Reaching the Japanese

  • Sam McGeown
  • 10 August 2016

Japanese people

Reaching Japanese people with the gospel is notoriously difficult. Japan is often called ‘the missionary’s graveyard’. The church was pushed underground for a couple of hundred years and the country has only been open to the rest of the world for 150 years. It is still fashionable to keep your faith to yourself—to be a hidden believer—so sticking your neck out is frowned upon in Japan and the pressure to confirm often stops people from stepping out to follow Christ. Japan is also highly syncretistic: it’s not unusual to celebrate births at the shrine, get married in a wedding chapel and then have a Buddhist monk conduct your funeral. The exclusive claim that only Christ is Lord and the western Christian worldview is strange teaching to most Japanese. (For example, the word for sin is ‘crime’ and most Japanese people don’t see themselves as ‘criminals’.) People are very suspicious of religion: it’s okay for people to dabble with Christianity—going to church-run kindergartens or schools—but one mustn’t get too serious about what Christianity teaches, because getting too serious may cause too many fractures in the family circle of peace.

This is why being involved in a Japanese businessman/student/working holiday-maker/housewife coming to faith in Australia can give us such a rush. But we must remember the facts: only one in three Japanese who become followers of Christ overseas continues on with their faith when they return home. This means that from the get-go, we must prepare them for home.

Here are some tips on how to do that.

1. Build your evangelism and discipleship around the Japanese language

If you start a Bible study with a Japanese person, they will be most comfortable doing it in English. Bible Japanese feels clunky and clumsy. Studying it purely in English will help them feel that they are doing something cultural, rather than spiritual. But in the end, doing this will not prepare your Japanese friend for re-entry into Japanese society or entry into a Japanese church.

When they return, they may end up in a church, but it will probably be an international English-speaking one with plenty of foreigners. From there, they will struggle to convince their family and friends that the gospel really is good news for all Japanese people. If they return to a smaller town or village, the international church will not be an option; instead, they will have to make do with the little, traditional and very Japanese church. Often trying to fit in there may create the false impression that the regimented Jesus of the strict Japanese church is not the same as the warm Jesus of the happy-go-lucky Australian church.

So from the very beginning, familiarize your Japanese friend with the Japanese biblical text. Have the Japanese text next to their English Bible (Here’s Life is a great place to get both English and Japanese Bible texts). Your friend may not pay much attention to the Japanese at first, but they will begin to glance at it. They will complain about how much easier the English is to understand, but don’t give up on the Japanese translation. Engage them by asking clarifying questions: “What is the Japanese word for ______?” “How does the Japanese Bible interpret verse ______?” Please note that at some point, you will need to come up with a reason for why the English and Japanese don’t quite match!

2. Recommend a Japanese Bible translation

At some point, you may decide that your Japanese friend needs a Bible. There are a number of translations available. The Good News and The Living Bible are available in Japanese. But the most widely used translations are the New Interconfessional Version (新共同訳聖書 shin kyōdō yaku seisho) and The New Japanese Version (新改訳聖書 shin kaiyaku seisho).

The New Japanese Version is more of a literal translation. It tries to use modern Japanese and works hard at translating theologically difficult passages in a way that is linguistically accurate to the source texts. Evangelicals tend to stick with the NJV.

The most widely distributed Bible, however, is The New Interconfessional Version. It’s much easier to read than the NJV, but because of its ecumenical roots (it was translated by both Catholic and Protestant scholars), it tends to compromise the meaning of the text for the sake of Christian collaboration and unity. So even though it takes longer to get used to, we tend to introduce our friends to the NJV.

3. Keep your discipleship simple and replicable

It will be tempting to impress your Japanese friends with the large church you attend. (The average Japanese church service has a Sunday attendance of 30.) But they may be returning to a town in Japan with a church of seven to ten people—the pastor, his wife, their four kids and three pensioners. The church may not have a young adults group. Your friend may be the only young adult. They won’t have a roster for the music team, because they will most likely only have one piano player. How will you help your Japanese friend to not only survive, but thrive in this environment? How will you encourage them to think, “Wow, there is no young adults group! Great, I can start one!” You will soon need to school your Japanese friend on how to disciple others. You may need to Skype them once a week to study the Bible and pray together.

Getting a handle on churches in their area is paramount. JCFN is an evangelical organization dedicated to help Japanese returnees. They run support groups in the major cities and bring returnees together at camps. They can also help your Japanese friend find a church.

Keep the way that you disciple simple and replicable. The more complex it is, the more difficult it will be to replicate.

4. Remember that Japanese culture is collective

Try and include extended family members in your friendship circle as soon as you can. If you are meeting up with a housewife, then get to know her husband and kids as soon as possible. Take an active interest in your friend’s family back in Japan. Send gifts, letters, emails and so on when appropriate. Your friend’s family will be relieved that their loved one is being cared for in Australia. When family members visit, invite them into your home. Take them out to dinner and try, as best as you can, to pay. Drive them to the local tourist attractions and introduce them to the church family. Having these kinds of relationships can soften the blow if your friend finally makes a decision to follow Christ.


One of the greatest gifts we can give Japanese society is a growing disciple of Jesus who has spent some time with us in Australia. Under God, I pray that those Japanese who have come to faith in Australia may become a catalyst for gospel change in their homeland.