Many historical investigations dealing with post-WWII developments related to Christianity in Japan view such developments on a continuum, which evolved from the introduction of the Roman Catholic faith by Francis Xavier in 1549, or with the reintroduction of Christianity under Protestant and Catholic missionaries from 1859. Although these significant eras and their historical continuities indeed need to be understood, an overemphasis thereof inevitably blurs the fact that Christianity in Japan has functioned under a radically changed context since 1945. In addition, Japan’s postwar context cannot merely be viewed as an extension of “World Christianity”, since the events experienced by Japanese Christians in the aftermath of the war were unique in various ways (Phillips 1981, p. 1
). One example that testifies to this truth is the fact that Japan is the only nation in the world whose inhabitants have endured the calamitous reality of two atomic bomb attacks.
This article first provides a brief overview of Japan’s socio-economic realities since the aftermath of the two devasting atomic bomb disasters up until today. Second, is a description of the development of postwar initiatives of Christian Social Welfare (Kirisutokyō Shakai Fukushi), including such areas as social reform, medical care, and education. The article then proceeds to investigate, in the third and last part, in which ways discourses about diakonia and holistic care have theologically re-directed the foundational identity and mission of some church denominations.
In Japan, where natural disasters are very prevalent, diaconal response initiatives have recently grappled afresh with the existential realities of human vulnerability and suffering. The research is situated within the emerging ecumenical discussion of megatrends related to diaconal practices and the expanding recognition and significance of care under the rubric of diakonia
(Latvus 2017, p. 11
). In this article diakonia
is understood as a call to action—arising from the gospel of Jesus Christ—which incorporates care for God’s whole creation and seeks to combat many forms of injustice and vulnerability. The last part of the article introduces a brief case study of the diaconal activities of the Reformed Church of Japan.
2. A Brief Overview of Japan’s Socio-Economic Realities after WWII
Japan’s recovery from WWII was multifaceted and complex. The nation was both a defeated aggressor and a devastated victim. Suffering, fundamental changes, and preserving Japan’s heritage were fused in the aftermath of the atomic bombings and the nation’s unconditional surrender.
2.1. From Despair to Prosperity within One Generation
Up until 1945, State Shinto(ism) paired the imperial mythology—believing the emperor to have absolute sovereign power—with family ethics based on Confucian values. Japan’s domestic religion integrated Chinese religious and European political values with its age-old mythology to perform a dedicated nationalistic purpose. From 1890–1945, all Japanese school children were systematically indoctrinated into this nationalist ethos by the regular, solemn recitation of the Imperial Rescript on Education.
World War II left an indelible destructive impact on Japan, dislocating the lives of millions of people who faced the brutal aftermath of two atomic bomb attacks. The bombing caused lasting wounds but also ended Japan’s militarist ambitions to conquer East Asia under its imperial kingdom. Japan had to “embrace defeat”, as the title of John Dower’s compelling history of its WWII failure, and its subsequent restoration under Allied (mainly American) occupation during 1945–52 (Dower 1999
), suggests. The nation was left not only with the enormous job of reconstructing shattered cities and an economy in ruins but also with the healing of its people’s torn lives. Somehow the very sense of what it meant to be Japanese had to be renewed (Phillips 1981, p. 3
A pervasive victim consciousness shot up, as many Japanese viewed themselves as suffering the worst attack in world history. Local poets such as Horiguchi Daigaku (quoted in Dower 1999, p. 119
) tried to remedy the pessimistic predicament by inspiring the downtrodden nation to pick their heads from desperate despair (in 1946).
The country has become small
Raise your eyes
to the treetops,
to the sky.
Dower succinctly summarizes the Japanese people’s state of mind as “a populace sick of war, contemptuous of the militarists who had led them to disaster, and all but overwhelmed by the difficulties of their present circumstances in a ruined land. More than anything else, it turned out the losers wished both to forget the past and to transcend it” (Dower 1999, p. 24
The novelist Ryū Murakami
) argues that, during those years of utter hardship directly after the war, no one had anything but hope. Apparently, this hope—to survive and thrive again—pulled many people forward. Over the next couple of decades, following the end of the occupation period (from April 1952 onward), the nation miraculously managed to show remarkable resilience by making an astonishing economic recovery, with success upon success in terms of its high-paced economic growth in the boom years of its postwar “bubble economy”.
This “miracle” happened without the traditional power foundations: no missiles, no raw materials, no geopolitical conquests, no colonies. Indeed—claims Gibney
), as well as Mason and Caiger
)—humanly speaking, Japan’s principal source of energy has been the ingenuity of its extraordinarily talented, disciplined, and highly motivated nation society. However, Korea (South and North) would dispute this claim. Instead, they point to US aid—which Korea (neither South nor, of course, North) did not receive to the same degree.
