Week 4: Cultural Concepts May 11-17



  • Ch. 28, Pg 233-242 “The Japanese Custom of Gift Giving,” Zoto 贈答
  • Ch. 27, Pg 223-232 “Simplicity and Elegance as Japanese Ideals for Beauty,” Wabi-Sabi 侘び寂び
  • Ch. 4, Pg 35-40 “The Japanese Sense of Beauty,” Bigaku 美学
  • Ch. 3, Pg 23-34 “Descent from Heaven,” Amakudari 天下り


Visit a Japanese Church. Observe different ways that the cultural characteristics in the book are seen at the Japanese church.

  • (If that is not possible, interview someone who has attended.)

Writing: Weekly Paper: “Impressions and Points from Your Reading”

  • 1. Interact with the discussion questions at the end of each chapter.
  • 2. Discuss how these cultural characteristics might affect your ministry with Japanese people.


  • Pray daily for Japan and Japanese, using Operation Japan. Make a note in your blog concerning the information and/or your prayer.

Extra Suggestions:


  • 3

    Emily's Notes on Japanese Cultural Concepts

    Emily Frey

    Reading about giri and Japanese gift giving obligations wear me out. I don’t know how to help students around this in everyday American life, except by example. Proving there is no shame or guilt without gifts? I know it always throws me off when students gift me with such practical things as is acceptable to them. Maybe I can help them understand the differences in gift-giving between our cultures with the help of this chapter!

    I had lots of ideas looking at the Japanese concepts of biaku and wabi sabi. I think a scene in one of my family’s favorite American movies might capture wabi sabi. In Hook (1991), there is a scene where an old and forgetful Peter Panning has returned to Neverland to save his children that Captain Hook has kidnapped in revenge. The old Peter sits with his lost boys at the dinner table after several days spent training to try and remember who he was, how to be a boy again, how to fly with fairy dust, and renew strength to fight Hook and save his children. In this particular scene, all the Lost Boys sit down, set out an elaborate spread, and “dig in”. The old Peter shows disappointment and lusts after the delicious dinner the boys seem to be enjoying greatly as a game of imagination. But it seems all imaginary so Peter is at a loss to enjoy it. Eventually the lead Lost Boy begins to pick at Peter for being such a pansy and not enjoying dinner with everyone else (after all it was originally his game being played). Peter and the lead boy get in an ugly round of name calling with the lost boys cheering on each jeer and jab. In one final moment, Peter delivers his worst name calling insult and at the same time takes a spoonful of some imaginary food in a bowl and flings it at his opponent’s face. It starts out imaginary as he carves it out of the bowl but as it hits the opponents face, it turns into real food. As imagination gave way to reality, all of the boys were able to see the food come alive in reality. “You are doing it, Peter,” they would say. As the camera pans back, you can see the whole imaginary spread transform into a real food feast. Another example of wabi sabi might be our fond description of an older house as “having character”.

    The book mentioned that “ancient customs are fast disappearing” becoming “inflexible and formalistic, and lacking in creativity”. This reminds me of how I feel sometimes about the observance of Christian Church sacraments and rituals. I feel this is a great place for the Church to enter in with the work of the Holy Spirit inspiring new forms or the essence of traditional arts. “Without such mental effort…As a consequence, it has become a form of entertainment”. It was interesting the impact of materialism and entertainment suggested in opposition to truer forms of beauty and art.

    • Ethan Silveus

      Hey there Emily you had some great thoughts, and I really enjoyed reading what you gleaned from these chapters! I think it was great how you connected the sacraments to the fading ancient customs of the Japanese people. The sacraments are a beautiful tradition of the Church and I agree that the disappearing customs of ancient Japan is very reminiscent of that of the Church! Great thoughts! Keep it up!

    • Gregg Hutton

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Emily. Your connecting it with the “Hook” scene is great! I remember that part of the movie and it does seem to fit well. I think wabi-sabi can also be found in Japanese cooking. If you are able to go to an authentic Japanese restaurant, you’ll likely find lovely dishes set out on simple, yet elegant tableware. The attention to seasonal ingredients as well as delicate seasonings and presentation makes the meal a delight to the eyes and the palate.

    • Linda Grimms

      Emily, I appreciated your reference to the sacraments in terms of a loss of their rich heritage in the church. It is an interesting observation, though, in the context of the reading on wabi-sabi. I wonder what how the Japanese church approaches the rich beauty and heritage of the sacraments?

