A Little History of the Japanese Bible


So, you want to learn the Bible in Japanese, eh? It can’t be that hard, right? I mean, after all those cartwheels and back handsprings you had to do to learn kanji, learning the Bible is gonna be easy peasy, because after all, Western civilization was based on the Bible, so you’ve got this. Right?!? Wrong.

Let’s start with a short timeline. There was no nationally printed version of the whole Bible until after 1868 that marked the end of feudal Japan and the beginning of Japanese modernization. Contrast this with the start of the King James (1611) and you’ve only got a short period of time that the Word has been making it’s rounds in Japanese.

It is interesting to note that the man who brought us the beloved Hepburn romanization system is also the same guy who helped publish Japan’s first official, complete Bible in 1887, titled the Meiji Version after the emperor of that time. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to James Curtis Hepburn for his hard work! Unlike the King James version, the version he helped create is not anything close to spoken, modern-day Japanese and would definitely raise some eyebrows if you decided to quote from it. however, that being said, the version of the Lord’s Prayer sung in many protestant churches might catch you off guard with it’s strange grammar, which is taken straight from the Meiji Version! I think Hepburn would be shocked at how much Japanese has changed and to see his work still making it’s rounds 137 years later!

Thanks to a young generation that wants nothing to do with old Japan, we have a whole new dumbed-down version of Japanese that consists of a whole lot of yabai–which means bad and good at the same time–and a whole lot of kimoi–a combination of the words kimochi (feeling) and warui (bad). If you are made fun of for learning the above, poetic version of the Lord’s Prayer and not keeping up with the times, please remind your mockers that new is not always better.

Today, the two most widely used translations of the Bible in Japan are the New Interconfessional Version (1987) and the New Japanese Bible (1973). To those of you out there trying to decide which version of the Japanese Bible you would like to use, I really recommend the New Japanese Bible (新改訳). It bases much of the text on the King James, so (I was told this, but it turns out that’s incorrect…) It has much of the feel of the King James Version and in my opinion is easier to quote from than the New Interconfessional Version. It is tough at first to get around the “de aru” endings, but for kids you can literally just change this to “da yo.” When I teach my girls using the Japanese Bible, I teach them the verses as is, but try to break it down into something easier to swallow. Don’t be ashamed to switch things up to make it more fun for the kiddos.

One thing you may notice while you’re here in Japan is the lack of people quoting from the Bible. You would think that if people were in church every week for 30 years that they would be able to quote a whole lot of scripture, but unfortunately that is not always the case. Depending on the church, some of the hymns can be sung using phrases straight out of the Meiji version, which makes it tough to follow along. If the songs sound like they were taken out of another era, it’s probably because they were.

Also, if it feels like people are little bit lost speaking about the Bible in Japanese, it’s most likely because they are. In a culture that was built with no strong moral foundation, Japan certainly has a long way to go in assimilating Biblical values into it’s language and society. Since this new generation has been blessed with a version of the Bible that is light years easier to understand that grandma and grandpa’s Japanese Bible, it’s about time Japanese Christians stepped up to the plate in teaching kids from the greatest book ever written!

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