The Hong Kong Church and the Japanese Church—Let Us Be One in Christ!

Article—Issue 18 (August, 2015)

Honorary Research Associate

It has been nearly two years since I came to Hong Kong. Though I still have eight or nine months more before I return to Japan, I would like to use this opportunity to express my special thanks to The Divinity School of Chung Chi College who accepted me as an Honorary Research Associate to work on my post-doctoral research. Many thanks from the bottom of my heart to all the faculty, staff, students, and brothers and sisters who supported me and my family. Here, I would like to share some of my experiences in Hong Kong and a brief introduction on the current situation of Japanese church.

1. The Umbrella Movement and Hong Kong Churches

Before I came to HK, I read about the “one country, two system” policy from many different sources. However it was not that until I came to Hong Kong in 2013 that I experienced and observed it on a personal level, especially the Umbrella Movement. Since I came to Hong Kong, many people have said to me “You came to the right place in the right time”, which indicated that Hong Kong was at the turning point of her history.

As a foreigner, I could not commit myself to the Umbrella Movement, but I tried my best to understand what was happening and what was the movement’s background. I went to Admiralty and Mongkok many times to watch and feel the passion of the Hong Kong people for liberty and democracy. I am most impressed by their creativity in expressing their opinions, especially public speech, discussion, prayers, and performing arts such as dancing, singing, drawing, painting, etc. I believe these are essential foundations to future democracy, even without a democratic system at this moment. And this is something lacking in Japan even though Japan has a democratic system.

For most of us in Japan, universal suffrage is something that we take for granted. The present democratic system was “given” as a result of World War II and now people can hardly remember its importance. While Hong Kong people are striving for universal suffrage, Japan was having a national election in December 2014. To my surprise, the number of voters was the lowest since the postwar period. This is a dangerous sign of democracy, I feel that people in Japan have now lost the passion to build and create their own society. Japan has democracy but lacks a democratic spirit; while Hong Kong has no true democratic system yet has a desire for democracy. This gap between Japan and Hong Kong is thought-provoking to me.

While I observed these political and social issues in Hong Kong, I soon noticed that there are so many different voices and opinions among them and even within the Christian circles as well. My heart was troubled whenever I hear that these different political and social opinions caused splits and contradictions within churches and even within Christian families. As for the Japanese church, especially the United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ, or Kyodan) which I belong to, we also experienced this kind of schism in the 1960s and 70s in matters of social issues. Unfortunately, its negative legacy is still influencing the churches even today.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that Hong Kong churches are much more mature than Japanese churches when confronted by these difficult issues. What impressed me most is that there were many conferences and meetings organized by Divinity School, and also by other Christian institutes, to discuss these issues together. Pastors and lay persons of local churches, teachers of seminaries, Christian students in high schools and universities, etc., often gathered together to discuss and pray even during and after the Umbrella Movement. I believe that such effort to dialogue is essential for future reconciliation. This, too, is something that we Japanese churches should learn from Hong Kong churches.

2. Learning Cantonese

Learning Cantonese was also a new and precious experience for me in HK. I had studied Putonghua before, and many of my friends asked me, “Why do you still need to learn Cantonese?” or “of course you can survive with English and Putonghua in Hong Kong!” Yes, it is true that English and Putonghua are unquestionably useful in Hong Kong and there should be no problem without Cantonese, but according to the saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I believe this includes language as well, so: “When in Hong Kong, speak as the Hongkongers speak.” Therefore, I decided to go to the language school called “Yale-China Chinese Language Centre” in CUHK and studied Cantonese for six months. There were classes for three hours, from Monday to Friday. It was not until after several months that I could start to speak simple sentences. I can still remember when I began to have longer conversations for the first time with a Hong Kong local student of Divinity School. He is the first person who talked to me when I just arrived in Hong Kong but I could only converse in Putonghua then. That day, I met him on campus and I tried to speak to him in Cantonese. He looked so surprised but was happy that we could now speak to each other in Cantonese. I was also so glad that I could understand what he was saying and we had an enjoyable conversation despite my poor vocabulary and grammar.

Professor Tobias Brandner, who speaks wonderful Cantonese, once said in his class that “learning language is a kind of spiritual journey.” I am sure this saying comes from his own experience. And I can now understand what he meant. Whether we like it or not, when we learn a new language, we cannot help but realize that we are just like babies who are powerless and weak. Even pastors, teachers, doctors, etc. who are leaders in their homeland must learn from other people in foreign lands just like a baby or a child learns from an adult. This will teach us humility.