At any rate, the nation’s sustained industrial output and its creativity in new-age consumer electronics received global acclaim by the 1970s. Japan’s economic growth sparked a diversity of technological creativity known as Kaizen, a notion credited to Toyota Motors, of perpetually improving an existing product. This creative ingenuity has a long history that evolved from Japan’s relationship with China, which led to the phrase Wakon, Kansai (“Japanese spirit, Chinese learning”). Since the Meiji era, when Western scripts coincided with Japan’s national rebirth, the archaic trademark was changed to Wakon, Yōsai (“Japanese spirit, Western learning”).
One outstanding trait during the 1970s and 1980s is that the country achieved a noteworthy balance between a high level of job security for (male) workers and phenomenal economic growth. The state organized its “super stable society” (chō antei shakai
) around the three pillars of family, corporation, and school. The “salaryman” (sararīman
) and “education mama” (kyōiku mama
) were upheld as ideals in this era. Families were reconstructed and progressively lost their traditional educational, economic, socio-political, and caring duties. A new nuclear type of family was formed, which increasingly relied upon external social organizations such as schools and other government institutions. Japan grew into an all-middle-class society, focused on continual improvement in production and sustained long-lasting jobs, social connections, low crime rates, and no war or military engagements. Through its unique “Japanese management style”, the country became well known for its vast wealth and its highly advanced consumer culture (Allison 2013
The impact of the Allied occupation on demilitarization, democratic values and redistribution of power and wealth, paved the way to a thriving, equitable economy and unmatched growth in population health. Bezruchka et al.
) deem it as the “legacy of dismantling the prewar hierarchy”. Japan’s super stable society was aided by a new postwar constitution facilitated by Japanese values. The largely equal spread of wealth has enabled the nation to sidestep much of the socially corrosive effects that income inequality inevitably causes.
Wilkinson and Pickett
) have convincingly indicated that the quality of a nation’s social relations is built on material foundations because the scale or income differences have a determining effect on how people relate to each other. Wilkinson and Pickett
’s (2009, pp. 18–24
) core finding is that inequality in societies in fact makes a concrete difference to health and social problems. Making this applicable to Japan, in terms of the following indicators (at least up until 2009), Japan was mostly outperforming other top developed OECD nations with regard to the following indicators: level of trust, mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, children’s educational performance, teenage births, homicides, and imprisonment rates.
Japan currently boasts a distinguished position among other global leading economic powers. It has the fourth largest proportion of the global domestic product, although it is ranked eleventh in the world in terms of population size (Statista 2021
), taking 34th place in the 2022 IMD World Competitiveness Ranking (out of 63 economies) (IMD World Competitiveness Booklet 2022
). In addition, socio-politically, the Japanese have gained a constructive benefit from their WWII experience of defeat: most Japanese have consistently made their loss the touchstone for affirming a commitment to peace and democracy. Dower
(1999, p. 30
) calls this “the great mantra of postwar Japan.”
2.2. Post-Bubble Challenges and Major Natural Disasters Expose a Fragile Society
However, this bright evaluation does not reflect the full picture. In her book entitled Precarious Japan
(2013), cultural anthropologist Anne Allison perceptively analyzes some of the contemporary challenges which the nation is facing. Allison notes that postwar Japan was sometimes nicknamed “Japan, Inc.” Its amazing productivity was based upon a system of lifelong work attachments. It relied upon the “marriage” between the social factory at home and the postindustrial factory at work. However, this partnership has recently been falling apart, particularly after the economic bubble burst more than three decades ago in 1991. Allison calls this breakup the shift from “Japan, Inc.” to “liquefied Japan”. Her book’s title suggests that “precarity” is a word of the times, worldwide, especially now in Japan. Employment is becoming increasingly uncertain, unpredictable, and risky, although the national unemployment rate has been consistently low over the past decade (currently at less than 3 percent—O’Neill 2022
Moreover, the Heisei
era (1989–2019) can be defined by many keywords, a significant one being “insecurity” because of an ever-present threat to safety, specifically induced by natural disasters. There were two major earthquakes—the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 that destroyed Kobe City, killed 6434 people, and left thousands homeless, and the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 (also called “3.11” because it occurred on March 11), which caused an enormous tsunami, a loss of almost 19,000 lives, and a disastrous nuclear crisis. In addition, the worst act of terrorism in modern Japanese history occurred in 1995—in the form of a sarin gas attack — by the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyō
on the Tokyo subway system (Martin 2019
The 1990s also introduced Japan’s era of unsafe nationalism, its new era in Japanese-style management, and the labor “big bang”. The so-called liquefication or flexibilization of work and life ensued. With growing unemployment, near-zero interest rates on investments, and many pension funds close to bankruptcy, the postwar generation began to question why they had worked so hard to achieve so little. According to Takeda
) more risk-taking, individual responsibility, and entrepreneurship were expected to rid the Japanese of the old “dependency culture”. These aforementioned factors contributed to why this decade is also called the “lost decade” (ushinawareta jyū nen)
: a period of economic stagnation after the economic bubble burst. Significantly, Japan’s lost decade is now being compared to the current socio-economic crisis in the United Kingdom (Rees et al. 2023
A long period of deflation ensued, with Japan’s public debt-to-GDP ratio hovering far above 100 percent for more than 26 years up until today (IMF 2023
). This situation also led to a more disparate society (kakusa shakai
) because of widening income inequality and a shrinking population, consisting of a dangerously high proportion of elderly people. Recently the birth rate dropped to 1.34 (children per household) in 2021, far below the required 2.1 for a stable population and the lowest on record since 1899 (Yamamoto 2022
). This drop prompted Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to take drastic measures of “unprecedented levels” (Otake 2023
), asserting that it is “now or never” for this gerontic society (Murakami 2023
). With almost 30 percent of people older than 65, O’Neill
) contention seems to be spot on: “with high age comes less capacity, and Japan’s future enemy might not be an early death, but rather a struggling social network”.
