Lost in Translation: God

The issue of translating the Japanese word for “god” recently came up. What do characters really mean when they talk about god and how should we as Christians react when we see characters praying to a supposed god, or insulting God? Subtitles almost always translate the word as either “God” or “god,” and Christians will interpret this seemingly small distinction very differently. Yet, it is far too common for viewers to fail to understand just how inaccurate these translations may be, at no real fault to the translators. “Kami,” the Japanese word for “god,” is used very differently than it is used in English, and combine this with the differences in the languages itself and you have a recipe for grave misunderstandings when it comes to religious discussion. Therefore, this is perhaps the most important “Lost in Transation” topic I could write on, as it is imperative that Christians do not misunderstand what a Japanese show is saying about the Christian God.

Let’s take this one step at a time and look at the various ways “kami” is actually used in Japanese. As I have mentioned in past posts regarding translations, there is no distinction between singular and plural forms of nouns in Japanese (there are specific ways to indicate plurality, but they are relatively rare in colloquial use). As always, context is key. Therefore, from the beginning, one must ask whether the word is referring to a single god or multiple gods. Indeed, due to Japanese culture, the idea of a monotheistic God is one that barely exists. As a result, the word is far more often used to refer to multiple gods. More importantly, because Japan is culturally religious but hardly practically religious (in other words, religious practices are embedded in their culture and lifestyle, but most people do not actually believe in anything spiritual), few people actually have any specific god or gods in mind when speaking of kami. Thus, the most common meaning of “kami” when used in Japanese refers to a simple generic idea of “gods” that exist.  It is not monotheistic nor does it even refer to the gods of a specific religion. You can see how wildly this differs from interpreting this concept as the Christian God, even though the word is the same.

…because Japan is culturally religious but hardly practically religious… few people actually have any specific god or gods in mind when speaking of kami.

Of course, sometimes people really are referring to a god in the singular form. If so, then what god is it? Almost certainly, it is not the Christian God, unless the conversation is blatantly speaking about it. Take, for example, when characters speak of the god of a shrine. It is believed that each shrine houses an individual god (see Noragami for similar representations of this idea), though even this has exceptions. So, yes, the characters are referring to a god, but even this fails to be very specific. Once again, because the Japanese, and anime characters by extension, are culturally religious, this is still not specific to any god in particular. Gods live at shrines, so they are talking about whatever god happens to be at this shrine, but they could not care less about its identity. Just as the plural meaning of kami only refers to an abstract idea of gods, the singular form is nearly as obscure. Because gods exist everywhere and all around us, they speak of the one that happens to be here. It’s a shrine so there is a god here. I think this is a very large cultural difference that Westerners, and Christians in particular, will find hard to comprehend. Even when atheists or non-believers, speak of god in jest, the Christian God is often thought of simply because of how culturally ingrained it is in Western culture. However, Japan does not have the kind of cultural environment of the West which gives more concrete traits that a supposed god has.

Nagi is a god, but with an emphasis on a

The Japanese do not have a mindset that characterizes god. Even if they speak of a singular god, it is almost always going to be the god of whatever we are talking about because all kinds of gods exist. Is it the god of studying? The god of money? The god of love? The god who rules over all other gods? In fact, even if the characters are referring to the only god of the universe, it still doesn’t matter or mean what you might think it does. It would simply be “the singular god of the universe, whatever that means.” The concept of “god” is so vague and general in the minds of the majority of the Japanese that trying to interpret anything off of its usage in this way is a fool’s errand. So while they may speak of a god in the singular form, it is simply because the context of the situation narrowed it down, not because they actually believe in one god. For the vast majority of cases, the use of “kami” is but an offhand comment that the writer, speaker, listener, and audience all accept as a general reference to an abstract idea that has no deeper meaning. This is very similar to the conflict I presented in regards to translating “tenshi,” with the meaning being intentionally ambiguous. To remind you, the nature of the Japanese language means nouns can be implied with “a” or “the” or capitalized or not all at the same time, and it is up to the listener or reader to interpret which way is intended. However, in the case of kami, the Japanese audience does not care how it should be interpreted. Even the speaker does not have an intended distinction of its use. Rather than specifying between the God or a god or the gods, etc., all the forms are being intended at the same time. And there is no need to specify or discern a clearer meaning because that’s not what the conversation is really about. For the average Japanese, it is enough to speak of the vague concept of gods.

