Life as a Japanese Lutheran

by Frederick S. Durbin

Imagine that you are Japanese and a member of the Nihon Ruteru Kyoudan (NRK), the LC-MS’s partner church in Japan. Here are some ways in which your life would be different from that of a young Lutheran in the U.S.A.

First, if your parents are Christians, they were probably not born into Christian homes. Most likely, they encountered the Gospel as adults and were led by the Spirit to take those difficult steps to the baptismal font—especially difficult in a country where, for the last half-century, the Christian population has hovered around one percent of the nation’s citizens.

Or maybe you yourself, as a teenager, have first heard the Gospel at a Lutheran church-operated English conversation school. Your teacher was an American missionary; you were interested at first in hearing about American culture. Little by little, you discovered the great truth your teacher had come to Japan to share. After asking many questions, studying the Bible, praying, and talking deeply with Japanese Christians, you came to believe that Jesus died and rose for you. Then, perhaps with your parents’ blessing or maybe after many tears from both parties, you have become the first Christian in your family.

That has not been an easy decision. Your family is not just you and your parents.  It includes all the generations of your ancestors, whose memory is honored with a carefully-tended Buddhist family altar in your home. Photos of your deceased grandparents occupy the central position, surrounded by candles, sticks of incense, and offerings of rice and sake. Your parents sometimes ring a bell here and kneel to pray, silently asking your ancestors for protection and guidance. If a visitor to your home brings a box of cookies or cakes, your mother places it on the altar for a day or two, allowing your ancestors to enjoy the gift first. Afterwards it will be shared among the living. You are taught that your ancestors are always watching over you.

So it has been a huge step for you to join a Christian church. Many of your loved ones believe you have turned your back on the long procession of those who gave you life; you have betrayed their traditions and beliefs. Your life has been completely changed by your study of God’s promises for you, and you daily wrestle with questions such as, “Are my dead grandparents eternally lost because they never heard and believed the Gospel?” You must discover what your faith means for you as a Japanese person, and as a member of your family.

At school or among friends, it is not easy to make casual references to the weekend event your church has planned. When other Japanese friends learn you are Christian, they may have one of the following reactions: they  will consider you a disciplined and “holy” person, like a rigorously-trained Buddhist monk, entirely different from themselves; they will regard you as arrogant and proud, one who thinks yourself better than other Japanese people; or—more and more commonly in recent years—they may view you with discomfort and a trace of fear, because they associate any religious belief with fanaticism.

Of course, not everyone will react in these ways. Christian schools have been around for many decades in Japan, and they are highly respected institutions. Even if parents have no interest in Christianity, they know their children will receive a good education and a solid moral grounding at such a school. Many Japanese who become Christians later in life first heard of God’s love at a Christian elementary school or kindergarten.

If you live in Tokyo, where several NRK churches are located, you may have a commute of an hour or more by train and/or bus on Sunday morning. Some worshippers come by car, but that is more common in the countryside, where roads are less crowded and other forms of transportation are not as readily available.

Your Lutheran congregation is small: anywhere from five or six regular members to forty or fifty in a “huge” church. The sanctuary is simple; the organ is of the old-fashioned “pump” variety, powered by the organist’s feet. There is no choir, and instrumental music is rare.

“Youth groups” in typical NRK congregations are closer to singles’ groups in the United States, made up mostly of college students and twenty-something, unmarried workers. The lack of younger members is because of the smallness of the congregation and the busy lives of people in that age group. Entering a good university is tremendously important in Japan, and the exams are rigorous. High-schoolers are buried in homework, often attending cram schools Field trip to a museum about persecuted Christiansat night after the full school day, and have time to relax again only after they have been accepted into college.

Your NRK church does many of the same things that its counterparts in the States do: Bible studies, cookouts, concerts, summer camps, Christmas candle services, caroling for shut-ins, and Easter sunrise services. The liturgy is the same, including confession, absolution, the Service of the Word, and the Lord’s Supper. It is done in Japanese, of course, led by a Japanese pastor who is most likely a graduate of the NRK’s seminary in Tokyo.

Japan is said to be a “tea society,” meaning that, whenever people gather, they rarely disperse without drinking tea together. Partly because of the longer commutes to urban churches and partly because people are extremely busy during the week, church is often an all-day affair on Sunday. The service itself is an hour long, perhaps preceded or followed by a Bible study. Then there may be tea, coffee, and snacks—or a potluck lunch—before an afternoon event such as an elders’ or members’ meeting, an outing (such as to view cherry blossoms in the spring), the annual church bazaar, or a general cleaning of the church, with everyone pitching in to help.

Most importantly, the Gospel you hear from the lectern and pulpit is the same as that which your fellow believers are hearing around the world.   The Baptism that cleanses you is the same as the one which washes our fellow redeemed everywhere. The Holy Supper of our Lord is the same Eucharist received, whether in the U.S., Japan, or any other locale.  Jesus Himself unites you with all your brothers and sisters in Christ.


Frederic Durbin is a 1988 graduate of Concordia College, River Forest, now Concordia University -- Chicago.  After serving as an English teacher in Niigata, Japan through the LCMS' "Overseas Volunteer Youth Ministry," he remained in Japan, where he continues as an English instructor at the University of Niigata.  Fred is also a published author of many magazine articles, and a fantasy/horror novel,  Dragonfly.

Created: July 11th, 2007