We can say the same thing about learning God’s word. We must always learn God’s word with a humble heart. At first, you may not understand what the Bible mean or what sermons are about, just as a little baby cannot understand what other people are talking. But when you begin to understand God’s words little by little, you will be happy and God must be happy about it, too. This is similar to a baby learning language, and as he/she grows up, he/she learns to communicate with other people.

When you learn a foreign language, you are also able to realize how we can learn God’s word and how wonderful it is to communicate with God! This is why we can say “learning language is a kind of spiritual journey.”

3. Japanese Church and Hong Kong Church

Lots of Hong Kong people including Christians love Japanese things such as Sushi, Toyota, Anime and Manga, video games, pop music, etc. In the past two years, many people shared with me about their enjoyable vacations in Japan: where they went, what they ate, what they bought, etc. To my regret, very few people have visited a Japanese church in spite of having been to Japan repeatedly. They told me that they never thought of visiting a local Japanese church when they were in Japan. It came as a shock to me. I don’t think they are ignoring the Japanese church, but it is just because the Japanese church is too small and a minority in Japanese society that people overseas hardly have a chance to get information about it.

Similarly, though many Japanese Christians have been to Hong Kong and they like things such as Dimsum and HK movies such as those starring Bruce Lee and Kelly Chan, but they know almost nothing about the HK church. I regret that for both sides, Christians are not interested to find out more about the local churches when they travel. It is also unfortunate that the Japanese Christians do not realize that the Hong Kong churches have been a significant influence in Hong Kong society and also internationally in comparison to the Japanese church.

Why is the situation still like this in the 21st century? We now have Internet access and many sources about Japanese and HK churches are available, and so are there now many cheap budget return air-fares between Japan and HK. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we have not become real “neighbors” yet. When we go to Christian bookstores, how many books on Japanese Christianity/HK Christianity can we find on the bookshelves? There are certainly some books on these topics in university/seminary libraries both in Japan and HK, but they are in the original language and have not been translated into Japanese or Chinese. Therefore, only very few people can read them. There are some organizations such as the Christian Council in Asia (CCA) and some church leaders who get together a few times in a year, but this kind of relationship is only among a few church leaders. Local church pastors and laypeople are usually not among them. Some Pentecostal and evangelical groups in HK have started to send some missionaries to Japan in recent years, but these missions are still very new and not common in ecumenical or mainline church groups.

Despite these problems, I can still see some hope and bright possibilities. The Hong Kong Methodist Church sent a female missionary, an alumna of the Divinity School, to Japan for the first time in its history a few years ago. This summer, a female student of the Divinity School, though she is from mainland China, went to Japan for her summer internship at the two churches of the UCCJ in Tokyo and Nagoya, and this is the first case for both the Divinity School and for the UCCJ. I believe this is a great breakthrough.

Mission always begins from “person” not from theory. Someone must go into another place to build a relationship with a local church there – learn their language and be present with the brothers and sisters there to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). I cannot help but thank God that He sent two people from the Divinity School to the Japanese Church. I do hope there will be more and more people like them. Similarly, I also hope there will be more Japanese Christians like me who dare to come to Hong Kong. It is just the beginning of a new era for Japan-HK church relationships.

4. “Smallness” of the Japanese Church

Finally, please let me briefly explain about a current situation of Japanese Christianity. Japan has about one million Christians out of a population of 120 million, where half are Protestants and half are Catholics. This means Christians are less than 1 % of the population in Japan. Excluding a few Pentecostal denominations, the Christian population has been declining in the past few decades. In the case of the UCCJ which is the largest denomination in Japan, there are about 1700 churches from Hokkaido to Okinawa with about 200,000 members. Out of which only 40,000 are statistic regular worshipers. According to one statistic report, the number of pastors and church members will decrease to half by 2030. There aren’t many young people in local churches and the average age of the congregation is usually over 60 years old. Overseas churches often commented kindly that the Japanese church has high quality theology despite its low quantity in membership, I think it will be more and more difficult to maintain of the future quality given the lack of young blood to face the challenges of the future.

