Being Japanese: a strict set of beliefs and rules

Published: 09th April 2009
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Once again, I found myself out drinking with Fred. We were in a cheap place, one of those places with the little red lanterns outside, which usually signified cheap food and drink, the drinks being of an alcoholic nature. We were peacefully solving the problems of the world, when a drunk homed in on us. We Westerners, living in rural Japan, were like magnets for drunks. Red in the face, four sheets to the wind, Jiro Hamasaki welcomed us like long lost brothers, Christian brothers, as he babbled in Japanese and English repeating the same basic points again and again: He was a Christian, he loved America, and he loved us. I didn't have the heart to tell him I wasn't religious and Fred didn't say anything. Not speaking to drunks was one of Fred's mantras.

We called for the check, beat a hasty retreat, and ducked into a coffee shop a few hundred meters away. We ordered beer, which was the only alcohol the coffee shop served and Fred began his theory on Japanese Christians. "A limited number of them were actually born into Christianity and grew up with it due to their Christian parents or other family members. I can understand that. What I can't understand is the others. So few Japanese become Christians, in spite of all the missionaries and the English conversation classes missionaries use to attract potential converts. So, why do these few become Christians?"

I knew this was a rhetorical question, but I thought I would try and get a word in anyway. I opened my mouth, but Fred continued, "I know that some of them do not fit in Japan. These people are lonely, becoming Christians to be part of a community. What I can't understand is how they can turn their backs on what I think is the true religion of Japan- being Japanese.

I tried to speak again, but the monologue continued, "Being Japanese is a religion in and of itself: Shinto for birth, Buddhism for death, Japanese holidays and festivals in between with some visits to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples for weddings, memorial ceremonies for the deceased, and so on. Combine all that with a belief in Japanese culture, the secure knowledge that Japan is a unique country, and the even more secure knowledge that the Japanese are a unique people, you have the religion of the Japanese- being Japanese.

I tried to say something, but I should have known better. Fred changed tack in midstream, "Actually I take that back. Being Japanese is actually stronger in terms of faith than most of the Western religions. How else could we have beliefs such as Japanese snow being unique and not fit for Western skis, people from other countries being unable to speak Japanese, and Japan being the only country in the world with four seasons."

I finally managed to break in to Fred's monologue, "Japanese don't really believe that Japan is the only country with four seasons."

"They don't?" Fred shot back. Then why do Japanese always say that Japan has four seasons as if having four seasons were unique?"

I didn't have a good answer to that. Fred's statements may have gone a little bit overboard, but he did have the gist of the matter right. Being Japanese was almost like a religion due to the beliefs involved. Most Japanese put a lot more into being Japanese then many Americans who claimed to be religious put into their religion. Being Japanese may not be a religion like Fred claimed, but it definitely meant subscribing to a strict set of beliefs and rules.


At Aaron Language Services (, we provide English to Japanese translation, English editing, and online English coaching to a primarily Japanese client base.

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