2.3. Current Realities and Challenges
The above-mentioned compounding issues elicit far-reaching anxiety because of the realities and fear of an increasingly unequal society. In 2017, the richest 20 percent of the Japanese population earned more than six times as much as the poorest 20 percent (see Chiavacci and Hommerich 2017
). Social scientists generally agree that inequality has increased, but to what extent has been a controversial point (2017, p. 3). However, there remains no doubt that the mood during the first decade of the new millennium was distinctly different from the first postwar years. Murakami
) asserts that Japanese people have become consumed by materialism (since the 1980s) to such an extent that the urge and hope for anything beyond private acquisition were fading away. But how does this consumerism influence people’s emotional and spiritual lives? Today, it seems that hope is the only thing Japanese people do not
have, according to Murakami. Has the emphasis on accumulation made the existential need to hope “unnecessary” for many Japanese?
Japan’s efficient global market capitalism system has been thriving on instant gratification and technology, but that hype did not last. The fragility of Japan as a superpower surfaced gradually. The national television network (NHK) broadcast a documentary in 2006 which coined the phrase “working poor”, following an OECD report which stated that the rate of relative poverty in Japan was among the highest of its member nations. Another new phrase entered the Japanese lexicon: “net cafe refugee” (netto kafē nanmin), representing a multitude of laid-off workers, the drifting poor, who made Internet cafes their transitory places of refuge and otherwise would have become homeless (Heisei hangover).
Most of the above-mentioned factors have caused a sense of being out of place for many Japanese, a kind of disconnectedness (ibasho ga nai
) that deepens the pain of social isolation and loneliness. Another NHK special series in 2009 even labeled Japanese society as relationally disengaged (muen shakai
). In the strikingly competitive, education-credentialist Japanese society, stress levels are high. This situation leads to overwork (for adults) and extra class (for children) culture, which causes intimacy in family relations to dwindle. Deep company loyalty paired with disproportionate working hours and over-time expectations breeds a culture in which there is even a term for sudden death by overwork (karōshi
). A white paper released in 2022, reports a larger than 60 percent increase in the number of people liable for mental illness benefits induced by work-related stress, for the decade between 2009–2019 (The Japan Times 2022
Loneliness also surfaces through prevalent phenomena such as hikikomori
, defined as “adolescence without end” in the subtitle of his book by popular psychiatrist Tamaki Saitō (Saitō and Angles 2013
). This label refers to socially withdrawn individuals who refuse to leave their homes or bedrooms for anywhere from six months to many years. These young people are also called the “homeless inside of home” numbering between 500,000 and 2 million (Ismail 2020
; Borovoy 2008
). Loneliness is obviously experienced by many more Japanese than just socially withdrawn youth. The impact of the Corona pandemic and multiple other factors have also brought the intense socio-economic impact of loneliness to the fore in many other contexts, e.g., in Europe (European Commission 2023
In Japan some researchers—such as anthropologist Chikako Ozawa-de Silva
)—have even labeled it a loneliness epidemic, arguing that Japan can be viewed as a society whose people lack care (by society as a whole) and whose “structures promote a sense of loneliness rather than one of belonging and connection”. Ozawa-de Silva further contends the 3.11 disaster and its concomitant displacement, as well as the “perceived mishandling of the situation by government, media, and corporations, led to feelings of isolation, abandonment, and hopelessness” (2021, pp. 6–7). She connects this collateral sense of disorientation and despair to the prevalent difficulty of living (ikizurasa
) and lack of life meaning (ikiru imi
) that lead many Japanese to social disconnection and even suicide.