  • 1

    Ethan's Notes on Japanese Gift Giving

    Ethan Silveus

    This weeks reading was really great, and I really enjoyed the books reading and also Anne’s blog about the Japanese gift giving customs. As an American, once again, this custom of gift giving contrasted very differently from what I am used to. For us there is usually no obligation whatsoever that comes from receiving a gift, however, I find that many times it does seem to stir up a notion of generosity in me that then I want to give that person something, but there is no social code or expectation that that is what I have to do. So, reading about how the Japanese have this expectation and it was really fascinating learning that it is a part of the culture in way more ways than I expected! I believe the reading said there can be an upward of 80 some expected gifts given every year! That is so many! We traditionally have weddings, birthdays, Christmas, and maybe Valentine’s Day, but other than that we don’t really have to many gift giving expectations. Learning there were so many was definitely a shock to me! Speaking of Christmas, the reason for the season, as we like to say, is to celebrate the ultimate gift ever given to mankind, Jesus Christ, and from what I have talked with some Japanese people about, it is really hard to except Christ as a gift because there is no gift that can be given that is greater. Do you ever find in ministry that this concept hinders or keeps people from excepting Christ? If so how would you advise explaining it to them instead? Thanks for reading and I hope you have a fantastic day!

    • Emily Frey

      Hey Ethan, so good to hear you sharing about God’s greatest gift to us in Christ. I would think that would be a mind-blowing concept for my Japanese friends and would take some time to sink in–maybe even a lifetime of dying to the idea that you did not owe and could not pay Christ back except in your worship and praise of who He is. Maybe we are too fast to want our friends to accept Christ and instantly bear fruit in a new life. I think it may be too big of an expectation for immediate results. On the other hand, constantly reiterating how a God with such extreme status differences from us chose to come down to our level and lift us up would be an amazing story!

  • 2

    Week 4 Observations and Questions


    贈答It can be burdensome on occasion, but I find Japanese gift-giving culture to be beautiful in many ways. I think it leads people to think beyond themselves on a regular basis, whether they are traveling or entering a new season. It also allows people to build and maintain social connections with a wide range of people. Where I’ve seen it become negative among my own family and friends is when “Giri” feels like a bitter obligation and gift-giving becomes transactional or even competitive. I have memories of gift exchange moments within my family that have been tinged with obligation and even guilt. 
    Of course, there have also been times where gifts within my family have felt like an expression of love and connection. Transactional love is contrary to God’s love, but I don’t think Christians would benefit from completely resisting Japanese gift-giving culture because there are ways that we can reflect God’s love even though these “obligatory interactions”. I appreciated Anne’s story of her own experiences with gift-giving, particularly her friends’ comment that her friends “rarely get to eat American brownies and cookies, and it makes them happy to give okaeshi.” Maintaining these social obligations is an avenue for meaningful connections and can even allow for creativity sometimes. I’m not very good at giving or receiving gifts, but I’m praying that God helps me grow in this while I’m in Kanazawa. If anyone has insights or experiences on showing love through giri gift-giving, I would love to hear them.  美学I love the concept of もののあわれ. The chapter mentioned the idea that dying flowers have a deep, moving beauty, and might even be considered more beautiful than those in full bloom. When I read this, my mind went to Isaiah 53: 
    “He grew up before him like a tender shoot,    and like a root out of the dry ground.He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.He was despised and rejected by mankind,    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.”
    Jesus’ beauty was not obvious to others, just like those falling petals. As Christians, we know his beauty is not just drawn from his tragedy, but I wonder if this would be a good passage to read with Japanese friends to start a conversation (since it seems Christianity is seldom viewed in this way). It is also may be a chance to better understand their perspective of もののあわれ. Can anyone think of any similar passages in the bible? 

    • Ethan Silveus

      Hey there Hana! I really liked reading your thoughts, and I especially liked your connection between the dying beauty in flowers and Jesus! It was something that I hadn’t thought of and I really enjoyed reading along and processing that connection! I unfortunately don’t have any examples like that to share, but it is for a great concept to meditate upon, and to think about as we aim to reach the unreached Japanese people!

