To Understand Returnees (1) ~ Who Are Returnees?

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1. Who are returnees?

Let’s look at two examples first.

Case1:Ms. A (single woman) 

The first time in my life that I met a Christian was in the UK. He/She was very nice to me, and I started to go to church and learn about the Bible. It was a local church. Everything was in English. I learned English at a Christian English school in a college town. All of the teachers were Christians and I was staying with a Christian family. I had never met any Christians or visited a Church in Japan before. I felt drawn to the way that my teachers and my host family lived, and started to go to church whenever I was invited. There were about 200 people attending the church. Since it was located in a college town, there were many young people especially and the worship was led by a band set in front, with the music directed more towards the youth. People ranging from young children to the elderly attended the service, and everyone was singing with a bright smile looking up at the words projected on the screen. As I had a good command of English, I could understand the general meaning of what was said. By nature I say anything that comes into my mind, so I was comfortable to say what I felt. I attended a Bible study was making progress as I understood the good news (gospel) and wanted to believe. I was asked, “Do you believe in Jesus as your savior?” I answered, “Yes.” Everyone was so happy for me. I learned about baptism, and I asked if I could be baptized. I was told that there will be a baptism two weeks later, so I was able to be a part of the ceremony. I came back to Japan 1 month after being baptized.

           After returning to Japan, I visited a church near my parent’s place, but I was shocked at how different it was. The first service I attended was gloomy and rigid. There were not that many people, especially not many young people. When they worshiped, people would sing while looking down at the hymnal. I did not know any of the worship songs at all. Most of the people would look down or close their eyes when listening to the message. When I told the pastor, “I was baptized in the UK before I came back to Japan, “he was pleased and asked me, “Do you play the piano?”or “Do you like children?” When I told him that I did not have a Japanese Bible, he was surprised. Since I was in an English environment when I got to know the Lord and was first nurtured in my faith, I did not know how to pray in Japanese. As I listened to people pray in the Japanese church, I found it to be very difficult because of the kind of language and level of respect that was used. When I told people that, “I cannot pray,” it shocked them again. Since that time I felt that they gave me the cold shoulder. In the UK, both the pastor and the congregation would call each other by their first names, but in Japan it seems that I have to call the pastor, “Reverend so and so,” which makes me feel rigid as well. My experience at a Japanese church was very different than in the UK, so I am not sure if I would go back to this church. I would like to find a church with similarities to my church in the UK.

Case 2: Mr. B (businessman, stayed in France for a few years as an expat)

Since my wife was a Christian, we looked for a Japanese church upon our arrival in Paris, and I started to play the role of her driver. In the beginning, I would not enter the church building, and only started to join the fellowship as the next step. As I began to feel less alarmed, I found myself listening to the message and started to attend the service. As this church did not have a dedicated pastor at that point in time, usually, board members of the church, such as elders and servants, would take turns to preach, and whenever possible, pastors who were serving in different areas of Europe would come to preach. It was a blessing to have an opportunity to listen to the different pastors’ messages. I was moved by the dedication of the congregation to support and structure the church, which prompted me to know “the way of life to live up fully to what one believes.” Shortly thereafter, I started to read the Bible seriously, decided to become a Christian and was baptized. Both my wife and I immediately began to be involved in serving at the church and were living a fulfilling church life. The church had many comings and goings, thus I heard a lot of stories of brothers and sisters who shared the same experience as mine and who had gone back to Japan earlier. Churches in Japan seemed to be very different and I knew that it would be a challenge, but I went back to Japan with a determination to try my wife’s home church.

         Everyone at my wife’s home church was excited that I had become a Christian and welcomed me. Although it was often the case that I did not agree with the differences with my church in Paris, I was able to talk to my wife and now I feel, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” There were two things especially that took time to get used to. After returning to Japan, I felt that “The church in Paris was really cross-denominational.” Both the preachers and members of the congregation were from different denominations. It may have been less coordinated, but there was freedom. Live and let live. I do remember that my wife was distressed every once in a while because of this. There were many different types of people and she was not able to accept some of them. At the church we currently attend, the phrase “teaching of the order,” or “for the order” Is often used. I am not sure how these overlap with or differ from “for God.” That makes me feel uncomfortable. Another thing is that certain roles assigned by the church are based on seniority. It is not something that is explicitly mentioned, but that is my observation. Important roles are assigned to long-time members/board members (executive members). A new member like myself could only be given a role as an usher. There were less people at my church in Paris and there was no dedicated pastor, so regardless of whether one is new or long-term member, I had the feeling that we were working together to structure the church. Now, I feel that I am somehow surviving in the Japanese society in church, rather than being part of the “body of Christ.” That may be just the way it is in Japan.


As you have just read, one who has heard the Gospel overseas and come back to Japan as a Christian is called a “returnee Christian.” Because their background and process of salvation is different from those who became a Christian in Japan, they may feel strange when visiting a church in Japan upon their return. Also the Japanese church members may feel something different.

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