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Fall 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 2 · pp. 147–52 

Issues in Church Life and Polity in Japan

Takao Nakamura

In 1950 the Mennonite Brethren Churches of North America began their work of evangelism in Japan by sending Ruth Wiens as their first missionary. Within two years eight missionaries moved into the Ikeda City of Osaka prefecture. The Lord blessed their work; many seekers became Christians. The Japanese Mennonite Brethren Conference was organized in 1958 by missionaries, national pastors and representatives of churches. In structuring the conference, we imitated the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches of North America, not only in the Confession of Faith but also in its constitution.

There is a tendency to place greater value on process rather than on the goal, on becoming rather than on being.


The command model 1950-1958. The first model was the “over/under” concept of headship that reflects contemporary institutional structures. The emphasis was on authority, decision making, and control. Mennonite Brethren Missions and Services [MBM/S], the North American agency, made most of the significant decisions.

The sharing model 1959-1978. This was the “side by side” concept, in which {148} the emphasis was on sharing and support. The stress was on relationship rather than role. MBM/S and the Japanese Conference worked unitedly to become licensed as a corporation. MBM/S and the Japanese Conference spread church planting ministries on a large scale.

The servant model 1978-1982. This model places the “head” in a position under the other person, closely linked, yet seeks to support and lift. The Japanese Conference, with a membership of more than 1400 and 23 national pastors, was strong and growing. MBWS felt a crisis of integration with the Japanese Conference. In fact, MBM/S lost the vision and worked in a maintenance mode.

The partner model 1983-1990. This is the “adult to adult” concept, like friends who think highly of interdependence and maintain equality and mutuality. We set up the Missionary Affairs Committee (MAC) to maintain the way of interdependence.

Japanese Understandings of Leadership

Japanese Understandings of Leadership

Process of Decision-Making (Growing up)

The process of decision-making varies according to the size and kind of organization, the problem to be dealt with, or the project to be drawn up. Most conspicuous in Japan is the group approach and decision-making by seeking consensus.

Decisions in a democratic society are made according to “majority rule,” which is based on the idea that the judgment of the many is likely to be better than that of the few. In Japanese society, on the contrary, decisions are made on the basis of “unanimity rule.” We operate by group consensus and discourage open confrontation. So a person proposing a plan meets individually and informally with concerned people, revises the plan and enlists support before the formal proposal. In this way, by the time the plan is brought to the formal meeting for discussion, it is usually acceptable to all, including those who were originally opposed to it. {149}

The principle of unanimity is observed by the present-day business world. Business firms use bottom-up, rather than top-down management so that their employees may have a feeling that they are involved in every important project. With this system, the company can expect the full-fledged cooperation of employees in project implementation.

Japanese logic differs from Western logic. Instead of a “black and white” approach, Japanese, even Christians, prefer the flexibility of settling disputes through compromise, by coming to terms with their opponents. There usually is tacit understanding between opposing parties that compromise by no means implies abandonment of the principles they are upholding. They believe that a compromise is merely a means of adjustment.

The church meeting of a Congregational or Anabaptist-Mennonite church is the assembly of the members of the church, gathered under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to discuss and decide matters affecting the life of the church. In the church, our process of decision-making should be done in a democratic and congregational way directed strongly by His hands. We open our hands toward guidance from the Lord, and come to unity.

Group function (Growing Together, Growing Out)

In Japan, people are primarily group oriented. They give priority to group harmony and try to behave as expected by others, sometimes hiding their “honne” (true inner feeling). They conform to elaborate rules of proper behavior on such occasions as gift-giving, weddings, and funerals. The more formal the occasion, the more difficult people find it to disregard social conventions.

Groups operate generally on what is referred to as “reference group” or “frame.” A reference group may be a family, school, company or a community which integrates individuals into one collective body. Apart from relations based on a one-to-one relationship, as can be observed among intimate friends, a great majority of Japanese people belong to many of these reference groups at the same time. Within these groups they develop a variety of human relationships.

Once a relationship is established, a helping hand may be extended in various forms: finding a job, arranging an “omiai” (a meeting of a marriageable couple), or conducting a funeral. {150} Conversely, acceptance of such help often creates a feeling of obligation on the part of its receiver to do something in return. This is partly because Japanese society expects that one should repay a favor.

