After the Meiji government of Japan repealed the ban on Christianity in 1873, Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries began clerical training for Japanese citizens. From that time on, Japanese Christians have imported and closely followed Euro-American theology and biblical scholarship. It is natural in such scholarship, regardless of whether one is liberal or conservative (or even fundamentalist), to receive theological education in European or North American universities or seminaries before introducing their acquired methodologies to Japanese churches and academic spheres. Although it is said that Japanese Christians are “a Bible-reading people,” few of them are actually interested in interpreting the Bible from their own context. There are, however, a few examples of readings from the Bible that are informed by the Japanese context. The features of Japanese biblical interpretation can be summed up in three overall trends: biblical scholarship outside the church (including historical criticism as a tool of critique and the interpretation of the Bible in dialogue with Buddhism); biblical scholarship inside of the church (i.e., canonical-theological hermeneutics); and new translations of the Bible from the margins.

Biblical Scholarship outside the Church.

In Japan, historical criticism has been a tool to criticize the institutional church and its traditional dogma. Many of the so-called “academic biblical scholars” distance themselves from the church or stand “outside” the church. This is typical of national universities, specifically Tokyo University with its close ties with the Mukyokai (the nonchurch movement) tradition. Although such universities offer courses on the academic study of religions and philology, which include biblical studies, none of them provide clerical training. Many of these academic biblical scholars receive their training at these national universities and in German-speaking spheres that focus on philology.

The Mukyokai Tradition.

Kanzo Uchimura founded the Mukyokai in 1900. Uchimura emphasized anti-institutionalism (antidenominationalism), antiritualism, and the pursuit of an indigenous expression of faith. Instead of forming another denominational church, Uchimura and his followers created independent Bible study groups. They claimed that any person who read the Bible had the privilege and responsibility to read and interpret the Bible free from any kind of authority, since the Bible was not merely the church’s book but also a work of classic literature. They accepted historical criticism and philological studies of the scripture. As leaders of the Mukyokai, Toraji Tsukamoto (famous for his synopsis of the Synoptic Gospels) and Tateo Kanda (well known for his studies on Greek literature) left their mark on academic biblical scholarship in Japan. Subsequently, Masao Sekine (the Old Testament) and Goro Maeda (the New Testament), leaders of Mukyokai as well as professors at national universities, expanded academic studies of the scripture in postwar Japan and attracted many future students. Due to the efforts of these scholars, the Bible is now widely accepted by intellectuals not only as the canon for Christians but also as one of the Western classical texts, which has significance not only for Christians but for humanity in general.

The Criticism of Paul and “Paulinism.”

The criticism of Paul and “Paulinism” during the 1970s was an epoch-making controversy in the history of Japanese Christianity. The movement attracted many young pastors, laity, and NT scholars. In the context of the student movement that protested against the 1951 Japan-US Security Treaty, some young Christians opposed the sophisticated and authoritative nature of established Christianity in Japan. They claimed that the nature of the church derived from the thoughts of Paul. Some examples include his conformist attitude toward Rome (Rom 13), his compromising attitude toward slavery (e.g., 1 Cor 7:21), and his sexist remarks (e.g., 1 Cor 7:1–11). Above all, the “faith” that Paul advocates is nonpracticing (cf. Rom 3:28). In other words, they argued that current Christians prayed about war and social injustice but did not practice the same ethic of love that Jesus taught his followers. They defined such practices as “Paulinism” and criticized Christians for making Christianity nothing more than an abstract idealistic religion.

Kenzo Tagawa, who was a fellow student of Goro Maeda at Tokyo University and gained his doctoral degree from Strasbourg University in France, was at the forefront of the criticism. According to Tagawa, early Christianity formed soon after Jesus’s death when his followers deified Jesus and systematized a faith that centered on the mythological representation of Christ’s (the Son of God) resurrection. Paul enforced such an abstract and idealistic dimension of Christianity. In addition, Tagawa argued that Paul reversed actual facts and transformed them into virtual conceptions ( Hihanteki Shutai no Keisei 1980). Citing 1 Corinthians 7:29–31, Tagawa suggested that Paul did not actually deny “the world” based on facts but only pretended to deny it. For example, Paul did not ask that his readers give up their possessions but only pretend to give them up. Furthermore, citing 1 Corinthians 7:21–22, (freedom given by the Lord), Tagawa suggested that this freedom was acquired in a virtual sphere that willingly accepted slavery in “the world.” This scope of Tagawa’s criticism expanded from Paul to Christianity and finally to religion in general.