Instances of people dying alone—from abandonment, lack of care, or simple “disinterest”—as well as the fear of solitary death (kodokushi
) are rising (Allison 2013, p. 40
; Ozawa-de Silva 2021, p. 136
). In general, social ties between people get superficial because of being overly busy. Family life has obviously not been left unchanged either. The “salaryman” and “education mama” morphed to make space for ikumen
(men who take care of their children) because of the drastic drop in households with male breadwinners and non-working female spouses (between 1990–2017). Concurrently, there has been a steady increase in dual-income households (Kawasaki 2019
Japan had the largest gender gap among advanced economies in 2022, ranked 116th among 146 countries (WEF 2022, p. 10
; The Japan Times 2023
). The prolonged coronavirus pandemic is likely to lead to a widening of this gender gap. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven (already high) suicide rates up, especially among women and youth (Yoshioka et al. 2022
). Not surprisingly, critical voices from outside have recently been raised, and the pressure to adapt to a globalizing world—as a country with a resolute homogeneity (98.5 percent is ethnically Japanese)—has been stiff. For example, Noah Sneider
), The Economist
’s Tokyo Bureau Chief, asserts that Japan’s cultural essentialism is for Japanese “both a source of pride and a cover to ignore examples from outside … Japan’s treatment of women is retrograde, its protection of minority rights weak, its government services archaic and its climate policy dirty. Many institutional frameworks are stuck in the past.” Therefore, Sneider echoes Yoshimi Shunya of the University of Tokyo who contends that the current Reiwa
era (since 1 May 2019)—characterized by its post-growth economy—needs to evolve from the faster, higher, stronger motto of the Shōwa period (1926–1989) to “diversity, resilience and sustainability”.
(2013, p. 59
) even calls Japan “post-welfare, post-family and post-relational”. The following question comes to mind: how can the church be(come) a place (ibasho
) of meaningful connectedness, where lonely people gain social recognition, belonging, and hopeful support in hard times?
4. Holistic Care and Church-Based Diaconal Responses in Japan and Beyond
4.1. Ecumenical Trends in Diakonia
The 1980s represent a turning point in the ecumenical understanding of diakonia
. Kjell Nordstokke
(2016, p. 145
) believes that a paradigm shift took place during that decade in conceptualizing global diakonia
, with emphasis on three basic dimensions:
Its ecclesial dimension: the Church is by her very nature diaconal.
Its holistic dimension: diakonia integrates the Church’s whole mission in the world.
Its prophetic dimension: diaconal actions oppose injustice and the abuse of power, and boldly defend the cause of suffering and marginalized people.
From the 1980s, the ecumenical movement—primarily the WCC and the LWF (Lutheran World Federation—provided opportunities for discussing these three dimensions. Influenced by Orthodox theology, the message from the Vancouver Assembly in 1983 defined diakonia as follows:
The “liturgy after the liturgy” is diakonia. Diakonia, as the church’s ministry of sharing, healing and reconciliation is of the very nature of the Church. It demands of individuals and churches a giving which comes not out of what they have, but what they are. Diakonia constantly has to challenge the frozen, static, self-centered structures of the Church and transform them into living instruments of the sharing and healing ministry of the Church. Diakonia cannot be confined within the institutional framework. It should transcend the established structures and boundaries of the institutional Church and become the sharing and healing action of the Holy Spirit through the community of God’s people in and for the world.
This statement clearly expresses the ecclesial (i.e., church-based) and missional character of diakonia
, with mission understood as the action of the Triune God, and not primarily as an activity initiated by the Church. Today, this conviction—that diakonia
is at the heart of the Church but simultaneously, through God’s common grace, reaches far beyond the Church’s institutional frameworks—is shared broadly by theologians and church organizations. The missiological and ecclesiological dimensions of diakonia
were also re-affirmed strongly by the WCC at its latest two consultations on diakonia
—held in Sri Lanka in 2012 and in Germany in 2022—resulting in its latest publication on this topic titled Called to Transformation: Ecumenical Diakonia
). As a gospel-centered appeal to action, diaconal initiatives respond to challenges of human suffering, vulnerability, and injustice, including care for all of creation in a disaster-prone Japanese context.
