Japanese translations of the Bible: characteristics and suggested uses
(Updated from the article originally published in the Summer 2010 Japan Harvest)
A number of different Japanese translations of the Bible are in use in Japan today. Furthermore, so many non-Christian Japanese read the Bible in addition to Christians that some biblical phrases have become household terms in the Japanese language.
For example, the phrase me kara uroko (scales falling from one’s eyes) comes from Acts 9:18. It means that a piece of knowledge that has been hidden until now suddenly has been revealed.
Another example is semaki mon (the narrow gate), an expression commonly used around the time of the admission exam season. This phrase is derived from Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:13 and was originally used in the context of Jesus’ encouragement to choose the narrow passage so as to obtain eternal life (even if it is hard), rather than choosing the broad passage (that may be popular), but leads to destruction. The narrow gate in today’s Japan, however, usually refers to the way to enter a prestigious school which has a high competition rate for the privilege to attend.
Yet another example is buta ni shinju (pearls to the pigs) found in Matthew 7:6, which is used in practically the same way as another Japanese expression neko ni koban (coins to the cats).
The Christian term “Trinity,” although not found in the Bible, is also used from time to time in the political context in Japan.
I could continue the list with mayoeru hitsuji (straying sheep), fukuin (the gospel), senrei (baptism), kyuuseishu (the Messiah), chi no shio (salt of the earth), and paradaisu (paradise). These examples demonstrate that biblical words have penetrated to some extent into the language and culture of Japan. Moreover, the Bible has deeply impacted some significant Japanese novelists, including Soseki Natsume, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Takeo Arishima, and Osamu Dazai.
Following, I would like to present the characteristics and the suggested use of each major Japanese translation of the Bible available in Japan today.
- The Literary (Classical) Bible (文語訳聖書 Bungoyaku Seisho)1
The Bungoyaku was in popular use from its publication in 1917 2 until 1955, when the Kogoyaku (Colloquial Japanese Bible) came out. Taking to its elegant style, some people continue to use the Bungoyaku even today. We may say the Bungoyaku is to Japanese Christians as the King James Version is to English-speaking Christians. I sometimes refer to the Bungoyaku myself. I find that the rhythm of the Bungoyaku makes it easier to memorize Scripture verses. The Bungoyaku currently in print has furigana for every kanji character to help young people read it. However, the Bungoyaku has numerous literary words and expressions that are not in use today, making it rather difficult to comprehend. As the Bungoyaku is a product of a time when awareness of human rights was not so strong, a person will frequently come across words and expressions that are not considered inclusive today.
The Bungoyaku may be used effectively as an evangelistic tool among educated people with strong intellectual curiosity or fans of modern Japanese literature. You may also quote the Bungoyaku when providing a theme for the celebration of a historical event, or as a sermon title for the funeral of an elderly Christian.
- The Colloquial Japanese Bible (口語訳聖書 Kōgoyaku Seisho) and the New Interconfessional Bible (新共同訳聖書 Shinkyōdōyaku Seisho)
Although the Bungoyaku was highly regarded for its language, the desire for a colloquial translation of the Bible grew stronger over the years because most Japanese had come to use only colloquial language in everyday life. The Japan Bible Society published the Kōgoyaku in 1955 in response to popular demand. The Kōgoyaku is written in plain, colloquial language and was greatly welcomed when it came out and for many years thereafter. The Kōgoyaku is believed to have been largely influenced by the Revised Standard Version in English.
The Kōgoyaku was the only colloquial version available when I was baptized in 1966, and it nurtured my early faith. When the Shinkaiyaku (New Japanese Bible) came out in 1970, most evangelicals switched from the Kōgoyaku to the Shinkaiyaku. The Kōgoyaku has remained in use primarily among non-evangelicals, including the churches of the United Church of Christ in Japan. I also made the shift to the Shinkaiyaku for my daily Scripture reading and primary reference, so came to use the Kōgoyaku less frequently as well.
The Japan Bible Society, publisher of the Kōgoyaku, later published the Shinkyōdōyaku in 1987 in collaboration with the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, non-evangelicals and Roman Catholics have been using the Shinkyōdōyaku both as their official and personal translation. This use of the Shinkyōdōyaku has greatly diminished the readership of the Kōgoyaku. Some people, however, still use the Kōgoyaku, sticking to the translation that they have been using for many years. For others, it is the familiar pronunciation of certain proper nouns in the Kōgoyaku that they prefer over the pronunciations in the Shinkyōdōyaku, including Petero rather than Petoro for Peter, and Epeso rather than Efeso for Ephesians.
As usage of the Shinkyōdōyaku has become more prevalent, I believe people no longer rely heavily on the Kōgoyaku. Being easy to understand, however, the Kōgoyaku is useful as a comparative translation.
- The New Japanese Bible (新改訳聖書 Shinkaiyaku Seisho)
As I have already mentioned, the Kōgoyaku was widely accepted for its simple style. Evangelicals, however, embarked on a new Bible translation effort in an attempt to produce a translation that was truer to the original meaning. The Shinkaiyaku New Testament was completed in 1965, and the Old Testament in 1970. As a plain, yet accurate, translation from the original languages, it grew quite popular primarily among evangelicals. It is believed that the Shinkaiyaku was produced in reference to the New American Standard Version in English.
