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In the Beginning

While I am a little (okay, a LOT) burned out on it, I am a bit of a theology nerd.  This is not a theology blog and it will not become one.  But as in the post Kami, there are some interesting theological insights to be gained from seeing how western theology interacts with Japanese culture.

The Bible has been translated into Japanese.  The very first sentence is this:


Note the character 神, which means Kami, or God.

Here in the west, we have a very specific idea of who God is, and it’s mostly based upon several thousand years of history that Japanese culture does not share.  So, we can translate the Bible into Japanese, but the translations are built upon a shared culture that isn’t.  神 is a very animistic concept, is neither plural nor singular (as I mentioned previously), it is neither male nor female, and it can apply to any number of different god-like beings.  So it is, indeed, a very faithful translation (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”) and the Japanese reader would read something entirely different into it.

But, with that being said, it would also introduce an entirely new concept, as the Shinto 神 (and the Buddhist 神, too) is not really a creator, so even as such, a major concept of western spirituality is infused into this sentence – one that the Japanese would readily understand as other, even as the word that’s used has untold centuries of cultural baggage attached to it that it does not for us.  After all, it has centuries of cultural baggage for us in the west too, just a different kind of cultural baggage.

To me, as a theology nerd, this indicates in very stark terms the danger of trying to take religious texts literally.  Even if you get the translation 100% right, there’s always something cultural lost in translation, which could mean that the reader gets an idea that was not intended by the writer.  A caution for us in the west, as well.  Because, as you may well know – it’s also translated for us.

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