Japanese-American Ministry

a web of relationships


by The Rev. Richard E. Helmer



Useful terms to know, and their cultural significance:


Issei – lit. “first generation,” generally describes first-generation immigrants to the United States from Japan.  Most often in the Japanese-American community this term more specifically describes the immigrants who arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Issei are generally regarded as heroes for their courage in the face of then contemporary Alien Land laws (prohibiting them from legally owning property) and establishing new lives in the United States, often in the face of considerable prejudice.


Shin issei -- lit. newly arrived immigrants, often more specifically refers to Japanese

citizens who moved to this country following the reopening of Japanese immigration after World War II.  Shin issei sometimes struggle in their relationship with the Japanese-American community, particularly as they often cannot relate easily to the central experience of the Japanese-American World War II generation and internment.  Most often, and quite naturally, shin issei will feel closest in experience and perspective to other newly arrived immigrants from Japan.


Nisei –lit. “second generation,” the children of Japanese immigrants.  More often used to describe the most predominant generation of Japanese-Americans in the Episcopal Church, which while in their 60’s, 70’s, and even 80’s remain active.  This generation is most likely to have wrestled extensively with their inherited Japanese identity, particularly in light of their experience of World War II as American citizens.  This generation was the first to adopt English as a primary language, had to make the most difficult choices in its decision to identify themselves as American rather than Japanese, and many, particularly on the West Coast, lived through the painful experience of internment during the war years.  There is also a noted devotion to many of the causes and institutions founded by their Issei parents.


Sansei – lit. “third generation,” the children of Nissei.  This is a generation that has largely left the church and has become widely “integrated” into American culture.  These were among the first to leave cultural enclaves and move into greater American society with relative ease.


Yonsei – lit “fourth generation,” the children of Sansei.  This generation, now reaching adulthood, moves with greatest facility between the traditions of their Japanese heritage and popular American culture.  Often, yonsei will either be seeking ways to recover their Japanese roots, or they will have completely abandoned their Japanese heritage for western culture.


Nikkei – a term widely used to describe Japanese-Americans of any generation.  More specifically used in Japan for those of Japanese ancestry living overseas.


Nippon Sei Ko Kai – lit. “The Holy Catholic Church of Japan” – the Anglican/Episcopal Church in Japan.


Koden –monetary gifts offered to families of the deceased at funerals.  Often, koden is wrapped in a special envelope available in Japanese stationery stores or hand-made.  Koden probably has roots in Medieval Japan, where proper funerals were expensive, and the community offered monetary help to the family to offset the cost of the funeral.  Today, koden persists as a tradition in Japanese-American faith communities.  Often koden collected at the funeral is turned over by the family of the deceased to the church as a memorial gift.


Arigatoo – (or doomo) and their more polite variants: arigatoo gozaimasu (gozaimashita), doomo arigatoo are common expression of thanks almost ubiquitous in Japanese and Japanese-American.


Gomen nasai and sumimasen – Japanese apologies of varying degrees are also common acknowledgements of even the smallest wrong done or task neglected.  These form a foundational humility in language necessitated by the “honor-shame” undercurrent of the Japanese and Japanese-American cultural milieu. These expressions, along with arigatoo, are essential components of gracious day-to-day living in Japanese and Japanese-American contexts.


Sayonara – the Japanese “goodbye” that many Americans know from pop culture, is, in fact, only widely used amongst the older generations in Japanese and Japanese-American communities.  In contemporary Japanese society, and among younger generations, it indicates a parting for a long period, or even a parting of the ways for lovers!  Contemporary Japanese language teachers argue that sayonara only be used advisedly, not casually.  A more appropriate everyday good bye is matte ne (“see you soon”) or, simply, bai bai (yes, an adoption from English usage.)


Shinto – the ancient, indigenous religious tradition of Japan.  This complex “folk” religious tradition continues in households throughout Japan.   When Buddhism arrived from China, Shinto and Buddhism combined in many ways to form a distinctive Japanese religious tradition.  Shinto continues at some level in the values often expressed in Japanese-American communities and even in Christian churches:

1)                  strong devotion to the memories of ancestors (making All Saints’ a very

            important day in the life of the Japanese-American Church)

2)                  deep attachment to particular places and objects (church buildings and

            furnishings) and their reverential care

3)                  A sense of connection with nature and the earth.  Living things tend to be more respected and less seen as commodities (as they can be viewed in the West).

4)                  A strong sense of the distinction between the sacred and the profane and a natural inclination to revere holy objects.


