Modern Japan is externally a healthy and stable nation. Although the country has to deal with its share of political corruption and social issues - particularly in relation to foreign affairs with Korea and China - it is for the most part a peaceful, stable society. Compared to the United States, crime rates are extremely low, there are few people who are homeless or live in poverty, and most visitors to Japan will quickly observe that Japanese tend to be generous, polite, and hospitable. By most external measures, Japan seems to be much better off than a country like the United States.
A cultural difference helps to shed light on why this is mistaken: in the US, there are garbage cans almost everywhere, even in public spaces, making it easy to throw out your trash. Yet in Japan, public garbage cans are a rarity, and even large venues often go without them. In spite of this, Japan is very clean, without much litter. The reason is because most people carry their garbage with them, and throw it out at home.
Japan is a country that, collectively, throws its garbage out at home, not in public. The issues affecting modern Japan are just as subtle - but no less problematic - than those in the US. Today we'll look at a few of the main challenges.
Fractured Families: A major factor in Japan's social problems comes from the state of the family. Most families in Japan have little time to spend together - many, if not most, fathers work late, and children are frequently occupied with after-school clubs, activities, and seasonal events. In many cases, the wife is the de facto head of the household, managing the money instead of her husband. Affairs in Japan for both husbands and wives are common, and are facilitated by so-called love hotels, which offer an escape from the virtually nonexistent privacy of many Japanese homes. (Although to be fair, they're also used by non-illicit and even married couples who just want to get away for a night.) Japan's divorce rate is lower than the United States, but a similar - perhaps higher - proportion of relationships are very unhealthy.
Overwork: Perhaps at the heart of all of Japan's social issues is the problem of overwork. A standard white-collar work day in the US typically starts between 8 and 9 AM, and goes until 5 PM or so. In Japan, a work day usually starts at about the same time, but most Japanese work extreme amounts of overtime on a daily basis, often staying at the office until 9 or 10 PM. In addition, many Japanese work six days a week. This places workers themselves under extreme amounts of stress, but also damages families.
As a result of overwork, fathers spend little time with their children and wives. The frequent absence of a father on a daily basis leads to dysfunction in other inter-familial relationships, as well. Making matters worse is the fact that many men do not get paid overtime. Unlike people who work extra hours in Western countries, Japanese are typically motivated not by desire to be successful or earn money, but simply to appear to be a "good employee" by going home late.
Suicide: Relatively well-known outside of Japan is the issue of suicide. Japan has a very high rate of suicide, often within the top ten countries in the world, on a year-to-year basis. Japan's view on suicide tends to be more flexible than Western countries, partially because in centuries past, it was viewed as an honorable way to atone for one's failures, particularly amongst samurai. Suicide was also acceptable as more honorable than being captured, and most recently, is familiar from kamikaze tactics in World War II.
Almost three-quarters of suicides in Japan are male, and in recent years, suicide has particularly increased among people in their twenties and thirties. The causes of suicide are closely linked to some of the other factors described here, particularly overwork and family breakdown. In recent years, school bullying is increasingly a contributing factor to suicides in Japan, with schools and authorities able to do little about the problem with corporal punishment a taboo and teachers lacking any real power to enforce discipline or deal with troublesome students.
Hikikomori: A Japanese word meaning "one who withdraws," Hikikomori are mostly young men in their twenties or thirties who retreat from the outside world and isolate themselves, often for months or years at a time.
An issue that has received considerable attention overseas, the Hikikomori phenomenon encapsulates many of the issues afflicting Japanese society. From childhood, conformity is urged - even mandated - so that children who do not fit in with the prevailing mindset and behavior patterns tend to be ostracized, both directly and indirectly. Combined with other pressures such as the demand of cram schools attended in preparation for grueling university entrance and other extra-cirricular activities, this means that many Japanese are already burnt out by the time they reach college age.
The underlying cause of hikikomori behavior can be found in pressure to conform, and the crushing realization that one doesn't measure up and can't function in a merciless society. On top of that, with so little to look forward to - such as punishing work hours, poor labor conditions, high cost of living, and others - is it any wonder that so many young men retreat from everyday life in such a manner?
Herbivore Men: A closely related issue is the "herbivore man" phenomenon. These are young men who eschew traditionally masculine pursuits, such as high-income jobs, conspicuous consumption, and status, in favor of a free-wheeling, relaxed lifestyle that avoids responsibility and conventional masculinity in favor of hobbies (and related careers) in areas such as fashion or hair styling. If the traditional strong-willed Japanese salaryman was a "carnivore," then these young men, predominantly Millennial, are the opposite - hence, "herbivores."
