By Greg Warner
Japan is “a country of contradictions,” say Carson and Laura Foushee, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s first field personnel ever in that country of 128 million.
For instance: While only 1 percent of the population is Christian, a favorite Japanese pastime is singing black gospel music.
In fact, there are hundreds of gospel choirs in the country — and most of them are unrelated to any religious organization.
That unusual cultural phenomenon, now far more than a fad, arose more than 20 years ago through the popularity of an American movie — “Sister Act” with Whoopi Goldberg. The 1992 movie and its sequel, “Sister Act II,” triggered something inexplicable in Japanese society.
The popularity of gospel music grew like wildfire, fueled by the Japanese love of music and fascination with Western pop culture. Even if the singers and listeners have little knowledge of the music’s meaning or social context, it fills a need for hope, belonging and emotional expression, researchers say.
Early on, the trend was quickly commercialized. Hundreds of music schools and colleges began offering classes in black gospel music — even a college degree. Community groups and other organizations formed gospel choirs, some of which tour internationally. In fewer than 10 years, there were more than 7,000 people singing in choirs in Japan and 300 gospel music workshops held in one year.
But most Japanese don’t know English and know little of the African-American slave experience that gave birth to black gospel. Does it matter that they don’t know the meaning of the words they are singing?
“They are drawn to the music, not the message, but I think the message can and does relate,” said Laura Foushee of Raleigh, N.C. She and her husband, Carson, from Statesville, N.C., were appointed as CBF field personnel in Japan in 2013.
Recent graduates of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, the couple now works with two Japanese churches in Kanazawa and Toyama, two cities with a combined population of close to 1 million, in central Japan located on the Sea of Japan.
They serve as co-pastors for English-speaking congregations at Kanazawa Baptist Church and nearby Toyama Koizumi-cho Baptist Church, assist in the Japanese services at both churches, lead Bible studies in English, and teach English to university students, kindergartners and their mothers — all while studying to improve their own Japanese skills.
Most of CBF’s 125 field personnel are assigned to unreached people groups, the poor or the marginalized. So the Foushees’ assignment to a First World country — third richest in the world — is unusual.
Even though there has been a steady missionary presence in Japan for 70 years, it remains one of the countries least responsive to the gospel. Some mission organizations essentially left Japan in recent decades.
Sending field personnel to Japan may seem counterintuitive, but the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship made the decision based on an invitation from the historic Japan Baptist Convention and a desire “to be good and reliable partners” with Baptists around the world, said Jim Smith, director of field ministries for CBF.
CBF missions has never been limited solely to the least-evangelized countries, said Smith, who was appointed by CBF in 1993 to serve in a partnership with the European Baptist Federation as one of the Fellowship’s first field workers. “This is an example of one man in particular having a strong vision for this sort of collaboration — Rev. [Akinori] Taguchi, pastor of Kanazawa Baptist Church,” Smith continued. “He searched CBF out and kept at it in the hopes that someone would connect with this challenge and come their way.”
The Foushees said they are “excited to start a new chapter of missions in Japan” through the trans-Pacific partnership.
“Christians in Japan are strongly encouraged by our presence,” Carson said. “They see us as a new spark and as people who can help to draw Japanese and internationals alike to the church.”
Although Christianity is not new to Japan, Carson said, it’s not unusual to encounter people with no knowledge of the gospel, such as in a recent adult Bible study he led.
“For some it was the first time they ever heard of Jesus,” Carson said.
Despite the lack of knowledge about Christianity, Laura said, “I have been surprised at how easy it has been to have conversations about faith. … We don’t force these conversations, but they happen organically simply because people know we are missionaries and there is a genuine curiosity.”
Although conversation is easy, conversion is not, the couple said.
“Japanese Christians often will take years and even decades before professing a belief in Christ,” Carson explained. “Relationship building is as important here as anywhere else in the world in helping to share the gospel.”
For that reason, he said, “field personnel are needed here for the long haul.”
By the time the young couple arrived in Japan in 2013, the gospel-music craze was cemented into the culture. Even their own church, Kanazawa Baptist, sponsors a choir directed by Ronnie Rucker, an American musician in Japan who is prominent in the gospel movement.
“I have 60-year-old Japanese grandmothers who want to sing the music of the African-American Christian worship experience,” Rucker told the New York Times earlier. “They’re all smitten with the power of it. Sometimes they cry when they hear gospel being sung, even though they can’t understand the English.’’
Like another Japanese craze — rap music and hip-hop dancing — gospel music choirs illustrate the eclectic nature of the culture. It is not uncommon for a Japanese couple to have a Christian wedding with Shinto images and icons, but to be buried in a Buddhist funeral.
The sight of the normally reserved Japanese people replicating the black gospel experience, complete with rhythmic choreography but lacking the historical context, is shocking to some.
But most audiences, including international ones, see the presentations as an authentic expression, even if the singers don’t know English.
Eventually the country’s churches and mission organizations adopted gospel music as an evangelistic tool, forming their own touring choirs that go further to explain the gospel message.
