Thursday, May 22, 2014

Superman and Goku: A Duel of Philosophies

Fiction is the reflection of a culture’s aspirations. In America, many stories focus on a single individual, the main character. Sometimes he is supported by others, but, by and large, the Hero of these stories is an island. Often, he is wholly formed, meaning that he has very little internal impediments to overcome. Perhaps he lacks a certain piece of information or a special object, but the Hero usually finds out that all he needed was always inside of him.

This speaks of the view of life the West holds, the view that a man is by himself, even when surrounded by friends. He is independent, self-sufficient, and is only found lacking because of an external situation. In his heart, he has all he needs.

The Japanese Hero is rather different. He tends to be the leader of the group, but dependent upon that group. Sometimes he is an outsider and soon discovers a group that he can belong to. When he wins, it is usually because someone helped him or showed him how. There are few times, if any, where the Hero wins by himself. He often faces his own short-comings, often leading to a tragedy, and must learn how to overcome them. His journey is often blocked by opponents stronger than he is. He succumbs to defeat before learning how to succeed.

Take for example a classic match-up that often pits comic book fans against manga (Japanese comic book) fans.

Superman is the last son of Krypton. When he came to Earth and was exposed to the light of our yellow sun, he began to develop amazing super powers; flight, heat vision, super speed, increased intelligence and strength, and last, but far beyond least, invulnerability. I say begins, because his powers only increase, as in the comics he lives for thousands of years and eventually becomes almost god-like. His only weakness is kypronite, a green rock from his home planet that strips him of his powers and could eventually kill him.

One of the interesting things to note is that Superman never had to train to develop his powers. They grew with him. They were innate and unbidden. He discovered his powers like a boy discovers his first chest hair.

He is also entirely complete. The one thing that holds him back is his fear of destroying Earth, so he developed certain psychological blocks in his mind that suppress his powers, but get him away from innocent lives and he feels safe using his abilities to their fullest. He has no need of a mentor, no one to show him how to use his powers. He can defeat any enemy that arises and needs no one’s help.

This is a very Western, especially American, way of thinking. Our Heroes, the ones we look up to, seem like supermen. As children, we don’t see our sports heroes grow from amateurs to professionals who dominate their fields. We don’t see Hollywood stars start on their high school stages before seeing them rise to the big screen. They appear, fully-formed and awe-inspiring. And that’s how we see ourselves, complete individuals, needing nothing and no one, but taking friends and possessions merely because we want them. In her book “Anthem,” Ayn Rand lays out a world in which collectivism is taken to the extreme. In this world, names have been replaced with numbers, the government tells people what jobs they will have, and friendships are discouraged since it is wrong to treat one person better than another. Their life is controlled, from birth to death, by the government. In this story, the main character refers to himself as “we,” until he finds a book that uses the word “I.” He learns from this book that he does not need anyone, he does not need to rely on a group. His life is for himself only and he only adds to it as he sees fit. He is fine by himself, whole and complete. Just like Superman.

On the other side of the ocean lives another alien. He also hails from a planet that was destroyed when he was a baby. He also came to Earth and was raised by a human. As he grew, he also discovered that he was faster and stronger than others. But, then he learned that there were normal humans who possessed abilities and executed feats he found impossible. His trademark attack, the Kamehameha Wave, was taught to him by his mentor, Master Roshi, his martial arts teacher and a human. In fact, anyone with sufficient training could do it. It only took time. Eventually, he surrounded himself with friends, some of them being his defeated enemies. He was often defeated by his opponents, before finding a place to train or a master who could instruct him how to grow stronger. He even died three or four times, and was resurrected by his friends using the wish-granting Dragonballs. He loved fighting and although he often did it to protect his friends and the Earth, he sometimes allowed an enemy to gain power so that he could fight them at their strongest. He even once stopped a fight just so that his son could learn what it was like to fight for Earth. He usually defeated his enemy, but it was almost always a group effort. Even his greatest enemy, the demon Majin Buu, was only defeated because his friend bought him enough time to charge his ultimate attack. Victories in Dragonball are shared within the group.

This is because, in Japan, the group is the most important thing, even beyond the individual. In Japanese schools, if a student is asked a question, he is often reluctant to answer, even if he knows it, for fear of sticking out. In fact, the saying “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” has a completely different meaning here. When an American hears that phrase, he instantly thinks it means that if something is wrong, you fix it. But, in Japan, it conjures the image of a person rising above the group. The student who raises his hand to answer is raising himself above the group, and that makes him wrong. Another example from years ago involves students in certain smaller towns that were made to die their hair blacker if it was a lighter color than everyone else’s. In Japan, the group is everything.

On the other hand, Japanese people take care of one another. Teachers will often bring little pieces of candy or snacks for everyone to share. Students develop incredibly close ties with one another. They are eager to help those within their own circle, simply because that is the expectation. Crime is generally low here because of their insistences that anything that disturbs the group is wrong. But, that has been achieved by sacrificing the individual to the group.

The American individual, while being free to express himself, has done away with any obligations to the group, which has created a society in which no one is beholden to another and selfishness abounds. On other hand, the Japanese individual is often crushed beneath the feet of the group, leading to high suicide rates and burn-outs in certain professions, but has also helped to keep crime down and relationships strong.

