Atonement in Ancient and Modern Japan

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22, NIV)
The belief that setting things right requires sacrifice is deeply embedded in the hearts and minds of humans. In Japanese culture, from ancient times, atonement is found through ritualistic sacrifice. These rituals are redemptive analogies that point to Jesus and his death on the cross.
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While Westerners tend to think of “sin” as guilt due to breaking a law, Japanese are generally more concerned about avoiding shame and impurity. When purity is compromised or when there is shame, Japanese demand that a proper price be paid. Remarkably, a proper sacrifice can set things right. In this post I will provide several examples of Japanese rituals that bring atonement for “sin.”
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I asked retired TEAM missionary Dr. Bob Shade for help with understanding the idea of sacrifice in Japanese culture. Dr. Shade referred me to G. B. Sansom’s “Japan, a Short Cultural History” (1943).  On page 230 there is a reference sacrifice, “At the beginning of the Heian period (794 to 1185 A.D.) celestial worship seems to have been common among the farmers in many parts of Japan, for an edict was sent to several provinces at this time forbidding them to sacrifice oxen to Heaven.” So it appears that animal sacrifice was practiced in ancient Japan.
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Dr. Shade let me know about another ritual, hitobashira. “There is also the ancient tradition of hitobashira which was the sacrifice of a human being whose body was buried, sometimes alive, under a key construction pillar or foundation of a building or bridge.” While hitobashira appears to have been rarely used, this practice perfectly illustrates the Japanese belief that a proper sacrifice can make things right. A price must be paid! If it is, the foundation will be secure. This reminds me of the passage, “Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself.” (Ephesians 2:20 NLT)


Aganai (Chinese character for “Atone”)

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A more common, and much more well-known, means of atonement in Japanese culture is ritual suicide (seppuku). Also known as harakiri, seppuku is another example of the strongly held belief in the culture of Japan that human sacrifice can make things right.
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In the Samurai code, if an individual brought shame on himself or his clan, he could retain his honor through ritual suicide. Years ago I read that samurai who committed seppuku found atonement. According to that source — which I do not have access to at this time — the Chinese character (kanji) used to denote atonement was aganai (贖い). This particular kanji is used in the Christian Bible for “atone.” In modern Japanese, aganai is rarely used. So uncommon is this kanji, most Japanese with whom I have studied the Bible do not know what it means.
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Bible translators may have chosen to use aganai (贖い) for “atone” in the Bible because of the connection with the ancient ritual of seppuku. Dr. Shade pointed out to me, “the radical in the top right of the kanji for “aganai/aganau” is a samurai. The other two radicals are the same and they are “kai” or shell and mean “to buy.” The meaning of this kanji indicates a strong connection between the purchase of atonement and the ancient ritual of seppuku.
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A modern example of ritual sacrifice is the yakuza (Japanese organized crime) ritual of making atonement for sin by cutting off a finger. One of the men whose life inspired a group of us to get to work on making a feature-length film called 2 Criminals, is missing a finger. Mr. Shinada knifed a man who had insulted his sister. The wounded man was a member of another yakuza family so the rival gang sent two men to kill Shinada. Shinada’s boss quickly cut off Shinada’s finger, wrapped it up in a cloth, and presented it to the leader of the rival gang. The offering was accepted and the hit was called off. The sacrifice of Mr. Shinada’s finger saved his life!
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In everyday life Japanese feel strongly that “things must be done the right way.” If the “right way” is not followed, if an individual brings shame on the group, a price must be paid. More often than not the price paid is bearing ridicule. For more serious “sins” the price can be ostracism from the group. I believe one reason Japanese commonly sacrifice their health to overwork is because they can’t stand the thought of bearing the shame of not measuring up. There is even a word — karooshi — that means “death from overwork.” This is an example of modern Japanese sacrificing themselves to avoid shame.
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Do ancient rituals matter today? If history and mythology are important, if culture shapes belief systems and how people live, then they matter.
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Japanese rituals of atonement are important “bridges to the gospel.” In what ways could the emphasis on “putting things right” in Japanese culture through sacrifice be a means of contextualizing the gospel to Japan and reaching out to Japanese?
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Related links:

Why Are So Many Christians Afraid of Hollywood Bible Movies?

