With Christ in the School of Shame

恥について 一 On Shame: Part I


This is a Japanese proverb that translates something like, “When you are traveling, you leave your shame behind you.” It means that when Japanese travel, no one knows them, so they don’t have to be embarrassed by their actions as they normally would in their everyday community. It’s probably why 旅行 (travel) is such a popular hobby for Japanese. And hailing from Myrtle Beach, it immediately makes sense; I’ve seen countless tourists leave their shame at home.

But this proverb has a lot more to say about Japanese culture than how tourists act when they travel. My first response when I heard, “When you are traveling, you leave your shame behind you…” was, “Well, unless you are traveling to Japan.” Because Japan is a place where shame reigns. And for Westerners, living in Japan can be a cram school for shame.

I joke seriously with my Japanese friends that I first learned about shame in Japan. What I mean by that is not that I never experienced shame in America (reflecting on just one day of Middle School eliminates that wishful thought). But rather, in Japan, I’ve come to more fully understand shame and all of my own shameful experiences. I’ve become a student in the school of shame.

In Japan, shame is a way of life. People are not as often plagued with personal guilt as Westerners may be, but shame permeates everything. Japanese culture is extremely collective which means a hyper-awareness that any decision you make (especially the mistakes) will impact everyone else around you, either for their peace or dismay. Everyone is always watchingwaiting… Nothing is more important than relationships and community. But community is the breeding ground for shame — AND the bullying, depression, and, all too frequently, suicide, that accompany it. So life is ultimately a balancing act of bringing honor to your community by the sweat of your brow, without any mistakes, because mistakes bring shame not only on you, but also on the community.

For those who have never been to Japan or who have only visited for a short period of time, this may be hard to understand. It took me a couple of years to begin to process the intricacies. A proud westerner surrounded by a thousand wordless coded critiques which were as difficult for me to understand as the Japanese language itself. But school remained in session.

Shame is a feeling, a force, quiet and loud at the same time, that surrounds you and makes itself intelligible to you, as it seeks to choke hold you into submission. For those on mission in Japan, serving faithfully means giving thanks in every circumstance (1 Thessalonians 5:18), including the opportunity to learn and understand this power that controls so much of life. Not only in Japan. Japan serves as a classroom for personal history as well. And in the Western world shame seems to grow (as David Brooks discusses) at least as quickly as shamelessness — and both are problematic. Living in Japan offers insight to where the West may go.

It also offers help understanding biblical passages previously misunderstood. It’s not that I got the exegesis wrong, but I had trouble with the context for hermeneutics. The Bible speaks as powerfully about shame (its origin and absolution) as it does guilt. The fall does not simply bring guilt, it brings shame. The biblical idea of Sin is not simply legal transgression, it includes shame. The atoning sacrifice of Christ is of sin the “double cure”,

Save from wrath and make me pure.

Lessons are learned, and as shame communicates more clearly, I better understand the Lord’s condemning query, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11). And I better love Jesus, who “endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Hebrews 12:2). And I pray for hope (cf. Romans 5:5).