Monday, June 17, 2024

On Japanese Bibles (in English) Part 2

Current selection of Japanese Bible Society bibles.

In my previous post on this topic I shared some general information about the current dynamics of the modern Japanese bible publishing scene, and gave a hint as to where I am headed with this series of posts.

My last post was a bit long on the introduction, and rather than sermonizing this time, I'll get right into the pertinent information.

More than ninety percent of Japanese bibles are published by two groups: The Japanese Bible Society, and the Word of Life Publishing Company. 

The two most widely used Bible families, each one belonging to one of the above groups, are the New Japanese Interconfessional Bible (and its 2018 update, the Bible Society Interconfessional Translation), and the New Japanese Bible (recently updated in 2017). There are hand full of less common translations like the Japanese Living Bible, the Modern Japanese Bible, and a hand full of Roman Catholic translations--but none of these are currently widely used.

In effect, there is a duopoly between the NRSV-like Interconfessional Bible used largely by Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, and the Evangelical Protestant ESV-like New Japanese Bible.

The New Japanese Bible 2017 in three standard sizes: A5, B6, and A6.

Both the Japanese Bible Society and Word of Life release their bibles in three standard sizes, based on Japanese paper sizes.

Japanese Paper

Japan is among the most literate countries in the world--the Japanese people love reading. There are book stores and libraries all over Japan. Another thing that the Japanese love is consistency. Despite having a population of over a hundred million people, most of the books published in Japan fall into only a handful of sizes and dimensions.

It is not uncommon when going down an aisle of a library or bookstore to see entire shelves of books with the exact same dimensions. 

A diagram showing the common paper sizes available in Japan.

One of the reasons for this has to do with the standardization of paper sizes. Most Japanese books are either published using A-side (international standard) paper sizes or B-side (Japanese standard) paper sizes. If you have ever gone into a stationary shop that sells Japanese notebooks you will likely have encountered these before. In Japan, A4 is the standard size for printer paper,  and if you fold A4 in half, you will get a booklet that is A5 sized. Fold it again and you will get something A6 sized. 

The most common Japanese book sizes.

Many magazines are published in A4 size and B5 is a common notebook size. Both the Interconfessional Bible and the New Japanese Bible come in three standard sizes: Small (A6), Medium (B6 or 4-6) and Large (A5).

In the previous post I described the shape of the average Japanese bible as a brick. That is because of a few different factors. The standard versions of the New Japanese Bible and the Interconfessional Bible are both over 2,000 pages. Within the standard range, of each of these bible translations, all of the bibles share the same text-layout and pagination--the main difference between them being their footprint and the font size.


Some of the reasons why the Cambridge Pitt Minion is one of the most beloved Bibles formats of the past century is its readability and diminutive size. In addition to this, it has developed a loyal following among pastors because an enlarged version of it is sold as the Cambridge Wide-Margin Bible. Recently a third bible version, the Cambridge Diadem, the Wide-Margin sans the margins, was added to the family. Three different bibles with the same pagination in different form factors has its pros and cons.

For people who swear by the Pitt Minion, they can have a compact one that fits in their back pocket, a journaling one for study and devotion, and a full sized one to preach out of at church. Within a specific translation, the pagination is going to be the same, which should contribute to scripture memorization and familiarity.

You can think of the three standard Japanese bible sizes in a similar way. Each one of them is more or less a facsimile of each other, just in different sizes. At face value this would seem to be a good thing. If you are in a church, and everyone is using the same translation, rather than calling out the reference verse, one could simply say the page number.

The problem becomes, when this self-imposed limit keeps one from being able to innovate. The only exceptions to the self-imposed slavish devotion to keeping the same pagination comes with each publishing house's bilingual bibles and study bibles. 

On at least two occasions the Japan Bible Society has attempted to create more compact bibles while keeping the pagination; the result was a bible that depended on extremely thin European bible paper (the aptly named JBS Half-Volume Bible), and the other went with a microscopic font and jammed two pages worth of pagination into one page (the JBS Handy Bible).

