A brief history of Protestant Bible translations into Japanese

(Updated from the article originally published in the Spring 2010 Japan Harvest)

  1. Translation efforts under the ban on Christianity

From the Edo era through the early Meiji era (1613–1873), the Japanese government banned Christianity. However even during this period, Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary in Macau, was making a first attempt to translate the Bible into Japanese. While stationed there, Gutzlaff opened his home to three Japanese fishermen whose boat had gone adrift and ended up on the shores of Macau. Gutzlaff learned Japanese as he took care of them. He had to overcome many challenges before he completed a translation of the Gospel of John and John’s three epistles. These translations were published in Singapore in 1837.

Next came Bernhard Bettelheim. He was a Hungarian Jew who had converted to Christianity and arrived as a missionary in Ryuku (present day Okinawa) in 1846. In the face of persecution, he engaged in evangelism there for eight years. Bettelheim translated the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John, Acts, and Romans, and they were published in Hong Kong in 1855. He also completed translations of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, which were never published. Since both Gutzlaff’s and Bettelheim’s translations were published outside Japan, they were not available to people in Japan as a result of the country’s isolation policy. The two missionaries’ efforts, however, greatly inspired other contemporary missionaries to Japan.

  1. The Meiji Original Bible (明治元訳聖書 Meiji Motoyaku Seisho) commonly known as the Motoyaku (Original Translation)

Once Japan opened itself to the world, beginning in the year 1859 Protestant missionaries started to arrive. They endeavored to learn Japanese and committed themselves from their earliest days in Japan to translating the Bible. This first translation of the entire Bible into Japanese was a joint effort of several missionaries including James Hepburn and Samuel Brown, assisted by some Japanese individuals. The team completed the translation of the entire New Testament in 1880, which was followed a few years later by the Old Testament, making the entire Bible finally available to the Japanese in their native language in 1888. This translation, commonly known as the Motoyaku, was in broad use for a long time, partly because of its highly regarded literary style.

  1. The Taishō Revised Translation (大正改訳 Taishō Kaiyaku), commonly known as the Bungoyaku (Literary Translation)

The Meiji Bible was elegant, but a little too bookish. Over the years, the demand for a plainer translation grew stronger. A group of translators set to work revising the translation of the New Testament. They strived for a translation which would closely convey the original meaning, as well as be easy to understand. The revision of the New Testament was completed in 1917. However, the Old Testament was never revised. Thus, the Taisho Revised Bible consists of the revised translation of the New Testament and the original Motoyaku Old Testament. Commonly known as the Bungoyaku, the version remained in popular use for a long time. When read aloud, the strong rhythm of this translation is apparent. For this reason, some people continued to prefer the Bungoyaku even after the Kōgoyaku (Colloquial Japanese Bible) was published.

  1. The Colloquial Japanese Bible (口語訳聖書 Kōgoyaku Seisho), commonly known as the Kōgoyaku

After World War II, the shift from literary language to colloquial language became more pronounced in everyday life. The Bungoyaku, although a dynamic translation, gradually became archaic. People no longer understood some of the expressions found in the Bungoyaku. Therefore the Japan Bible Society initiated the work of a new Bible translation, which would be called the Kōgoyaku (Colloquial Japanese Bible). The goal was to accurately reflect the original meaning of the text in plain, colloquial language. Upon publication of the entire Bible in 1955, the Kōgoyaku was widely accepted for its simple style, and continues to be in use today.

5. The New Japanese Bible (新改訳聖書 Shinkaiyaku Seisho), commonly known as the Shinkaiyaku

The Kōgoyaku gained popularity because of its easy-to-understand style. Evangelicals in Japan, however, found a number of vague expressions in the Kōgoyaku problematic, such as “could” and “might,” (or de arō in Japanese) being used with all future tense Greek verbs. They eventually submitted a request for a revision of the Kōgoyaku in order to make it truer in meaning to the original text. When the request was declined, they embarked upon producing a Bible translation for themselves. The New Testament translation was completed in 1965, and the Old Testament in 1970. As a plain yet accurate translation from the original languages, it is popular with Evangelicals.

  1. The New Interconfessional Bible (新共同訳聖書 Shinkyōdōyaku Seisho), commonly known as the Shinkyodoyaku

The Shinkyōdōyaku was epoch-making because it came out of a collaboration between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Traditionally, Roman Catholics had used their own Japanese Bible, which differed from the translations Protestants used. The two groups also held somewhat different views of what they believed should be in the Bible. The Second Vatican Council in 1962–65 was a turning point for the Roman Catholic Church. Within a short period of time after the Council, Roman Catholics became quite open to working with Protestants. Against such a background, the translation of the New Testament was completed in 1978, and the whole Bible was published in 1987. [Roman Catholic editions include the Apocrypha, whereas Protestant editions do not.—Ed.]

Satoshi Nakamura serves as Director of Niigata Bible Institute, Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture. Translated by Atsuko Tateishi.





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