Christianity in Japan: Take A Bow? Believers Say No Thanks

Christianity in Japan
Men pray at a shrine in Japan. For Japanese Christians, choosing not to pray to the dead at a funeral can be a defining moment. Photo by Robert Johnson / TEAM

In Japan, the moment of truth for a Christian often comes during a funeral.

At Buddhist funerals — which constitute around 90 percent of them in Japan — the custom is for mourners to pay their respects by bowing before the deceased and offering up a prayer to the dead, often along with some incense. When it comes to Christianity in Japan, that practice poses a big problem. Most Japanese Christians stop praying to the dead and other spirits when they start following Jesus.

According to Stella Cox, a longtime TEAM missionary in Japan, funerals are often big social events akin to a wedding. They can draw large crowds of family and friends. With so many eyes watching, refusing to bow to the deceased isn’t just an act of faith, it can invite shame and ostracism from offended family and social groups. And that’s no small thing in a society that places such high value on social acceptance.

“When you go to a funeral, you have to worship the dead. And if you don’t, you’re kind of discriminated against by the family and other people who will say, ‘Who do they think they are?’” Cox said. Japanese Christians have to take a stand, (and) this is maybe one reason they won’t be baptized or won’t believe. They know if they believe, this is what the cost is going to be.”

Christians have found creative ways around the dilemma. Some will approach the deceased and offer a flower in lieu of a prayer. Cox knew one young woman who volunteered to be the receptionist at her father’s funeral to keep busy enough to avoid the spectacle.

But others are more bold.

Cox told the story of a man who went to his mother’s funeral in a small country town, where Buddhist funeral traditions run especially deep. As the oldest of her sons, he shouldered the responsibility for organizing the event, the day’s mover and shaker who would be watched closely. Everyone knew he was a Christian. When his turn came to bow to the dead, he stepped up and paused, staring. After a moment, he turned around toward the audience and bowed to them instead, as a cadre of Buddhist priests looked on.

“That’s what’s against them becoming Christians there,” Cox said.

At TEAM, we talk a lot about our commitment to the church. TEAM missionaries serve broadly in a diverse array of ministries and projects, but they are united in their focus on supporting and growing the church wherever they are.

This is not just because church planting is one of the most effective evangelism strategies out there (though it is). It is also because the community of a church is the single greatest tool we have for discipleship, the process of being transformed to become more like Christ. And discipleship is what turns us into the kind of people who can deal with “moments of truth,” tests like a Japanese funeral that force us to take a stand for Christ.

It’s not just Christianity in Japan, of course. Every culture presents its moments of truth. In a Muslim context, it may be risking persecution by skipping out on Friday prayer at the mosque. In Latin America, it may be inviting a family’s scorn by being baptized in a Protestant church. Or in the United States, it may be risking discrimination at the office when you explain why you need Sunday off.

We emphasize church-based discipleship at TEAM because the ultimate goal of missions is not just to make believers. It’s to make muscular disciples who glorify Christ by boldly following Him wherever He leads. Only discipleship can shape the type of Christians who are able to hold fast in their moment of truth, able to take a deep breath, turn toward the audience, and bow.

Learn more about Christianity in Japan, check out what else TEAM is doing there, and explore opportunities to serve.


Share this article:

About the author

Andy Olsen

Andy Olsen is a former senior writer and editor at TEAM. He is especially interested in exploring and sharing the metrics and best practices of great missions. Before joining TEAM, Andy served as Director of Communications for Latin America Mission. He has worked as a writer, photographer and videographer for NGOs in Haiti and for newspapers and magazines across the country.


Leave a comment
  • Well written, Andy! It helps so much to know cultural context that believers face around the world. Thanks!

  • It’s also important to consider if you are refusing to do so because of true belief, or because of pride in your belief.

  • That s quite a unique story to stumble on, and here my first though was maybe there could be some compensation not to offend both both parties but in the end if you heart is for Christ you do whats better

  • I’m not sure if bowing should be eliminated altogether. I think you can still go through the motions and not be practicing the Buddhist religion. It’s a tradition. Paul said “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” We have to be wise. I can bow at a Buddhist alter and pray to Jesus. We don’t have to cause confusion at funerals to display our faith. Better to keep doors open and bow than close doors by rejecting traditions, I say.