Psalm 23 starts on OT p.854 in both the JBS Handy & Half-Volume.

We'll take an in-depth look at both of these bibles in a future post--to see what they got right, and what they got wrong, but one thing that they more or less prove conclusively is that one of the main issues holding back innovation in Japanese Bible Publishing is a self-imposed desire to keep the pagination the same between as many different versions of the bible as possible.

In the case of the Japanese Bible Society, they put the page number in the top corner of each page rather than the book name and chapter; the Diglot Bible being a notable exception because of its need to accommodate the ESV text. 

Text Orientation 

Another feature that all of the standard Japanese Bibles share in common is the traditional Japanese top-to-bottom right-to-left text orientation (tategaki). 

Psalm 23 written tategaki in the JBSIV & NJB2017 medium editions.

While the study bibles and bilingual English-Japanese bibles are exempt from being written tategaki, only a hand full of full-text Japanese bibles have ever been released written in yokogaki (Western style, left-to-right orientation). Out of print for a decade now, the JBS Handy Bible is a major outlier in this sense. 

One of the reasons for the bloated page count of many Japanese bibles is the use of the tategaki writing orientation. Many older Japanese will be more comfortable with the traditional text orientation, but yokogaki (Western style) is considered the standard in many parts of academia and business. 

Because it is a more efficient use of space to write Japanese yokogaki, it was chosen over tategaki when creating the study bibles and the JBS Handy Bible. The Handy Bible was able to shed nearly a thousand pages over the standard edition in no small part due to their willingness to embrace a two-column Western text orientation. 

Font Size & Readability

Where the Handy Size Bible suffers is in its microscopic six point font. Whereas the much beloved Pitt Minion is still quite readable even with a six and a half point font, not all fonts are created equally. It may be because of a fear of ghosting, but Japanese bible fonts tend to err on the side of being too thin/light rather than bold. That is despite the fact that many Japanese bibles are line-matched.

Readability: Handy Bible side-by-side with the Pitt Minion

Japanese compact bibles, including the small-sized standard bible in both of the publisher's lineups have uncomfortably small fonts. Most modern Japanese bibles (aside from the free ones given by the Gideons) also have ruby text (furigana), which are the phonetic alphabet over the top of the Chinese-origin Japanese characters.

Most Japanese bible texts feel cluttered and busy. This may be the reason why they prefer to print them in tategaki as it gives the text a little more breathing room; with the compromise being the extra thousand pages in length.  

I recently went down a deep rabbit hole of Japanese typography--and learned a lot more about traditional Japanese printing and fonts than I ever knew before. If someone were going to want to design a bible from the ground up that addresses some of these issues, they will likely need to engage the services of someone like 2K Denmark to create a more legible, semi-bold Japanese font specific for increased legibility. 


Most Japanese bibles are made with a very utilitarian aesthetic. While both the Japan Bible Society and Word of Life Press offer premium leather bound editions (in the aforementioned three sizes and uniform shape), the standard editions tend to be bound in vinyl covers and lack some quality of life features common to bibles in other countries.

Many Japanese Christians will opt to remove the dust covers from their vinyl bound bibles and put them in an after-market bible-cover or zipper pouch. Probably because of the dimensions of Japanese bibles and their predilection for falling apart at the seams (also as a result of their dimensions), many Japanese would prefer to keep their bibles wrapped up instead of loose in a book-bag.

There is also an interesting chicken-and-egg corollary; many Japanese churches have small tables instead of pews, and when Japanese Christians prepare for worship, they will often spread out their bibles, notebooks, hymnals, pens, highlighters on the table in front of them in the church. Did the bibles become more text-book shaped as a result of the tables, or did the tables become favored as a result of the reference-book nature of the bibles?

A note on how to take care of a leather bible in a pocket NT.

One of the things that got me started down this rabbit hole was seeing my wife's bible starting to fall apart at the seams. Two thousand pages sewn and glued into a vinyl cover of a Japanese bible, being used every day, doesn't stand much of a chance against Japan's notoriously hot and humid summers.

