Contextualization of the Gospel in Japan: An Interview with Dr. Samuel Lee

An interview with Dr. Samuel C. Lee author of the recent book The Japanese and Christianity: Why Is Christianity Not Widely Believed in Japan?

JapanCAN: What is the essence of contextualization?

Dr. Lee: Contextualization concerns presenting the Gospel within the context of its host or receiving culture. Many people think that contextualization involves culture only, but this is not the case. Terms such as inculturation or indigenization are often used synonymously with contextualization.

Contextualization refers to a broader spectrum that not only understands culture as a specific context, but also includes the social, historical, political, religious, economic, and scientific aspects of groups of people to which the Gospel is presented.Dr. Samuel Lee

To simplify, I categorize context into four areas: personal experience, culture, society, and common history. Each person has a unique personal experience.  In this sense, reaching out to someone who has experienced domestic abuse or serious illness needs a contextual approach.

Culture is very important in mission work. In this work, we search for God’s revelation within a specific culture, since the truth of God is innate to all cultures and needs only to be discovered and encouraged.

God’s revelation and human culture are inseparable.

In every culture, we can find seeds of truth—seeds that can be discovered and reintroduced in light of the Gospel.

Being socially sensitive and ministering to the needs of a particular society are crucial when considering contextualization. For instance, the need to reach out and minister to the elderly, who are often lonely and isolated in society, is a way of practicing contextualization.

Practicing Christianity to promote social and cultural change, as well as to address injustice, is also considered to be contextualization. For instance, near the end of the 19th century, Christianity stimulated feminist movements in Japan for the purposes of improving women’s conditions and rights, such as abolishing legal prostitution in Japan.

Social and labor rights were also addressed by Christians such as Toyohiko Kagawa (1888–1960).

Common history is an important context as well. For example, people who have experienced wars, natural disasters, and/or oppression share a common experience, and the art of contextualization involves how we address such common history.

CRASH Japan is a good example of such contextual ministry, since CRASH responded to the earthquake and tsunamis on March 11, 2011, as well as the recent nuclear incident, by mobilizing volunteers to provide relief to communities in affected areas.

CRASH Mobile Cafe
CRASH Mobile Cafe

For another example, Koreans (during the early 20th century) have experienced oppression—especially by the Japanese—which is their common historical context. In these and other cases, Christianity seems to function as a means of liberation and implementing justice. This made Koreans to be more open to the gospel than for instance the Japanese.

When it comes to bringing the Gospel to others, contextualization is essential; it helps us to connect to people with whom we want to share the Gospel.

Paul knew how to use context to reach others with the Gospel: To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:20–23)

What Paul addresses here is pure contextualization. He deals with ethnic and cultural groups (e.g., the Jews), mentions religious groups (e.g., those under the law), and identifies with socially fragile groups (e.g., the weak). He connects with each group in its unique context.

By contrast, without context, it is impossible to reach others.

JapanCAN: Why is contextualization of the Gospel in Japan important?

Dr. Lee: Contextualization can help us to communicate the Gospel in the Japanese context. Based on what I have shared above, I believe that many missionaries already practice contextualization without even being aware of it.

Let me give an example. In autumn in various parts of Japan, we can find Japanese persimmon trees full of fruit. In Japan, there are two types of persimmon trees—one that bears bitter fruit and another that bears sweet fruit—though both look identical. Normally, people wish to cut down the tree that bears bitter fruit. However, there is a better way: changing the tree into a sweet persimmon-bearing tree. This process can be performed by cutting a shoot from a sweet persimmon tree and grafting it onto the trunk of a bitter one. In a year’s time, the whole of the bitter tree will have changed and will produce sweet fruit.

The same thing can be said of for example Shinto or Buddhism. They cannot be cut down, for they are rooted very deeply in the Japanese soil. Yet, we can find ways to graft Christianity into them.

JapanCAN: The idea that we can “graft Christianity into Shinto and Buddhism” is going to make many people uncomfortable… please explain what you mean.

Dr. Lee: For centuries Japan has been a home to Shinto, Buddhism and also Confucianism. On the other hand, the Japanese have developed a particular way of allowing the religions of Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism to co-exist. This is called shinbutsuju shugo a harmonious fusion of Buddhism, Shinto and Confucianism initiated by Prince Shotoku (574–622). That is why it is important for Christians to take these two religions, plus Confucianism very serious. We cannot overlook or ignore them. We cannot uproot them and replace them with Christianity. The option that remains open is grafting Christianity into Japanese culture.

I know this so-called engrafting makes many people nervous, they may think that it promotes syncretism.