4.2. The Need for Diaconal Care in Japan Today: Re-Directing the Foundational Identity and Mission of the Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ)
This article’s Section 2
explained how Japan is facing a wide-ranging array of socio-economic challenges that touch the very fiber of Japanese people’s everyday lives. The need for care in multiple ways is self-evident. Psycho-spiritual needs have surfaced more poignantly since the Kobe-Awaji-Hanshin Great Earthquake disaster (1995), after which the concept and practice of heart care (Kokoro no Kea
) has evolved in Japan. Since then, the term “care” (ケアin Japanese katakana, the writing system for foreign loanwords) has been affixed to many other areas of daily life, including medical (医療ケア), psychological (心理ケア), and social/public welfare (社会・公共福祉ケア). Inagaki
(2010b, pp. 86–87
) identifies the need for more detailed studies on the variegated notion of care to better understand the concept in Japanese society.
One indication of this new awareness concerning care, within a church context, is the 70th Anniversary Declaration of the Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ), which was published in 2016 in the wake of the catastrophic 3.11 triple disasters. The Declaration includes a specific mention of diakonia
for the first time in RCJ history, describing the work of serving with love (diakonia
) as the essence of a church living out (of) the gospel (RCJ 2016, pp. 135, 176–77
). Faith communities are learning anew how to be relevant within a post-3.11, post-Corona society. Up until now (since its founding in 1946) the RCJ has created a very stable foundation. Teachings in fields of dogmatics, confessional creeds, and church history have been strong emphases. This focus was necessary and stays vital in such a context where Christianity has a small demographic presence, lacks socio-political power, and needs to survive strong onslaughts from other religions.
But a new era has dawned and the RCJ faces new challenges. Those challenges include becoming more intimately involved in the existential realities in society and grappling more intensely with people’s search for meaning and hope in a precarious Japan. The RCJ must put its dogmatics and faith declarations even more into concrete action. The RCJ is gospel-centered and appreciates the contribution of other evangelical churches and their approach to diaconal activities in the Japanese context. Many such evangelically orientated churches base their diaconal involvements on recent declarations such as the Cape Town Commitment
of the Lausanne Movement (which was translated into Japanese at an early stage), albeit not always overtly so. The current RCJ Moderator, Prof. Yasuhiro Hakamata
) also situates church-based diakonia
within the framework of European Reformed Churches’ confessional heritage, in particular the Barmen Confession
and the Westminster Confession of Faith
The RCJ shares a history of mutual diaconal involvement of more than two decades with the Dutch Reformed Family of Churches in South Africa. From a South African perspective, for instance, the Belhar Confession and its emphasis on justice, reconciliation, and unity remain potently valid and relevant as a check-and-balance for the church’s diaconal practices. The author has actively served on the RCJ Synod Diaconal Activities Committee for the past seven years and acts as a bridge-builder between the Japanese and South African contexts in this regard.
4.3. RCJ Case Study: Seikeikai Seeking Justice and Dignity for Vulnerable People
Seikeikai Social Welfare Institute—previously known as Sekeikai Vocational Aid Centre, hereafter referred to as Seikeikai—was started by Rev. Makio Ihara (1926–1994), who suffered from muscular dystrophy that developed when he was 16 years old. Ihara became an RCJ pastor after graduating from Kobe Reformed Theological Seminary, overcoming many challenges as a person living with a disability. He began working at RCJ Tadanoumi congregation in 1951. Seven years later he started typewriting with his wife at the church, to earn money for their daughter’s tuition.
At that time, people with disabilities were generally hidden from the public in Japan. Most people living with disabilities were unable to receive an education until much later (1979), when schools for people with disabilities became mandatory. Many people with disabilities were not actively taken out in public by their families, and often neighbors did not even know of their existence. They were not allowed to get married or have children. Fundamentally, their human dignity was denied. This lack of opportunity to find meaningful work, combined with Ihara’s timely typewriting endeavor that was earning a good income, attracted the attention of people with disabilities in that area and eventually led to Seikeikai’s founding notion: “If there is no place to work, let’s make one ourselves” (Yoshida 2016, p. 24
) (my translation).
The National Pension Law came into effect in 1961, and some people living with disabilities intentionally did not work, relying instead on disability pension. However, they wanted to live as active members of society, even if it meant doing basic, menial tasks. Seikeikai was officially established in 1960 as a facility to support the independence of people with disabilities by helping them acquire skills (in the town of Tadanoumi, near Hiroshima). The training program at Seikeikai consisted of three pillars: functional training, vocational aid, and biblical guidance (daily worship). Training began with reading and writing skills, and trainees’ attitudes gradually shifted through the program’s three pillars. The slogan of Seikeikai changed from “I don’t want to be a cripple” to “I want to be a taxpayer”. That was a significant change, which Ihara ascribed to the daily Bible teachings that positively influenced trainees’ attitudes (Seikeikai 2015, p. 62
). Missionaries from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Christian Reformed Church (North America) also made constructive contributions to functional training.
