Today I was reading an excellent article that appeared in a Fall 2004 issue of Japan Harvest entitled, “Missionary Adjustment to Japan: A Reality Check for Leaders and Mentors” by Sue Plumb Takamoto. I first met Sue back in 2002 in Sendai while she was working on her doctoral studies at Fuller. (Now she and her family are in the process of moving to Ishinomaki – check out their blog.) Today, I thought I would share a few of her findings which I hope will be helpful to readers who might be in the process of adjusting to life in Japan (or about to begin the process). I will share a few more of her article later this week.

In her research, Sue discovered that “the average length of adjustment time for the missionary in Japan is 7.8 years with men averaging 8.1 years and women 6.9 years of adjustment. Unfortunately, mission leaders interviewed in this study reported that seven to eight years is the average length of total service in Japan, after which many missionaries leave permanently. The implication then, is that many missionaries leave the field before they have fully adjusted. This finding needs the attention of mission leaders who desire to see missionaries thrive in Japan.” While there will be moments when we will feel like giving up and packing our bags, it is encouraging to see that the time will come when a missionary will eventually adjust to life in Japan. 7.8 years isn’t that long, is it?

The first issue she addresses is the difficulty of understanding Japanese culture. “Veteran missionaries in Japan are often the first to remark that they still do not understand the Japanese mindset…A consistent struggle mentioned by missionaries was that of feeling on the outside and unable to get inside…missionaries are often stymied by the emphasis in Japanese culture of form over function, and appearance over truth…Half of the participants mentioned a church experience in Japan that served as an alienating or negative force in their adjustment. Missionaries are often disappointed and disillusioned that the Japanese church does not provide a natural place of community or meet their spiritual needs.”

The second issue Sue addresses is the difficulty with the Japanese language. As I have mentioned before in previous posts, this is a hurdle that is especially difficult for American missionaries. Sue writes, “Difficulty learning the language affects all dimensions of a missionary’s life, often even altering one’s personality and creating withdrawn and struggling people…Many described the feelings of language learning as that of an infant or small child, completely dependent on others and unable to function on one’s own. As missionaries begin language school they are often surprised by the continued feelings of humiliation and failure. Once missionaries begin full-time ministry, many continue to struggle with language proficiency. Often mission agencies focus on the practice of initial language learning but do not have a practice of ongoing language learning and assessment.”

I can definitely relate to her words, particularly regarding the altering of your personality. Not being able to speak Japanese for years on end can be an extremely painful thing, especially when you so badly want to communicate and talk with the people you have been called by God to serve. I appreciate that Sue is honest in sharing that even if you go to language school the feelings of frustration and humiliation may continue for a long time. The language curve for gaining fluency in Japanese can take 5-15 years, depending on your nationality and whether or not you have learned any foreign languages prior to your arrival in Japan.

Unless you are a genius with foreign languages or already speak Korean, learning Japanese is going to take quite a long time and a ton of work. Take heart that God’s grace is sufficient for these things and He will bless your efforts to learn the language. The Japanese people will appreciate it as well, and every effort you make to learn one more kanji, one more verb conjugation, and one more adjective will be well worth the effort and push you one step closer to your adjustment in Japan.