I absolutely do not mean to compromise the life-changing message of Jesus Christ with anything else, but engrafting allows a Japanese to remain culturally or outwardly Japanese and at the same time be a follower of Jesus.

We may use their values and traditions outwardly and make Christianity fit inwardly. We can take Shinto or Buddhist concepts and traditions and give them a new light and meaning. Outwardly they sound and look unchanged, but inwardly they are occupied with Christianity.

I believe in your article 6 Ways to Contextualize Worship in Japan, you have given very good examples of such engrafting. For example you mentioned of Makiki Christian Church in Hawaii, it looks Japanese from the outside but its spiritual content is Christianity. We may even use ceremonies or customs and even festivals that look Buddhist or Shinto with Christian content en message. 

JapanCAN: It is easy to talk about contextualization but difficult to implement. . . . What other ideas do you have for implementing a contextualized Gospel for Japan?

Dr. Lee: Japanese culture has many beautiful aspects that can be used as contexts for presenting the Gospel. 

For example, a Christian friend of mine once told me that, one day, a friend of his who was a passionate Shinto believer came to him holding a copy of the Bible. He said excitedly to my friend, “I read the Torah. I was very surprised to learn about the religious ceremonies of ancient Israel. They show similarities with Shinto ceremonies. The feasts, the structure of the tabernacle, the temple, the Ark of the Covenant, the value of cleanliness, the impurity of the dead: all of those are similar to Shinto elements!” My friend then said to him, “Yes, that is what I have also noticed. If you have discovered it, why don’t you believe in God, of whom the Bible teaches?” This was the start of many interesting conversations between the two friends.

I personally believe that Shinto and Buddhism present contextual grounds that can be used as starting points for contextualization.

I often tell my students that, though there is only one way to the Father and that is Jesus Christ, there are many ways that may lead a person to Jesus.

So, I believe that Buddhism and Shinto can function as a bridge to Christ, just as Paul used “the unknown god” as a bridge to lead some Athenians to Christ, or at least to pique their interest in the Gospel.

In Paul’s case, Athenians asked him whether he was introducing a new god to them, to which Paul replied, People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17:22–23).

Hiromichi Kozaki (1856–1928) sought to build a bridge between Christianity and Confucianism. He argued that, though Confucianism does not directly relate to Christianity, it does not contradict it either, and he compared the function of Confucianism with that of Judaism. As with Judaism in Israel, Confucianism prepares the way for Christianity in Japan.

In his view, Christianity reaches beyond Confucianism by perfecting and fulfilling it. For instance, Confucian loyalty can be applied to the Christian God, after which the meaning of belief and obedience to Him becomes clear.

Another example, Kanzo Uchimura (1861–1930) referred to traditional Japanese faith and urged Japanese Christians to recognize the considerable contribution that their own tradition had made to their belief in Christianity.

Much of what seemed to the Japanese to be unprecedented in Christianity was already present in their native beliefs. Katsumi Takizawa (1904–1984) and Seiichi Yagi (I don’t know his dates) are among the many Japanese who have attempted to clarify this idea.

For instance, Yagi encouraged the development of Christianity in the Japanese context, particularly that of Japanese Buddhism, and wrote various books on the topic, including Contact Points between Buddhism and Christianity (1975) and Paul/Shinran, Jesus/Zen (1979). I am not sure whether evangelical Christians will admit the names I have mentioned here. Some may consider their ideas to be heretic and syncretic.

Thankfully, there are ministers today who use the tea ceremony as a means to evangelize the Japanese.

Makiki Christian Church, Hawaii

From another angle, it would be great to have more churches made stylized to appeal to religious frameworks of the Japanese. I am sure that they exist at present, though more would be even better.

Another way of implementing contextualization is to study Japanese society.

By identifying various societal needs and studying their causes and roots, we may develop important contextual tools for reaching out to the Japanese people. Officiating marriage ceremonies, conducting funeral services, and offering various services to the elderly may all be considered to be contextual as well. I am sure that some ministries specialize in helping people with suicidal tendencies. These are all good examples of contextualization.

JapanCAN: How can we change the perception that Christianity is foreign to Japan?

Dr. Lee: As far as I understand it, the foreignness of Christianity is not the problem. Buddhism is also foreign to Japan, yet nevertheless found its place in Japanese culture in such a way that we seldom remember its foreignness.

I think Christianity is viewed as the religion of the West’s unhealthy colonial past, which is more problematic than simply its foreignness.

