Worldview is quite simply, how one views the world. What do I value? What is reality? Why am I here? What is my purpose? Is there a god or gods? What of the afterlife? What is morality? What you think about these important life questions, and many others that I haven’t listed, make up your worldview. Yesterday, I was talking to a Japanese friend and I realized how different our worldviews are. Sometimes it is easy to forget that I am not Japanese, since most of my friends are Japanese, I speak Japanese way more (and sometimes better) than I speak English, and I much prefer Japanese food to American food these days. Heck, I don’t even crave Taco Bell anymore, and it was just a few years ago that I went 18 times in a month. I find myself feeling more and more at home here, and I smile as I think of the days when I was constantly asking my mom to send goodies from the U.S. to soothe my homesick heart. Now, with the exception of deodorant (Japanese women apparently don’t stink) and peanut butter (not a fan of Skippy, which is the only brand I can find here), there are few things that I need anymore from the U.S. I honestly cannot understand why people buy American toilet paper and paper towels from Costco–I am perfectly content buying 12 rolls of toilet paper for three bucks at the local grocery store. As the song says, I think I am turning Japanese.
But every now and then, something happens to remind me that I am not Japanese at all, and while Japan and Japanese people have more in common with America than ever, they are miles apart in how they see the world. As I think about it, though, I am not sure if the difference in worldview is due to cultural or religion. I think it is a little of both, because in the case of Japan, culture and religion cannot be separated. Yesterday, my friend and I were talking about food. This is often a topic of conversation, as I am in the process of finally overcoming an eating disorder that has plagued me most of my life. Although I am in a better place than I have been in many years, I still struggle with enjoying food and eating without guilt. My friend was saying that she can enjoy food because she is very thankful to the animals and the plants that sacrificed for her so that she can eat. This comment took me by surprise, because as a Christian, I am thankful to God for providing the food, more than to the animal for sacrificing his life for me. My Christian worldview can be traced back to the book of Genesis, where God told Adam that he had dominion over all other creatures on the earth. When I told this to my friend, she said to me, “So you are saying that animals have no purpose other than to provide food for us?” While of course I do not think that providing food is their only purpose, I do think that humans are more important than animals, because we are the only living things created in the image of God. Animals lives are valuable, but not nearly as valuable to God as those of human beings.
I realized there is a stark worldview difference between America and Japan, between Shinto and Christianity. Japanese Shinto is an animistic religion that believes god is in all things, and therefore, sees all living things as sacred. My friend told me that she believes that all living things desire to reproduce and want to leave behind descendants, so rather than thank a god, she feels the need to thank the one who has made the actual sacrifice. In fact, one of the reasons that the Japanese say, “itadakimasu” before eating is to acknowledge and give thanks to all the living things (rice plants, animals, etc.) that have sacrificed themselves for the sake of the human race. Perhaps that is why the Japanese have such a highly developed food appreciation culture, and why they seem to value nature so highly. I have lived here for 16 years and I just realized yesterday that many Japanese value animal life as much as human life, for while our lives may be more complex and our ability to think and reason more developed, our lives are not any more valuable than those of other living things.
This is in stark contrast with Christianity, which sees humanity as belonging to a different created order than other living things. Humans, being made in the image of God, are seen as the only created beings that possess and will, a soul and the ability to reason. Humans were made to be in relationship to God, and animals and other living things were not created for this purpose. Although animal life is important, it does not compare at all to the infinite value that God places on human life. When I meditate on this reality, I realize that there is more of a religious influence on worldview than cultural, because many animal rights activists in the U.S. also place animal life on the same level as that of humans. Perhaps they are influenced by animism even if they don’t see themselves as religious. Most Japanese wouldn’t call themselves religious either, or even say that they believe in a god, yet how they see the world, and the factors that shape their decision-making processes, says differently.
While I can’t share the Shinto worldview that places animal and plant life on the same plane as human life, I must admit that I do admire the respect that the Japanese have for nature. I doubt there is any other culture in the world that is so in tune with the changing seasons. Everything in Japanese life, from their seasonal foods to obsessive recycling to the start of a new academic year, is in rhythm with nature. Japanese kids in elementary school are taught the names of just about every insect and plant in existence, whereas I can only identify a rose and tulip. And as for insects, well, I think all black insects just must be cockroaches. Sometimes I think that we Christians focus so much on the afterlife that we forget that God has placed us in this world and ordered us to be good stewards of it. I don’t accept the Shinto worldview, but I can learn from it.
I have been humbled recently by all that I have been learning about Japanese culture from my friends. I am deeply humbled because, even though I have lived here many, many years, I still feel like I know so little. But I am so crazy about Japan and the Japanese people that I will commit the rest of my life to learning as much as I can about this culture that has so captured my heart. Above all else, my heart belongs to Jesus. So, to be honest, there are many religious and cultural concepts that I will never be able to embrace or maybe even understand. But unless I know what shapes the Japanese worldview, I will never be able to truly love the Japanese people. So, I will spend the rest of my life trying to find the heart of Japan, because Japan will forever have my heart.
Lastly, if I am mistaken in my interpretation of Japanese culture or Shinto worldview, or if you have any comments or feedback about anything I have written, please let me know. I am still a student of this culture, and I will never profess to know everything.