27 July 2008

White, teenage Americans bring salvation to Ikebukuro through cheap sales tactics and misunderstanding

Western Christian misunderstanding of Japan was on full display in Ikebukuro last week when I was passing through on my way home from the British Visa office.

As I was walking to buy dinner, I saw a couple of guys holding signs that said, 'Free 5 Minute English' and I thought, 'Well, that's a clever way to pick up private students. I wonder if it works.' I kept walking and noticed that there were many, many more young, bright-eyed Caucasians holding the same signs and shouting, 'Free 5 minute English!' Several of them were wearing Texas college t-shirts and I deduced after watching them that they were likely a church group. Having been a part of these sorts of things myself  — shitty street theater, street 'evangelism', English education for the Lord — the signs are telling. Sitting at the bus stop, I watched them interact with people and thought about how misguided and arrogant and ignorant the whole thing was.

Japanese religious practice is an enigma to the West I think and being unable to understand it, they are quick to pronounce it non-existent. Most Fundamentalists or at least the kind I spent most of my time trying to be and hanging out with in high school, have one understanding of religion: a personal relationship with God that is expressed in going to church, feeling God's leading in your life, feeling God when you sing songs, feeling bad about bad things you think you've done, and telling other people that they should do the same thing you're doing. There is a strong emphasis on what you feel, what you believe, and what sort of religious things you do or don't do — did you pray today, did you read the Bible

Japanese religious practice, and Buddhism as I understand it, is based in a completely different worldview with all its own traps and advantages. The big one that people who are trying to convince Japanese to become Christians miss is that you do not become a Buddhist. Conversion is not a part of the worldview — you don't need to become what you already are. Moreover, the basis of Christian belief is that you need saving; the basis of Buddhism is that you are already enlightened, you just need to realize it. And in Japanese culture belief in one thing does not rule out another. To say to a Japanese person, what do you believe, is sort of a ridiculous question. They are what they are. For a Japanese person to convert to Christian faith, they need to have their culture dismantled first.

Belief, as a Fundamentalist, Western Christian understands it, is not a part of a Japanese person's life, I think. A person in the West often maybe thinks of death often and fears it — the average Japanese young person doesn't. Instead, Japanese religious practice, it was explained to me once, can be seen in the passing of two bicycles on a sidewalk. The two riders are not paying attention, almost hit one another, but do not, and they continue on their way without getting angry because they did not hit.

The Christians come to Japan to tell, to instruct, and to try to shape behaviour they have no understanding of. The 16 year old giving the 'free' English lesson knows it all already: his belief is the only true one and this 45 year old Japanese businessman that he is talking to just doesn't get it. They only know enough about the culture to complete their two week trip, go home to their mega-church, show a powerpoint, have the sort-of long haired kid lead everyone in singing, and talk about the one conversation they had where someone seemed to 'really be thinking about what we were saying.'

Fortunately for the Japanese, most of them are smart enough not to be duped and will take the five minute English lesson and listen politely to whatever else they are told. There was a teacher at Meikun who had kept a religious tract he had been given because he said throwing it away would be bad luck. He, of course, wouldn't read it, but he kept it so no one would be angry with him. And I suppose that is something the youth group could put in their powerpoint presentation. The Lord works in mysterious ways.