“Why are there very few Christians in Japan?” “Why is the Christian population declining?” These are the questions that I have been asked more than a hundred times since I came to Hong Kong. It is not easy to answer these questions because different people have different opinions. Here are some common answers that we Japanese Christians often give: 1) For external reasons, Japanese are strongly influenced by traditional religions such as Shintoism and Buddhism, strong family ties; secularization, etc; 2) For internal reasons, there still remains a schism (which I mentioned above): too much emphasis on preserving tradition, failure to recognize the need to renew worship style, etc. These external and internal reasons are correct to some extent and the UCCJ churches and all other Japanese churches should self-reflect and also learn from other denominations as well as overseas churches.

While I think these are valid reasons, I often question myself if I were merely looking for “excuses?” If we consider those external reasons I pointed out above, there are many other places in the world where Christianity is growing despite similar social environment. Therefore I do not think I can use these explanations as something unique and special only in Japan. So what are the other possibilities? Is there one core reason?

Before I answer this core reason, I would like to share two experiences I had recently. Firstly, I had a chance to go to a city in the southern part of mainland China for a week in May. A local Chinese Christian friend took me around to visit some churches and arranged some meetings for me with the pastors. When I talked with a pastor who is the head of a provincial Christian Council, he asked me about the current situation of the Japanese church. I, as usual, explained some general situations such as the problems of aging, lack of young people, secularization, etc. The Chinese pastor, after listening to my explanations, said to me in a thoughtful way, “the situation of the current Japanese church might be that of tomorrow’s Chinese church.” My Chinese Christian friend, who sat next to me, said to the pastor, “Our Chinese church is now growing very rapidly, so how can it be like that?” The pastor said to him, “We do not know what it will be like tomorrow. Chinese church is not as stable as you think”. His response impressed me, because most of the people I have met regardless in mainland China or in Hong Kong, usually responded to my explanations in shock, “How small Japanese churches are!” or “Why is it like that?” or by saying sympathetically “Oh, it is hard to spread the Gospel in Japan,” “We will pray for the Japanese church,” etc. These responses are quite natural and I don’t mean to criticize those who respond to me in these ways. I just want to emphasize this exceptional response by the Chinese pastor that I mentioned above.

Secondly, when the female student from Divinity School whom I have mentioned above asked me to refer her to a local Japanese church for internship, she wrote the following in her application letter: “When I studied Japanese in the university, it was my dream to visit Japan one day. Fortunately, I came to know Rev. Matsutani and his family in Hong Kong, and my wish to go to Japan once again is rekindled. I heard that Japanese Christians, though small in numbers, are strong in their faith and undaunted at all costs.……Christianity in mainland China has been growing rapidly in the last thirty years, but the number of pastors and ministers are far from sufficient to face the insurmountable challenges. I believe I have a lot of things to learn from the Japanese church.” Though it seems to me that she gave the Japanese church too much credit, but I am still very glad to know that she has a wish to “learn” from the Japanese church, not to “teach” something.

Through these two recent experiences, I began to reconsider my own views on the “smallness” of the Japanese Church. As a pastor myself, of course, I also want the Japanese Church to grow, but I now realize that smallness has its own meaning. The bigger church can learn from the smaller church while the smaller church can learn from the bigger church at the same time. If churches in the East Asian regions, such as Japan, mainland China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc., were all big ones, they would just compete with each other. East Asian churches have diverse Christian population rates and I believe these are all in God’s wonderful plans.

Some Japanese pastors and theologians think that they have nothing to learn from other Asian churches and just look to the Western churches and theology as their ideal model. Some people even asked me, “Why are you going to Hong Kong for your overseas study? Why not other seminaries in Europe or USA?” Despite such thoughtless opinions, I chose to come to HK for my further research program, not only to do my personal research project, but also to “learn” from the Hong Kong churches and mainland Chinese churches. At least for now, there are a few people from Hong Kong, not many enough though, who have gone to Japan to “learn” from the Japanese church, because I was here.

This is my theological answer, not a sociological one, to the question “Why are there very few Christians in Japan?” I believe God allow each one of us to be different so that we can respect and learn from each other, and this is the same for the church. Because each local church is different in numbers, liturgy, etc., we can learn from each other. This is not only the case for East Asia, but also for the whole world. Churches in the north, south, west and east, they are all parts of the One Body - our Lord Jesus Christ, and we can learn from each other. Learn what? We not only learn how to become one body in Christ, but also learn how wonderful it is to be as one body. So please come and see my beloved and small Japanese church, one of the parts of Christ’s body!

Allow me to conclude my short essay by quoting First Corinthian Chapter 12:12-28.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.