In 1980 Tagawa published A Man Called Jesus. According to Tagawa, Jesus was not a person of religion; he was a critic of religion. At that time Jesus stood on the side of the oppressed people and dared to offer a “paradoxical protest” to the Roman and Jewish rulers. When Jesus stated, “[t]he sabbath was made for humankind” (Mark 2:28), he admitted that, even though the sabbath law was originally founded to protect their labors, it ultimately dominated the Jewish people as a dogma. In this case, Jesus criticized the law because he believed that Judaism was an apparatus that only brought Jewish leaders into power. Furthermore, Jesus’s statement of “[g]ive therefore the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” (Matt 22:21) was an ironic criticism against both Jewish and Roman rulers. In this case, Jesus tried to liberate the poor who suffered from double taxation by both the Romans and the Temple in “the world.” Tagawa suggests that Jesus, while facing the reality of the oppressed people, argued for liberation from this common “real world.”

Biblical Interpretation as Interreligious Dialogue.

Although a few scholars suggest parallelism between the theology of Jesus and Paul and Buddhist philosophers, specifically Shinran (1173–1263), any attempts to interpret the Christian scripture in a multifaith context are rare, particularly in regard to other Japanese religions (e.g., Shintoism). This is mostly because these religions do not have a systematic dogma or a process of systematizing their teachings.

Seeichi Yagi is the central figure of such interpretation. He completed his graduate work in the NT at Tokyo University under Goro Maeda before continuing his study at Göttingen University in Germany. Since the publication of his initial principal work The Formation of New Testament Thought in 1963, he has attempted to synthesize NT thought and philosophy of religion in order to clarify a common ground between Buddhism and Christianity. This common connection between the two religions is known as bashology (topology), which is derived from the Japanese word basho (meaning “place”). This interpretation understands individuals as a set in the field of Transzendenz and expresses the activity thereof. For example, Yagi suggests that the NT had bashological thinking but it has forgotten it in the increasing personal view of God in Western Christianity.

Yagi claims that the Christ-kerygma of primitive Christianity, including that of Jesus’s resurrection, should be understood as the interpretation of an “enlightenment” event peculiar to that time. In this enlightenment event, the absolutization of the ego is overcome, and the event itself is parallel to Zen Buddhism. In addition, Yagi grasps the NT as a whole with little regard to the differences of authors, time, and place; he identifies three theological types in it. “Type A” theology emphasizes that Jesus’s death on the cross was for the redemption of our sins (e.g., Rom 3:24–25; 1 Cor 15:3; 1 John 4:10). In this case, the plural use of “sin(s)” represents the transgressions of the Law in the OT while “righteousness” represents the strict observance of the Law. Since it is impossible for all human beings to observe the Law perfectly on their own, redemption by Jesus’s death on the cross is inevitable for everyone. Yagi assumes that this type of theology was formed in the primitive church in Jerusalem before Paul.

“Type B” theology emphasizes that Christ is the Son of God who arrives from heaven, becomes incarnate, lives a faithful and devoted life, dies on the cross, and is resurrected (Phil 2:6–11; 1 John 4:9, 14, 15). “Sin” (singular) in this case represents the power that dominates the present and future of all human beings (John 8:34; Rom 7:17), whereas “faith” is the most important aspect for believers. For those who have faith in Christ, they first share the power and work of Christ, and then belong to the so-called body of Christ. Yagi assumes that this type of theology was reformed by Hellenistic Christianity based on “Type A” theology. Examples of Type A theology are found in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4, Romans 3:24–25, and 1 Corinthians 11:23–25; whereas, Type B theology is shown in Philippians 2:6–11 and Romans 10:9.

