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Dispatch from a Bewildered Missionary in Japan

(This article first appeared in the November 3, 2019 issue of TLC.)

By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

I was sitting in my very first Japanese worship service — in Minneapolis, actually, not Tokyo. Although I was intrigued by the fact that well over half the congregation was obviously not Japanese, and a little perplexed at the interlude ukuleles and hula dancing, what really got my attention was the hymn projected on the screen up front.

It was, of course, in Japanese, a language I was just about to embark upon learning. I don’t remember exactly which one it was anymore, but this Ascension hymn illustrates well enough what I saw.



ハレルヤ ハレルヤ

ハレルヤ ハレルヤ



Perhaps your eyes are drawn immediately to the complex figures that remind you more of Chinese than Japanese. With good reason: these are kanji, literally, “Chinese characters.” Somewhere in the 400s AD, everything Chinese began to infiltrate Japan — religion, aesthetics, architecture, government, and language. Japanese today is built as much on a foundation of Chinese as English is built on Latin. So much so that every one of the kanji has at least two pronunciations: one for the indigenous Japanese word it represents, and one for the Chinese word it borrowed. Which puts the foreigner in the strange situation of being able to understand the meaning of a kanji without being sure, in that particular context, how to pronounce it.

Or you might have noticed that some of the figures are not quite as complex but are rather sensuous and curvy. Maybe that’s why these hiragana syllables were women’s written language before men’s. Way back when, it was lowly and shameful to compose original texts in Japanese; educated Japanese men wrote and thought in Chinese only. Japanese women, deprived like women everywhere of a comparable education, took to composing in the hiragana script, which existed originally to provide the Japanese with a phonetic syllabary for place names in India, homeland of Buddhism. Women’s marginalization from the centers of learning inadvertently made them the fountainheads of indigenous Japanese literature, most famously Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji.

But maybe what grabbed you was what grabbed me: alongside the kanji and the hiragana lie a series of hard, angular strokes. They look like they could have been chiseled with a stylus. These are katakana, a second phonetic syllabary used in Japanese. Although just as old as hiragana, perhaps even older, in written Japanese today they occupy a curious space. They are used as we would use italics, or to denote the scientific name of plants or animals, or for onomatopoeia, but above all to denote foreign loan words.

ハレルヤ? You guessed it — “Hallelujah.”

These katakana kept popping up throughout the worship service, unmistakably different from the kanji and hiragana every time. I noted キリエKyrie, グロリアGloria, アーメンAmen, ホサンナHosanna, イエスキリストJesus Christ, ピーターPeter, ジェームスJames, ジョンJohn… until I could not avoid drawing the obvious conclusion: in the very writing of Japanese, Christianity declares itself time and time again to be a foreign religion. Forget your indigenization thesis. Christianity’s outsider status is inscribed in stone.

Once my family and I arrived in Japan, the point only doubled down on me with increasing force. It’s not just archaic Hebrew or Greek that gets transliterated, but English, too, even words and phrases that could easily be translated into “real” Japanese. Take this: クリスチャンケアミニストリー, which is pronounced kurisuchankeaminisutorī and means “Christian Care Ministry.” (Sound it out, you’ll get it.) Or this: チャペルオルガニスト, chaperuoruganisuto: “chapel organist.” In December I demanded why we were advertising a クリスマスキャンドルサービス, kurisumasukyandorusābisu = “Christmas candle service” when surely, at least, candles pre-dated Christianity and therefore could have their own proper Japanese kanji? The vicar thought it over and concluded that 蝋燭 rōsoku just looks and sounds too Buddhist. Case closed.

This is why, during my first year of Japanese study, I disdained and even avoided katakana words. They seemed ridiculous, for instance when I deciphered ドライブスルー doraibusurū on the KFC sign and realized it meant “drive-through.” Katakana just didn’t seem like “real” Japanese words.

My mind remained stubbornly unchanged until I read a book called Japanese and the Japanese by Herbert Passim, published in 1980, where he proffered the (to me) astonishing statistic that, already by then, Japanese boasted a whopping twenty-five thousand English loanwords in its vocabulary. And that didn’t include technical or scientific terms! He theorized as thoroughgoing an overhaul of the Japanese language in the 20th century as had occurred with the arrival of Chinese a millennium and a half earlier. To compress a complex argument: the cultural, technological, economic, and social changes since World War II and the American occupation are so radical that “old” Japanese just doesn’t have the resources to capture the new situation. Katakana loanwords are necessary — but, more to the point, they are now real Japanese words. That is what Japan is now.

Which means my initial impression of the essential foreignness of Christianity wasn’t quite right. Its foreignness may be encoded visually, but it is encoded in the specific Japanese way of adopting outside realities and making them their own — something they have been adept at doing for a very long time.

And anyway, it’s not like using good old-fashioned kanji solves all problems. Using vocabulary that dates back to the Jesuit arrivals in the 16th century, Christians all over Japan preach movingly of how God愛する or “loves” you … but, I’m told on good authority, a casual Japanese listener won’t have any clear notion of what that’s supposed to mean. The word is quaint and void. And when believers speak of their喜び, “joy,” locals will draw a blank. Saying you’reハッピー happī makes a lot more sense.

But even this may not make much of a difference. Japan’s population is less than 1 percent Christian, and it is the only country in all of Asia whose Christian population is shrinking. (In fairness, all demographics in Japan are shrinking; but for such a small community, the lack of growth is doubly worrisome.) According to some estimates, there’s nowhere on earth that’s seen a greater investment of missionary time, money, and personnel, with less of a return. It doesn’t seem to matter in the slightest whether the form Christianity takes is very westernized or very indigenized. Both advance at the same infinitesimal rate. In my (admittedly brief) experience, the favorite conversation starter among missionaries in Japan is, “So why do you think people don’t become Christians here?”

To crown all the other bewilderments, the Japanese like Christianity. They think it’s a good religion, happily adopt its holidays, say they love Jesus, attend services regularly. But most of them don’t become Christians. Theories abound, but nobody really knows why.

Well, God knows. And God saw fit to send someone silly enough to have complained earlier in her life about the difficulties of French, for heaven’s sake, all the way to Japan, where she would eatハンバーガー hanbāgā andワッフル waffuru and ride theバスbasu toチャーチ chāchi, and learn to call all of it very good, and very Japanese.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is an associate pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church, co-host of the podcast “Queen of the Sciences: Conversations between a Theologian and Her Dad,” and author of the quarterly e-newsletter “Theology & a Recipe.”


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