Feeling Obligated in Japan
Part 4 Japanese Culture Series
One of the most distinct difference between Japanese culture and Western culture is the concept of Giri. Giri, known as the social obligation of returning a gift or favor to maintain harmony in relationships, still remains a strong force in daily Japanese life.
In ancient Japan, small communities worked together to maintain rice farms. An obligation existed for each small community to help each other in time of need in order to ensure the survival of the community. So, if one farm needed help in some way the community would work together to help that farm. Later, the farmer being helped would be obligated to help others in the community. From this was developed a strong sense of social obligation to maintain harmony in order to keep balance in social relationships. If someone were to help you, you are obligated to help them in return. In comparison in American culture, we have a similar concept, yet we do not expect someone to feel obligated to help us out of necessity if we help them.
In modern times this sense of Giri exists to maintain harmony in relationships. For instance, if someone gives a gift, then the other person must give an equal gift in return. If a gift is not given, then a strong sense of debt or obligation is felt until an equal gift is given in return. To lose Giri is to face strong social shame.
How can this be an issue in ministry? Here is an example: A person in our Japanese church died as a Christian, so their family thinking that the death rites would be like a Buddhist ceremony felt obligated to pay the church a large sum of money. When they found out that they would not have to do so according to Christian concepts, they felt obligated to maintain the harmony somehow. Therefore, they agreed to attend church out of obligation to their dead family member. Can you see how they would not be attending due to their own desire, but rather maintain Giri? Many times Japanese do things out of obligation, so it is hard to determine if their motives are sincere when it comes to faith commitments. Please pray for our ability to discern.