In an empirical study of Rev. Ihara’s work, RCJ pastor Hiromu Yamaguchi
) focuses on the theology behind his diaconal practices at Seikeikai—as performed by Ihara himself and under his influence—to provide insights into the characteristics of diakonia
based on Reformed theology. Yamaguchi explored Ihara’s theology by analyzing his lectures, notes, as well as his (posthumous) book, published at Seikeikai on its 55th anniversary. Furthermore, Yamaguchi conducted 15 (semi-structured and unstructured) interviews with Ihara’s family members, former trainees, and employees that worked alongside him at Seikeikai.
Ihara has indeed opened the way for many people living with disabilities to become independent, go out into the world, and even change their local communities. Yamaguchi
(2022, pp. 32–33
) highlights two distinctive attitudes of Ihara that were ever-present. One was Ihara’s view of God and people. The other was his unwavering principle-based convictions. His work was based on God’s sovereignty and the gracious election of his people, and his theology was guided by the existential question, “Why and for what purpose do people with disabilities exist?” Ihara accepted his own disability, after a long struggle to find the answer to this question, through the grace of God’s election. He saw the God-given purpose and raison d’etre
of people with disabilities in John 9:3: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him”. Ihara
(2015, p. 14
) phrases the matter as follows:
It is true that life remains a mystery to us, that God’s acts cannot be measured by our small scale, therefore we cannot fully comprehend His will. But we want to leave everything in God’s hands and entrust our lives to His will. Since our God is the Triune God, it is only natural that He should guide our lives in a way that we cannot grasp, because everything in our lives is included in His plan.
Furthermore, Ihara strongly believed that God loves us as worthy human beings, created with a purpose in His likeness. He believed God is a God of justice who opposes those who discriminate according to earthly standards. In line with this conviction, Ihara (quoted in Yamaguchi 2022, p. 42
When we think of human rights, we always presume the “image of God”. We are to be respected because we bear the image of God. We must correct our views and attitudes toward all people with disabilities. I hesitate to be so explicit, but I am a person living with disability myself, so I often say, “This body (of mine) may be distorted, but the image of God that resides in it, is not broken down.” We would do well to remember this.
Ihara’s work, seen from the perspective of diakonia
, was not merely the work of philanthropic assistance and care. He not only preached about diaconal practices, but he also embodied them and served as an advocate on behalf of many vulnerable fellow brothers and sisters. Ihara viewed people with disabilities as prophets who testify to God’s revealed truths with their own bodies. Moreover, Ihara believed that a society in which people with disabilities coexist with able-bodied people as dignified human beings is the ideal society expressing the will of God (Ihara 2015, p. 28
In Ihara’s lecture transcripts and writings, the concept of diakonia
is rarely directly mentioned. However, Ihara’s theology and practice were based on the constructive acceptance of his disability and the embodiment of the characteristics of Biblical diakonia
. Ihara divided the work of the church into four categories: worship (leitourgia
), witness (marturia
), fellowship (koinonia
), and service (diakonia
). He further asserted that these four dimensions are fulfilled when they are performed in a proper balance (Seikeikai 2015, p. 351
). This intricate relation between these four dimensions is affirmed widely today by those who study and practice diakonia
intentionally (see, for instance, Nordstokke 2013, pp. 287, 297
based on Reformed theology that was demonstrated through Ihara and Seikeikai was/is not merely loving service for the sake of individuals. It is a diakonia
with the broader societal transformation—towards justice and dignity—in its scope, toward the perfection of the Kingdom of God through Christ. Seikeikai trainees, who started to walk as human beings with dignity, began to transcend the barriers that separated them from the community. In recent years the annual Seikeikai Cultural Festival has at times (before the Corona pandemic) attracted more than 1000 people from the community, having become a beacon of hope that has broken down barriers of societal discrimination against people with disabilities. This broader effect echoes the conviction of Stanard
(2015, p. 8
) that, “Diakonia, therefore, is not an end in itself, but rather an instrument used by God, together with others, to build an inclusive and just community, an oikos
, a household in which the entire creation is included, enjoying the fullness of life intended for all”.
In today’s complex society, welfare services are also required to have a higher level of expertise. With the support of the local community, Seikeikai has gradually transformed into a large welfare institute with many diverse projects (see https://seikeikai.ecweb.jp
, accessed on 12 March 2023). Although today only a handful of its staff are overtly Christian, they are called to Christian Social Welfare work and thereby participate in the building of God’s Kingdom for His glory in their community. The RCJ today continues its close relationship with Seikeikai. Many of its members support Seikeikai’s work financially through church offerings, participate in its activities as volunteers, promoting its diaconal involvement in the region and beyond.