The Herbivore movement is a reaction to the excess of Japan's bubble era, which ended in the early 1990s. Though most herbivore men were only children at the time, this is when their fathers established themselves. Herbivore men resent the indifference of their absent fathers, who they perceive as insensitive and uncaring, and who prioritized work over relationships. As a result, Herbivore men are more sensitive and emotionally balanced, but are often perceived as weak and feminine, something akin to twenty first century dandies rather than proper men. Many women are physically unattracted to such men, compounding lack of marriages, the low birthrate, and related issues.
Materialism: Japan remains an exceedingly materialistic country, far moreso than many Westerners realize. Luxury imported goods - like BMW automobiles and Louis Vuitton purses - are crucial status symbols to many adult Japanese. Although the younger generation is changing somewhat, money and high-paying jobs remain a priority for most Japanese.
The biggest difference in Japan compared to the US is that Japanese typically avoid credit card debt (many not owning or using credit cards at all) and have more disposable income by eschewing cars or living with their parents. This is becoming increasingly common among young men, as well.
Atheism: Although Japan is a nominally Buddhist/Shintoist society, in practice religion is nearly irrelevant to the majority of Japanese, who only observe religious ceremony at weddings, funerals, New Year's, and perhaps one or two other holidays through the year. This is much akin to how most Americans are nominally Christian but rarely give much thought to faith outside of Christmas or Easter.
However, Japan's brand of atheism is much different from the belligerent variety frequently encountered in North America and Europe. While Western atheism tends to be outright hostile toward religious belief, Japanese are simply indifferent to most types of religious faith, seeing little need for it in their lives. There is a measure of antipathy toward Japanese new religious movements, which tend to be cult-like groups closely associated with fanatical behavior, such as the Aum Shinrikyo cult responsible for a terrorist attack in Tokyo in 1995. But established religions like Christianity and Judaism are rarely met with much hostility by Japanese. The biggest challenge toward evangelism in Japan is simply getting Japanese to care.
Aging Population: Japan is a rapidly aging country in which the number of deaths outpaces births. Because Japan has very little immigration, this issue is more clearly seen than in the US or Europe, where an influx of immigrants masks the declining birthrate of the native population. The result is that more and more resources are dedicated to the elderly. Occupations such as nursing and caretaking are especially popular amongst young people in Japan, because with the aging population, employment is all but guaranteed.
Many of the aforementioned factors contribute to Japan's low birthrate. Work conditions make it difficult to start a family, and the high cost of living - particularly in large urban areas like Tokyo or Osaka, where most jobs are found - makes it difficult to support a family. Young couples are wary to start a family when one or both of the parents work nonstop, and it's becoming increasingly normal for women to not have children until their early or mid-thirties - far past peak fertility, further adding to the difficulty of starting a family.
The aforementioned social factors would seem to paint a bleak picture for Japan's future. But on the contrary, I think there's good reason to be optimistic about the future of Christian faith in Japan.
First, many of the barriers to the Gospel have fallen away. In previous decades, worries about family pressure and expectations were a major barrier to Christian faith, but today - when so many families are already fractured and many young people seem to act without much regard for their parents' expectations, anyway - there is an unprecedented opportunity for the Gospel to take hold.
Many Japanese, particularly young people, have an inferiority complex about their race and culture. They've recognized the failure of the Showa-era ideal - extreme overwork, materialist indulgence, and familial detachment - but struggle to find an alternative, instead floating aimlessly through their twenties, discontent with all of the options available to them.
Never before has Japan been so open to the Gospel. People have awoken to the problems with Japanese society, and they're ready to see the solution and healing that can only come through the saving power of Christ. Christian families, in particular, have the most potential to make a positive impact in Japan. By showing their neighbors a loving, Gospel-centered home and gracious relationships between husband and wife, parent and children, they can offer a hope that the aspirations of Japanese society have failed to achieve.
On top of this, Japanese Christian families often tend to have far more children than normal families, which is crucial for a country with a declining birthrate; and more encouraging is (based on my admittedly anecdotal experience) a far greater proportion of children grow up and follow their parents' faith, rather than abandon it, as is common in the US. Christians have the opportunity to completely rebuild the smoldering wreck of family in Japanese society.
On top of that, a good church community can offer fellowship and relationships that many people, especially those who are a little older, can't find anywhere else. Japanese are much slower to make friends and welcome people into their in-group, and for many men, in particular, their workplace is the only place they can forge friendships. Church communities offer a better way, and a place where people who have been rejected elsewhere in society can find a place where they'll be loved.
There's still much to be done, but overall, the future for Christianity in Japan is brighter than you might think.