Kami – the Shinto term for “god” or “spirit” that occupies a particular place or natural

            phenomenon.  The familiar term kamikaze, for instance, is a Shinto spirit of the

wind.  Kami was adopted by the first Christian missionaries to Japan as the term describing the Supreme Being, “God.”  In conversations between Christian and non-Christian Japanese, the use of kami can initially appear confusing and often requires explanation.


Many common Christian terms, including New Testament biblical names, moved into Japanese from Portuguese and other European languages, since many of the first missionaries were from Portugal and more broadly European.  Hence, Christ in Japanese is kuristo (Christo), and (eucharistic) bread is pan.



Relationships in the Japanese-American Church community


From the outside, Westerners often see Japanese culture as patriarchal and dictatorial.  While traditional Japanese culture is certainly patriarchal, it is far from dictatorial, or even hierarchical in the western sense.  In Japan, it is more important to see society constructed on the basis of what sociologists now call “in groups” and “out groups” and a complex web of relationships based on social standing, age, gender, and authority.  In the language of sociologists, this is a “high context” community, which makes close relationships take longer to develop and private information tends to be held more closely guarded.   This also contributes to a general hesitancy in speaking out as quickly both in public and private as European-Americans might.


As important as knowing where the self stands in this web of relationships is knowing where everyone else stands.  This has profound effects on language, the level of politeness in conversation, and the flow of personal information.  Moreover, it gives rise to a sense of mutual accountability between any person’s immediate superior and immediate inferior as well as one’s peers.  This is still of monumental importance in working in the dynamics of the Japanese corporate world.  For instance, it is the manager’s obligation to be most accountable to both managers higher up and employees under his or her charge.  Any break of that accountability results in the break of the web of relationships and can lead to shame or “loss of face.” 


This is indicative that traditional Japanese culture, and to some degree, Japanese-American culture operates out of an “honor-shame” perspective rather than a “guilt-blame” perspective often most often found in the West.  In the Japanese-American milieu, this can explain the tendency to avoid self-aggrandizement, a natural self-deprecation, and a profound loyalty to the community and family a person represents.  In this context, identity is generally found first in relationship with a greater group more so than through individual achievement or a sense of self-worth.


In the Japanese-American church community, a similar dynamic occurs.  This affects all members of the community and results in a strong sense of community accountability and interdependence.  This thesis underscores the following thumbnail sketches of the Japanese-American faith community:


Authority and power are highly respected and revered, and often appear to be given automatically to those who have moved into established positions of leadership.  But what can be viewed as deferential treatment has some important expectations that are attached, and often unspoken.  Clergy, for instance, are automatically expected to be teachers (and are often referred to as sensei (lit. “teacher) by older generations) and are expected to be an example to the people they serve.  Leadership, including the vestry or Bishop’s Committee, can be expected to initiate much or all of the community activities.  Moreover, they are expected to work hard at maintaining the web of relationships in the congregation in a positive manner, keeping people connected and honoring the (often unspoken) expectations of the elders.  It is part of leadership’s responsibility to see that people’s feelings and preferences are honored.  The double-bind this can create is that often these feelings and preferences are unspoken.  It is critical that new leadership be well-connected with long-standing members of the community, particularly an elder or two.  Those who have been in the community a long time can provide helpful insights into these hidden expectations. 


Ultimately, as with any other church community, clergy in Japanese-American congregations must earn their trust and respect through a commitment to their obligations to the community and through careful movement through the web of relationships.  Clergy in the Japanese-American community are almost always initially seen as “outsiders” with authority status, regardless of their heritage, who must not only prove themselves through hard work and dedication, but find ways of sincerely identifying with experience and lives of the church members they serve.  In my experience, the Japanese-American congregation will be eagerly looking for this sincere expression of identity and solidarity.


Family dynamics are of paramount importance.  In fact, it is often hard to distinguish between distinct cultural values and the norms of family congregations in the Japanese-American Christian community.  The family is at the center of the Japanese-American way of life, even for many yonsei.  Devotion to parents, elders, and the extended family, including the faith community, is a cherished value. 


Hard work is also held as a high value.  The oft-used expression in Japan, gambatta kudasai (“do your best” or “work hard”) is an expression of deep cultural values in everyday speech.  For the Nisei generation in America, this cultural value for hard work was magnified by the World War II experience and the struggle of immigrant families.  This value has probably also contributed  to the stereotype that Japanese-Americans are hard workers, and sometimes have been called the “model minority,” a label often frowned upon by its bearers, because it can lead to unhealthy or unrealistic expectations of them by the prevailing society. 