    • You cannot bow to the strange god of the Buddist altar and Worship God and Jesus.
      That can’t be reconciled because that’s giving respect not to a person but to a demonic concept.

      • Anna I’d have to look into this further since I am travelling to Japan and intend to spend some time. In the west we bow our heads to the dead with no issue as a sign of respect (removing our hats if we wear them). I’d have problems definitely with bowing to an idol of budha but the deceased as a show of respect I think I can handle biblically.

        if there is also a picture of budha then I would probably turn more to the deceased picture. We need to realize the early chruch stood their ground but they also continued to attend Temple worship services and the synagogue even though they knew no sacrifieces they witnessesd were needed. Biblicallyw e are not instructed to use our freedom and life in Christ to needlessly offend.

        As long as there is no idolatry of having to pray out loud to an idol or bowing to one i would try to find a way of showing respect within their culture. although in some cases it might still offend theres no reason tojsut stump all over their culture.

      • I don’t think it’s right at all to equate bowing and offering incense to the dead with making offerings in the Hebrew temple. The offerings in the Temple were ordained by God Himself, and were offered to Him. Not at all the case with paying homage to ancestral spirits, or the Buddha.
        The situation is more parallel to the believers’ interactions with pagans who worshiped in Greek temples. There’s a long discussion of this in 1 Cor 8, but I think the key bit is this: “For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” 1 Cor 8:9-11. As a Christian, you’re going to stand before dozens of people who equate the bow and the incense as an act of homage to an ancestral spirit, and you’re going to participate in that act in front of them? No. I don’t think that’s the answer that glorifies God. “Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for Yahweh your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and His anger will burn against you, and He will destroy you from the face of the land.” Deut 6:14-15

      • I lived in Japan 20 years and love our Lord. This whole thing can be misleading. Bow your head? So what? Pray to Jesus when you do. Pray that God will let you be a good example. If you are a Christian others will know it.

    • Yea, but remember Solomon? He too thought it was ok marrying foreign women and worshipping other idols but still believe in God. What happened to him? His kingdom was divided. If we think following in other religions footsteps are ok, we are mistaken. God is a jealous God. He does not want you to bow down to any idols or any customs. God was deeply angered when the Israelites ate the fruits of Baal. Thats how serious it is. Because Im not bowing down at a funereal doesnt mean Im rejecting traditions. I can respect the religion, but not do it.

  • Just bow and go through the motions. If that makes peace with your family and neighbors, do it.
    Do you really think God is so petty? Does being Christian mean to be an irritable thorn to people around you? Of course not!
    Make peace.
    Your relationship with God is personal and intimate. You don’t need to show it off and prove it to other people.
    Japanese culture puts great value in community harmony. Christianity would grow deeper roots in Japan if it coexists with their culture instead of forcing changes.

    • I encourage you to read through 1 and 2 Kings. In pretty much every account of every king, the inspired word of God notes whether or not they removed the high places, the places where Israelites worshiped false gods. Even if the king himself didn’t worship in the high places, God still counts it against him that he didn’t remove them – that he just went through the motions instead of rooting idolatry out of the nation.

      God does indeed care – and He is right to, as He is the only being in all of existence who is truly worthy of worship.

    • That was what many did during the Deician persecution, when all Romans were required to sacrifice to the gods of Rome and provide signed documents attesting to this fact. The Church rightly excommunicated those who did that, allowing them back only after they performed public penance for many years. Or do you think your spouse would think it not adultery for you to engage in lewd acts short of intercourse with another?

  • I don’t see it as an issue. Bowing as a sign of respect for the deceased and their family is polite in any culture. As for praying? There’s no reason why they can’t pray for the dead instead of to the dead. Since both would be silent, who’s to know if the prayer is Christian instead of Buddhist? Either way, you’re honoring the dead in a way that will bring comfort to the family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *