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.

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