I have wondered whether one of the reasons that Japanese people don't have nicer bibles is because they expect them to be low quality and to fall apart quickly. 

Summing this post up. There seem to be a lot of factors conspiring against the creation of something like a thinline bible for the Japanese church. A confluence of tradition, self-imposed limits, market forces, typographic challenges, climate, and culture, many Japanese bibles continue to be inconveniently sized, heavy to carry around, difficult to read, and of a low production quality. 

As I said last time, "a bible that is easy and enjoyable to read actually makes it easier to spend more time in God's Word." My hope is that with a little push, we can see an explosion of innovation and creativity in Japanese bible publishing that leads to more people encountering Jesus through His Word.

In Part 3 I hope to explore how with a few tweaks, either the Japan Bible Society or Word of Life Press could put out a thinline bible using work they have already done.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

On Japanese Bibles (in English) Part 1

Prior to moving to Japan in 2014, I used to have an extensive Christian library. Built over many years, and filled with tomes gathered second hand from Wheaton Illinois' many thrift shops; it overflowed many bookshelves. 

However, when I began preparations to move to Japan, I realized I needed to downsize. What I couldn't sell, I gave away, and what I couldn't give away, may still be somewhere in boxes in my parent's garage. Many books that I felt I couldn't live without, I repurchased on Kindle instead of keeping a physical copy.

Having been an early reader of J Mark Bertrand's Bible Design Blog (now Lectio), I had even picked up some enviable copies of the scriptures when one could still find amazing deals on eBay and Bookfinder. Prior to moving to Japan I sold a few dozen Bibles on eBay, including a couple of rare vintage Cambridge and RL Allans for a tidy profit--which helped subsidize my living expenses while raising support.

When I moved to Japan in 2014, I only brought with one English bible, a second hand Cambridge ESV Pitt Minion in Brown Split-Calf Leather that I got on eBay for $25. Ten years ago my eye-sight was a bit better than it is now, because the 6.5 point font isn't as easy on my eyes as it used to be.

Bilingual Bible with NT & Pitt Minion

Like many missionaries moving to Japan for the first time, I picked up, and inherited a few different Japanese bibles. My first bible purchase in Japan was a Word of Life Bilingual New Japanese Bible/New International Bible 1984. The dimensions of an actual brick, and weighing almost as much, this bible was the gold standard for English speaking missionaries to Japan from 2005 until 2017. However, it was not very portable. It was designed more as a reference book, and ended up spending more time on a shelf than being used. 

From my arrival in Japan until 2017, if I was on my way to church, I usually tucked a paperback copy of the New Japanese Bible New Testament into my bag with my ESV Pitt Minion and hoped that the pastor wasn't going to be preaching from the Old Testament.

This 400 yen paperback New Testament actually got more overall use than my 6,400 yen Bilingual Bible. 

Bad Habits

When I was in graduate school I discovered the Robert Murray M'Cheyne bible reading plan. This corresponded with reading a book about the founding of the Korean Scripture Union titled 'Crisis Unawares,' by Peter Pattisson, and my personal adoption of the English Standard Version for my personal devotions and study.

The book 'Crisis Unawares' is an autobiographical book about a OMF medical missionary in South Korea who realized the greatest need before him was biblical illiteracy and the steps he took to remedy it. Applying the book to my own life, I used the M'Cheyne reading plan to systematically read through the bible several years in a row. 

My previous church in College and afterwards had had an in-house bible reading plan, possibly modeled off of the Korean Scripture Union's one, created in part through the work of Robert Pattison, which likely was inspired in part by M'Cheyne's one. 

All that is to say, in the years leading up to my deployment to Japan with Converge, I was regularly engaging God's Word and had developed both a framework for its importance in my life, and the habits to reap the most blessings from prolonged periods in the Word.

When I arrived in Japan, I felt an immense pressure to learn the language. Corresponding to this pressure, was guilt about using English. I felt that I should be spending time studying the Bible in Japanese, and at the same time, wasn't getting much out of these efforts because of how undeveloped my Japanese was at the time.

