“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
America is generally, a land of informalities as evidenced by our dress, speech and lack of class distinctions. Therefore, the somewhat hierarchical nature of Japan was a new experience for us when we first arrived. This distinction became obvious once we commenced language study, where we learned that communication patterns in Japan vary according to one’s social position and the person with whom you are speaking. There are respectful language forms (sonkeigo 尊敬語), humble language patterns (kenjōgo 謙譲語), and polite language forms (teineigo 丁寧語), that, together, reflect a person’s social standing in relation to their conversational partner.
When we made our first visit to the city ward office, this tendency towards hierarchy was also conspicuous in the working world as we observed the unusual layout of the employees’ work places. In typical Japanese fashion, there were no partitions or cubicles, but instead, everyone’s desk was neatly positioned among rows of other desks facing the manager’s working area so he could easily monitor them. We also learned that it is common to use both name and title when addressing superiors within one’s company, where everyone knows their place. This ranges from the chairman, or the kaichō (会長), who is often an elderly figurehead, down to the lowest staff member known as a shain (社員). In between these two extremes, you have the president (shachō), general manager (buchō), section manager (kachō), team leader (kakarichō) and supervisor (shunin) with many additional sub categories. These positions are clearly indicated using nametags, desk name plates and personal business cards.
This proclivity towards ranking is particularly noticeable in the traditional sport of sumo. There are six divisions of sumo with multiple ranks within them. Life in the sumo world is akin to a commune where all the wrestlers live, work and eat together. However, there are huge distinctions in privileges and duties between higher and lower ranked wrestlers. The differences are evident in the clothing they are allowed to wear, free time allotted to them, required chores, the degree of privacy they enjoy and training opportunities. These distinctions reflect the general sense of senior (sempai) and junior (kohai) relationships that permeate all levels of Japanese society.
In ancient cultures and still in many countries, the tendency to draw lines between people based on factors such as economics, ethnicity, power, religion and gender is not unusual, and sometimes, it is even necessary. But it becomes a problem when individual rights are violated and those deemed to be at the top of this artificially constructed pyramid take advantage of those considered beneath them. Jesus came to break down such biased barriers that can disrupt relationships and lead to divisiveness. Of course, the greatest barrier of all is the one that existed between men and God, which Jesus broke down through His sacrificial death on the cross. In so doing, He also offers healing to the nations, the removal of prejudicial classifications and the redemption of damaged relationships. While it is important to know our place in this world, it is far more important to know our place in the world to come.