The Shinkaiyaku resulted from a collaborative effort of Japanese Bible scholars who sincerely believed the Bible to be the Word of God. Therefore we may take the Shinkaiyaku as a reasonably accurate translation of the infallible Word of God. I have been using the Shinkaiyaku for both personal use and public use in sermons and seminary lectures for 40 years. It is easy to understand and accurate. I genuinely recommend it as a reliable translation. The recently published third edition of the Shinkaiyaku has eliminated unpleasant and discriminatory expressions, which has made the Shinkaiyaku even more reliable. A project team has just been launched toward a thorough revision of the Shinkaiyaku.3 While the Bible in the original languages is the infallible Word of God, its translation can never be infallible. Moreover, languages change over time. Thus any excellent translation, including the Shinkaiyaku, eventually needs to be revised and replaced by a new one.
At this point, at least, I would recommend the Shinkaiyaku to seekers and to people interested in the Bible. For those who want to study the Bible more in detail, a number of commentaries and reference books based on the Shinkaiyaku are available.
- The Modern Japanese Bible (現代訳聖書 Gendaiyaku Seisho)
Unlike the other versions discussed so far, the Gendaiyaku is one of the few single person translations in Japan. It was completed by the Rev. Reiji Oyama, a postwar evangelical leader in Japan who has been actively involved in diverse ministries as a pastor, seminary president, and the author of many books in addition to the Gendaiyaku.
Early in his ministry, Oyama began to ponder how to make the Bible understandable without referring to any reference books. Millions of copies of the Bible are placed in the hands of Japanese people each year, but sadly, 90% of these remain unread. Oyama came to believe that traditional translations were somewhat to blame for such a high ratio of neglect of the Bible. He noted that customs and manners in Biblical times are radically different from those of Japan today. One reason the Bible is still somewhat hard to understand is that at times words in the original languages are simply converted to Japanese words and need further explanation. He argued that it is not enough to replace Hebrew or Greek words with equivalent Japanese words. So Oyama’s translation guidelines included amplifying the original words of the text in such a way that contemporary Japanese would understand the nuance of words within the context of the cultural background of the time.
Let me illustrate the point with the phrase “Jesus, you son of David” in Mark 10:47. This is the literal translation of the original Greek, which is “Dabide no ko Iesu” in Japanese. The Shinkaiyaku reads “Dabide no ko Iesu sama” with the honorific suffix of sama, while the Shinkyōdōyaku reads “Dabide no ko Iesu yo” with the vocative yo at the end. Both are substantially the same as the literal translation. In contrast, the Gendaiyaku reads “Dabide no shison toshite oumare ni natta sukuinushi Iesu sama (Jesus, the Messiah who was born as an offspring of David).” Oyama explains that Dabide no ko in Japanese usually stands for David’s son, with David being the father. However, in this context, the phrase means a descendant of David with the descendant being generations apart from David. Oyama concludes that shison is the correct translation to reflect the nuance of the original language when it was written.
Oyama translated the entire Bible according to this principle. The revised edition of the Gendaiyaku was published by Akatsuki Shobo in 1987. It offers the following motto: “You will only need this Bible to understand the Bible”—claiming that the Gendaiyaku is so easy to use that you will understand what the Bible says without referring to any commentary or reference work. I find it highly readable with thoughtful word choice and a dynamic style. As it is a translation by one person, it has not been widely distributed, and thus has a limited place in public use. It would be best to use the Gendaiyaku as a second or third Bible during personal devotions.
Among the four translations I have discussed, I suggest using the Shinkaiyaku as your primary Bible, while using the others as supplemental sources. When you know the characteristics of each translation and use them accordingly, your Bible study will benefit from each one. I pray this article will help many people in their growth in faith and in their efforts in evangelism. For some people, it may also be helpful to recommend first a Bible guidebook such as Seisho Nyumon (Introduction to the Bible) by Ayako Miura, before recommending the Bible itself.
Finally, I would like to give you my testimony. When I was saved during high school, I began to use the Kōgoyaku. When I became a college student, I began to go to another church, where they were using the Bungoyaku. Though I was a little confused at first, I gradually became accustomed to the Bungoyaku and eventually found its style quite pleasant and dynamic. As soon as the Shinkaiyaku came out, I started using it as my primary Bible and I still do. During my devotions each morning, I read through the Bible in different translations. Most recently, I finished reading the whole Bible in the Shinkyōdōyaku, and am now reading the Bungoyaku. In addition, I read a chapter a day in the New International Version in English. My understanding of the Bible deepens through reading different translations. I hope my practice offers something you can draw upon.
Satoshi Nakamura serves as Director of Niigata Bible Institute, Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture. Translated by Atsuko Tateishi.
(This article was originally published in the Summer 2010 Japan Harvest. As most non-Japanese Christians in Japan refer to Japanese Bible translations by their Japanese names, this article has been revised to reflect that common usage. Other minor edits have been made to align the text with Japan Harvest style manual guidelines as of 2017.)
- Ed. note: The Bungoyaku consists of the Meiji Original Bible (明治元訳聖書 Meiji Motoyaku Seisho) Old Testament of 1887 and the Taishō Revised Translation (大正改訳 Taishō Kaiyaku) New Testament of 1917, which is a revision/retranslation of the Meiji Motoyaku New Testament of 1880.
- Ed. note: The original published magazine article read “1888 until 1955″—see footnote #1 above and linked article for the Bungoyaku’s roots in the 1888 Motoyaku.
- When this updated web article was posted in September 2017, the newly revised Shinkaiyaku had been completed and was in process of being released to churches and bookstores.