Beware of Gaijin Bearing Gifts

Entering Japanese society is an incredibly difficult and daunting task for foreigners. Indeed, compared to the relatively individualistic and democratic culture of the West, Japan is a closed and group-oriented society. In that sense, Japanese culture presents an obstacle to foreigners not unlike the walls of Troy. In this short essay, I want to explore gift-giving in Japanese culture, or zoto, and its relevance for missionaries and the Christian message in Japan. And, following the Greeks’ underhanded “gift” of the Trojan horse, I believe that the message of the gospel connects with Japanese gift-giving culture, but ultimately trumps it, revealing instead the unmerited and undeserved gift that is Jesus Christ.

In order to understand why Japanese culture is like a wall, one must understand how the Japanese define Japanese-ness. The Japanese nation-state is almost entirely composed of ethnno-linguisitic Japanese, so anything perceived as non-Japanese is labeled foreign, with gaikokujin, or gaijin being the common term for a foreigner. To explain this more graphically, think of Japanese society and culture as a series of concentric circles: at the very center is indigenous Japanese living in Japan; moving away from the center would be Japanese who do not live in Japan anymore, then Japanese who might live in Japan, but who did not grow up in Japanese culture. Even fluent Japanese speakers of Asian descent who have lived long enough abroad might be deemed foreign if their conduct is too influenced by non-Japanese cultural mores. This presents an obstacle to foreign missionaries, in that they are way outside the circles of Japanese-ness: not only are they not of Japanese culture, they are not of Japanese blood, and, further still, they are white. Even the missionary who is fully fluent in Japanese language and custom is still a gaijin by virtue of looking non-Japanese.

In fact, while there are nearly half a million Koreans who live in Japan as Japanese citizens, they are still treated as outsiders by Japanese natives. Christianity has exploded in South Korea, and the largest churches in Japan are actually Korean assemblies. But, this momentum in Korea and China has not translated into a growing Japanese church, in part because Chinese and Korean Christians—regardless of their level of naturalization—are too foreign to accept into the Japanese mainstream. Indeed, it is arguable that one of the biggest obstacles to the progress of the gospel in Japan is the perception that Christianity is a foreign religion.

It is ironic that Christianity is still seen as foreign in Japan, since Christianity first spread into Japan in the mid-1500s. Indeed, a few small groups in southwestern Japan maintained elements of their faith all the way into the 19th century—the famed hidden Christians, or kakure kirishitan—despite violent state-sponsored oppression and reprisals. This makes Japanese Christianity older than the nation-state of Japan, which was not unified until around 1600, by Ieyasu Tokugawa—who actually promoted persecution in order to consolidate his control of the country. Indeed, Christianity in Japan boasts an older legacy than modern Buddhism and Shintoism. As shocking as this might sound, Shintoism and Buddhism were syncretistically combined into one religious amalgam since at least the 700s, and were only forcibly separated by governmental edict as recently as 1868, in the shinbutsu bunri. The point is, as Shusaku Endo demonstrated in his magisterial Silence, Christianity has a long history in Japan.

Back to today. Different organizations have suggested varying specifics , but it is widely agreed that at least 75% of Japanese Christians were saved while living outside Japan. Being outside their home country (and away from the ubiquitous sense of Japanese social conformity) allows many young Japanese a chance to actually sample other cultures and ideas on their own terms. It is this sense of personal freedom and individual choice—and the lack of prying eyes—that has encouraged many members of the post-Meiji Japanese diaspora to avoid returning, even despite the subsidies offered by the Japanese government for returning Japanese.

These notions of Japanese-ness, social observation, and hierarchy are manifested in more quotidian, everyday ways like gift-giving—a practice known as zoto. In the West, formal gift-giving is generally restricted to Christmas, birthdays, weddings, showers, etc.; the Japanese, while tending to spend less per gift than Western gift-givers, buy them far more often throughout the year; depending on how one counts, the Japanese give gifts for some 50 to nearly 100 ceremonial and seasonal reasons throughout the year. Even as weddings are becoming increasingly expensive in the United States, the necessity of giving wedding favors has caused Japanese weddings to be even more expensive: one study in 1993 found that the average Japanese wedding cost 8 million yen; assuming that the Japanese have not grown any more extravagant in the intervening two decades, this amounts to over $100,000 2012 US dollars.