Japanese make a clear distinction between the familiar “uti” (insiders) and the unknown “soto” (outsiders) and are not good at associating with the latter. To an outsider, Japanese may appear groupish and exclusive in relationships. In the church, group-oriented Christians are strong in cultivating community but limit reciprocity to ingroup members.

Japanese habitually follow pluralistic behavioral patterns according to the occasion. Their private self seems to be dominated by their public self which may be called “group self.” Having a strong sense of place and duty, they try to play the roles assigned to them and live up to the expectations of other members of their groups or organizations. They usually place priority on their company’s interest over their own. They work hard, suppressing their own egos, sometimes sacrificing their private lives for their public roles.

Leadership Model (Growing With)

In Japan people are expected to be humble and modest regardless of their age or social position. Least favored are those who are aggressive, self-assertive and display their ability, knowledge, or wealth. Above all, humility and modesty are required of leaders. As the saying goes, “The boughs that bear most hang lowest.”

To be recognized as a leader one must, while operating on the parent-child principle, act fairly with every member and be sensitive to each member’s interest and ability. It is vital for a leader to be able to assess what each of his subordinates can and cannot do. He may need to reassign tasks in accordance with the individual capabilities and be aware of their personal problems. When subordinates happen to make errors, a leader must be ready to take full responsibility for them without too much complaint. On the other hand, successes are to be shared by the entire group, the credit given not solely to the leader even if deserved.

Recently an incident took place which would be rare in a Western country. The chairman and president of a large company resigned their posts when it was revealed that one of the company’s subsidiaries had engaged in illegal dealings with {151} foreign countries. The resignations intended to represent the deepest possible way of expressing the firm’s apology. In this incident we see an extended parent-child relationship. In Japan a father often feels responsible for his son’s or daughter’s wrongdoing and resigns his post even when his child is an adult. This way of taking responsibility may be inconceivable to Western people. Japanese give up what they possess-their honor, social position, income, and sometimes even their life. By suffering the loss, they feel they can make amends for their own or their in-group member’s wrongdoing. The Japanese image of the leader is of one who is understanding, tolerant, kind, altruistic and trustworthy.

Consider an English proverb, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” This particular proverb and its Japanese counterpart have conflicting meaning. In the American interpretation, if a person is really able, he cannot be held back but is bound to change companies. In the Japanese interpretation, if a person changes companies, he is viewed as disloyal and unreliable, and has to start at the low end of the promotion ladder.

Shepherd-like leadership is concrete, participatory, and involved. As participants, shepherds are with the sheep and should be involved as examples.

Mobilization (Growing More)

Setudo,” the Japanese word for moderation or temperance, connotes “a virtuous middle path,” “a proper degree or amount,” “a proper behavior.” It is undoubtedly one of the most highly praised values in Japan, just as temperance is in Western culture. Although proverbs relating moderation may be ubiquitous, the Japanese idea of the virtue seems to be derived from a dislike for fullness, not to speak of excessiveness, extravagance, or extremity. All these disturb the equilibrium of the Japanese mind.

Moderation is also a key to good relations with others. Modesty is all-important in Japanese society, so that one who shows too much self-confidence of self-assertion can easily become an object of general censure.

The Japanese language is a “become” language in contrast to an agent-oriented “do” language like English. An English sentence “I’ll move out next month,” for example, would be put in Japanese, “The moving out will (become true next month” with no agent of “moving out” indicated. Japanese {152} people thus tend to regard even an act of moving as a “natural” outcome, not as an act made by their own choice.

Two facets of the Japanese mentality are involved in a search for the “Way.” One is an ingrained habit of self-discipline in pursuit of some higher purpose. Pleasure for its own sake is seen as sinful. The other facet is a tendency to place greater value on process rather than on the goal, on becoming rather than on being. In any field, the “Way” is a typically Japanese paradigm for life itself. The destination is less significant than the way of getting there. The “Way” signifies the path along which one must walk. Jesus said, “I am the Way—yes, and the Truth and the Life. No one can get to the Father except by means of me.”

Takao Nakamura is a pastor and chairman of the Japanese Mennonite Brethren Conference.

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