4.4. Context Matters: Diakonia in Japan Compared to Western European or Other Settings
The Inner Mission
under the influence of Johan Hinrich Wichern (1808–81) was the key diaconal actor in Germany during the mid to late nineteenth century. According to Nordstokke
(2020, p. 175
Diaconal institutions therefore grew and developed independently from official church structures. As public welfare services began to be introduced in some of the North European countries by the end of the 19th century, it became natural for the diaconal institutions to cooperate with them, and also for diaconal workers to find work there, with the consequence that in some cases more conections were developed between diakonia and state than between diakonia and the official church. The diaconal movement became a leading force in developed professional health and social services in Europe in the 19th century.
Discourses about diakonia have progressed significantly (over almost two centuries) in Germany. Diaconal services have become an unmistakable, “natural” part of the wider European church-state-community situation. But the same is not true in Japan, where the formal connections between public welfare services and churches only started being considered after WWII. Those fragile connections are still being forged.
In multiple global contexts, churches are called to create networks in the nexus between their diaconal practices and local communities. Christians embody there the love and compassion of Christ in so-called “social spaces”. Johannes Eurich
), current director of the University of Heidelberg’s Institute for Diaconal Studies (DWI) uses this concept (of social spaces) fruitfully when he analyses it in Western European contexts regarding the collaboration between local churches and diaconal organizations. In those contexts, many churches have outsourced their specialized diaconal care to diaconal agencies that have become “professionalized service providers that operate according to the logics of social markets and professional standards. Their connection to the church has been reduced to institutional links, so that there is a discussion about the diaconal profile of such market-oriented diaconal organizations” (Eurich 2020, p. 2
Considering the above-mentioned in connection with Japan: social spaces in Japan are not as accessible as for instance in many European (post-Christendom) countries, where Christian volunteerism manifests easier because of a long history of well-established professional diaconal agencies. Although the natural connection between churches and local communities/society—including the creation of new social spaces—are facing fresh contemporary challenges in European contexts as well, those frayed connections do not approach equal comparison with the huge gaps that exist between (or even the total lack of) state-church-community relations in Japan.
Christian Social Welfare organizations face huge, unique challenges in a Japanese context where Christians represent a radical minority. Churches are socially marginalized and do not wield much socio-political power in society, most are indeed fighting for survival. It is not easy to leverage enough resources—primarily in terms of human capital (trained staff)—to create influential networks in communities. Collaborative partnerships are not fostered easily. Notwithstanding, churches are called afresh to respond in the best ways possible and to seek and create opportunities to serve in a Japanese context fraught with uncertainties, disconnectedness, and existential loneliness (as was made clear in the first part of the article).
However, it takes a significant amount of time to foster connections and create meaningful social space networks between churches and public/social welfare organizations in Japan. A church such as the Reformed Church in Japan is one case in point. Christians in the RCJ are re-examining the theological bases on which they had been/have not been actualizing social work. In the declaration of the 20th anniversary of the RCJ’s foundation (in 1966), the notion of loving deeds (ai no waza) and Christian witness (evangelization) was already presented as two sides of the same (gospel-)coin, as follows:
Concerning the practice of Christian evangelism, the teaching and example of the Lord Jesus Christ shows [us] that it should not only happen through the Word, but also by acts of love. The evangelism of our Church must also be a unified practice of theology and diaconal service of love.
This declaration was written during the 1960s, when the RCJ’s awareness of the importance and need for diaconal work started. Missionaries had created the seedbed and systems—through Christian Social Welfare agencies—for such an awareness to grow (as was explained earlier). However, within the RCJ during the first postwar decades Christian Social Welfare initiatives were not yet directly connected to the church and properly understood within the explicit framework of diakonia. Some of the pioneers of the RCJ—like Rev. Makio Ihara (Seikeikai) and Rev. Terunori Aoyama who founded the RCJ Shizuoka Centre for the Blind—were attuned to the needs of vulnerable people in Japanese society. They and their groundbreaking work were/are a gift from God to the RCJ.
Eventually, various natural disasters (especially since 1995) have let the “wave of awareness” break onto the “shore”, i.e., onto churches’ doorsteps. These crises forced open a fresh realization of the potential and significance of every Christian believer’s diaconal responsibility and calling, as opposed to some high ideals that only a few selected individuals can attain. The RCJ (among other churches in Japan) is realizing anew that diakonia
belongs to the core of the Church’s existence. Evangelism today is viewed differently than in the immediate postwar “Christian boom” era when evangelistic mega-events were the order of the day. Now, instead, small evangelistic churches realize the need to be open to the immediate community, e.g., by building bridges through kindergarten cafeterias our soup kitchens. All such congregations will not (yet) necessarily call such ministries diakonia
, but they are essentially equal to diaconal work, sometimes as part of Christian Social Welfare, other times in partnership with secular NGOs and so forth.1
In South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church is also making a deliberate turn to re-envision diakonia
and create new networks for its missional-diaconal practices in social spaces (see Van der Watt 2019
). In other parts of the world (e.g., in the UK) the same activities might be called integral or holistic missions or even the social responsibility/ministries of the church (e.g., in the US). New discourses about diakonia
abound and this is indeed a global, evolving conversation.