Exodus: Gods and Kings

This year two Hollywood films — “Noah” and “Exodus:Gods and Kings” — will expose millions of people around the world to stories inspired by the Bible. How will we respond? 

What do you think about Cole Nesmith’s perspective as expressed in his article, “Why Are So Many Christians Afraid of Hollywood Bible Movies?” Please post your comments!


6 Ways to Contextualize Worship to Japan

Makiki Christian Church, Hawaii

“Worship is the heart and pulse of the Christian church. In worship we celebrate together God’s gracious gifts of creation and salvation, and are strengthened to live in response to God’s grace. Worship always involves actions, not merely words. To consider worship is to consider music, art, and architecture, as well as liturgy and preaching. The reality that Christian worship is always celebrated in a given local cultural setting draws our attention to the dynamics between worship and the world’s many local cultures.” (from the NAIROBI STATEMENT ON WORSHIP AND CULTURE)


McDonalds Japan Style

McDonalds Japan Style

The story is told that a group of Japanese students on a visit to America were surprised to see McDonald’s restaurants. “They have them here, too!” they exclaimed. Japanese perceive McDonald’s to be a Japanese establishment. Why? Because McDonald’s is contextualized to Japan. 

Japan’s McDonald’s are both similar to and different from the American version. In Japan the service is better, there are unique products, cups are smaller, the premises are cleaner, and there are subtle differences in the flavors. In addition, the staff speak the language and know the culture of Japan.

The Christian church does contextualize worship to Japan but I believe we could do better. How can we appropriately, and more effectively, contextualize our worship to Japan? How can we affect change? Worship always involves actions, to start the conversation, here are six practical ideas:  

  1. Church bulletins, posters, leaflets, websites, etc. should “fit” the culture. How do you do that? Ask a Japanese to do the design. The results won’t necessarily look like traditional Japanese art but there will be a difference. The cultural influence will be noticeable.
  2. Select music for worship that is written by Japanese. If very little or no music sung in a Japanese church is written by Japanese it gives the impression that Christianity is an imported religion.
  3. Along with the instruments already being used, add a traditional Japanese one. Japanese rock bands are using them, why not in the church? Samisen, koto, flute, and other more traditional instruments are all possibilities. Why not bring them into the church?
  4. Showcase ikebana in your church every Sunday. Even smaller Japanese churches usually have at least one person who is skilled at flower arranging. This is a wonderful way to bring the beauty of God’s creation into the church and contextualizing worship.

    Makiki Christian Church, Hawaii

  5. If you construct a church building, choose a style of architecture that results in people thinking, “that church looks Japanese!” Which doesn’t necessarily mean your building is going to look like Makiki church in Honolulu but it could (see photo). 
  6. Make the historical connection between traditional Japanese tea ceremony and Christian communion. Research it, discuss it, teach it, have a “show and tell” at your church. This connection is real. It is beautifully documented in the DVD “God’s Fingerprints in Japan.” I wonder if there are any churches that do communion in the style of tea ceremony?

What are your ideas? Please post them. 
Related links: 

In Japan’s Disaster Zone Christians Called “Jesus Person”

Pastor Takanori from Fukushima

When disaster struck Japan in March of 2011, the church in Japan responded by mobilizing thousands of volunteers. The volunteers from Japan and around the world, often working alongside local pastors, delivered supplies, set up mobile cafes, and did hard dirty work like cleaning mud from under homes. Volunteers also did music, held art classes, handed out literature, gave hand massages, smiled at people, and prayed for survivors. The volunteers were an incredibly positive presence in the midst of a broken land and hurting people. While the number of outside volunteers has dwindled, local pastors continue to reach out and help people in their communities.

Remarkably, in at least one area, local people are calling volunteers “Jesus Person, or Mr. Jesus.” While I heard about this over three years ago when I visited Fukushima, it recently came to my attention when CRASH Japan president Jonathan Wilson posted on Facebook that he was reading the book Living Together With Fukushima. Jonathan translated a section of the book by Pastor Kanari Takanori of Iwaki, Fukushima: 

“As we approach the temporary housing area that we visit, sometimes one of the residents will shout out ‘Kirisuto-san is coming, Kirisuto-san is coming’ (Most likely they mean ‘the volunteers from the Christian church.’) But I am always touched by this. No one ever says that the purpose of disaster relief is ‘Let’s go evangelize disaster survivors’, but in practical terms it is through the service of the Christian relief workers that the survivors are given a good witness.”  Pastor Takanori from Fukushima

Wilson went on to comment, “One of the problems that we have as evangelical Christians is that we equate evangelism with what the rest of the world describes as proselytism. We must become more thorough in our emulation of Jesus, who went and walked with the neediest, who then flocked to hear His message. This is what the pastors of Fukushima are doing.”

