The Unseen Face of Japan: Crucial Reading For Students of Japanese Culture

“Japanese tastes in cars, technology and leisure profoundly affect how we think and what we buy. But who are the Japanese? To the outsider Japan has made the switch to a Western lifestyle – to Western materialism – in the space of a few generations. But in fact Japan remains profoundly alien, a culture where ritual holds sway.” (Brotherhood Books)

Paul Nethercott asked me to review The Unseen Face of Japan by David C. Lewis. Since my husband and I are hoping to be long-term missionaries in Japan, I was interested in reading this book for my own education. I was not disappointed! If you are living/working in Japan or are a Christian who cares for the Japanese, this book is a must for you.

The Unseen Face is a Christian anthropologist’s analysis of Japanese culture, religion, and worldview as well as a brief history of how Christianity has had an impact on the nation. Lewis’ findings are based on surveys, observations, and interviews. He goes beyond conventional ‘anthropology’ to offer ways Christians can best communicate the gospel and use cultural elements to glorify Christ.

Lewis does a good job of documenting and describing Japanese culture. More importantly, he deciphers why Japanese do what they do. I was surprised to find out that MOST Japanese regularly partake in religious activities while feeling that the activities have no connection to religion. While most Japanese own charms and many worship at god-shelves in their home, few profess belief in the power of these rituals. Many do it because it’s expected of them by family members, because their friends do it, or because they’d rather be safe than sorry ‘just in case’ there is a malicious spirit out there.

I was pleasantly surprised that Lewis offered observations and suggestions, despite that being taboo in the anthropology world. Lewis identifies weaknesses in the current Christian mindset toward evangelizing Japan, calling on a need for greater emphasis on spiritual warfare.

Lewis documents that most Japanese companies — including the huge modern corporations we all know — routinely organize and pay for Shinto and Buddhist  rituals. I was surprised to hear about this aspect of business life in Japan. These rituals are viewed as a means to promote and ensure safety in the workplace. Usually only those in higher management participate in the rituals but sometimes every employee of the company is asked to take part. Participation is not mandatory. However — due to social pressure — it is very difficult for a Christian to opt out.

The Unseen Face describes the worldview and customs related to Japanese ways of dealing deal with death, birth, aging, cleanliness, safety, holidays, fortune, family, and shame. Lewis states that Japanese people living outside Japan continue to practice many of the same customs and worldviews of the motherland. Therefore, it is important that anyone planning on interacting with Japanese anywhere in the world needs to work at understanding Japanese culture.Unseen face fron 2

Lewis provides answers to many crucial questions through research. His book offers a treasure trove of information. If Japanese culture is a puzzle, Lewis is giving his readers vital clues to decoding it.

In a nutshell, Lewis finds the Japanese to be heavily motivated by both guilt and shame, disillusioned by the events of World War II, and desperately searching for peace of mind whether through charms, visits to a shrine, or rituals.

They are steeped in a tradition that puts them in great spiritual bondage, but they have yet to see Christianity as the power to release and protect them. Instead, it is mainly perceived as a Western, intellectual religion which has little influence over their way of life.

However, there are many things already present in Japanese culture that are valuable and can serve as stepping stones to the gospel. The Japanese as a whole feel an affinity to nature and give great respect to their elders and heritage. A Christian faith that emphasizes these values would be more appealing to Japanese. We need to show Japanese that Christ is the Savior of the world, not just of the West.

Lewis also points out that a purely logical argument for faith can often be lost on the Japanese, who are, as a whole, more feelings based. Revealing Christ through the arts can have a much greater impact on the Japanese than traditional Western approaches to the gospel.

In short, The Unseen Face of Japan creates a fantastic foundation for the Christian worker looking for how to best relate and share their faith in a Japanese context. It is detailed, well-researched, and the reader is not left without some suggestion of how to apply what Lewis has learned on each subject. I, personally, feel that much of what I have observed in Japanese culture is beginning to make sense in light of what I’ve read by Lewis. I heartily recommend this book!

Reviewed by Alecia Tallent

Alecia Tallent
Alecia Tallent












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