While gospel singing has not made a statistical impact for Christianity in Japan, it might soften the ground for the gospel seed.
Gospel choir members say they are attracted to the emotional freedom of the music — a rare outlet in the Japanese culture. Others describe the singing as a spiritual experience, according to recent research. That in itself is a departure from Japanese tradition.
The idea of faith or religion as an inward spiritual experience is virtually unknown in traditional Japanese society. Even the concepts of religion and spirituality are foreign to the culture and didn’t exist before the 19th century, according to some scholars.
To be “religious” in the mind of the Japanese means to belong to a religious organization. Eighty percent of the Japanese people identify with Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion of rituals, animism and mythology intended to connect with ancestors. But Shinto is almost devoid of structure and organization, so most Japanese don’t consider themselves religious.
About 35 percent of Japanese identify as Buddhists, the second largest religious group. But there are many kinds of Japanese Buddhism, and many of its followers incorporate the rituals or other elements of Shinto into their religious practice.
The city of Kanazawa is in the Ishikawa Prefecture, where Buddhism is stronger. But while 43 percent of the region’s people identify as Buddhist, indigenous Shinto is still practiced to some degree by 56 percent. Clearly some practice both.
That syncretism is one reason why — historically and today — Christian outreach in Japan is difficult.
“Christianity has always been countercultural in Japan,” Carson said.
“It’s a very difficult position for the growth of Christianity,” Laura echoed.
Christianity has had roots in Japan for hundreds of years, dating back at least as far as Spanish and Portuguese immigrants in the 1600s. Japan’s rulers later outlawed missionaries for 200 years, but that changed after the Allied conquest of World War II, when missions flourished and were encouraged. By 1950 the country was flooded with 5,000 missionaries and millions of Bibles.
But the vast majority of the population never embraced the faith.
The Foushees cite several reasons why the Japanese resist the gospel:
- Prosperity. Japan is a rich First World country full of “prosperous, successful people who have little need for religion,” Laura said. “Everyone has their needs met and religion is not attractive.”
- Permanence. Because of their long history and respect for the past, Japanese people tend to resist change — especially when it comes to religion. Shinto and Buddhism are deeply ingrained in the culture, even if they are not widely practiced. And change comes slowly in Japan. Some people are known to attend a Christian church for a decade before converting, Carson said. “Tradition is stronger than the desire for change or something new.”
- Profession. The Japanese, especially men, are expected to be loyal to their company, not only by working long hours but by socializing with colleagues after work. Men are notorious for working six days a week and sleeping all day on Sunday, the Foushees said. So Christian churches are predominantly made up of women.
- Pressure. Children are also expected to succeed and put in long days, which not only means excelling at school but participating in after-school activities, developing their talents, and studying long hours. There is time for little else.
“I had heard about the Japanese work ethic before we arrived here but was really not prepared for the effects this would have on our ministry,” Carson explained.
After World War II, as the conquering Americans imported their free-enterprise system into Japan, the American model of the “company man” took deep hold in Japan. The image of the mid-level corporate worker loyal to one company for life, known in Japan as a “salaryman,” became the prototype of professional success.
Even though that image of the “company man” faded in the United States during the countercultural 1960s, it only intensified in Japan.
For the typical Japanese male today, the company is still the primary group and family is secondary. Group mentality is powerful, pushing people to conform and excel.
Failure is an embarrassment, not only to the man, but the whole extended family. The pressure to succeed is so strong it has produced an extremely high suicide rate in Japan — seventh highest among all nations.
Although Japan has long had a culture of “honorable suicide,” a rapid rise in the suicide rate was apparently triggered by the economic collapse that began in 1990 and never fully recovered before the 2009 worldwide recession. The ideal of “a job for life” tanked as the economy sank.
Now suicide is the leading cause of death for both men and women between the ages of 20 and 44, according to government statistics, but men account for three-fourths of those suicides.
Job pressure and joblessness are the dominant factors in male suicide. Unemployed people account for about half of all suicides.
But having a job can be just as deadly — overwork and work-related depression are cited as factors in about half of all male suicides, according to government statistics.
The Japanese even have a word for it — karoshi — “death from overwork.”
Suicide, loneliness, depression, hopelessness — they all point in the same direction, the Foushees suggested.
“In the end, people are looking for community and relationships,” Laura said.
That’s the couple’s focus, whether they are teaching English to university students, ministering to church members or befriending young mothers. It requires patience and a long-term investment — commitments the couple is willing to make.
“I didn’t realize up front how difficult and slow the process would be,” Laura said, adding, progress will be measured in “small steps.”
The non-stop Japanese work week “leaves little free time to get together or even consider attending our classes or worship services,” Carson said. “So church is not going to be the natural place for people to show up.”
Therefore, “building relationships will be at the core of what we do,” Laura concluded. “And mostly it will be done outside the church building. You still need to meet people where they are.”
Carson and Laura Foushee are CBF field personnel serving in Kanazawa, Japan. You can help support their ministry in Japan here, and follow their personal blog to learn more about their work at www.fousheesinjapan.com.