We have to be conscious of this fact. By contrast, some Christian scholars believe that Christianity arrived in Japan well before Western missionaries did. They argue that, since the 5th century, the Church of the East, or the Keikyo, reached Japan via the Silk Road.

Despite compelling documentation and research, Christians with strong Western roots unfortunately do not want to entertain this theory. In this case, we can use the above examples to show the Japanese people that Christianity in Japan is not as newly Western as assumed.

JapanCAN: What is syncretism, and how do you avoid it?

Dr. Lee: Before I answer your question, let me to say that no religion—including Christianity— can stand on its own in a vacuum of space and time or function independently of all types of social and cultural traditions.

Religions are influenced by their contexts, and contexts are influenced by religions. Religions borrow from each other; they exchange concepts and emerge from one another.

I do not want to disappoint the readers, but even today’s Christianity in the West is not free of syncretism! 

Christianity originated in Israel; it has Jewish and Aramaic roots. As such, the Christianity introduced by Christ differed from that which Paul introduced to the Romans and Greeks. It differed even more when Constantine introduced Christianity into politics in the 4th century.

I often ask myself whether Constantine was converted to Christianity or whether Christianity was converted to Constantine’s culture—the Roman culture.

For instance, Christmas and the birth of Christ have origins in Mithraism, a Persian religion that existed in pre-Christian Rome. Though December 25 was originally celebrated as the birthday of Mithra, it was later synchronized with the birth of Christ. The Romans paired these and other holidays as Christianity became popular in order to reinforce it as the state religion. Today, very few people are aware of the historical details behind this Christian festival.

Japan offers an interesting example. As early missionaries improved their knowledge of the Japanese language, they realized that the word dainichi was not suitable for the Christian God. From then on, they referred to God as Deus (pronounced deusu), or hotoke, a more generic term for Buddha.

Therefore, Francis Xavier (1506–1552) changed the translation for God from dainichi to Deus. From that point on, it was preached in the streets of Yamaguchi that dainichi was not the true God and should not be prayed to. Gradually, this new rule prompted enmity between Buddhist monks and missionaries, though even Deus was borrowed from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet, missionaries accepted Deus as a valid way to address God, while dainichi was considered to be pagan, if not demonic.

Even the English word for God comes not from the Hebrew or Aramaic language, but has roots that might be Anglo-Saxon or Germanic.

So, what is syncretism?

Syncretism occurs when we compromise the most basic foundations of our faith with mainstream culture, ideologies, and/or religions.

Yet, who defines syncretism? Is it defined by denominational doctrines or Christian traditions? I believe that we can have certain standards to bind all of us together, such as Christ’s virgin birth, His death and resurrection, our salvation through Him, and the forgiveness of our sins by His death on the cross. For instance, some people take the Apostles’ Creed as the standard.

JapanCAN: How do you respond to people who see almost any move toward a contextualized Gospel in Japan as syncretistic?

Dr. Lee: We must always be careful not to compromise the most foundational aspects of the Gospel with anything else. However, as I asked earlier, who defines syncretism?

People affiliated with denominations imposing strong doctrinal traditions are very careful when someone seeks to contextualize the Gospel. I recommend that we give those who seek to contextualize Christianity in Japan a chance and that we follow them carefully but not immediately label such contextualization as heresy, unless it denies the most elementary foundations of Christian faith.

In short, though the packaging may differ, the message must be the same.


Samuel C. Lee is the president of Foundation University, a Christian University based in Amsterdam. He is author of Understanding Japan Through the Eyes of Christian Faith, Rediscovering Japan, Reintroducing Christianity and The Japanese & Christianity: Why Is Christianity Not Widely Believed in Japan? He holds M.A. Degree in Sociology of Non Western Societies/Japanese society (Leiden University) and Ph.D. in Intercultural Theology (VU University / Free University Amsterdam).

Since 1994, Samuel and his wife Sarah serve as senior pastors in Jesus Christ Foundation Churches based in Amsterdam and in eleven other cities around the world. Samuel is also part of the steering committee of the National Synod, a forum of the Protestant Churches of the Netherlands.

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JapanCAN blogger Paul Nethercott is producing 2 Criminals, a feature-length film inspired by the lives of two men he met while doing disaster relief work after Japan’s epic disaster in 2011.



5 thoughts on “Contextualization of the Gospel in Japan: An Interview with Dr. Samuel Lee

  1. I am an evangelist and was given the opportunity to visit Japan in October this year, travelling extensively. I reached the same conclusion as Dr Lee – that is, that the truth of Christianity has to be introduced without attempting o undermine existing beliefs. We can be sure the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword and it WILL penetrate and convict.


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