Maybe it was the demands of my language school, or the inconvenient size of the bilingual bible, or the 6.5 point font in the the Pitt Minion, but I began spending less and less time in God's Word. 

When I would get out the Japanese New Testament and sit down to read, I would get bogged down with every word that I didn't know, and it would take me an hour just to work through the meaning of one chapter. Studying God's word became more about studying the language than spending time with God.

When I would open up the ESV, I would feel guilty about spending time reading the Word in English when I should be reading it in Japanese.

As a result of these and other factors, my time in the Word atrophied when compared with how much time I was spending reading it in graduate school and when I first arrived in Japan.

I still had to prepare bible studies, and was in the Word with students and in ministry capacities; but I stopped delighting in God's word the way that I had done previously.

For multiple reasons, my first term in Japan was a train-wreck, and in retrospect, it was likely exacerbated by the fact that I wasn't as rooted in the scripture as I had been previously.

First Love

Near the end of my first term in Japan I met the future Mrs. Smith. She was raised in a solid Christian home, and had rededicated her life to the Lord years earlier. Part of her testimony was the role that reading God's Word played in her repentance and return to Jesus.

One of the things that made me fall in love with my wife was her love for God's Word. 

However, I was confronted in the beginning of our marriage with the fact that what I said I valued was out of sync with my own life. For decades I had been studying God's Word, and had deep wells of scriptural knowledge, theological understanding, and ministry experience--but when we got married, it became obvious really quickly that I wasn't in the Word as much as I should be.

My wife would wake up every morning and head down to the dining room table and start the day in God's Word. Instead, I found myself checking e-mail, catching up on the latest news, or thumbing through my smart phone before breakfast. What I said I valued, and even how I perceived myself, didn't line up with reality. Eventually this lead to conflict.

I would be listening to Christian podcasts, have an audio bible on while doing dishes, and even be studying theology books to prepare for work; but my wife didn't see me actively reading God's Word.

One of the formative experiences in her life was waking up every morning and coming downstairs to see her father reading the bible. Marrying a missionary, she expected me to be leading family worship in a way that I wasn't. 

We'd read the book 'The Five Love Languages,' together soon after our marriage, and it had helped me to realize that my wife's primary love language is acts of service, but even more so than that, one of the ways that she most profoundly feels loved is when she sees me reading God's Word.

I however, pridefully rationalized that I was still getting just as much scriptural content, just spread out over several different mediums. But the reality is, that I had stopped delighting in scripture the way that I had done previously. 

I needed to return to my first love.

A year into our marriage, something needed to change, and that something was my attitude towards God's Word. I had to admit that what I said I valued and what I was actually demonstrating in my life, towards the person I most loved, were out of joint. Especially with the increased burdens of growing ministry, a new marriage, and looming fatherhood, I needed to rededicate myself to daily prioritizing time in God's Word.

Practical Matters

Part of repentance is tracing one's steps back to where they departed from the right path. A lot of times people will produce excuses for why bad behavior began as a way to deflect from responsibility. However, real repentance must also grapple with the very real factors that lead to a failure in the first place--otherwise one would likely fail at that same point again.

I thought of myself as someone who delighted in the Word of God, and while that may have been true in a different season of my life, it wasn't what was being actively reflected to my wife.

Was it the busyness of ministry, the difficulty of the Japanese language, spiritual laziness, depression and burnout, or my own pride? Yes. It was some combination of all of the above, and probably even more than that.

Once I had confessed in my heart that I had sinfully neglected God's Word, and that as a missionary, a husband, and a father it was my responsibility to prioritize God's Word in my life, what were the practical steps that I needed to retrace to get back into a healthy pattern of bible reading and study.

After several attempts to start a bible reading plan together with my wife, I realized that for both of our sakes, it was better for me to find a plan that I could follow and be accountable to. So I began to use the Robert Murray Mc'Cheyne plan again.