While Japanese friends give gifts on a less formal basis, much of the Japanese practice of gift-giving is based upon the concept of giri, or social obligation. The basic idea here is that all relationships are characterized by a running balance of cooperation and assistance between the two parties; hence, giving a gift can either pay back someone for previous help, or put another person in social debt so as to call on their help in the future. Interestingly, while this practice is unfamiliar to Westerners, zoto bears a close resemblance to the economics of gift-giving in the potlatch system (known by different names in different cultures) so common to pre-20th century Native American social life.1

And on it goes. Monetary gifts are given to the bereaved family at a funeral (koden), and the language reflects this: a family hosting a funeral can euphemistically say that they are “receiving giri”—that is, they are calling in all the social debts owed to the deceased person. But, after 49 days of grieving, the family will invite the funeral attendees back for a memorial, or hoyo. The family then demonstrates their desire for these social obligations and duties to continue, by giving back to each attendee—depending on their relationship—30-50% of the value of their koden, typically in some household consumable good, like tea, sugar, soap, towels, etc.. This practice is also repeated with the birth of a child; family members and friends give monetary present to the happy parents, and the family returns roughly half of the value in small gifts like sweets, liquor, etc.2

While “strategic” gift-giving is not unknown in the West, the long-term cultural impact of Christianity is seen in the fact that Westerners generally don’t treat gifts as a tit-for-tat mechanism. So ingrained is this idea of giri that the Japanese do not tip, even for especially good service. Tips are interpreted as a heavy-handed effort to put the waiter, by giving him/her cash, in giri-debt, and thus forcing the waitstaff to practice even better service to pay the customer back their giri. In other words, a tip implies that one was not receiving good service, and feels compelled to pay extra in order to get any assistance! While folk explanations abound, this is probably the underlying reason why Japanese waitstaff, drivers, and most other workers in the service industry consider a tip something of an insult. Such everyday things as zoto and the lack of tipping hint at the formal and performative nature of Japanese society.3

It is at exactly this juncture, however, that the message of the gospel can connect with Japanese society. In John 4, Jesus tells the woman at the well, “If you knew gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” And, in Romans 6:23, we read that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In Acts 2:38, Peter calls the Holy Spirit a “gift” as well.

Unlike zoto, which is built on reciprocal obligations and duty, what we find in scripture is that God has given us great gifts and favor, all of which were and are unmerited. The Old Testament shows God interacting with his people based on a covenant that His people broke time and again. The blood of Jesus, however, secured a new covenant based on God’s faithfulness, and not our deeds. Hence, when we sin, Christ continues to forgive and justify us, and even in our foibles we are being sanctified to look like Christ. We do not get these blessings from God because we have something to offer, or for doing good things; rather, we get blessings from God because he deigns to bless His people. We come to the bargaining table with nothing, and yet we are given more than we could dream to ask: as we read in Isaiah 55, “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

This is the message that Laura and I desire to spread in Japan. God has not dealt with us according to our righteousness, or on our performance of particular duties, but he has given us the very righteousness of Christ, enabling us to do the very good works that he has prepared in advance for us.

Please pray for the us Rices, as well as the whole Karis Japan team, that we will clearly discern God’s leading in regards to Japan. Be ready and willing to support us fiscally in the future, as God calls us. We desire to go and spread the good news of Jesus, and we believe that God will use the prayers and support of His people to make it happen.

1Davies, 233-241; and Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 175-177. Note: all currency conversions are my approximation, aiming for rough parity with 2012 dollars.

2Davies, 233-241.

3Davies, 240-241. In separate conversations with both Bob Drews and Dan Glosson, they reported that a tip implied bad service, as the money was intended to pay for classes so the cook or waiter could improve! I think this explanation is inexact, but correct in the just of it. The giri theory of tipping provided by Davies not only seems more accurate, but also roots itself in the traditions of the Edo court, which scholars generally regard as critical for the formation of modern Japanese middle-class cultural norms (see Zielenziger, 206).

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Drew Glosson

I'm an missionary sent from Karis Church to serve with Soma Fuchu in Tokyo.

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