Memorial Services and Koden


In the Japanese-American community memorial services for a member of the community are extremely well attended.  Most of those attending come to pay their respects to the deceased and their families.  At these services there is the practice of giving “koden”.  Koden is a gift of money to the family of the deceased as a way to assist them through this time of trial and grief.  The koden given and received allows the family to have a meal following the service.  Family members keep lists of how “koden” was given and received by members of different families.


Since most of those attending the memorial services are unlikely to be Christian, this is really an opportunity to share the Christian hope with them without proselytizing.  Many of them will have attended memorial services conducted by Buddhist ministers that were held entirely in archaic Japanese.  They will have experienced attending a worship service in which they did not understand what was being said or prayed.  It is a good opportunity to help people address the inevitability of their death, and the hope we have in Christ Jesus.


Conversation in the Japanese idiom


When observing Japanese people in conversation, you may notice that they often bow or nod in agreement.  Even when a Japanese person is talking on the telephone, he or she may be nodding as he or she listens.


Bowing or nodding is an indication that the person is listening intently.  Bowing or nodding is not necessarily an indication of agreement.


It has been said that western conversation may be compared to a tennis match.  One person serves up a point in the conversation, and then waits for the other person to respond.  The conversation goes back and forth like a tennis match.  However, it has been said that Japanese conversation may be compared to a bowling game.  One person picks up the bowling ball, prepares and them bowls the ball.  Everyone intently watches the bowling ball go down the lane.  That same person continues until finished.  Then the next person picks up the bowling ball, prepares and bowls the ball.  That person may or may not respond to the first person’s concern, and may have an entirely different concern.  The process continues until everyone who wants a turn has a turn.


Thus, conversation in the Japanese idiom is not argumentative; it is not point/counter-point.  Conversation is more like story-telling.



Decision-making in the Japanese culture


When I was an exchange seminarian in Tokyo at the Anglican Seminary, I had this experience of observing how the seminarians made decisions as a group.  I believe the point of contention was the annual bazaar, and what the group of seminarians were going to do with the funds they raised by selling the ginko seeds they picked from their tree.  There were two groups, and most of the conversation was held before the meeting.  People in each group spoke with one another, and they counted their votes.  They knew before the meeting which side would prevail.  At the meeting both groups presented their proposals, and the one with more votes had their proposal accepted by all.  The meeting was the formality of making the decision.  The decision had already been made before hand.


Everyone participated in harvesting the ginko seeds and working on the project.  All worked together.  The seminarians knew they had to work together, and that they could count on everyone when their proposal would prevail.


In making decisions it is important for everyone to “save face.”  It is okay to have disagreements, but in the end everyone must work for the sake of the group.


When working with people in the Japanese community it would be important to have a lot of conversation before the decisive meeting.  If people are heard and listened to, then in the end they will participate in the decision.




The Japanese culture recognizes and honors seniority.  This recognition and honor is done in many ways.  Bowing to one another serves not only as a greeting, but as a way of determining who has seniority, who is the sempai.  The one who bows lower indicates that the other is the senior, or the sempai.  However, being the sempai also has obligations and responsibilities.  The sempai is expected to speak on behalf of the group.  The sempai is also expected to make decisions for the good of those he or she mentors.  The sempai is also expected to be the host and pick up the bill.


The Japanese culture is very hierarchical.  Oftentimes, the people will look to those in authority to make the decision, to serve as the sempai, even in the life of the church.



Volunteers and the nail that sticks up gets knocked down


There is an expression in the Japanese language that translates like this, “The nail that sticks up gets knocked down.”  The meaning of this expression is to reinforce the group- identity, it is not good to stand out.  If one stands out, that person is perceived as “boastful” or “arrogant”.  The group then “knocks down” the person through criticism or social ostracism.


If you apply this idea to volunteers for leadership, then it serves as a reason why a person may not want to volunteer.  People are much more responsive to being asked to serve by the sempai of the group.  Thus, recruitment by the sempai is important in getting volunteers to serve as leaders.


Indirect communication in the Japanese culture and “losing face and saving face”


In the western culture we are taught to communicate directly, and to avoid triangulating others into conflicts.  This works well in a culture that assumes equality of peers.  However, in a culture that is hierarchical and non-confrontational, direct communication in a conflict situation may cause a person to lose face.


Often people will speak to the priest or Senior Warden about a concern he or she may have with another person in the community.  The priest and the Senior Warden are both “sempai” in the community, and easily get triangulated in these conflicts.  They are to listen to the member and help that one find a way not only to forgive, but to “save face.”  When conflict between members become public it is very difficult for them to remain in the group because they will have been shamed.


Thus, when people find themselves in conflict they try to resolve the conflict through indirect communication, which is sometimes also hurtful. The priest, as the sempai of the community, often gets entangled and needs to be very wise in helping both parties “save face” and remain a part of the community.