“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” Colossians 3:11
In the natural world, it is common for similar species to congregate together for purposes of security and survival. There are quite a variety of names for these different animal clusters. For example, a group of cattle is called a “herd.” Wolves gather in a “pack.” A collection of lions is referred to as a “pride.” Fish swim together in a “school” and penguins huddle side-by-side in a “colony.” Birds fly in a “flock,” baboons live together as a “troop” and an infestation of caterpillars is called an “army.” Along a similar vein, the Japanese tend to identify themselves as belonging to certain social groupings that are described as being either “uchi” (内) or “soto” (外). Uchi means literally “inside” and soto means “outside.”
This uchi/soto distinction is a basic concept woven throughout Japanese society and is even reflected in Japanese language patterns. In contrast to the West, with its focus on the individual, in Japan, inter-social relations and group consciousness take a much higher priority. People generally view themselves as either uchi or soto depending on the particulars of their immediate circumstances and their self-perceived identity within a given setting.
Nowhere is this more evident nor more complex than in the workplace. For example, within a division of a company, one typically regards his or her boss as soto and everyone on their own level as uchi. This perception determines the language patterns one would use when addressing someone considered above you and therefore outside of your group. However, in the case where you are speaking to a person from another company, then you would regard all the personnel of your company as being uchi, which would correspondingly affect your mannerisms and speech patterns. The general idea is that those who are outside of your group should be honored, and those within your group should be humbled. Such patterns of perception and behavior are also evident within schools, clubs, various social circles and even within churches. Obviously, such self-classifications are not static due to ever-changing circumstances, but they do serve to provide one’s need for identity and security within a hierarchical environment.
The concept of uchi and soto is evident on a macro level as well, shaping Japan’s national perception in relation to other countries. It is therefore common practice for the Japanese to refer to themselves as “we Japanese” and all foreigners are classified as “gaijin,” translated literally as “outside person.” While this tendency towards nationalism is common throughout the world, the uchi/soto concept adds another layer of separateness that can make it even more difficult for foreigners to fully integrate into Japanese society.
Such social and ethnic distinctions are certainly not unique to Japan, as the world is rife with divisions based on numerous factors. The message of the Gospel, though, and the establishment of the early church cut across these ancient and discriminatory lines in an unprecedented manner. Even the old barriers between the Jews, or God’s adopted people, and those on the outside known as “Gentiles,” were forever broken down through the power of the cross (Colossians 3:11). More importantly, we were all outside of the grace of God, regarded as “soto,” but in Christ, we are now eternally “uchi.” This stunning change is the miracle of the church and an amazing testimony of the mercy of God.