The below is manuscript I spoke at Ministry Class of CCBC Japan in November 2012;
1A Polytheistic Belief
1B Superiority of the Creator
2B Problem of Syncretism
1C Japanese People
2A Family Relationships
1B Discipleship of Jesus
2B Paul's Evangelism
3A Continuity of Life and Death
1B Death and Resurrection
2B Salvation by Grace
My name is Kiyo. I have been a missionary to Japan since 1997 and I'm a native Japanese. My wife and I, however, have been overseas for 5 and ha half years, from 2005 to 2010. So, our hearts are always on mission. We came back to Japan in the end of 2010, and in 2011, we started church planting in downtown Tokyo. Name of our church is "Logos Christian Fellowship". We praise the Lord for His harvest because most of the members are very new in the Lord for less than 2 years.
The other day, Pastor Bob from CC Honolulu came to Tokyo. During our conversation,
he asked me if I know any good Christian apologetist to Japanese people.
I said "No". When Japanese believers ask me regarding apologetics,
I usually recommend the following two books: One is "Case For Christ" and the other "Case For Faith" by Lee Strobel because the questions raised in those books are the same common questions held among Japanese non-believers.
But there are issues that are not written in the books because they are unique to Japanese situation. First issue is their strong polytheistic belief. The second factor is the strong bond among family members. The third one is their strong emotions concerning death and funeral.
Today I would like to make an attempt to share with you how to effectively share gospel and present apologetics to Japanese people. First I would like to share my experience of my own salvation and also my parents.
Let me first share with you my salvation testimony and my parents' salvation testimony. I came to know the Lord in 1989 and my parents in 2003. It means it took me 14 long years to keep sharing and praying for my parents' salvation.
When I first encountered Christianity, I intellectually agreed with many doctrines of Christianity. Also the character of Jesus was very appealing to me. However, I was also faced with struggles and challenges within myself. It was how I could make personal commitment to Jesus. If I were to accept the Lord as the only living God, I would have had to negate other deities. I had no problem adding one more god to my belief system, but it was difficult for me to abandon all other gods in order to receive Jesus Christ.
The other factor was my strong bond with family members. When I was growing up, I didn't care much about death or funeral matters, but when I seriously started considering if I would become a Christian or not, what to do with the Buddhist style family grave suddenly came to my mind. I'm the only son in my family. That means I am the one that needs to take care of the ancestor grave after my father dies. At that time, my father had just remolded the grave for ancestors! In addition, my father was a manager of pub restaurant, meaning he entertained people with alcoholic beverages. By becoming a Christian myself, I would have had to distance myself from my father's business.
When I struggled with these issues, the Lord gave me the following Scripture verse from Matthew 10:37 "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me." When I made the decision to make Jesus the Lord of my life, I began to realize that becoming a Christian doesn't mean I am betraying my parents. Rather, I discovered that the only way to truly love my parents is to lead them to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. In order to do that, I need to fist love Jesus above all.
When I was a high school student, I suffered mental depression. Shortly after I came to know Christ, I was completely healed. So, my father was very surprised because he had seen me hitting myself in my room when he came back home from work after midnight. I was under severe stress from studying for the entrance examination to university. Because I was healed, my father was convinced that this god, Christ saved his son. However, he kept calling Jesus Christ, "Kiyomasa's god". He had the same hang-up as I did. He simply added Christ to his collection of many gods he believed in. Japanese people believe in 八百万の神 (Yao yorozu no Kami), meaning eight million gods.
Do you remember the story of Daniel, that the king Nebuchadnezzar offered gifts to Daniel after Daniel interpreted his dream? He recognized the God of Daniel. But after a while, he erected the golden image and ordered his subordinates to bow down before the image. When three friends of Daniel refused to bow down, he ordered to put them in the burning fiery furnace. Seeing they were unharmed by the fire, Nebuchadnezzar praised God and said, "Daniel 3:28 Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego" The Babylonian king recognized God in heaven but he had not yet made this God his personal Lord. It took the chastening of the Lord for him to finally realize there is the Lord over his life (Daniel 4).
My parents' reaction to my conversion was very interesting. I invited them to see my water baptism. They were really shocked. They told the pastor of the church that Jesus took away Kiyomasa from them. They really struggled on this point. When my father saw me praying before meal and heard me saying "Heavenly Father", he said to me, "So you have two fathers!"
My father sensed my strong conviction in Christ, so he proposed one compromise. He said, "You don't have to have Buddhist funeral for me. Do it in Christian way. But please, please don't leave me alone after I die." I was tempted to say "Yes", but I didn't say anything to him because if my dad would have died without faith in Christ, having funeral in Christian way doesn't mean anything, and I would have had to coordinate the funeral knowing he is in hell.