…For the vast majority of cases, the use of “kami” is but an offhand comment that the writer, speaker, listener, and audience all accept as a general reference to an abstract idea that has no deeper meaning

However, it is true that anime with its fictional worlds can often create a setting and context where characters are referring to a specific god. Oftentimes, this world seems to refer to the Christian God. The anime speaks of churches and priests. Some have references to the Crusades, and others have references to missionaries, and many of these anime have crosses and angels and demons, all clear indications that the anime is talking about the Christian God. I have often referred to such anime as being so ignorant and shallow that any references or mentions of God should be taken with a grain of salt. On one hand is the reason that these anime are simply using ideas from Christianity to help craft a fictional story. But on the other hand, (and this is probably the most biased and hypothetical explanation I will make in this post), the anime still isn’t really talking about the Christian God in the way we see it. For Japan, the Christian God is very connected to the idea of a monotheistic god. This comes from very superficial understanding of Western culture, so the Japanese often group religious icons together into “Western ideas.” As a result, I would argue that anime’s portrayal of Christianity is often used to represent “foreign religion.”

Because the idea of a single god is in itself a strange concept to a culture with such strong Shinto influences, and Christianity is pretty much the only monotheistic religion that Japan can easily recognize, the result is that Christianity becomes an easy symbol to use in fictional writing. You may notice that these anime rarely specify Christianity itself but only use many of its icons – because icons help facilitate meaning without direct explanations. It is in fact a very useful literary technique.  Even when there are specific references like Lucifer or Gabriel or Adam and Eve, all of these are simply easy to understand references (as even anime which are not remotely religious often make use of the same references), and even English literature uses this same technique at times. Thus, I would argue even the use of “kami” in anime with very obvious Christian references, does not necessarily refer to the Christian God but only to the fictional god of the anime. The reason anime misrepresents Christianity and thus the Christian God is because from the Japanese perspective, Christianity itself represents “foreign, ‘other,’ and monotheistic” religions.  Of course, there are rare exceptions where Christianity is specified, in which case, “the Christian God,” is indeed the correct translation, but those are far and few between. Regardless, these anime should not be viewed as some kind of attack or parody of Christianity and our God. Rather, they are simply borrowing ideas to help craft a fictional and engaging religious world. The blatant referencing may seem crude from a Christian perspective, but I would argue it is no worse than the way Western literature borrows ideas from Eastern culture with surface-level knowledge.

Because the idea of a single god is in itself a strange concept to a culture with such strong Shinto influences, and Christianity is pretty much the only religion that Japan can easily recognize, the result is that Christianity becomes an easy symbol to use in fictional writing.

Conversely, there are plenty of anime with a religious setting where the gods are clearly not meant to be the Christian God. Some of these gods are embedded deep in Japanese culture and are known to most everyone to varying degrees. Other times, they only borrow ideas of a kind of god that many Japanese would be familiar with and put their own spin on it such as a forest god or a rain god. Nevertheless, these gods are perhaps no different than the way we view the Greek and Roman gods such as Zeus or Poseidon. As always, even if a specific god is in mind when using the word, few Japanese actually believe in the existence of these gods, and if the characters do, it is only because that’s how the setting is. While some would argue that anime which depict such fake gods is an indication of how immoral anime and perhaps even Japan itself can be, the reality is that these are but cultural references to Japan’s own history. I do believe the cultural equivalent of our Greek gods is quite a fitting one, as these gods are used because they are culturally familiar (the exact opposite of how Christian symbolism is used for being culturally foreign).

Princess Mononoke depicts many kinds of gods
Princess Mononoke depicts many kinds of gods

While I believe this covers all the major usages of kami, there is one more in the form of “kami-sama.”  Yes, it is often argued that the “sama” honorific, which indicates great respect, is often used to indicate the Christian God. Certainly, that may be the case for Japanese Christians, but as I’ve already detailed above, anime does not use it with that meaning. Instead, I would argue it is used more of an indication that the character speaking is a believer. This is the kind of subtle speech that is often lost in translation, as the characters who use “sama” come across as more pious than those who do not. But context is important.  Oftentimes, it will be used sarcastically, as a way to mock the idea of gods, or simply as a way to “boost” the efficiency of prayer. Other times, it is used in the above contexts simply because a character may believe it is appropriate to address a god as such, much like an atheist may write “God.” So while it is an honorific that shows respect, or perhaps reverence in the case of religion, it is hardly a way to distinguish the Christian God from any other kind of god that a person may refer to. It is in fact, not an indication of much at all without greater context.

