It’s still strange to me when Japanese ask, “Are you a Christian?” because for me being a Christian is normal. I grew up in a church-going family and while as a boy I was aware of other religions and had Jewish classmates, Christianity was practically all that I knew. The question still feels weird. It sometimes comes from women wearing crosses or crucifixes around their necks as a fashion. I indicate their accessory and ask if they are Christian, then they return the inquiry. Even among literate, educated people there is confusion evident, for example, when they ask you “What religion are you?” when what they really mean is “What denomination are you?” Although, to be honest, I’ve encountered plenty of the same from Canadians wrongly imagining Protestantism and Catholicism as separate religions. In any event, back to the question. “Are you a Christian?” reminds me that it is not the norm here.
Japanese who are religious - Buddhists, Shintoists or Christians - are not members of congregations or denominations. That’s not how they conceptualize their religious participation. Instead, they are “followers” of sects. That’s how you always here it whenever such a thing is reported in the news: “The pastor of X Church, which has 300 followers, was charged with fraud.” I think there is no Japanese word for “denomination.” The same word that translates as “sect” is the closest you can get to it even though “sect” has a very different, decidedly negative meaning in English.
I think this testifies to a different idea of how people form groups and participate in communal life here. Despite the fact that in modern times Japanese culture has changed remarkably, the old values and social patterns remain surprisingly - or not so surprisingly - strong among the young and under the skin. Japan is a very hierarchical society and perhaps the idea of a Christian pastor as a shepherd, a ministering person who leads only where the flock directs him, is fundamentally alien. Japanese need to follow leaders - teachers, coaches, team captains, office managers, political faction heads, voluntary leaders of neighborhood associations (responsible for neighborhood patrols and summer festivals), “schools” of tea ceremony, kabuki acting, ikebana flower arranging, shogi chess, stoneware ceramics and martial arts sects, yakuza crime syndicates (the Japanese mafia even have offices with signs announcing them - “Yamaguchi Gang Office” - making it easier for police to locate them), condominium superintendents, hotel general managers, etc. Japanese always defer to and authority, a “sempai” - which, coincidentally, explains why trial by jury is a useless idea in this culture. It backfires. When it was tried during the American Occupation, jurymen always deferred to the opinion of the eldest male member.