October 4, 2019
In Japan, Christianity is seen as a foreign religion. About one percent of the population is Christian, and “accepting Christ presents a difficult identity issue,” says Thomas Wong, MDiv ’19. “A lot of Japanese people say they cannot become Christian because they are Japanese.”
The International Field Education program is a large part of why Wong chose to study at Princeton Seminary. After fundraising and cross-cultural ministry training in Belgium in early 2020, he will return to the Christ Bible Institute in Nagoya, Japan to fulfill his calling and take part in missionary work.
“My family background is Japanese. My grandmother is Japanese and we’re really close to that side of the family.” Wong, who grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, studied in Japan for three weeks as an undergrad. There, he learned about religions and culture, and met local missionaries and pastors. As a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, he participated in both the summer and the yearlong international placements in Japan. During the summer of 2017 he lived at the Asian Rural Institute in Northern Japan, which teaches sustainable and organic farming to rural leaders from 51 countries throughout Asia and Africa. The school year between his middler and senior year, Wong was placed at Christ Bible Institute, a seminary.
“I think that should be the goal of every missionary – to lose your job,” he laughs. “You want to give a little spark and let them be the giant flame. For me, the most important thing is raising new leaders who can speak into that context far better than I can ever do.”
Missionaries first arrived in Japan nearly 500 years ago, but the gospel has yet to significantly take root. Throughout history, Japanese culture and religion, specifically Buddhism and Shintoism, have been closely aligned. In particular, Shinto rituals are an important way to honor one’s ancestors, Wong says. There is usually no perceived conflict in adhering to two different religions, but to reject Japanese religion is like rejecting Japanese culture, rejecting being Japanese, he adds.
Wong arrived at Princeton Seminary seeking to clarify his calling and be practically equipped for missions. In Kenneth Appold’s Christianity in East Asia class, Wong studied why it is so difficult for Japanese to become Christians. Other courses at the Seminary helped Wong think about doing mission work in Japan, such as Richard Osmer’s course Missions and Evangelism and Margarita Mooney’s class Religion, Resilience, and Vulnerability.
Can a person be Japanese and also a Christian? In our Western context, the answer may seem to be “of course!” Learn more about Japanese history and culture, however, and this becomes significantly more complex and challenging, Wong says. “How do you explain the concept of the trinity to someone who has a different concept of God?” Wong asks. In Japan, kami are spirits. They can be elements of nature, ancestors, gods, but no English translation quite captures their meaning. The Christian word for God in Japanese is Kami-sama, the One True Kami, but that concept isn’t nearly as intuitive as it is for Western ears.
Explaining Christ isn’t simple, but it’s a task that Wong is excited to begin, especially with his focus on equipping a new generation of Japanese pastors. “If I say ‘Adam and Eve’ to a secular humanist here, they have some understanding that I’m speaking about creation. But if I say it in Japan - how do you explain that to people who don’t have that context?”
The Christ Bible Institute in Nagoya, where Wong will be working, “is training Japanese men and women for gospel ministry,” he says. “I think that should be the goal of every missionary – to lose your job,” he laughs. “You want to give a little spark and let them be the giant flame. That’s what I’m hoping. For me, the most important thing is raising new leaders who can speak into that context far better than I can ever do.”