However, a big turning point came to their lives. My grandmother on maternal side passed away, and they attended the Buddhist funeral. My mother saw the emptiness of it and couldn't overcome the grief of the loss of her mother. Then they began asking themselves, "Who is Christ Kiyomasa believes in?" A few years later, my mother visited us in Tokyo and attended a nearby Korean church, but it was a Japanese speaking service. On that same day she later called me and asked if there was any good church nearby their house. They started going to church. They wanted to know Christ their son believes in, but they almost gave up because they couldn't understand the Bible. Finally, one Sunday morning service, the pastor gave a message from John 14:3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also." Upon hearing this passage, my mother told me she burst into tears. Later, she called me up, and her first word was "I was born again." A month later, my father also received Jesus as the Lord and Savoir.
I went back home to attend their water baptism. I was surprised to see their face. They looked like they were baptized already with the joy of the Holy Spirit. A Japanese house usually has a mini-Shinto shrine and a Buddhist altar for the deceased family members. But they took away all the items in the shrine, and closed the door of the Buddhist altar. After the baptism, we went around various places to dispose of the Buddhist altar. Later they remodeled the Buddhist style ancestor grave into a Christian one.
The reason why I give the testimony of my parents is because you can see the common traits among Japanese people. Like I said, the first is their strong polytheistic belief. The second one is strong family relationship. The third is their strong belief concerning death and funeral.
1A Polytheistic Belief
Let me first talk about the polytheistic belief held by Japanese people. When a Japanese accepts Christ, usually he goes through a drastic conversion experience of turning "to God from idols to serve the living and true God, (1 Thessalonians 1:9)", unless he had been raised in a Christian family.
So, when you witness Christ to Japanese people, you need first clarify whose God you are talking about. The word Kami（神）for God is the same as Shinto god. The translation actually came from the word of Shinto belief. I have an experience sharing the gospel with a devout Shintoist. I'm not talking about an average Japanese who pays visit to Shinto shrine only once a year, but she was a real Shintoist; perhaps her father is a Shinto priest or somebody related to Shinto business. I started to use the word Kami but I felt awkward because she also started using the word Kami, and her using Kami sounded more original and authentic! So, I immediately explained my Kami is the Creator of heavens and the earth.
1B Superiority of the Creator
In western world, you don't have to spend much time in clarifying God as the Creator. When people hear the word God, they understand you are talking about the Creator, but that is not the case with many parts of the world.
Whenever a westerner thinks of the case for the Creator, he feels he has to talk on the issue of evolution versus creation. Yes, it is good to talk about evolution to Japanese people, but you need to know Japanese or Asian belief in evolution even precedes the history of Darwinism. It's because the concept of changing one species into another is nothing new in Asian mind. Difference between humans and animals is vague. Rather the concept of evolution originates from the transmigration in eastern mysticism.
In order to present the gospel, we need to go back to the Bible. It starts with the creation story. God's mission and evangelism focused on His declaration as the Creator versus gods in various nations. The ten plagues upon Egypt were about God's judgments against Egyptian gods. Pharaoh said to Moses, "Who is the LORD (Yehweh)?", so God answered him and said, "I am the LORD." By pouring out His judgments upon Egypt, God made the comparison between Himself and their gods, showing His superiority of being the only living God.
Forty years later, God told Joshua to destroy the images of the Canaanite gods. Later God raised up David to fight against the Philistines. His confrontation against Goliath is famous. It says in 1 Samuel 17:43 "the Philistine cursed David by his gods." But David confronted him saying, "1 Samuel 17:45 You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied."
Then we know the history of kings in northern Israel and southern Judah, and the contests between the Israelites and the heathens were always centered around the debate over who is the real God, Yehweh, or the pagan gods. (e.g. Elijah's contest against the prophets of Baal.)
After the Babylonian captivity, the Jews repented and reinstituted the
Jewish faith in the only, living God. But in the Gospels, Jesus described
the hardness of the Jews at that time, calling it "adulterous generation".
He meant spiritual adultery - idolatry.
Then if we go to the book of Acts, the method of evangelism didn't change from the Old Testament time. Paul gave a warning to the residents in Lystra, "Acts 14:15 Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them." Then, Paul gave the famous sermon on Mars Hill, "Acts 17:29-31 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead." He is calling for repentance.
The evangelism will continue till the end of this age. In the latter part of the Tribulation period, "Revelation 14:6-7 Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people? 7 saying with a loud voice, "Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water." So from the Law of Moses to Revelation, God is consistent with His method of evangelism; that is, to turn the people back to God from idols.
2B Problem of Syncretism
Therefore we need to be careful with syncretism. The Bible contains many examples of syncretism and the subsequent judgments of God. God destroyed Syria when she fought against Israel. They said, "1 Kings 20:23 Their gods are gods of the hills. Therefore they were stronger than we; but if we fight against them in the plain, surely we will be stronger than they." The Syrians equated the God of Israel with other pagan gods. God responded to the king of Israel by saying, "1 Kings 20:28 'Because the Syrians have said, "The LORD is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys," therefore I will deliver all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD.' ""
You remember the Assyrian king threatened King Hezekiah; "2 Chronicles 32:17 As the gods of the nations of other lands have not delivered their people from my hand, so the God of Hezekiah will not deliver His people from my hand." That statement angered the Lord; "2 Chronicles 32:19 And they spoke against the God of Jerusalem, as against the gods of the people of the earth? the work of men's hands." Again Assylian king equated God of Jerusalem with other heathen gods. So the LORD killed 185 thousand Assyrian armies and later God had the sons of the Assyrian king murder their father when he worshipped the Assyrian god.
1C Japanese People
Japanese people have hard time making commitment to the only, living God. I receive many questions and hear many stories of encountering awkward situations forced to participate in Buddhist rituals. If their parents are not Christians yet, they demand the believers to offer incense and food to the Buddhist altar. A sister in the Lord confessed she was offering food because her mother insists her to do so. My practical advice to such believers is that not only they are making compromise to the living God, but also they are losing opportunity to witness to the family members. I tell them that firm stance on the issue of the rituals of other religions will eventually lead the persecutors themselves to have real faith in God. Nebuchadnezzar is a prime example.
Missionaries in Japan also have the same struggle. They are tempted to make compromise, to make it easier for Japanese to receive the gospel. However, making compromise with other religions will not help the people coming to the faith; instead the compromise will distract and keep them from coming to the real faith.
2A Family Relationships
The second issue is the strong family bond. We have many new believers in our church, and most of them share the same challenge. One lady in our church suffered persecution. The moment she shared Christ with her parents, they started attacking her faith. She was afraid to go back to her parents' house, but she did. Interestingly though, her father suddenly changed his stance. He said, "I need to know what my daughter believes in. Perhaps I need to go to Christmas service." Another new believer in the Lord shared the similar family conflict. I comforted them saying that their parents are not attacking their faith; but they struggle with their children's commitment to Jesus Christ, feeling their children severed the parent-child relationship.
1B Discipleship of Jesus
A key verse in family relationship is found in Mark 3:33-35 But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?" 34 And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother." Becoming a Christian means changing his relationship from a carnal family into spiritual one. The strong identity in Christ is the key factor for Japanese or other Asian Christians. Water baptism has special meaning to them. It means he or she will become part of the spiritual family of God. It is a real step of faith. Many people remain in church but have not yet taken the step of baptism because it is a real test of faith to put their identity in Christ alone.
Therefore, it is my personal conviction that it is not too early to start discipleship even before one makes the verbal confession of faith. I can call it "Jesus Style of Evangelism". Jesus called His disciples before they really realized He is Christ of the living God. He spent a lot of time with them, teaching them with much patience. Then they later became real followers of Christ, fully convinced of the gospel. In my church, many of the new believers came to know Christ through Bible study on our ministry website.
2B Paul's Evangelism
If you look at Paul or any other apostles' evangelism, they preached Christ and called them into repentance. However, as you closely look at the audience of the gospel message, they were already converts to Judaism, or at least they had strong interest in God of the Jews. They already had Bible knowledge and they knew what the Messiah would be like. When Paul moved to a new city, he started preaching at synagogue. He didn't intend to attend the worship service; but he went there for evangelism. The Gentiles who heard and believed his message already had knowledge of God. But that was not the case with Athens. He was forced to be in the area. He tried to make connection with the people on Mars Hill. But it was not successful.
So, when we approach to Japanese people, we encounter similar response because many of them do not have Bible knowledge. It is hard to connect with them and lead them into spiritual knowledge of Christ. Therefore, I think it is wiser to invite them to some Bible study for beginners or some kind of Christian events. We have to start with very basics, with who God is. It is important to built relationship with them.
3A Continuity of Life and Death
Lastly, I would like to talk on the concept on Life and Death for Japanese people.
1B Death and Resurrection
The gospel is about death and resurrection. Because Adam sinned, death entered the world. Jesus died for our sins. He was raised from the dead. I can say the gospel starts with death. We need to recognize our spiritual condition of being dead in order to start new life in Christ. However, many Japanese people find it extremely difficult to accept death. From ancient times, Japanese believed that even if somebody dies, his spirit lives and is present with those who remain. Their life on earth and life after death don't have clear distinction. Therefore, the two worlds mingle with each other.
