Peer Pressure, Tradition Hinder the Gospel in Japan

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CWN.org-JAPAN--Staring out her bedroom window, 49-year-old Michiko didn't have much to live for in the spring of 2005. Ravaged by a critical illness and depression, Michiko's only source for answers -- her 10-year membership in Shinnyo-en, a Buddhist-derived cult -- even threatened to punish her if she quit the group over her disillusionment.

In vain hope, she began attending a fitness club to lift her spirits. Finding friendship with a Japanese believer, Michiko heard the Holy Spirit's call on her life. During a house church meeting, singing the Korean worship song, "You're Born to be Loved," Michiko's heart opened to God.

"As I heard that song, I could not stop my tears," she remembers. "The first thing the pastor said is, 'The reason you're born is that you're loved by God.' I realized the reason I'm here is because God made me and loved me."

Today, not only Michiko but also her husband Naoyuki believe in Jesus Christ. It's fruit from seeds planted more than 40 years ago while she attended a missions school. Like the manmade island known as "Rokko" where Michiko lives, God has taken the life she felt was wasted and turned it into something beautiful, even as He rebuilds her marriage on the foundation of Christ.

Outwardly, Japan has adopted a Western lifestyle and accumulated wealth and technology. Yet Japanese are a traditional people who have everything they need except the one thing they fear or resist accepting: a relationship with Jesus Christ. As ijime, or peer pressure, of family and society expectations drives Japanese, they turn to materialism, humanism and cults to provide answers for their lives.

Japan is a nation of contradictions from ancient Shinto shrines to futuristic cities; powerful sumo wrestlers to gothic teenagers; and ceremonial tea houses to Starbucks. More than 127 million people live in this island nation about the size of California. Japan is one of the most densely populated countries on earth, with approximately 800 inhabitants per square mile.

The Japanese, with their hospitable nature and quiet smiles, live by cultural rules handed down through the generations. A Japanese proverb sums up expectations: "The nail that sticks its head up is the one that gets hit." The codes of conformity, as well as adherence to traditional animistic religions, are two important barriers to the Gospel.

Japan is called the "land of 8 million gods," although many Japanese have apathy rather than adherence to faith. Most claim belief in combined Shinto-Buddhist religions. Native Shinto religion emphasizes ancestor worship and fear of gods and involves various prayers and superstitious practices. Buddhism, introduced in the sixth century, eventually became mixed with Shinto.

Missionary Buddy Brents, formerly of Odessa, Texas, explains: "There are so many spiritual strongholds. are so locked up in fear of what other people will think about them if they become a Christian."

Less than one-half of 1 percent of the Japanese profess faith in Jesus Christ. With so few entering a traditional church, missionaries seek lost people through relational evangelism. The approach involves joining existing groups -- including sports clubs, quilting and cooking classes and business groups -- to build relationships and share the Gospel.

The going is tough, but God is producing a harvest of Japanese souls. As the Lord moves in cities across Japan, missionary Carlton Walker says he feels like his father did when he had a particularly good catch of fish. "One day we got an awesome catch," Walker, a native of Lynchburg, Va., says. "I said, 'Dad, isn't this a great day?' He said, 'Yeah, but I can't help thinking about the fish still down there.'"

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Dea Davidson

Dea Davidson

Baptist Press

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