The answer to the social problems that arise in both countries is neither more freedom nor less freedom, but a recognition that the individual is part of the group, and that the actions of the individual can affect the group, which affects the individual. It is actually in the individual’s best interest to treat others well, so that they may also be treated well. It was called “The Golden Rule” for a very good reason.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Tale of Two Churches: Foreign Versus Indigenous

To say it was a sea of grey-heads would be a drastic overstatement. It was more like a puddle. There were eight congregants in all, plus three foreigners. Eleven people in a church that could easily hold forty or fifty. The pastor was just as old as the rest. The age gap between me and the youngest Japanese person was at least thirty years.
The church had been founded by a missionary who had preached there for many years. He held Bible classes that the congregation would attend. But, when he left, there was no one to take over. No one was really qualified. No one had gone to seminary, or even a religious educational institution. So, a banker decided to take the reins of the church. Now, some years later, the average age of the congregants was well past sixty. Every once in a while a young family would come up for a special event or just to visit, but they lived in another town and came for nostalgic reasons. All in all, the church is dying today, almost literally.
There are several reasons for this. One might be that the average age of the town is old. As Japan has grown, its younger citizens have migrated from the rural areas into big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where jobs are plentiful and pay is higher. And with the population in active decline, young people are becoming scarcer. So, small towns are getting smaller and older.
But, there has to be another factor contributing to the age of this church. After all, these elderly people must have friends. In fact, the elderly in Japan are extremely active. There is a group of elderly woman in Tokyo who practice cheerleading. In mountainous regions like Nara, there can be seen groups of grandmothers and grandfathers wearing backpacks trudging up hiking trails. I've seen sixty and seventy year olds playing baseball, croquette, and power-walking, usually in groups. Surely, these people have friends that they can invite.
While that may be true, there's a bit of a problem. Japanese are very unwilling to change. And even that seems to be an understatement. I have worked in schools where the computers are still running Windows 98, students huddle around kerosene heaters in their classrooms, and nothing looks new or updated. It's not like they are unaware of these things. Teachers often complain about the age of the computers and the cold in the classrooms, but, you see, it's always been that way. There's no reason to change because this is what it means to work in this school. The school has its own personality, it's own struggles, and the more you struggle in Japanese society, the more admired you are, whether your struggling produces anything at all. It's called being a “gambaru-hito,” that is “someone who is making an effort.”

There's also an insistence on keeping traditions. Japan is a very traditionally minded society. For example, I once went to a temple with a couple of Japanese Christian friends. We had met them through work and had attended their church once. But, as we walked up to the temple, we stopped at a small well. They both dipped a little ladle into the water, touched it to their lips, and then washed their hands with it. They told us it was to purify themselves before going in. I was, well, more than a little confused. I wondered what they thought they needed to purify themselves from. Sin? They're Christians! Christ's blood took care of all of that. If there are any sins that this water washed away that Christ's did not or could not, then can we even call them sins?

I now realize why they did that; it was tradition.

Japanese people have this mindset that being Japanese means you do certain things. During New Year's, Japanese who call themselves atheists go to temple to pray. Very scientifically minded Japanese who believe in a mechanicalistic universe run around the house dressed as a goblin being chased by his bean-throwing children because it wards away bad luck. Obon is a time when the spirits return and families gather to send lit lamps down rivers to the sea to help their dearly departed cross into the afterlife. This is just what Japanese do. It's tradition.

So, when a missionary, who has established a routine in the church, leaves, the Japanese are very, very hesitant to change anything. It's the way it's done, after all. Why would they change it?
So, we take a look at this church. We see a beautiful building with space to spare, a bit out of the way, but in a residential neighborhood. Yet the church is actively shrinking. Why?
Because they haven't changed since the days of the missionary.
In Japan, Christianity is seen as a Western religion, something that only Westerners believe. It’s not for Japanese. Oh, they enjoy Western movies, clothes, and food, but only a kind of experience, something novel to be adored because it's so not Japanese. It's not a rebellion against their own culture; it's the newness, the strangeness of ours. So, when a missionary talks about Christianity to a Japanese person, the Japanese person nods and smile and thinks, "I'm sure this is great for a Westerner, but it's not really for me. I'm Japanese."
See, the church we went to didn't change from a missionary church to an indigenous church. The strange fingerprints of Western culture were still all over it. The hymns were Western melodies, the preaching in the didactic-story style. About the only non-Western aspect was taking your shoes off and donning slippers before entering. Everything else was very Western.
And when you're trying to engage a culture that sees Christianity as Western, it only re-enforces that feeling when it looks entirely Western.
Now, take another church we have attended. This one is a small branch of a larger church. The founding pastor was taught at a Japanese Bible school. While the preaching is still in a didactic-story style, it is from a foundationally Japanese perspective. Often times, our pastor’s husband will give sermons from a Bible written in Osaka dialect. It would be like a pastor reading something called the “New York Accented Bible.” Around the walls, the pastor's husband has hung his original paintings, semi-abstract works inspired by biblical imagery. The music mixes traditional hymns with contemporary praise and worship. It appeals to both the older and younger members. And it is growing. We recently had to move to a bigger location. There are grey-heads, to be sure, but also young families, single mothers, high school students, and older singles. Even though we rarely break forty people, the age range is much more balanced and we average twenty to thirty people every Sunday. We have babies, young children, and youth which are the life blood of any church. Why? Because they have started an indigenousness church.
Now, I just want to make clear that I am not getting down on missionaries. Churches started by foreigners are definitely needed. That's how the Gospel gets started in a country. But, it has to change. The people in that culture must take the reigns after a time and start talking about God in their own words, not simply translating what the Western pastor is teaching. Without contextualization, there can be no growth.
So, what does this contextualization, this talking about Christianity like a Japanese person, look like? I have no idea. I'm not Japanese. For me to offer my advice would be to counter the point of this post. But, I can say that it is up to the missionaries who are working in Japan, and in other countries, to be always thinking about the future of their mission after they are gone. They have to train leaders to stand up and own their faith, not just copy what was done before. This is especially important for Japanese missionaries, since the Christian culture here has copied so much of Western culture.

After all, Christ, as the embodiment of God’s message to us, was the ultimate contextualization.