While doing disaster relief work I had the privilege of meeting Pastor Takanori. His church was so badly damaged by the earthquake that it was condemned and had to be torn down. In spite of facing huge personal challenges, Pastor Takanori set to work helping his community — I was deeply impressed with his humble service in difficult circumstances.

Due to the good work of thousands of Christian volunteers, and local “hero” pastors who have persevered many Japanese have a far more positive feeling about Jesus and Christians than they did before the disaster. That is GOOD NEWS!

Please continue to PRAY FOR JAPAN!

Related Post: “Is There Any Hope for Japan?” 

Related Links:

CRASH Japan Video: “Japan Pastors Appeal for Help (日本の牧師からの援助の)” – Featuring Pastor Takanori

CRASH Japan Home Page

How Can Christian Volunteers Respond to Disaster? [Kindle Edition] (Jonathan Wilson’s Book)

3 Reasons Japanese Should See Aronofsky’s “Noah”

Noah Poster Top Portion

“Noah” will be released in Japan on June 13, 2014

Controversy has swirled around the “Noah” epic with many Christians denouncing it. While the film takes liberties, there is good reason to take your Japanese friends to see it.

Noah Poster

1. “Noah” includes one of the best portrayals of the creation story on film. Years ago retired TEAM missionary John Schwab said to me, “when you teach Japanese the Bible, start in Genesis!!” This makes perfect sense as Genesis is the beginning of the story. The first three chapters of the Bible are pivotal as they provide crucial background on God, the creation, the source of sin, and the promise of redemption. For a person with no exposure to the Old Testament narratives starting with the New Testament is like walking into a movie theater half way though a film and trying to figure out what the story is about.

Starting in Genesis provides the context needed to understand who God is and why Jesus did what he did on the cross. The portrayal of the creation story in “Noah” is a way for Japanese — who often know nothing about the Biblical narrative — to “get” a crucial part of the story.

2. Throughout the film “The Creator” is a phrase that is used many times. Noah prays to “The Creator.” Noah and his family follow “The Creator” who warns them of coming catastrophe and tells them how to build a vessel that will keep them and the animals safe. Noah and his family are in relationship with “The Creator.” They communicate with him. He cares about them and is shown to stand for justice and goodness. “The Creator” is portrayed as wise and powerful. The caveat is that we don’t know how this will be translated in the Japanese version of the film.

3. Any film about the Bible is an opportunity to start a conversation. “What did you think about the film” works fine as an opening question. “What did you think about the “Creator God in the film?” is a good question to ask. Almost any open question can lead to important conversations (don’t fail to listen!).

There has been strong objections to a lack of Biblical accuracy in “Noah.” Many Christians react to “Noah” because it is not the kind of film that they expected. For most of us Noah is a cute Sunday School story while “Noah” is a violent, complex tale with conflicted characters. What was Noah (the man) really like? We simply do not know. It is possible that he struggled with fear and temptations like we do. While the movie isn’t perfect — the ridiculous Rock Giants are particularly hard to accept — “Noah” does get many of the main elements of the story right.

I know a man who followed Christ after seeing “Ben Hur” while in prison. He was there for terrorism. Now this man is a missionary to Japan and a chaplain in prisons. Was “Ben Hur” completely accurate to the Bible? No. And, neither is “Noah.” Apparently, Hollywood has two Moses films and an epic about Cain and Abel in the works. While Hollywood seeks to cash in on the popularity of Bible stories, I pray God will use these films to draw people to himself.

1.3 million “likes” on the Japanese Facebook page for “Noah” indicates a great deal of interest in the film.

If you see “Noah” with Japanese friends, please post about how it went.

Related Links:

A Change of Course

Act One Class 2014

Have you experienced a change of course in life?

