This month, two common questions were heard among many foreign residents here: “What are you doing for Christmas?” and “Are you going home or staying here?”

The questions are asked and answered in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Tagalog, to name but a few languages, and more often than not, the word “Christmas” is used, as opposed to “holiday” or “winter vacation.” Although the underlying perception of “not having to work” is integral to these words or phrases, the specific use of the word “Christmas” demonstrates, to some extent, the significant place that a historically religious holiday holds for some foreign communities here in Japan.

While in Western societies observers have noted that Christmas has become more about families than faith, it could be argued, perhaps for the very reason of lack of family or extended family support, that some immigrants or foreign residents in Japan find Christmas to be the time in which they return to a childhood faith, albeit temporarily, or discover a new or renewed conviction in religion.

As one American colleague wryly noted: “I don’t think I believe, but old habits are hard to break and I have to confess I look forward to singing along to Christmas carols because I’m reminded of my childhood. It’s a piece of my old home in my new home. Also every year my mother will inevitably ask some version of ‘What’s the Christmas service like in Japan?’ ‘Does baby Jesus look Japanese?’ She and everyone else I know back home just assume that I’ll be going to church because that’s what everyone does at Christmas, right?”

The withdrawal of institutional religion from its main position of influence within Western societies has often left the impression that religion has been “written off” or has no intrinsic social value in post-industrialized societies. Yet on a daily basis, religion still finds its place in the continuation of socio-cultural rituals and, even more notably, in the inevitable and invariably stressful situations of human experiences, such as death, suffering, loss and other forms of dramatic change.

It is perhaps in the latter situation of changing circumstances that immigrants and foreign residents often resurrect their religious selves. While some remain indifferent or even hostile to organized religion, there are others for whom religion provides some form of cultural continuity, as well as psychological benefit to the migratory trauma that can occur from moving from one country to another.

From my initial research into religion as a form of social support for foreign communities in Japan, I spoke with a number of individuals who stated that they rediscovered religion out of an emotional need to connect with others who shared their experiences in Japan, such as:

“I’ve lived in Japan for 26 years. Before I came to Japan, I never believed. My husband is Japanese and is not religious so I did not have religion in my married life. I was lonely when I came here and started to remember my childhood. I came to this church one day to see other Europeans like me. I never stopped going from that day 22 years ago.”

Similar to research findings in other countries, other individuals implied that through integrated religious practices, they were better able to stay connected with their culture: “Once a week, I attend a service in Tagalog. I hear my language and talk freely. I don’t have to think in Japanese. We bring traditional food and have lunch together. On Sunday, I’m home, though I’m in Japan.”

Notably, a significant proportion of people expressed an increased religiosity while living in Japan, which mirrors one of the immigrant experiences elsewhere: “Going to church has now become the most important and most enjoyable part of my week. I work and exist in between going to church. The community sustains me here in Japan. I never thought I would ever say or do such a thing before I came here.”

Multicultural families, in particular, spoke of their religious beliefs with the support they received from church communities, whom they perceived to be more welcoming of diverse family structures: “It’s important for my children to feel it’s OK to be half-Japanese and half-African. In our church, the community is international and they (the children) feel happy because everyone is so friendly, more like family. They look forward to coming here every week and they can see other children who are like them, mixed. They know that God does not discriminate; only Japanese society does that.”

I also observed that churches had a tendency to re-adjust some of their priorities because they are ministering to foreign communities. In addition to offering spiritual and emotional support as well as other traditional ministry services, they are also inclined to take an active part in providing specific social services for newcomers, such as offering free language classes and free anonymous health checks to all workers, documented or otherwise, by multilingual health professionals.

Some churches in a socioeconomic role have assisted foreign residents with networks in which to find employment. In the last few years, many individuals from neighboring Asian countries have been made redundant from Japanese companies, and churches have stepped in to help them: “When they made us leave our jobs with our company because of low orders, all of us foreign workers didn’t know what to do. I have four children to support back home. I decided to stay in Japan. I got government benefits, but I had to move from my apartment. The church helped get me a room and helped me with everything else. I could get free health checks at the church because I was feeling very stressed with having no job. Everyone in the church was so kind to us because they understood our situation. Thanks to God and the church, I’m now working.”

Churches are also involved in supporting foreign wives who suffer from domestic violence and who may be apprehensive about approaching a Japanese social service to assist them: “I never went to church at home, but when I suffered from domestic violence, it was this church that helped me and my children. I didn’t know what to do because my husband was Japanese. My friend, who was a Christian, told me she would ask her minister to help me. Her church helped me. They never asked me to convert. They helped me and then I told them I want to be a Christian and help other women like me in Japan.”

Churches were also able to specifically assist foreign families affected by the 3/11 disaster. One Catholic nun noted that some foreign widows did not know how to cope with the situation: “Their husbands had passed away and sometimes the husband’s family as well, so they were alone with their children.” She observed that often there was an unspoken expectation from some Japanese social services that the foreign wives should return to their home countries and her response was “but this is their home now. Their children are born here, go to school here and speak Japanese. They can’t take the children back to the Philippines; it would be a foreign country for them. The Japanese government provided everything material for people like temporary housing, but what they did not provide or maybe what they cannot provide is the counseling. That’s what many foreign widows need, someone to listen to their stories about what happened to them. We go and visit them often so they know they are not alone.”

In these respects and many more, it is not difficult to understand why some foreign residents turn to or, in many cases, return to religion and religious institutions to assist them with their spiritual, emotional and physical needs. Their religiosity is not only illustrating the individual desire to seek out explanations for life’s ever-changing circumstances, but points to a real need for more social support mechanisms to be established for foreign residents and multicultural families in Japan.

So this week in Japan while an intense energy dominates Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical churches, as they work out their schedules for multilingual services and organize Christmas activities for children and families, many foreign residents will be filling the church pews, not only for Christian observation of a holy day but equally for a sense of home, some emotional and physical support, and a feeling of community: “I really look forward to the Christmas service, regardless of nationalities, our religion gives us a sense of belonging in a foreign land. Whenever we’re at church, we feel that we’re at home, that we’re with our families.”

Marina Mia Cunin, Ph.D., is currently researching religion as a form of social support for foreign communities and multicultural families in Japan.

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