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:

まだ何もなかった時、神は天と地を造りました

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.

Kami

Spiritual content ahead.  I won’t make it a habit, but I want to take this blog where my linguistic and cultural explorations take me, and I found this fascinating.

A few days ago, while I was reading up on Shinto, I learned something very interesting.

See, Japanese nouns have no concept of singular or plural.  It’s something that’s simply not encoded into the language.  I mean, you can use the “tachi” suffix to specify plurality, but in general, when a noun is specified, you don’t know whether it’s singular or plural.  It could be one or the other, or conceivably even both.

That last one may seem nonsensical, except there is one situation where that question is completely germane.

The Japanese word for “God” is “kami”.  “Kami” is a noun.  Nouns are neither singular nor plural.

We in the west (at least we Christians in the west) have a concept called the “trinity” where God is three in one.

This is a concept that would be utterly uncontroversial to the Japanese, at least based upon their linguistic structure.  Kami can be many, or one, or even both, and the word makes no attempt whatsoever to make that dinstinction.

This makes me wonder if part of the struggle we have with the concept of the trinity in the west is that we have one word, “God”, and it can only be singular.  If you attempt to add a plural aspect to it, it becomes “Gods”, and the idea that “Gods” could then be singular is nonsensical.  I could, however, easily see the Japanese saying “meh”, and just moving on with it, not necessarily accepting it but having no real reason to reject it either.  Essentially, the ambiguity is built into their language where it is a complete impossibility in ours.

If the trinity were true, of course, it’s no less of a contradiction when expressed in Japanese than in English, but this seems one of a few places where the vagueness and contextuality of Japanese seems to offer a way to see the world that we in the west perhaps have not considered.  It’s certainly making me rethink how I see God, or Kami.  As with Japanese nouns, perhaps he is singular or plural depending on how you look at him.