Finally, “Type C” theology emphasizes love, particularly in regard to the personal relationships formed by human beings (1 John 4:7–16). In this case, Type C theology argues that the work of God is observed when humans love one another (John 1:13; 1 John 4:7). In other words, this type of theology is the manifestation of the existence of love. According to Yagi, 1 John belongs to “Type C” theology. In addition, the heart of historical Jesus’s teaching is also Type C theology (Mark 2:27; 7:15; 10:17–22; 12:28–34; Luke 17:33).

In his book, Yagi compares Type B theology with the teachings of Shinran, the founder of Shin-Buddhism. According to Yagi, both Type B theology and Shinran’s teaching attempt to solve an individual’s existential matter (for instance; death and sinful life; cf. Gal 2:20b; Shinran, Tannisho 5), and teach that salvation of individuals is solely through entrusting the benevolence of Christ (Paul) or Amida Buddha (Shinran). Moreover, Yagi suggests a similarity between the relationship of the law (Type A) and love (Type C) in Christianity and that of Funbetsu (knowledge based on differentiation) and Satori (enlightenment) in Zen Buddhism.

In his book, Paul/Shinran, Jesus/Zen (1983), Yagi fully explores the parallelism between NT thought and Buddhist philosophy. He argues that Paul’s teachings agree with Shinran and that Jesus’s tradition reflects Zen. As stated in Galatians 2:19–20, the ego of Paul that seeks salvation of the “self” in observance of the Law has died. As a result, Paul is “crucified with Christ” and Christ lives in Paul. In other words, Christ had become Paul’s ultimate subject. The “ego” of Paul, however, actually still exists and it proclaims that he believes in the Son of God who is the object of his faith. Such thoughts of Paul are similar to Shinran’s teachings where a person can reach Hosho Hosshin (the highest aspect of reality) through Shinjin (entrusting to Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow). An individual can gain this level of Shinjin individually only by the Ekou (the loving power that can save all human beings) of Amida Buddha. According to Yagi, these comparisons lead both Christians and Buddhists to consider the question of whether Christ (or what Paul calls “Christ in Holy Spirit, Christ living in me”) and Amida Buddha are two different “transcendent” existences or the same transcendent experience.

Biblical Scholarship Inside the Church.

The members of the Mukyokai believed that they could still be Christians without the church by simply and faithfully studying the Bible. The critics of Paul or “Paulinism” as well as Bible interpreters who read the Christian scripture in the context of interreligious dialogue, tend to distance themselves from the church or stand “outside” the church. Contrary to that trend, Zenda Watanabe asserted that faithful study of the Bible did not exist outside the framework of the church, and he advocated canonical-theological hermeneutics in Christian scripture. Watanabe, a holiness pastor-turned-theologian, attempted to harmonize historical-critical methods and faithful readings of the Bible. He studied historical-critical methods in the United States and the phenomenological method (zu der Sache selbst) in Germany. The crux of his interpretation emphasizes how the entire Bible (Genesis to Revelation) is the canon of the church.

Watanabe published numerous works that further promoted his canonical-theological hermeneutics including three principal books on the doctrine of the Bible: Canonicity of the Bible (1949), Interpretation of the Bible (1954), and Theology of the Bible (1963). According to Watanabe, there are two dimensions of reading the Bible: (1) as classic literature from a diachronic and philological point of view, and (2) as canon of the church from a synchronic standpoint. Citing the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), Watanabe states that the goal of historical criticism is “to understand the author better than the author understood himself.” On the other hand, citing Heidegger, he defines canonical-theological hermeneutics as “not a way of knowing those characteristics of entities which themselves are [seinender Beschaffenheiten des Seienden]; it is rather a determination of the structure of the Being which entities possess” (Heidegger, Being and Time).

Watanabe’s hermeneutics include three overall perspectives. First, his definition of canonical-theological hermeneutics means reading the text from the perspective of today’s church, with a sixty-six-book defined canon. Second, the entire Bible (Genesis to Revelation) should be interpreted as a witness to Christ. Third, the arrangement sequence of the Bible shows the salvation history of the chosen people (“the people of Israel” in the OT and the church in the NT). For example, Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 and the lives of eminent believers in Hebrews 11 reflect the fact that the early church determined the salvation history in the arrangement sequence of the OT where eschatology had cut across the vertical row of salvation history. The catastrophic end is designated as a sudden event to us by the primitive church (e.g., Matt 24:37).

