East Asian and Nordic Perspectives
Edited By Knut Alfsvåg and Thor Strandenæs
The spirituality of sin
The concept of sin and Japanese Christian spirituality
One of the first things one learns as a missionary in Japan is to be careful with the concept of sin. The reason is that the Japanese language does not have a word that corresponds to sin in the biblical sense. In the Bible, to have sinned does not just mean that something has been done that should not have been done, but that this is a violation of a divine commandment that leaves one with guilt before the heavenly judge. Japanese does not have a word relating this predicament. What comes closest, and the word that is commonly used in all Bible translations and sermons, is the word tsumi which corresponds quite closely to the English word crime, informing us that the rule that has been broken may have all the authority of human law, but none of the divine.
The sorts of confusions this may create when one is not careful with what one says, I learned through a story I heard from one of the older Japan missionaries while I was still at Japanese language school. When he was a young missionary sometime in the 1950’s, he had once been explaining the gospel of Jesus to a Japanese man coming to church, and to add emphasis and relevance to the biblical story of salvation, he felt it necessary to inform this nice Japanese guy that he was a sinner. But when the Japanese...
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