I have. Eight years ago we collaborated with Biola University on making a film called Mujo No Kaze (“Wind of Impermanence”) — a short film we shot on location in Japan. That film project changed the course of my life… I saw the potential for using visual media to reach Japan for Christ.

After that first film I was part of making a number of short films including Jitensha (“Bicycle”). Consequently, filmmaking became the primary focus of my mission work in Japan.

My work for CRASH after Japan’s huge disaster in March of 2011 was related to filmmaking. After completing my full-time work with CRASH at the end of 2012, I started working on a feature-length film titled 2 Criminals. The immense scope of this project highlighted my need for more training.

Act One Class 2014

Act One Class 2014

Thus, I am thrilled to tell you that I have been accepted into the summer 2014 Act One Producing & Entertainment Executive Program in Los Angeles, CA. This program “offers a comprehensive overview of the industry, access to established Hollywood professionals and a highly coveted internship where practical industry experience is gained. Act One, exists to create a community of Christian professionals for the entertainment industry who are committed to artistry, professionalism, meaning, and prayer, so that through their lives and work they may be witnesses of Christ and the Truth to their fellow artists and to the global culture.” I am excited and thankful to be part of this program! I anticipate gaining knowledge, experience, and access to a large network of Christian professionals working in the film industry.

How will being at Act One in LA for the summer affect the 2 Criminals Film project?

The challenges of making a feature-length film are significant. The Act One program will give me a boost in my knowledge of the craft and connect me with people who can give me advice. And, Los Angeles is a strategic location for networking with people who can help us get our film made.

How long will you be in LA?

May 25 – August 18


Global Outreach Day (6.14.2014): Flash Mob & Music Festival in Tokyo

Music Festival in Tokyo on June 14, 2014
Music Festival, Tokyo 6.14.2014

Music Festival in Tokyo on June 14, 2014


Music Festival in Tokyo on June 14, 2014

“One Week to Shine” is an exciting  initiative organized by Andy Game and his team at 7Media. By bridging Prayer and Outreach we want to reach the next generation with the joy of God’s love for us” is how 7Media articulates the vision. The initiative includes a flash mob and outdoor concert in Tokyo on June 14.  

These events have a great deal of promise, please attend if you can and — no matter where you are in the world — be sure to Pray for Japan! 

Below is detailed information about both events in English and in Japanese from 7Media’s website:


Meeting at 9:00, we will pray and prepare for a huge Flashmob/Dance Outreach starting from Shibuya and ending in Harajuku. Click HERE to find out how you can be part of this major event of the year.


JOY Festival

We are having a concert at Hibiya Park for Global Outreach Day. Join us for the JOY Festival, featuring many different Christian artists, including:

THE4POINTSはグローバル・アウトリーチ・デー One Week To Shine の一部として日比谷公園小音楽堂でコンサートを行います!

ぜひぜひ、このJOY Festivalにお越し下さい!



ニューホープ横浜 ゴスペルフラダンス

Act Now for Free Digital Download of “The Japanese & Christianity”

Book cover by Sam Lee

Samuel Lee’s book The Japanese & Christianity : Why Is Christianity Not Widely Believed in Japan? is available free of charge as a Kindle download!  Act fast, as this offer is good for another 24 hours.SamLee.cover_.front1_-240x359

From Lee’s Facebook page: “Good News for Kindle users: 12-13 May, Monday & Tuesday: 24 hrs long you can download my book for FREE. Please share this WITH those who interested in reaching the Japanese with gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Download your copy on Amazon HERE

On iPads you can read the digital version of this book by using the free of charge Kindle APP.

Sam Lee’s Website: PROJECT JAPAN

Contextualizing the Gospel for Japan a “Hot Topic”

Reaching Japanese for Christ Logo

Several recent posts on contextualizing the gospel for Japan at the Reaching Japanese for Christ (RJC) Facebook Page have received a remarkable number of comments. I encourage you take a look at them (there is no way to link to a particular post on a RJC logoFacebook page so you will need to go to the page and scroll down to find the content I’m referring to). A post with the title, “Is it OK to assimilate some Shinto festivals into Christianity in order to bring more Japanese into the fold?” has 70 comments!

