the seeker also knew that forgiveness was there waiting for her if she returned. This is the “need-love” dependency that manifests itself as amae in the Japanese culture, and in the Japanese Church as well.

Having said all the above, I’d like to throw in a curveball (contradiction) to what I’ve just explained. Above, I used two basic categories for the sake of explanation and time. But we always need to be careful about stereotyping and of putting people into simplistic categories. This is true for myself as well. In my research of this topic, I went in with the assumption that, as described above, Americans are more individualistic and Japanese more collectivistic. This view is shared by many. However, surprisingly, my preliminary findings have shown that, first, westerners (which includes North Americans and Europeans) in Japan are actually more collectivistic than the Japanese who live there. Not only that but, second, there is a slight correlation between being more collectivistic and being more able to forgive. This was something I was not expecting and which partly shatters some of the assumptions on I-C I just shared with you. However, amae and independent or interdependent views of self are still valid constructs for trying to understand cultural differences. What “messes up” all this are things such as real, individual differences between persons despite their culture as well as the impact of globalization.

Specifically, the impact of globalization and internationalization in Japan today greatly influences amae, the I-C concept, and even forgiveness itself. Things are not as simple as they appear. Harold Netland explains it well:

Awareness of the impact of globalization upon local settings affects how one thinks about culture. In particular, the blurring of boundaries that accompanies globalization challenges models which view culture as a clearly defined, static entity tied to a particular group of people living in a set time and place…The cultural changes brought about by globalization are acutely reflected in religious transformations, as traditional religious understandings adapt to new realities and fresh challenges. (2005, 127-128)

The “religious transformations” Netland mentions above can be equally applied to the way in which both Japanese and missionaries forgive and are forgiven, that is, from the varying perspectives of both the independent and interdependent views of self. But we must be careful of simplistic binary categorization of people along these lines. The influence of globalization and internationalization in Japan is profound and complicates simplistic answers. But there is also no going back to a static, “indigenous” model.

The missiological challenge for every Christian in Japan today, whether Japanese or missionary, is learning how to forgive in a way that honors God and his word while at the same time respecting the context in which he or she lives. In this case, it would be the more interdependent, collectivist, and internationalized context that is Japan. As each of us crosses cultures to bring and live the message of forgiveness of sin in Christ, let us root our identity first in him and his word even as we account for differences of culture and self-identity. We must always remember that whether the view of self is independent or interdependent, or a mix of both, we all need forgiveness—and that true and lasting forgiveness can only be had through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Doi, Takeo. 1973. The Anatomy of Dependence. Translated by John Bester. Tokyo: Kodansha.

___________. 2005. Understanding Amae: The Japanese Concept of Need-love. Kent, Japan: Global Oriental.

Moreau, Scott A., Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee. 2004. Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical and Practical Survey. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Morisaki, Seiichi and William B. Gudykunst. 1994. “Face in Japan and the United States.” In The Challenge of Facework: Cross-cultural and Interpersonal Issues. Ed. Stella Ting-Toomey, 47-93. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Netland, Harold. 2005. “Mission and Jesus in a Globalizing World: Globalization and the Pluralistic Jesus.” In The Centrality of Christ in Contemporary Missions. Eds. Mike Barnett and Michael Pocock, 121-144. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Sandage, Steven J. and Ian Williamson. 2005. “Forgiveness in Cultural Context.” In Handbook of Forgiveness. Ed. Everett L. Worthington, Jr., 41-55. New York: Routledge.

Takano, Yohtaro and Eiko Osaka. 1999. “An Unsupported Common View: Comparing Japan and the U.S. on Individualism/collectivism.” Asian Journal of Social Psychology 2: 311-341.

Triandis, Harry C. 1995. Individualism and Collectivism: New Directions in Social Sciences. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.

Dr. Gary Fujino, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, is strategy group leader for the International Mission Board (SBC) in Tokyo, Japan. Together with his wife Lynn and four children, the Fujinos have served there as urban church-planting movement facilitators since 1996.

Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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