For much of our 120+ year history we have been keen to reach Japanese everywhere, not just in Japan. Those who live overseas and then move back to Japan are often known as returnees.

Getting to know Jesus while abroad

Did you know that around a quarter of a million Japanese move abroad each year to work or to study? And did you know that they are much more likely to hear and respond to the Gospel during this time? In fact, it is estimated that up to half of Japanese who become Christians do so whilst overseas.

For many Japanese living overseas is an experience marked by newfound freedoms. With fewer pressures to conform, they often find it easier to express their opinions and emotions. They may have more time to think and to try new things in a culture which places greater emphasis on relaxation and individuality. Away from social and religious obligations, it can be less daunting to go to church and explore Christianity. For others, life overseas can be stressful and lonely. Yet because of this they may be more open to joining church groups, such as mothers and toddlers groups, Bible studies or social events. A loving church community can be a place where they feel welcomed and supported, especially if other Japanese are there.

Returning is Not Plain Sailing

Moving back presents complex challenges for all returnees, and even more so if their identity and outlook has shifted while away. Back home in an intentionally homogeneous culture they may be treated as “foreignised” or no longer “pure” Japanese. Shrine visits, prayers and offerings are seen as a normal part of being Japanese, and it is normal to live with the ambiguity of following religious traditions without knowing why. Becoming a Christian can be seen as a betrayal and it can feel very difficult for Christians to talk about their faith. Friends, co-workers and family probably cannot understand the change, and parents may oppose a new believer’s faith because it means they can no longer take part in family rituals.

Another big challenge is time, especially for men. With very long working hours and other social commitments it can be almost impossible to find time to attend church or to reflect on life. As one man said to me, “I like living in Tokyo because I don't have time to think about philosophy and religion. No-one talks about these things.”

Sink or Swim?

Sadly, these challenges can be compounded when a returning Christian tries to find a church. For example they may find that no-one talks to them when they go to church since talking to strangers is unusual in Japan, even for Christians. Many Japanese churches are very traditional and pastor-focused, yet the returnee may have different expectations of what church should be like. If they return eager to serve, but find that there is no place for them to contribute, they can feel discouraged and even stop going to church completely.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.     Ephesians 2:19-20

Helping to Turn the Tide

The picture is not all bleak. The challenges are real, but opportunities to support and equip returnees are growing. Finding a church where new Christians can feel at home is key. Churches do exist where pastors are working to foster healthy, outward-looking Bible-based communities, and there can be much mutual encouragement and support when returnees join this kind of church. House churches, international churches and other kinds of small fellowship groups can often be better suited to their initial situation than traditional church models. Even if there are no known healthy options in a particular area, it is possible to enjoy some form of Christian fellowship via other means such as video conferencing. One of JCL's chief goals is to help new Japanese believers (and those interested in Christianity) who return to Japan from overseas. That process can begin from the first day that any of us makes a new Japanese friend, and extends to networking with Christians in Japan. Contact us, if you would like to learn how to understand and support returnees, wherever we are.

Dave Skipper
JCL Network Partner, Tokyo