Foreigners, especially westerners, often struggle to integrate in Japan. This is evidenced by the prevalence of “gaijin pubs” dotting Japanese cities, packed with white faces almost any night of the week. It’s a place where they can be themselves and talk to people who “get them.”

I’ve been on a journey recently exploring why we foreigners have such a hard time feeling at home in Japan. Some people have cited in-group/out-group mentality or simply “racism.” But while there’s plenty of xenophobia to go around in Japan, and certainly old prejudices don’t help foreigners feel at home, that’s certainly not all Japanese. 

And while ingroup/outgroup can be part of the it, I think another huge component of the struggle is in a fundamental difference in communication.

Why Japanese is hard to learn

I was searching for something on YouTube the other day when I came across a video by a relatively well-known Japanese-American youtuber. The video was titled something like “Why Japanese is the hardest language to learn.”

My first reaction was to skip it. Wherever you go, you can always find people claiming that their language is the hardest. Maybe because it’s human to assume that the number of grammatical exceptions or nuances of my language doesn’t exist in other languages, despite the mantra among linguists that “all languages are equally complex.” But as a student of Japanese, I was intrigued (and didn’t have a better way to spend my Sunday evening), so I clicked play.

The creator of the video talked through a number of run-of-the-mill arguments—complicated grammar, three alphabets, multiple kanji readings, etc.—but then he settled onto the main point of the video, which sounded something like this:

Only in Japanese does a speaker need a full understanding of the culture in order to effectively communicate.

One of the language’s differentiators is how the selection of words and conjugation will change significantly based on your partner/audience’s age, status, disposition and closeness of relationship. And another big part is the communicator’s ability to “read the air,” as Japanese describe it. This refers to discerning your partner’s thoughts and emotions based not only on what is said but also by non-verbals and what is left unsaid.

The creator of the video elaborates with Westerners common response to indirect speech or vagueness in Japanese. Paraphrasing, a fictitious dialogue goes a bit like this:

“I just say it how it is! Being direct is the best way to communicate. Japanese people should just say what they mean,” imitating an American accent.

“But this isn’t your country. Who are you to tell us how to speak? If you don’t like it, go back to your own country!” he responds angrily.

After I watched the video, there was something about it that seemed to stick in my mind—the same way you might ruminate on an old argument where you were in the wrong but didn’t want to admit it.

The fact is that as foreigners we behave and think this way all the time; we compare this culture with our own and hold our own communication paradigm as superior.

And we do this despite the fact that no amount of wishing Japanese culture were different will actually result in a single Japanese person changing who they are.

How small judgements of a culture can be a barrier to the gospel

The video helped me start to think about how some of my unconscious judgements of the culture may actually hinder me from reaching Japanese or communicate the truth of gospel. If we look into the scriptures, we can see how the early church wrestles with this same issue.

In Acts 15, the Council in Jerusalem is called together to address conflicts between Jewish believers and new Gentile believers. Jewish hardliners wanted to force the new Gentile believers to conform to the whole Law of Moses, but Peter stands up among them and says:

“Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15: 7-11).

While it would be hard to deny that the customs that God Himself gave the Jewish people were superior to that traditions of Gentles, what’s interesting here is that Peter doesn’t fall into the game of comparison.

He surprises us by focusing on what the two groups hold in common: receiving the Holy Spirit, the cleansing of the heart by faith, and salvation through the grace of Jesus.

For Peter, the gospel message is more important than the customs he’s been taught to value since childhood.

In the end, the council follows advice from James to write:

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:28-29).

This last bit is also important, as it recognizes that while the Gentiles were accepted with their culture as-is, it didn’t mean that everything in that culture was perfectly okay; some things needed to be counter-cultural to set the believers apart and keep them holy.

As gospel messengers who enter a new culture, we’re going to notice a lot of differences from the way of life to which we’re accustomed. One of our challenges is identifying whether or not a custom is

A) Something to be accepted “as is” or
B) Something that is equivalent to “food sacrificed to idols.”

I strongly suspect that an indirect speaking-style is the former.

The cultural baggage we carry

The other day I was talking with some friends about Japan and technology. For my American friends back home, there’s a common misconception of Japan as being technologically advanced. It is not.

While highly-developed infrastructure and the proliferation of everyday, ulta-convenient technologies such as electric toilet washlets and singing appliances may give off the impression of a futuristic society, in many regards Japan still uses technology that feels 10-15 years older than Europe or America.

For example, Japanese college students often write their research papers on grid paper. By hand. With a pencil. Many of the students I’ve met have never owned a computer. People regularly rent and purchase DVDs. Another example is the use of cash to pay for everything (even large expenses)—most small businesses don’t accept credit/debit cards at all.

And, as my friend pointed out in our conversation, Japanese business still regularly communicate by fax.

The natural reaction to this fact for many foreigners is to jeer, shake their heads, and wonder, “when will Japan catch up with the times?”

Most of us foreigners have a tendency to fall into the pattern of cultural comparison, but unfortunately it tends to breed a culture of negativity and division between ourselves and the collective culture of Japan. It also ignores the fact that there are legitimate cultural reasons to prefer more predictable technologies, which I may look at in a future post.

Managing our thought-lives

Change is going to start with paying attention to how we think. It might be difficult to completely reposition our perspective of a society in a single day, but we can start by simply being aware of how much of what we think has been influenced by our home culture.

When we’re feeling frustrated with communication or a cultural misunderstanding, it’s a great opportunity to examine those perspectives. What disconnect is the source of those frustrations? Are they based on prejudices or assumptions we’ve carried in from our own culture? How does God feel about the situation?

An often quoted scripture cites Paul’s command that we “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The context for this verse is Paul speaking with the Corinthians about living by divine power and not according to the standards of the world. Full chapter here.

I think it’s a common misunderstanding that this verse is about taking our own thoughts captive. It’s not. The verse is about taking captive the thoughts and ideas of the world and subjecting them to be obedient to Christ. It’s about demolishing the anti-christian pop-philosophy of the day, and demonstrating the superiority of Christ.

However, the verse is applicable to this dialogue insofar as our thought-lives have been influenced by the world—both in our home culture and in our host culture. Before we can see a cultural-shift for Christ, we must first conquer the prejudices and judgements that persist within our own hearts.

So the next time you are feeling a disconnect with your host culture, take notice of the challenge issued by this verse:

Have you subjected the values of your home culture and made them obedient to Christ in your life?

Let’s ask ourselves some “what if” questions to start that journey:

  • What would it look like to live according to Kingdom culture instead of American (or European, Korean, Chinese, etc.) culture?
  • What if instead of wanting a culture to change to make us more comfortable, we accepted it as it is?
  • Instead of expecting Japanese people to “say it how it is,” what if we humble ourselves, learn how to read the air and speak using more than words?
  • What if instead of jeering at antiquated technology, we started thinking how we use a fax machine to share the gospel?

Published by Erich Boileau

Erich is a disciple of Jesus, writer and designer with over 10 years experience in web development. Currently he lives and works in Osaka with his beautiful bride Emi, where he also studies Japanese language and culture.

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