Remember the devout Shintoist who I met. She explained about Shinto funeral. She said, "After a person dies, he or she becomes kami". Therefore, a funeral isn't a place for mourning; but for festival. They enjoy the festival with the living souls. Most Japanese observe Buddhist funerals; but they don't believe in Buddhist kind of death at all. In Buddhism, you have to renounce the sense of mourning because it is one of desires of flesh. You have to say eternal farewell to the dead person at the funeral. However, Japanese people don't believe that. They constantly observe rituals for the dead and yearly festivals are centered in their fellowship with the dead spirits.
I explained to the Shintoist that all of us sinned, and we die, and after we die, we face God's judgment. But Jesus took the penalty of sin on the Cross. Receiving Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savoir will make you have eternal life. Her response was, "Are you thinking about such heavy serious issue every day? Christians are too serious. Let's enjoy our life now!" They cannot accept the reality of death. I remember that when Yumi shared the gospel with one of tsunami victims in Higashi-matsushima, the lady said, "I don't want to think seriously about death. If I think too seriously, I will get crazy." Even the people who went through near-death experience cannot accept reality of death.
Therefore, Japanese people really struggle with their loved ones who never heard the gospel and died. Francis Xavier was the first Catholic who came to Japan, and he received the same question from many converted Catholics. In our church, a new believer once shared her anxiety with me, saying, "If my mother and brothers do not receive Christ, I would rather renounce my faith to be with the family members in hell. I love them so much."
Therefore, two false teachings about salvation are very appealing to Japanese people. One is Inclusivism; the other is Postmortem Evangelism or Divine Perseverance. "Inclusivism posits that even though the work of Christ is the only means of salvation, it does not follow that explicit knowledge of Christ is necessary in order for one to be saved. (link)" Postmortem Evangelism or Divine Perseverance is called "The Second Chance" doctrine in Japan. They teach after a person dies without receiving the gospel, he has the second chance to receive the gospel in Hades. The two doctrines conveniently serve as answers to the Japanese cry for the people who never heard the gospel and died.
However, I present two things when they struggle with the issue. One is our God is not only the Giver of life but also the Taker of life. We marvel and are amazed with the mystery of life, beginning with conception and ending with childbirth. The miracle is completely in the realm of God and we glorify Him. In the same way, when we face the dead in a funeral, we need to remember that God first and to reflect on Him because He is the One who determines our life on earth. "Ecclesiastes 7:2 Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; And the living will take it to heart." We should not focus on the person but should focus on God.
The other thing is that each of us has to give account to God for what he has done on earth. Japanese people always relate themselves to other people, particularly family members. But since the tsunami of last year, I use the illustration of one small city Kamaishi（釜石）in Iwate Prefecture. Almost all the people survived through the tsunami, including small children. The reason is they hand down the wisdom of tradition from their ancestors; you have to save yourself first. They went through many tsunami disasters in the past, so they knew the follies of searching other family members after an earthquake. Unless they flee for life right away, all family members will be drowned by tsunami water. But if you flee to a high place, you may be able to meet other family members in the same place. And this time most of them actually did meet one another in the high place. So, I use the illustration and tell the people, "If you worry too much about the destiny of other family members and you do not come to Christ, you will lose your salvation and other family members will be lost as well. But if each one of us takes his responsibility for his own life, then he has possibility to see other family members in heaven.
2B Salvation by Grace
Finally, I would like to point out that Japanese people have difficulty in understanding grace. They have difficulty understanding grace because they have difficulty accepting death. They try to find something good they can do for life when faced with adverse circumstances. A prime example is the restoration of the tsunami-hit area. Japanese people as a whole have the kind of "salvation by works" mentality. It is because they cannot accept the spiritual state of bankruptcy. Whenever I read the story of a rich young ruler, it reminds me of Japanese people. They try everything in order to obtain meaningful life. But in order to obtain life, they have to die to themselves first.
So, what shall we do? My practical advice is first pray. Fervently pray for the lost souls of Japanese people. God will fill us with the love for the people. Second, preach the gospel as plainly as possible. Do not water down the word of God. We do not make the gospel powerful; the gospel itself is the power to save those who believe. Thirdly, humble yourself and live among the people. Jesus is the first Missionary on the earth. He was God but He was sent by the Father and He became a man. He dwelt among us. The best way of living among the people is to learn the language. You don't have to speak the language fluently; but the learning process is important in itself. By showing your eagerness to learn the language, Japanese people take notice of your interest and they open their hearts to you. Fourthly, have patience in teaching God's word. It takes time until you see change in their lives. Follow the example of Jesus how He spent time with His disciples.
Here is rough Japanese translation of the above article; 「日本人に対する伝道と弁証」
The following is another great testimony of God's victory and salvation of one Japanese soul;
1) Suicide and Praying to Ancestors
2) The Doors were Closed
The following link is very useful information; "The Challenge of Ancestor Worship in Japan"