Researching teaching Japanese abroad, I came across this excellent article by Darryl Wong and Matthew Ropp on Japanese evangelism, specifically Christianity.
The connection via English that they discuss is what excites me, WHY I would want to go to Japan to teach English. I want to help, but I want to understand as well, and explain, and connect. The yearly suicide rate is at 30,000. Christianity is at 1%, according to asianaccess.org. Judging from the mutilations of Christian theology I have seen in manga, most do not understand what Christianity actually is, other than there are angels and demons and they don’t like each other. God alternates between a person, concept, or an abstract being to pray to, no different from a kami.
Since Christianity is not originally an Eastern religion, it has to be translated into Japanese, just for starters and one of the reasons for its failure to spread in Japan is that it is incredibly difficult for a Japanese person to sit down and understand the Bible, even if translated into Japanese.
Wong and Rapp write that, in their experience, English symbolism can be a major problem. “We had one situation where we had difficulty explaining the gospel of John. Most of our students could not understand the imagery of light and darkness, Jesus as the bread of life, and the concept of eternal life. These words have high contextual meaning to Christians, but to the Japanese people the words are confusing. Even when explained in a low contextual form, that is, trying to explain the symbolism, there is still misunderstanding.”
They go on to discuss the Japanese desire to agree with the speaker, even accepting salvation simply because it is easier than saying “no” and potentially embarrassing and/or alienating the friend. Ropp goes on to illustrate:
“Another point about the limitation of the English in communicating the Gospel to the Japanese is the fact that many Japanese people have bought the Bible in their own language, thinking they could comprehend it. My thinking is that they approached it as a literary work. One of my friends, Tomoe, had bought the Bible before she was a Christian, and she tried to read it. However, she could not understand it. Another one of my students, Shingo, was also trying to read the Bible in English and could not understand it. I tried to be his interpreter for all of the stories.”
… “…the life and ministry of Jesus has to be seen through the incarnational lives of the Christians. It is incorrect to believe that you can hand someone a copy of the Bible, whether in English or Japanese, and expect them to believe in Jesus.”
In the second segment, Ropp and Wong discuss the Christian concepts of “God”, “sin,” “repentance,” and how they do not pass over the language barrier unscathed.
The first word, “God,” I knew: the Japanese have hundreds of kami and since “God” is “kami” or “kamisama”, things get confusing very quickly; the Christian God falls into a category of other spirits, demons, ghosts, gods, etc. (If you ever get bored, look up “mythological creatures” on Wikipedia. Japan has an extensive listing.)
The second, “sin,” I had no idea. As Ropp says, “In Japanese, the word is tsumi. Most Japanese people understand this word to mean “crime.” Therefore, if a person does not commit a crime, they do not sin, so they do not need Jesus to forgive them for their sins.” In a survey, one of their students mentioned that “bachi ga ataru,” a Buddhist term, was a reasonable equivalent, but all in all, Japanese does not seem to have an acceptable word for “sin” with its full English meaning.
“Repentance” or “kuiaratame” also interested me. I’ll post the comment one of the Japanese students wrote in full. (Remember, all of these can be found via the link.)
“Q: Is the Japanese term acceptable?”
“Yes, but not in a Christian sense. A Japanese word used for “repentance” is 悔い改め kuiaratame (noun) and 悔い改める kuiaratameru (verb). The 改める(to correct, emend, improve, better, change) part was pretty new to me because we have a word 懺悔 zange which means “to feel bad/confess something bad you have done,” however, I do not think this word has any connotation of “changing the direction from now on.” In that sense, kuiaratame which, I believe, is a translation from English when English speaking missionaries came into Japan… (though I am not certain about this)”
Without a term for moral wrongdoing or spiritual wrong, or a term that describes to change direction from what was done wrong in the past, no wonder it’s nearly impossible for a Japanese person to understand the Bible without someone to explain the concepts in their own language. I can imagine discussions arching out over time, because if there is no word for it, it’s very difficult to explain it. If it occurred, or was recognized, there would be a word for it.