I also got a few new bibles, including some that were much more suitable to my middle-aged eyes. One of the Christian bookstores in Japan was clearing a bunch of English bibles, and I was able to pick up a couple of paragraph bibles and large print bibles in different translations for very reasonable prices. I also found an English teacher getting ready to retire who was selling his English Christian books on the Japanese version of Facebook Marketplace and grabbed a couple of good study bibles.

I made the decision that it was more important to be in the Bible regularly in English than it was to be painfully struggling through reading it in Japanese without getting much out of it. 

Unsurprisingly I have found that having a bible that is easy and enjoyable to read actually makes it easier to spend more time in God's Word. 

Even reflecting back on high school, college and graduate school, the bibles that I spent the most time reading had a few notable features. Despite my younger eyes, I still gravitated towards a larger font. I preferred bibles in paragraph format rather than verse-by-verse, and the bibles that I spent the most time reading often fit into what might be called the 'thinline,' size. When I had come to Japan I had gotten rid of all of the bibles I had like this. 

As a result of moving to Wakayama and taking over a Bible Reading group at Shirahama Baptist, I have been doing a lot more reading of the Old Testament in Japanese than previously. One of the interesting side-effects of spending more time in the Word in English is that I have actually been increasing the amount of time I am in the Word in Japanese as well.

With the above realization about one of the factors that lead to the decline in my personal bible reading, I began searching for a Japanese bible that would fit those criteria. 

The Missing Japanese Bible

Japanese Bible Publishing is dominated by a duopoly. The vast majority of bibles being used in the Japanese church are published by either the Japanese Bible Society or Word of Life Publishers

The Japanese Bible Society publishes the ecumenical Interconfessional Translation, which is probably most comparable to something like the NRSV in English. JBS also publishes a number of older, less used translations. They recently updated the New Interconfessional Translation (NIT) to the Japanese Bible Society Interconfessional Version (JBSIV) in 2018. The NIT is the most widely read bible in Japan, and even with the release of its successor is still used by something like 60% of the Christians in Japan. As a Japanese as a second language speaker, I find the NIT to be less accessible than its main competitor. 

The explicitly Evangelical Protestant Word of Life Publishers has the New Japanese Bible. The New Japanese Bible has been revised several times, including as recently as 2017. The 2017 New Japanese Bible is, in my opinion, the most readable Japanese Bible yet to be produced. The language of the NJB2017 is very closely aligned with what one might hear on NHK or encounter in a current Japanese language textbook.

A few of our Word of Life Press bibles. Compact to study.

Both of these publishers tend to offer bibles in about six different form factors, namely; compact (brick), small (brick), medium (brick), large (brick), bilingual (brick), and study (brick). 

I have my own theories as to why all of the Japanese bibles are shaped the way that they are, which is likely some combination of desiring to keep the same pagination, Japanese paper sizes, considerations regarding furigana/ruby text,  Japanese text orientation, cost savings, a lack of competition, environmental factors, and a loyalty to tradition. 

JBS has a little more variety in their current offerings--if you like zippers.

There are a few outliers that have been released over the years that attempt to address one or two of the above issues, but there has yet to be a bible released by either publishing company that could be considered a true 'thinline,' bible, and I am hoping that this is going to change.

I wrote this very long introduction because I believe that if I had access to a Japanese bible that was comfortable to hold, had clear legible writing, in a format that could be accommodated in a small form factor, it is likely that rather than a paperback new testament, I would have been carrying a full copy of God's Word with me for the past ten years. 

That is no guarantee that I would have been reading it more--but as I said above, a bible that is more easy and enjoyable to read will likely lead to it being read more. I would love to see more bible format options available to the Japanese church, and so in the spirit of J Mark Bertrand's Bible Design Blog which has helped to catalyze some very exciting changes in English bible publishing, I am writing this (and will hopefully eventually re-write this in Japanese) with the hopes of spurring on positive changes in Japanese bible publishing.

In the next post in this series, I will discuss the above features of Japanese bibles in more details, and some of the exceptions that I have come across, and the right combination of those exceptions that would result in a true 'thinline' Japanese Bible.