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.

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