It is encouraging to see this issue being discussed on Facebook… Is this an indication that this critically important issue is gaining the attention of mission and church leaders?

RJC Homepage

Related Articles:

  1. A Japanese festival that reflects the gospel

  2. Contextualization: Becoming All Things To All Men To Save Some (Part 2)

  3. A Japanese Gospel Message

Related Posts:






Why Indigitous Hong Kong Was Remarkable

Indigitous Hong Kong

The vision of the Indigitous movement is to connect people to Jesus using digital strategies. In April I attended Indigitous in Hong Kong where I gave a short presentation. I had a really good time at this conference, below I reflect on why I enjoyed it so much.  Attending meetings is part of my work as a missionary. Unfortunately, a majority of church and mission related meetings are lectures. The reality is that I get almost nothing out of meetings like that. A few years ago I finally realized why — my auditory learning mode is my weakest. In other words, listening to people talk is the least effective way for me to learn (please give me a manuscript instead, I can read it in a fraction of the time and I will retain it much better). Indigitous Hong Kong

My strongest learning style is probably visual. Movies, photos, and the beauty of nature capture my attention and I remember visuals far better than spoken words. My second strongest learning style is kinesthetic (movement of the body is part of the process). My first real job was in a small town grocery store. I thrived at that job because it was a learning through doing environment. My wonderful boss Dick Tornquist would first show me how to do something and then he would have me do it while he watched and gave direction. I learned to cut meat and other skills through this method. School however did not go so well because it was primarily a lecture based approach to education.

The leaders of Indigitous Hong Kong put together a remarkable program that worked well for visual, kinesthetic and auditory learners. I was impressed! This is the way conferences, and church meetings should be done. I loved the way visual media was utilized. And, there was over six hours of project time when we were divided into small affinity groups and told, “create something!” My group made a video which involved walking around shooting footage. The video turned out quite well, you can see it HERE.

We were a tribe of like-minded people who got to learn together in a way that suited them. Sadly, in my experience relatively few church meetings appeal to visual and kinesthetic learners. Kinesthetic and visual learners get frustrated. Eventually many give up and quit attending church. I believe that this is one reason so many believers in Japan leave the church.  Kudos to the Hong Kong Indigitous planning team for planning such an effective conference.   I’d like to brainstorm about what the church can do to connect with visual and kinesthetic learners… What are your ideas?

Related Article: Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic Learners

Easter from the Perspective of Japanese Samurai Culture

Ritual suicide in Japan

Contextualizing the gospel

Ritual suicide in Japan

Ritual suicide in Japan

to Japan’s ancient and proud culture is a crucial issue. This week’s JapanCAN post is a link to an article by Steve Sakanashi. In an email Sakanashi wrote, “Since this weekend is Easter, and most Japanese people have no idea why it is a holiday, I wrote a letter to explain it through Japanese samurai culture.”

To read Sakanashi’s article click on the following title: Bushido, Seppuku, and the Shameful Death of Jesus Christ

Thanks Steve for putting thought and effort into articulating the gospel from a Japanese perspective.

Related Posts on JapanCAN:

Related Articles (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Digital Outreach: An Incarnational Paradigm

Connect, Collaborate, Create

“The big hub-bub, (the drama), the $64,000.00 question for digital ministry is: where is all the fruit – eg new believers who became disciples who got plugged into a church that we can name, track and see multiply. People are tired of counting clicks that don’t translate into real people in a real Church.” (what one leader posted on Facebook).

I too have felt frustrated by a lack of results. Just as there are very few children born without real human connection, I believe there will be few disciples via digital means of outreach unless the process includes connecting face to face at the local church level.

Connect, Collaborate, Create

Connect, Collaborate, Create

After Japan’s disaster in 2011 I got involved in relief work with CRASH Japan, a Tokyo based NPO founded by Jonathan Wilson. Being a small part of responding to a major disaster helped me realize that an incarnational approach is vital to effective outreach and to making disciples.

Two days after Japan’s epic disaster Wilson presented a vision to mobilize thousands of Christian volunteers and send them to work with local churches. “Hope in a Package” is how Wilson describes volunteers (see link below to his article).