An example of this canonical-theological hermeneutics can be seen in the book of Genesis. Genesis is divided into primeval history (Gen 1–11) and the narrative of Israel’s ancestors (Gen 12–50). In the first section, the problem and tragedy of the “natural state” of human beings is shown through the myth in which they were initially based on the image of God (Gen 1). However, they ultimately lost relationship with God and the natural world (Gen 2–3). In the latter section, the solution for the problem of the “natural state” of human beings is shown in the case of individuals who simply believed in the grace of God.

Bible Translations from the Margins.

A new trend of Japanese interpretation can be seen in the margins of Japanese society. Two translations of the NT are attempts to restore neglected viewpoints of the oppressed minorities and the exploited languages of the locals. People involved in translating projects of the existing translations of the Bible devote every effort to make their text understandable to everyone. Therefore, almost all existing Japanese translations of the Bible emphasize the viewpoint of the majority of the Japanese people who are comfortable using standard Japanese (Hyojungo) and neglect the viewpoint of people in rural areas who are uncomfortable with standard Japanese.

Tetsuro Honda.

A Franciscan priest once at the top of his order in Japan, Tetsuro Honda now lives in Kamagasaki, Japan’s largest concentration of day laborers. He published original translations of the four Gospels, the Acts of Apostles, and several Pauline letters from the standpoint of day laborers and homeless persons. He was trained at the Pontificio Istituto Biblico in Rome and participated in several Bible translation projects including the Franciscan version of the Bible (Fransisukokai-yaku) and the New Interconfessional Bible (Shinkyoudou-yaku). However, he realized that these translations did not relate to day laborers or the homeless because the wording of these translations reflected a middle-class perspective. These translations viewed Jesus as a middle-class person who was concerned about the poor. If we reread the Bible from the viewpoint of the marginalized people, though, Jesus himself was actually one of the needy who stood in line at a soup kitchen.

In addition, we can understand Honda’s Christology through his interpretation of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6–11, where Honda opposes the generally accepted view that the hymn represents Christ’s humility. He points out the mistake of the New Interconfessional Bible (widely used in the churches of Japan), which translates the Greek word morphē into “status” in order to emphasize the condescension of Christ. It basically means “figure,” “form,” or “way of being.” In this case, Paul does not mean that Jesus actually condescendingly traveled from heaven to the bottom of the world. Conversely, God is at the “bottom” and works there for the suffering people by God’s nature (cf. Pss 113, 139). Jesus merely took human form and lived as a follower of God who dwells at the bottom of society’s heap and worked for the people there. The ordinary interpretation of the Christ hymn as a glorification of Christ’s humility reflects the mind-set of middle-class Christians, who assume that Jesus, too, was a middle-class person, and who extend a “helping hand” to day laborers and the homeless in order to imitate Christ’s humility. On the other hand, they do not affirm day laborers and the homeless equally without religious conversion. Since God is on the side of the needy, middle-class Christians need conversion rather than the less fortunate (regardless of their faith).

Reviewing Honda’s translation of Mark 1:15 may help us to further understand his thesis. The NRSV translates the phrase as follows: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” Honda translates the same phrase as “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is very near, review from the underside, and begin walking while relying on the gospel.” First of all, he translates metanoeō as “shift one’s viewpoint from top-down to underside.” The Greek prefix meta is the preposition implying “change” or “remove,” and the Greek noun nous that simply means “mind” but more appropriately means “criteria, “track of thinking,” and “making decisions;” hence, metanoeō signifies to “shift one’s viewpoint.” In addition, in the LXX, metanoeō is the translation for the Hebrew root nḥm, which means “to have compassion with.” Therefore, metanoeō means “to shift one’s viewpoint to the place where one can have compassion for pain, suffering, loneliness, and the anger of others.” It is noteworthy that what Jesus and John the Baptist mean by metanoeō is not “religious conversion” but a review of a world that is compassionate toward individuals who suffer. Finally, Honda interprets the phrase pisteuete en tō euaggeliō based on his unique understanding of metanoeō. The Greek verb pisteuō means “believing with the heart,” “confessing with the mouth,” (cf. Rom 10:10) but also “doing the will of God” (cf. Matt 7:21). The word euaggelion here does not represent the propagation of Christianity, but rather what happened to the characters in the Gospels. These characters view the world from the standpoint of the least favored or the oppressed (metanoeō), which influences readers to side with the less fortunate. Thus, the justice of God who stands in the midst of the poor (cf. Ps 113) has come to liberate the oppressed to establish peace and a world where people truly share joy with one another. This ethereal world is what Honda calls the “kingdom of God.”