This article gives a descriptive overview of post-WWII developments and the current state of church-related diaconal initiatives in Japan. Diakonia is indeed at the heart of the Church but simultaneously reaches far beyond the Church’s institutional frameworks. The central research question has been: why is there a complicated relationship between church-based practices defined as diakonia, and the work of Christian-based social welfare organizations, in the post-WWII Japanese context?
The basic finding is that such a problematic relationship exists primarily because there are indeed many differences between the practices and approaches of, on the one hand, pioneering individuals through Christian Social Welfare, and, on the other hand, congregations (this article focused on the RCJ) that were/are involved in diaconal activities in postwar Japan. Although the theological foundations of church-based diakonia and Christian Social Welfare agencies share a common, ecumenically validated origin (i.e., the Bible and the example of Christ, the True Diakonos), these respective expressions of the Missio Dei show disparities.
It was further assessed that a tension field remains between the state and church in terms of their respective expectations and foundational principles. In Japan (different from many European countries) Christian volunteerism does not occur readily because of a long history of well-established professional diaconal agencies. Correspondingly, sizeable gaps characterize state-church-community relations in Japan. Moreover, because churches are mostly socially marginalized and do not possess much socio-political power in society, it is deeply problematic to raise enough resources to create influential networks in communities. Collaborative partnerships are not fostered easily.
Nevertheless, this study points out that there is a need to expose Christians to diaconal care experiences as volunteers, individually or as organizations. In recent years the concept diakonia—enacted through a variety of diaconal practices—has become more widely used in the RCJ. Diaconal involvements via the RCJ’s connections in South Africa have existed for more than two decades. Recent RCJ activities include diaconal study tours to, and volunteer work in, South Africa and Cambodia as well as financial support to Myanmar and Turkey/Syria. As a result, there is a new awareness, albeit a gradual awakening, of diakonia as a core element of being Church, in local communities and beyond.
Sharing the gospel through diaconal activities exceeds, but does not necessarily exclude or hinder, the affirmation of a spoken message or the sharing of God’s Word. Amid the pain of social isolation and loneliness, abandonment and hopelessness experienced by many in Japan, the following questions are posed: how can the church be(come) a place of meaningful connectedness (ibasho), where lonely people gain social recognition, belonging, and hopeful support in challenging times? How can Christians be more intimately involved in the existential realities in society and grapple more intently with people’s search for meaning and hope in a precarious Japan, where hope for anything beyond private acquisition is apparently fading away for so many?
This article also examined the influence of some leading Christian Social and Public Welfare practitioners and scholars. Collaterally, it was concluded that the Christian motivation behind welfare practices—nowadays increasingly defined under the rubric of diakonia—often serves as the root of volunteerism. The claim followed that diakonia should primarily be understood as church-based activities of care, especially within the fields of education, social work, and physical/mental health. Such activities can be performed by all Christians (lay and ordained), both collectively as local congregations/faith communities, as well as by individuals through professional social welfare agencies, if/where such agencies exist.
In the last part of the article, a case study from within the Reformed Church in Japan was examined. Seikeikai Social Welfare Institution’s work and the theological inspiration and depth of its founder, Rev. Makio Ihara, were presented to highlight the quest for justice and human dignity, specifically for vulnerable people. The initiatives of Ihara and Seikeikai, viewed from the perspective of diakonia, were found to be more than philanthropic assistance and care for the sake of individuals. Ihara embodied diaconal practices and served as a prophetic advocate on behalf of many vulnerable people living with disabilities.
The ongoing challenge in Japan, of finding a constructive balance between serving Christ/Church and serving the Emperor/State, remains. The article illustrates that Christian individuals and Christian-based welfare organizations are not merely serving the Japanese state. Instead, such individuals and/or organizations served/are serving people in need because of their biblically founded convictions (to serve their neighbors)—sometimes explicitly defined as diakonia, but often not—within the restrictions and with the support of government resources.
The important task of theological reflection on practices of diakonia remains, namely on who God is, who we are as humans, what situations vulnerability and need exist, and how we can care justly in the midst thereof. Christians need to constantly examine the theological bases on which they conduct social work, as well as the methods they use to do so. Diaconal churches are called to creatively and constructively connect social welfare and Christianity as a serving community that embodies the love and compassion of Christ, whilst keeping a critical distance towards societal systems and structures. This article makes a small contribution to this ongoing task in an interdisciplinary way within the Japanese context.