In this context, as important as “what have I done for the Church?” is “what has the church (i.e. people representing the Church) done for me and my family?”  Likewise, in gift giving, a common event in this community, few gifts are given that are not, at a later date, honored with a gift of equivalent value in return.


For those in authority, the value of hard work is most importantly understood as a mutual activity.  Hard work is rewarded with a hard working response.  Congregation members who see their clergy, leaders, or fellow members working hard will pitch in so as not to be out done, or to honor their leaders.  This is connected with the accountability value and occurs in the context of a web of relationships.  Even with this in mind, the hard work apparently most highly valued in the Japanese and Japanese-American community is the hard work done quietly behind closed doors, with humility, and without any fanfare or desire for self-promotion.


Funerals and honoring the dead are among the highest-attended and most important events for the Japanese-American community.  In some Japanese-American Christian circles, this is where carryovers from Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions are often most visible.  Of particular note is the sometime practice of having an open coffin at the funeral proper.  At the end of the service, those in attendance will reverently lay flowers (often used to decorate the church or funeral home) inside the coffin with the body.  Everything is then cremated, and the ashes are interned or scattered at a later, private family ceremony.  In the case of memorial services, people may still lay flowers on an altar or head table to honor the dead.  This is also extends to a custom in some places for Good Friday, where the congregation brings forward flowers to lay on the altar at the end of the service.



Tangible, concrete gifts are of highest importance in the Japanese-American Christian community.  Pledging in this context is not as successful as it might be in other cultural communities.  More successful are fundraisers or the giving of money towards specific upkeep of the church facility or the purchase of fixtures.  Pledging, once begun, is seen, at least amongst older generations, as a life-long commitment.  On one hand, this means that pledge bases in Japanese-American churches can be unusually stable.  On the other hand, this assumed level of commitment can mean some Japanese-Americans will be hesitant to pledge because of the obligation it entails.


Devotion to a community, as an extension of the family-oriented dynamic, means that  Japanese-American Christians will often continue to send financial support and even return for important church events long after they have left geographical area or church community.


Specific gifts are to be honored publicly, most often in community newsletters.  However, comparison of the level (or size) of such gifts is assiduously avoided, so as not to shame those with fewer resources, or to point out the affluence of more wealthy donors.  The Japanese-American community in general, and Japanese culture also tends to remain a saving culture.  Unlike American society, where credit and loans are widely exchanged and utilized to build capital and material wealth, Japanese and Japanese-Americans of every socio-economic status will tend towards saving for large expenses rather than borrowing.  This can make church budget planning amongst Japanese and Japanese-Americans much more exacting, and the scarcity perspective common in many churches all the more pronounced. 


Language is a particularly tricky issue for this community.  Some Nisei who lived through World War II, and sought to strongly distance themselves from aspects of their Japanese heritage, have strong reactions to use of Japanese in the liturgy.  On the other hand, Issei widely appreciate this recognition of their native language, and often times will find support from European-American members who enjoy the “cross-cultural” experience of using Japanese in otherwise English liturgies.


Conflict in the Japanese-American community, as in all cultural contexts, varies in character widely from generation to generation and person to person.  In general, however, the Japanese-American community and the Japanese community more so tends to avoid open conflict.  When the web of relationships is upset for some reason, it is better in traditional cultural tradition to avoid appealing directly to the offender; instead, it is more honorable to consult with one of the offender’s peers or confidants, who would then act as a mediator.  This can feed a dynamic often recognized in the West as “triangulation,” but when handled appropriately can be a way of successfully resolving conflict without anyone “losing face.”  Also, likes and dislikes are often not as easily expressed as they would be in the West.  It is more difficult to solicit opinions and positions from individuals and groups in this context.  Often, this has led to the tendency to stereotype this cultural community as unusually “quiet” or “private.”  In intimate company, however, this community can be startlingly open and surprisingly forthcoming.


Open conflict can indicate that a long-festering and intractable situation has arisen.  Most often, when such open conflict occurs, it will result in one or both sides leaving the community.  Leadership is therefore obliged to do whatever possible to attend to this conflict long before it becomes publicly expressed.


The apology in this context seems to carry even more deference and weight than it does in the greater American context.  Reconciliation seems to hinge on sincere apologies and an honest desire to make amends.   Conflicts not reconciled in this fashion will not only fester, but can lead to dissolution of relationships and even long-standing grudges.  Coupled with this larger weight placed on apologies is a tendency to avoid open fault-finding of others.  Polite hints and other indirect ways of pointing out a mistake or fault are more desirable to avoid shaming another person.  Christian understandings of forgiveness are perhaps among the most difficult religious teachings in this context.