The fundraising and media work I did with CRASH gave me opportunity to travel extensively in the disaster zone where I witnessed the incredibly positive impact of volunteers working with local churches. Their heart for people, their presence, and the way they helped in practical ways touched many lives. The activities of CRASH volunteers included: office work, delivering supplies, praying for people, listening to people, smiling at people, giving hand massages, cooking, and cleaning up the terrible mess left behind by the tsunami. One farm was restored to productivity through the labor of dozens of volunteers. It would not have happened with out them.

The volunteers were the heart, hands, and feet of Jesus.

This CRASH video shows how volunteers, working in collaboration with a local church, brought a powerful, culturally appropriate witness to the disaster zone: Serving Through Tradition

Clearly, responding to a disaster is a rather unique form of outreach. I think the universal principle is, we must connect with people in the real world, and serve them. People need to know that we care.

The way my father reached out to people in the communities where he pastored is a good example. He cared about people and they knew it because he showed up. If they were sick he would call on them. If they were shut in, he went to see them, regularly. If they didn’t come to church on Sunday, he would check in with them to see if they were OK. “He came to see me,” is what people say when they remember my dad. People felt loved. My dad built lasting relationships and grew his churches by connecting with people face to face, the old fashioned way. I wonder how he could have used digital tools to enhance his ability to connect with people?

“What if Jesus had not been born?” If God had only given us text, the Bible… In Jesus, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14). The beloved story of Christmas is about God making a deep connection with his creation by entering it in human form. He did not remain in heaven, the disciples walked with him, spoke with him, ate with him, and listened to him. This changed their lives. The incarnation of Jesus continues to change our lives today.

“An Incarnational Paradigm” for digital outreach recognizes the human need for people to connect in the real world as well as in the digital one.

How can we collaborate with local churches and others to create digital tools that will foster people getting connected and into real communities (churches)?

Related Articles:

Hope in a Package” by Jonathan Wilson

Related Video:

Collaboration: Reaching the Unreached Through …

Related Post:

How Japan’s Historic Disaster Changed the Volunteers

Note: “An Incarnational Paradigm” is the title of my presentation at the Indigitous conference in Hong Kong on April 11, 2014.

I’m deeply grateful for the graphic design by Christina Cheng

Digital Strategies of Outreach: Two Questions

Indigitous Hong Kong

Indigitous Hong KongThe goal of the Indigitous conference in Hong Kong (April 10 – 12) is to, “Collaborate with other creatives to share, inspire, and create digital strategies to help reach your world.” I’ll be there to do a TED style presentation. The presentation I’ve prepared is, “An Incarnational Paradigm.”

To help me understand the issues better I would really like to have your input on a couple of questions.

First question: I’ve heard some Christians have no use for digital strategies for outreach. What would be the reasons that people might give for that opposition?

Second question: What might be the keys to getting churches and pastors to embrace and utilize digitally based outreach?

The JapanCAN blog post next week will explain my presentation topic, “An Incarnational Paradigm.”

Is Japan Postmodern?


…the postmodern is primarily a phenomenon of Western culture. One cannot speak of the postmodern without first speaking of modernity and modernism, for it is from within Western culture that the modern view of the world has arisen. The postmodern is, therefore, a movement which has arisen in reaction to the modernism of Western civilization. (Daniel J. Adams)

The popular terms “modern” and “postmodern” are grounded in Western history and culture. So when visitors to Japan look around and say Japan is postmodern, they are making that judgement on the basis of what can be seen. Clearly Japan is an advanced nation with amazing technological capabilities but that does not make it modern or postmodern.

Culturally Japan is a unique version of what could be called “premodern.” In other words, the vast majority of Japanese have a worldview that goes back many generations virtually unchanged. And that worldview is animism. The animistic worldview of Japanese can be seen in Japanese pop culture. Miyazaki’s films Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are good examples. If you haven’t seen these two films, and you want to learn about Japanese culture, I highly recommend them. Both films are windows into the soul of the ancient animistic culture of Japan.
One interesting aspect of today’s world is that postmodern Westerners and Japanese share many similarities with each other. In other words, the West is becoming more like the East.
What does this mean for the church in Japan which has been heavily influenced by theology from the West that has incorporated many aspects of modernism?
How do we effectively present the gospel to uniquely premodern Japanese?
An excellent article on postmodernism:
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