Thoughts on Moving to Tokyo, 5.

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Photo by Ben Cheung on

I have been back home for just over 2 weeks. My (almost) 8 months in Japan feels like a blur – a dream, almost. This is by far the worst part of any kind of travel but one can feel thankful for what was learnt and taken forward in the journey of life.

What I’m writing here is a bunch of basic thoughts about my time in Japan. I will conclude everything in a future post, as I want to share more of the transformational aspects of my time in Japan. For now, I want to share more of the cultural things that I learnt.


The Combini is convenience par excellence!


It is a mistake to assume that Japan is even similar to Western nations. In my first trip to Japan, I had such an amazing time. I thought that Japan was essentially a ‘Western-style’ nation with a different language as seen by the technology. I wasn’t totally prepared for the very different cultural values in living there including things like hierarchy, xenophobia, and the extreme work culture (ok, so I knew about the work culture, but believed it was different for the foreigner). Where Western nations value their rights (work rights, women’s rights, etc.), Japan just doesn’t have that basic cultural/philosophical/religious infrastructure.


I shared with a group of people that one profound difference is that Japan is a nation that doesn’t have grace (meaning, unmerited favour) or mercy. Failure and weakness are not much tolerated in Japan, and the shame of it is to be avoided at all costs (hence the resignation of salarymen when exposed to a scandal, or even their suicide).

Despite Western cultures’ desire to be rid of its Christian moorings, it is very much a distinct part of the culture. We have mercy at workplaces when things go wrong, and we have very much an understanding of showing grace to one another. This is in contrast with the Tokyo train culture, where I was witness to women being crushed, or the elderly being knocked over due to overcrowding, with no one stopping to assist. The workplace also a place of harassment and bullying, as though such behaviour produced any better results.

Japan simply doesn’t have the cultural undergirding for a culture that seeks


Japan is not interested in progress or efficiency as much as we are. It can throw you off when your mind has been taught to look for ways to make things better (even if it is out of love). The Japanese are not as concerned about it.


Japanese architecture is fascinating, at least, the older stuff is. Much of the modern/gentrified parts of Tokyo contain sterile, brutalist architecture. Schools are also very ‘functional’ and all have the same essential design wherever you are in the country.


There is a huge difference in how you feel between Tokyo and Kyoto. I must say that after spending several months living in Tokyo, Kyoto was a breath of fresh air; there was space!

This leads me to my next thought on this palpable part of life living in Japan: space and nature.

When you’re catching the train on a daily basis with its hordes of people, working indoors, and feel engulfed by the buildings, you begin to grow hollow. There are Zen gardens around the place to escape it to be alone with your thoughts. Never in my life had I felt the need for nature than when living in Tokyo. In Scotland, doctors actually prescribed nature for people with depression. The human spirit needs nature to balance out a life of functionality. Unfortunately, the Japanese lose their spirit to work.


The Japanese people seem oppressed by the very culture they’re attempting to maintain. There’s a lot of fear.


Despite being criticised for uniformity, once you get to know Japanese people, they are unique individuals (as we all are). It may take longer, and you will need to provide a safe environment where one can be oneself.


Back to thoughts on grace…

While Australians may have the common grace to be gracious and merciful, we are all prone to abusing power and being without compassion. A transformed inner life by the grace of Jesus Christ will result in great things in Japan. They’re unfamiliar with it. They’re all lovely and nice people, but the one who is being transformed by the Spirit of God transcends that and works against natural human hypocrisy where one’s heart and outward actions are not in sync. This is the key difference.

This is especially true in light of enemies and mistreatment (which you may have plenty of in Japan, along with the Japanese themselves).


There is an aspect of their culture called ‘Honne/Tatemae’ which is the distinction between the true self and public self. Sometimes this is not always clear.

One must learn to tread wisely and trust with wisdom and time. Yet there is a cultural insight into this idea (and Western culture does have this: similar to the idea of ‘professional’ vs ‘unprofessional’ behaviour). The Japanese learn that this is not the case when they head overseas to Western nations, where we tend to where our personality on our shoulders (for good and for ill).


Service in restaurants is superb. Take note.


My Japanese friends are some of the most loyal I’ve ever had.


The church in Japan is very small. It is hard to believe that the majority of people in the country know little-to-nothing about Jesus Christ: God’s provision/mercy to them.


While I think Australia is a great nation – with freedoms where it truly counts – it has become more apparent to me where its pitfalls are. This is also the case regarding the church. When you’re part of a true minority, your dependence on God changes.


Doing things together is greatly prized in Japan.



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