Subsequent generations, beginning with Issei who have lived in the United States for a long period, and more so with the Nisei and subsequent generations, have tended to move gradually towards a more direct approach to handling conflict, although open disagreement, especially in public gatherings, can still be uncomfortable and tends to be avoided whenever possible. 


Patriarchs and Matriarchs arise in Japanese-American congregations as they do in European-American communities.  In the Japanese-American community, patriarchs and matriarchs, or elders, often appear slowly and naturally in the web of relationships, and most often find their foundation in seniority and the level of respect that has developed over a long period for these people.  Leadership is often best served by keeping close contact with these elders, who are most closely aware of potential conflict, can advance or scuttle change, are keepers of community history, and are most likely to serve as “peers” of the leadership for conflict resolution.  They will, without fail, hear first of any complaints about any authority issues, be aware of what offends particular individuals, and they will know the most efficient ways of disseminating information and making decisions in the community outside of conventional means.



While often more private with strangers than other cultural groups, Japanese and Japanese-Americans work hard to be hospitable to visitors and strangers who enter into the church community.  At times, this can almost overwhelm some visitors, especially those who wish to remain inconspicuous.  On the other hand, once part of the community, newcomers can find it takes an unusually long time to enter the “in-group” of the church.  This is magnified all the more by family-sized congregational dynamics.  It seems no surprise, therefore, than many Japanese-American congregations have remained family-sized throughout their history.



The predominant Nisei generation, like much of the World War II generation, values a pragmatic, accessible liturgy that is concise, to the point, and not overly pious.  Sermons are also expected to be accessible, “down to earth” and not overloaded with theological or otherwise technical terminology.  This reflects, in part, the more Protestant tradition they inherited.  It also reflects the cultural tendency towards specialization that must be overcome to build relationship between the congregation and its leadership. 


“Spiritual” events are often distinguished from “social” events, and can be seen as the sole domain of the minister(s) of the congregation.  Worship is often seen as a tag to social events, not the other way around.


Sansei and yonsei, like other members of “Generation X” and “Y” tend to more likely be seekers.  Unlike many of their parents, they will tend to be less devoted to social activities and events and more interested in programs or spiritual development.


Fate and destiny are often important factors in Japanese spirituality, and can be translated into Christianity as God’s will.  For Westerners, this can look very much like fatalism.  Some nisei and sansei in this country have vociferously rejected this cultural perspective, probably in reaction to some of the teachings they received from their parents. 






Food and eating together is important in any Christian community.  For the Japanese-American community, this is only magnified by the strong devotion to the artistry of good food, and the Japanese traditions of generous hospitality.  There can be an almost competitive value placed on bringing the best possible dishes to church functions.


Cross-cultural and multi-cultural respect

Japanese-Americans tend to be highly sensitive to the nuances of cross-cultural dynamics.  This seems due in large part to the commonality of intermarriage and the experience of their families’ immigration experience.  Cross-cultural events are often the most exciting.


Demographic historical sketch

Japanese immigrants arriving in the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries settled largely in enclaves, whether in cities or in agricultural areas.  These cultural enclaves remained cohesive and central to the Japanese-American community way of life until the Second World War, when over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forced to move East or be detained in internment camps in the American interior.


Following the War, the returning Japanese-Americans rebuilt their cultural enclaves, while some scattered into the broader culture.  In the decades following, increasing opportunity led the younger generations to move out of the Japantowns and family farms and forge lives more connected with the wider American post-war boom.  In San Francisco, this resulted in a gradual diaspora of sorts out of the Japantown community.  Many Japanese-Americans settled in the Richmond district of San Francisco, and their children, many of whom married into other cultural groups, subsequently moved further out into the Bay Area or out of the region altogether.


In the 1960’s, Japanese immigration slowed to a trickle as Japan’s postwar reconstruction began to lead to increasing economic prosperity.  The Japanese-American community and its related churches began to grow older, with less new immigrants replenishing the departing children near the old cultural centers.


This also began the ongoing challenge to Japanese-American churches, which were often founded to serve issei and their descendants.  This forms an ongoing question of mission for many of these communities.


With sansei and yonsei, there is a similar lack of familiarity or interest in institutional religion, or there is a tendency to return to more “native” religions of Japanese civilization, such as Buddhism and/or Shinto.



Updated 5/2003