As a final aside while I’m on the topic, I’d like to address how “kami” is and can be translated, since this is a post about translations. Firstly, it is almost exclusively translated as “god” or “God.” As Christians, this difference is very important to us, but I think we need to remember that as a translator, you should not care about what a specific group of people think but rather the audience as a whole. Taking into account both the current colloquial use of god as well as how rarely anime refers to the Christian God, I think leaving it lower-case is far preferable in most cases. At the same time, I would not fault a translator for capitalizing it because the two are interchangeable for a big part of the Western audience (what percentage, I couldn’t say). However, I think translators should really consider using the plural form more often to be more representative of what the Japanese characters are truly saying. For example, rather than a line such as “do you believe in God?” it would be more accurate to translate it to something like “do you believe gods exist?” I suspect a lot of misunderstandings happen when a Westerner sees the singular form and associates it with the Christian God simply due to cultural conditioning. Yet once again, changing it to the singular form can be argued as a form of localization where exact meanings of phrases are changed to fit the culture of the new language. When Japanese people talk about the concept of gods, it is arguably equivalent to when we talk about the concept of the Christian God, and so the audience feels more connected to what is happening in the conversation.  Even so, it is not a perfect translation, but then again, nothing is. Translators all have their different styles, each with their pros and cons. In conclusion, there is no single way to translate “kami,” as like any other Japanese word, the entire context of the situation must be considered before coming to a conclusion. I realize I have probably only made you even more confused about how kami should be translated; however, as a Christian, I think it is incredibly important to fully understand the complicated Japanese meanings behind kami and to be able to correctly differentiate between its various usages. Otherwise, we and those around us might mistakenly hear insults from faulty translations toward our beliefs when it so rarely is.

9 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: God

  1. I have a Japanese Bible (published the Japan Bible Society) and it uses 神 for the one true God and 神々 to refer to multiple gods. Thanks for pointing this out! I wonder if there’s a better way to translate God, referring to the one true God… I see the subtitle in Sailor Moon “God and Buddha may forgive you, but I won’t!” every once in a while.

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    1. Yeah 神々 is a way to clearly refer to multiple gods, so it’s a pretty good way to translate English->Japanese, but it’s used fairly rarely in daily speech, so it’s an unreliable distinction from just 神 when translating Japanese->English.

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  2. Good stuff! This kind of subject interests me, especially since I’ve got a friend who’ll be going to Japan on a mission trip next year. I sometimes wonder how the Japanese language shapes a person’s theological imagination differently than English does, and how that difference affects our attempts to communicate the gospel. This post answers a lot of my questions, actually.

    Thanks especially for the clarification of the term ‘kami-sama.’ I’ve seen it used occasionally and have wondered about its exact meaning. My gut assumption had been that a character who refers to ‘kami-sama’ must mean some sort of supreme deity rather than a small-g shrine-dwelling god, which seemed like an odd thing for a Japanese character to say. Thanks for clearing up my confusion!

    I think it’s worth nothing, too, that the Japanese conception of gods has some parallels in Western tradition. In Plato’s dialogues, characters refer to ‘God’ and ‘the gods’ interchangeably, since they’re talking about the the divine powers in general rather than about Athena or Aphrodite or Zeus specifically. I also learned from the same professor who taught me Plato that the ancient Hebrew word for deity (elohim) is always plural, and that no singular form exists; thus Deuteronomy 6:4 more literally reads, “The gods is one!” It strikes me as a neat little reminder that our tradition’s concept of a single God has always been a strange and radical notion (so much so that even the language of the time didn’t express it precisely), and that it’s meant to stand as a better alternative to the ways that other cultures conceive of divinity.

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    1. That’s a very good point about older Western theological ideas! As you said, it is quite an interesting parallel, and one that fits very well. It’s very hard to change our way of thinking that there has to be a single God of the universe in order to properly communicate our ideas with a culture that assumes there are many, sometimes countless, gods that might exist. We take so much of our culture and language for granted in the way we see things as “obvious,” and yet, as you said, even the idea that there is only one true God is a very radical notion that other cultures may struggle to comprehend. Thanks for reading!

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  3. I often think of the Japanese word “kami” or “gods” as meaning “spirits, generally.” When referring to specific angels or powerful spirits embodying a specific Concept, a friend and I came up with “seraphs.”

