Lo and behold, things aren’t the same worldwide.
A Christian, Am I?
I’m not sure how to identify myself. My parents are Christian—we celebrate Christmas and Easter—but we rarely went to church and never participated in Lent, as far back as I can recall. I have no idea which is the correct way to make a cross over your chest with your hand, or even which hand you’re supposed to use if there is one. Moreover, due in part to my best friend in elementary school being Jewish, I’ve probably attended temple as many times as church.
But labels are a silly thing, and often only serve the purpose of dividing groups of people.
Living in Japan, I’ve found just as I notice how much of an American I am, I also notice how much of a Christian I am, in comparison to typical Japanese people. In America, those two things are taken for granted as normal aspects of my life. Here, I find it’s easier to identify with being a Christian, just out of juxtaposition. As far as I’ve seen, Japanese Christians are only slightly more Christian than I am, and I lean to that side more than I lean toward pure atheism. That said, I’m sure large camps of Americans would denounce me as a Christian-in-name-only, and that in spite of trying to do good deeds, for instance, I can’t quote sections of the bible word-for-word, and daily prayer and confessions are not going to become a part of my life anytime soon.
In any case, when a friend said they were going to church in Japan, I decided why the hell not?
Japan’s Christian Population
From a western religious perspective, this country has an interesting view on religion and religiousness. Many describe Japan as having a syncretic view on religions. That is, they will take bits and pieces of religions and mold them together. In actuality, it is hard to find a religious person of any sort in Japan. Converts to Christianity (0.5-2% of the population) or Islam (<1% of the population) tend to be the strictest, claiming to be part of no other group, following typical western patterns. Numbers of practicing Buddhists and “Shintoists” are all over the place, ranging from 30-90% for Buddhists and 3-90% for “Shintoists”, depending on research methods.
But in general, a vast majority of Japanese people don’t follow any religious beliefs. When polled, 60-80% of Japanese people claim no religion, and often the ones that do, don’t follow it as strictly as westerners. A Christian in America might debate his religion if he only goes to church once or twice a year. In Japan, there’s no problem with that. When Shinto was forcefully separated from the government following World War II as per American orders, little changed. Americans perceived the Shintoist government as having exerted religious control. Instead, it was more akin to telling a world leader that they needed to use a different brand of laundry detergent. The Japanese went with it while secretly scratching their heads “why?”
Calling Japanese people’s religion “syncretic” doesn’t fully speak to their image. There is very little religion—just pieces that came from other religions that have worked into Japanese daily life. Christmas in Japan has no religious connotations. Easter isn’t practiced, but if it were, it would be all about bunnies hiding chocolates. These came from other religions, but they are no longer a part of their origin. Yes, 90% of Japanese people visit Shinto shrines and have alters in their house. It might be hard for a westerner to imagine, but these are almost decorations, held reverently less out of religious reasons and more out of habit.
In Japan, those that are Christians and attend church regularly tend to be elderly, and the average attendance of churches is less than 30. It’s noted that membership is often double this, but that only proves how lax Japanese people are in regards to church attendance.
In summary, there are very few Christians in Japan, and of the ones that exist, most are aging and don’t attend church religiously.
But This Was No Average Church
Going to this church, I had no preconceptions beyond what was culturally held. The church would likely be a separate building with rows of benches, bibles neatly tucked beneath the seats or in small cubbies. There would be a podium at the front where a pastor would preach. If this was a particularly nice church, it would likely have stained glass of some sort.
Not one of these conceptions held true. While Boston had a number of large churches standing by their lonesome, it shouldn’t have shocked me that maybe the church service wouldn’t be held in a church at all. As we walked into an average looking building, my friend informed me that the location was more like a bar than anything else. My preconceptions died on the spot.
I expect a church to be reverent and solemn. What a misguided expectation. Walking in, the room was in a bar, a counter on one side, rows of old records on the other, no bigger than the staffroom at my smallest school. Chairs were laid out, but of the forty or so people there, not all of them could find a chair. I wound up sitting on a bar stool while my friend went to the opposite end of the room and relaxed on a couch. Others who came late or were regulars stood so as to give newcomers a seat. At the front of the room, a young man sat in front of a computer hooked up to a projector. There was a podium next to the projector, and next to that was another young man practicing a guitar while a woman sat at a keyboard next to him.
Compared to the usual solemnness that pervades the traditional American church, the feeling in this room was downright lively. It made sense, given that the average age in the room couldn’t have been much over 30. Everyone was chatting with people near them, whether about their daily lives or more Godly endeavors. Children played around freely, and would continue to do so throughout the ceremony. From the welcoming nature of the people to the general atmosphere, I felt instantly comfortable.
The service started with a bilingual English and Japanese song, followed by another. Both were catchy, played with the guitar, keyboard, and some bongo-like drums I didn’t realize existed at the start. Not unlike karaoke, lyrics were projected up on the wall with romaji to help the non-readers of Japanese. I remember being unable to clap in rhythm, which was essentially the most awkward part of my time there. That is to say, I never felt very awkward during the whole experience.
After the songs, one member went up to the front to give an analysis of a bible verse while another woman stood next to her to deliver the translation. Mayhaps it was the person on this specific day or their specific passage, but it never felt heavy-handed at all. There was a “this is what I think—follow it if it speaks to you” feeling, something that I never imagined in the traditional churches of home. No doubt she made a good point and drove it home, but it didn’t seem like she was against other interpretations.
Another few songs, some announcements, and introductions of the new people and the service was over. It didn’t felt like it dragged on, and I came out of it with new understandings. It was literally the most I’ve enjoyed church. From a secular standpoint, it was like karaoke and Japanese practice with an opportunity to make new friends.
I wanted to go back. I still want to go back. I’m planning to bring other friends there next time.
The attitude of the new Pope combined with this experience has given me a renewed faith in Christianity. I’m still a ways away from accepting Christ as my personal savior and I’m not planning celibacy anytime soon, but my mind is no longer as closed off as it was before.