Losing My Religion: Using the Words of Worship in Japanese

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Photo by Becca Miller Design

One of the first things that tells foreign residents in Japan that December is just around the corner is the sudden appearance of catholic iconography in this otherwise relatively non-Christian country. Gone are creepy Halloween masks and kimokawaii (both cute and disgusting) monstrosities and in their place are images of angels, Jesus, wise men and, arguably, the most famous Christian of them all (at least in Japan) — Saint Nicholas himself.

So ubiquitous are images of the jolly saint that many Japanese people will need reminding that Christmas is actually Christ’s festival and not jolly old Saint Nick’s. However, when it comes time for those of a Christian persuasion to remind their coworkers of this, it can be tricky. While the Japanese use the Western names of religious leaders, unfortunately for English speakers, these Western words are often from other non-English languages such as Portuguese.

These Portuguese terms found their way into Japanese thanks to the efforts of early missionaries from Portugal. As a result of their preaching, Christ has morphed into キリスト and Jesus into イエス, which is very different to its English equivalent. Other religions fare a little better for English speakers. English-speaking Muslims only have to remember ムハンマド, which is a pretty close approximation to Muhammad.

As the native religions of Japan started in either Japan or central Asia, the words for their important leaders are trickier. The Buddha is known as 釈迦 しゃか (Gautama Siddhartha) and buddhas (in the non-capitalized meaning) are ほとけ. His followers and potential liberators of the spirit are known as  菩薩ぼさつ (Bodhisattva).

Thankfully the entities worshiped in the other indigenous religion Shinto are a lot simpler and are either かみ (Shinto spirits) or 神様かみさま (god) depending on how much respect you want to accord them.

Other religions fare a little better for English speakers. English-speaking Muslims only have to remember ムハンマド, which is a pretty close approximation to Muhammad.

When talking about religions themselves, the first kanji that should be mastered is ~きょう (teaching). Learners usually first encounter this kanji in the word 教師きょうし (teacher). In religion, this word is often added to the end of the religion to describe the teachings, doctrines or ideas of that school. Therefore, Christianity is キリスト教, for example, and Buddhism is 仏教 ぶっきょう.

Of course, if you have a religion, you will also need someplace to practice it. Here things get a little tricky again. Muslims have it easiest as the word モスク (mosque) has made its way into Japanese. Jewish people are similarly blessed as the word シナゴーグ (synagogue) is rapidly becoming Japanese, replacing the tongue-twisting original term ユダヤ教会堂きょうかいどう (Jewish cathedral).

The terms get a bit trickier for the other religions as 教会きょうかい (Christian church), 神社じんじゃ (Shinto shrine) and (お) てら (Buddhist temple) are all very different from their English equivalents.

If you make a mistake with some of these tongue twisting words, don’t worry. One of my favorite apocryphal stories, attributed in part to a story in The Economist (“Santa Christ,” Dec. 25, 1993, p.77) — though classified as “Legend” by Snopes.com — is about a department store that mistranslated a document about the true meaning of Christmas, which lead to baffled foreign tourists having to explain to their distraught children why poor old Santa was being crucified as part of the display! Regardless of whether it’s true or not, it shows the importance of carefully understanding these religious words.

On that note — Happy Christmas everyone!

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Grooving to Japan's rhythm.

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