    It’s almost more interesting to me that Americans take it as a cultural given that you’re talking about an all-powerful being when referring to a God. As one of the commenters points out here, pretty much no pre-Christian culture ever thought of Divinity or “the gods” that way, and most modern-day non-monotheistic cultures don’t think of them that way either. And to be fair, there’s something pretty primal about polytheism, to the point where a lot of different cultures go through great pains to NOT create a polytheistic, saint-worshipping form of Christianity. And most of the time….completely fail, oddly enough. Europe’s managed it in most places, but not necessarily in South America or Asia.

    Which suggests all in all that the idea of one god, despite apparently coming first, is the far more radical and unusual idea.

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    1. I can see “seraphs,” working as a potentially unique way to translate “kami.” In some ways, there is simply no proper word in the English language (or rather, culture) that encapsulate the word in the way the Japanese understand it. However, “spirits” is rather different, as Japan has its own take on spirits and supernatural creatures. I believe you are fairly informed on the topic, but Japan’s mythology from the supernatural to the gods is just so much more diverse compared to Western ideas. It just makes it that much more difficult to translate terms like “youkai” or “yousei” which have acceptable literal translations but just don’t carry the right implications because oftentimes, those ideas don’t even exist in our culture. It is perhaps the same way that the idea of a single god did not exist in polytheistic cultures.

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      1. I’m fairly well-informed, but my knowledge isn’t perfect. I’ve always had something of an obsession with comparative religion in general, wondering how exactly the Christian Trickster entity became a sociopathic monster when the vast majority of them are at best morally ambiguous. Or what the major differences are between the world’s monotheistic religions. Or what exactly the old Celtic pre-Christian myths of the Fae were, and how they play into and don’t play into the idea of demons. (Over The Garden Wall is a pretty much pitch-perfect example of how the Fae can be an odd combination of eccentric, insane, and balls-to-the-floor outright demonic.)

        All of this is to say that in coming out of a Judeo-Christian culture, we often vastly misunderstand Japanese meanings even when they’re translated for us. And that’s what makes this article very interesting. :]

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  4. A very interesting article; I remember that I asked someone who has his Master of Arts in Japanese if Kami-sama referred to the Christian God. His reply was a plain yes. It’s interesting to see Kami-sama also has some other meanings towards it.

    While I’m not very good at it; I try to learn some Japanese in my free time. Like I said; I’m not very good at it, but most of the times I do notice if the “Kami-sama”they’re talking about is the Christian God or not.

    In some anime; like Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai (or Haganai for short) They also refer to Kami-sama quite a few times. And most of the times it sounds sarcastic; however it’s almost a fact they’re talking about the Christian God. (The context: there’s a church….); if so, can you still say it’s just used as a borrowed idea to craft the story; or should you see this more as a sort of insult toward Christians?

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    1. I was referring to more fantasy setting that is simply borrowing ideas. For stories set in “real life,” it is sometimes obviously Christian, as you say. But at the same time, these stories are rarely including Christianity as a part of the main story; it is usually just a quick reference. Haganai is an ironic example, as that is a story which is often cited as representative of the shallowness of the LN industry. When so many people do not even respect the writing of the main story, how serious should we really take its comedic allusions to Christianity? In the context of this post, we can say “kami-sama” refers to the Christian God, but in the greater context of how we as Christians should react to that, it is simply bad writing from an author who can’t even earn the respect of the Japanese audience.

      I’d also like to point out a rather confusing technique sometimes used in Japanese fiction. You say you generally can notice when the characters refer to the Christian God or not, but actually, sometimes the characters themselves don’t know. This is usually used in situations where characters are discussing theology and at least one of them is not Christian. Just because one character is talking about the Christian God, doesn’t mean the people around him are talking about the same thing. By using the ambiguity of Japanese, they can refer to multiple interpretations of “god” at the same time. Sometimes this means different arguments are being made for multiple kinds of theologies in a single conversation, caused by an atheist character who is unsure about what to believe in. What’s most confusing is that there is nothing certain about which way they are truly speaking. You could have every viewer agree they are referring to the Christian God, but the original author could come out and say “nope I didn’t write that scene with that intention,” and be “correct” because the Japanese language is ambiguous like that. When you learn Japanese, you can know that the people are most likely referring to one thing, but always keep in mind there is that chance they are talking about something else!

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