Harutsugu Yamaura.

From 2002 to 2004, Harutsugu Yamaura, a Roman Catholic layperson and a medical doctor, translated the four Gospels from original Greek texts (not via normative standard Japanese [hyojungo]) into Kesen-go (a language spoken in Japan’s northeastern coastal region). When the Meiji imperial government attempted to unite Japan into a strong and unified nation, it formed the normative standard Japanese language based on the dialect spoken in the upper-class areas of Tokyo (yamanote-kotoba). This act forced locals to speak standard Japanese and attempted to eliminate additional dialects. For instance, schools taught this standard language and banned the use of dialects. In addition, the translation of the Bible unintentionally contributed toward this Japanese policy because almost all of the existing Bible translations were in standard Japanese.

Yamaura devoted more than 25 years restoring his native language of Kesen-go since he believed that it was an independent language on its own and not simply a dialect. He created orthography using two writing systems; the first based on the Latin script, and the second based on the Japanese writing system. He further supported the language by publishing a dictionary and introductory grammar textbooks.

During his process of translating the four Gospels into Kesen-go, he first attempted to do so from the normative standard Japanese. As he began, he realized that the familiar translations of the Bible were filled with unfamiliar theological jargon, which translators simply modernized in order to provide an appropriate translation. In one example, Greek terms such as Agapē (“love”) or agapaō (“I love”) are translated into Ai or Aisuru in standard Japanese. However, the Japanese people rarely say Aisu and instead say Daijinisuru (“cherish” or “be kind to”). In this case, the well-known statement of “love your enemy” should be translated (or interpreted) as “be kind to (even) your enemy” since it sounds more realistic. In another example, he translates the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3) into the following: “Those who are weak, hopeless, and lonely are happy for such people who are wrapped within God’s arms.” The Greek phrase Oi ptochoi to pneumati (“the poor in spirit”) translated literally into Japanese is “those who breathe weakly,” meaning those who feel hopeless and powerless due to the lack of money and status. In addition, “God’s Reign” (“the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven”) means the world under God’s thumb. One in such a world feels safe just like a baby in a mother’s arms. According to Yamaura, the people who suffer adversity know a true sense of deep grief and empathy. Jesus says here that mercy grown in such severe situations lead people in suffering to happiness. The image of God that Jesus proclaims is different from the God of Hosts in the OT but the source of mercy.

In 2011, several months after the March earthquake-tsunami disaster, Yamaura published the new translation of four Gospels in everyday language. In his translation, the words of characters in the Gospels are translated into various Japanese dialects, similar to everyday speech in Jesus’s time when there were a variety of dialects and no normative language. In addition, his translation includes no unfamiliar theological jargons (e.g., dikaiosunē = being merciful and generous, and doing God’s will; and pistis = relying on God’s power). Thus, Yamaura’s translation of the Bible in Kesen-go and everyday language is the disclosure about the significance of the Gospels, which is usually hidden by the jargon used in the traditional Bible.


Reviewing the history of Japanese Interpretation, it is obvious that almost all Japanese biblical expositors study the Bible in their own context informed by the methodologies of Euro-American biblical scholarship. A unique feature of Japanese Interpretation is that the academic biblical studies play a role to criticize the status quo of institutional Christianity. Only more recently, interpretation has turned toward restoring the neglected perspectives of the minorities in Japan.



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Tomohiro Omiya