    • Emily Frey

      Hana, amazing insights! I also love learning more and more on the Japanese concepts of pain in beauty, unseen mystery behind art, and more sentimental or melancholy feelings valued. It is a respect and value on the tried and true or age and experience that bring great wisdom and sovereignty in a way it seems.
      A walk through Ecclesiastes or Lamentations might be good books of the Bible to study with Japanese friends, allowing their insights to shed new lights on Scriptures not as popular to us Americans. Also the book of John is always a good one to start with because of the imagery and more abstract connections. Although, sometimes this also can make it more complicated!

  • 1

    Week 4


    I love how there are so many occasions that gifts are exchanged throughout the year and I feel I would love to participate in this because everyone seems to receive and give something on these special days. I also like the how “giri” was introduced because I have naturally felt this way before reading this book so I can relate to how if someone had done something generous or gave me something with significant value, I always had this guilt that I needed to pay them back at some point and I still do this. It’s funny because I don’t want people to return the favor but if someone does something for me, I need to repay them back at some point or I will feel rather selfish for some odd reason.

    I know understand the nature of simplicity in Japan because I’ve recently adopted a minimalist mindset a couple of years ago by getting rid of a lot of stuff I didn’t need and stopped buying things that were just going to collect dust on the shelf. I’ve always loved Japanese minimal design and I do believe that less is actually more. This goes for Haiku poems as well and how they are very beautiful because you know that there is so much more in such a few words.

    I think the book reveals a good amount of information on Amakudari but I still don’t quite fully understand it yet. To be honest, it was hard to follow so I’m going to read it again. However, I did ask my friend from Saitama whose father was involved in this realm of business and she didn’t really like talking about it as it does seem more like a negative thing since it did talk about the bubble bursting in 1989?

    • Gregg Hutton

      Good thoughts, Chris. Thanks for sharing how you’ve found the “less is more” idea has helped you. Sadly, it seems our western consumerism has encouraged Japanese to get more stuff. Some people are embracing the minimalist lifestyle and I applaud them for that.

      I agree that the Amakudari chapter was challenging to understand. There seems to be such a web of connections that it would be very difficult to grasp it all. Connections are so important in business, especially in Japan! I think there’s still so much going on and the suggestions in the chapter would be good if there were people willing to stand up for that. Not sure if it will happen. It would certainly take the power of the Holy Spirit to give a politician the resolve to do what’s best.

  • 0

    Week 4 reflections

    Linda Grimms

    In my own lifestyle, my approach to gift-giving is very pragmatic. I ask my sons and daughter-in-law to tell me what they want – because I used to be so disappointed when my own gift-idea for them was not really something that they would use. At this point, it works well within our family system, and mostly succeeds because people receive something that they actually want to use.

    Japanese gift-giving seems like an awesome opportunity to bless others, but then it has the giri-aspect of obligation for return gifts. I want to learn how to see the return obligation as continuation of blessing flowing out of a spirit of grace and love.

    Practical question – for people like myself who only visit briefly in Japan, how can I apply this practice of gift-giving when I am in Japan to express simple appreciation for hosts/hostesses, and people I will only meet on a casual, one-time basis? Before my last trip to Japan, I stopped at the “Made in Oregon” store, and I picked up a variety of small food gifts so that I would be prepared to provide gifts to Japanese people I met. But when I was in Japan, I was uncertain about who to provide these small gifts to. Suggestions welcome!

  • 0

    Gift giving


    Gift giving in Japan is a big deal and as an outsider I didn’t even realize how big of a deal it was until reading the chapter and Anne’s blog. We recently sent a gift to friends in Tokyo, and we don’t really know how that relationship will be affected.

    The idea of giving a gift and essentially requiring a return gift is a heavy burden. It is heavy on both sides. How much to spend? Does this occasion require a gift? What if I don’t get a gift back? I just received a gift, and they said you don’t have to give a gift in return. What do I do?

    The messiness of the situation can confuse what is a beautiful practice. Gift giving continues and maintains relationships. It’s a way of building the trust and respect of people close to you. I think the gift giver needs to be aware of the dangers of locking relationships down into conveniently distant boxes. A certain level of friendship and intimacy based on the kinds of gifts exchanged may plateau a friendship.

    Again Japanese relationships are based a prearranged choreographed dance. We have to know when to step and what kind of things to do to fit in. As foreigners I think we have the benefit of being able to skip some steps from time to time, but we can disarm others by knowing what to do and doing it.