Relating: International students face challenges discussing religion

Tammie Tamara

Tammie TamaraSection Editor

What is it like to believe something almost no one else can even relate to?

That’s what it’s like for a number of international students regarding their religion.

Kyoko Okamoto, a graduate student in communications from Japan, said she follows a form of Buddhism.

“We basically believe Buddhism,” Okamoto said.

While the younger generations are not as religious, she has followed the faith.

“We basically believe our ancestors as our god. Everybody believes their ancestors like their grandma or grandpa as god, and they’re protecting us,” she said.

“I think I can feel relief when I think about my ancestors to believe that they are protecting me all the time. Because they used to be part of my family, I really feel a strong connection between me and my ancestors.”

Christianity is relatively rare in Japan. Okamoto knew very little about it until she came to the United States.

Akiko Sekino, a junior speech communications major also from Japan, said she knew a little about Christianity from her relatives.

“Some people become Christians and that is their choice,” she said. “For example, my cousin was inspired from her teacher when she was in junior high and she decided to be Christian.”

Churches are not as common in Japan as they are in the States, Okamoto said.

“We still have some churches, but mostly we have many temples and shrines.”

Since moving to the States, Okamoto has taken it upon herself to learn about other religions.

“I realized that many people are very religious strongly here. Even younger people go to church on Sundays,” she said.

She attended Bible studies on campus to find out what students believed.

“I found some Bible studies on campus, and they are very eager to teach the Bible to students.”

Sekino said she feels somewhat awkward when issues of religion are brought up in classes.

“For example, I’m taking social problems for my major and sometimes the issue is concerned with religion, and I cannot understand its relationship,” she said.

“I took discussion last semester and we discussed about gambling, and it’s also concerned with moral issues, and so it was really hard for me.”

She finds it difficult to explain her beliefs about ancestors.

“When I say I don’t have a religion, many people are surprised. It’s hard for me to explain.”

Unlike for Christianity, Okamoto said their religion doesn’t have a “Bible.”

“We don’t have any special book so we don’t have special rules.”

However, certain ideas are common sense, such as avoiding drinking and smoking. “Even if the religion doesn’t tell us, it’s common sense for us,” she said.

Talking with other students about religion is difficult for her.

“It’s very hard. Because without knowledge of other religions, it’s really hard to talk to people of other religions. There is so much difference between religions like Christianity and Buddhism, so I think it’s very hard to adjust to other religions. I think it takes a long time.”

Lack of knowledge about other religions goes both ways. International students may not know much about native students’ religion in addition to the students here not knowing about religions outside of Christianity, she said.

“I’m not sure they’re willing to know our religion, so it’s kind of scary to talk about religion.”

She encourages students to know about more religions than just one’s own.

“I feel that it is really important to try to know and understand other religions, even though you have a specific religion, because without such an attitude, it’s very hard to communicate, especially for international students,” Okamoto said.

And how about holidays in Japan?

Christmas is celebrated in Japan, but for social rather than religious reasons, Okamoto said.

“We don’t have religious Christmas,” she said. “Just for having parties and decorating trees, just enjoying the Christmas mood.”

Religious holidays in Japan include New Year’s and Oobon, a week-long holiday in August. People believe that for Oobon, their ancestors will come home. People go to the temples to pray.

“It’s like a family reunion to pray,” Okamoto said.

New Year’s Day also involves visiting the temples and praying, and celebrating with family at a special dinner.

A Japanese proverb says that seeing the sun rise on Jan. 1 will bring good luck.

“I go to see the sun rise,” Sekino said.