No need to tiptoe around religion in Japanese

Remote working this year saved me from the lengthy explanations that accompany my observance of the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which typically fall in late September and early October.

In Japan, usually saying ユダヤ教の休日です (yudayakyō no kyūjitsu desu, they’re Jewish holidays), gets the job done, or maybe I add 大事な (daijina, important) if necessary.

Things get stickier for my Japanese if I have to actually explain what the holidays are. Rosh Hashanah is simply the 新年 (shinnen, new year), so that’s easy, but Yom Kippur is tougher. 去年の罪が神に許されるかどうかの判断の日 (Kyonen no tsumi ga kami ni yurusareru ka dō ka no handan no hi, The day where God decides whether or not you are forgiven for your sins over the past year). 断食をし、朝から夕方までお祈りをしたりする (Danjiki o shi, asa kara yūgata made o-inari o shitari suru, One refrains from eating and prays from morning until dusk).

したりする is helpful in expressing that you do various things besides whatever verb precedes the structure, like how on Rosh Hashanah, 林檎や蜂蜜などの甘いものを食べたりする (ringo ya hachimitsu nado no amai mono o tabetari suru, you eat sweet things, such as apples and honey and so on).

宗教 (shūkyō, religion) and 礼拝 (reihai, religious worship) are certainly different in Japan. While the explanations about my Judaism can be more frustrating to say in Japanese, the distinct religious context of Japanese society is in some ways a relief. At least from the U.S., where 宗教は政治に関わってしまう (shūkyō wa seiji ni kakawatte-shimau, religion ends up getting completely involved with politics). Attaching しまう (shimau) to the te-form of a verb conveys the idea that an undesirable result “ends up” happening: 安息日を忘れてしまう (ansokubi o wasurete-shimau, to end up forgetting the Sabbath). I’ve also seen it translated as to “totally” do something to convey the nuance, like “I totally forgot the Sabbath.”

Japan is one of the least religious countries in the world. Surveys have shown that over 50% of Japanese say they are not 宗教的 (shūkyōteki, religious). About a third consider themselves 仏教 (bukkyō, Buddhist), somewhere between 10 and 30% are 神道 (shintō, Shinto), and less than 10% are キリスト教 (kiristokyō, Christian). The popularity of Christian weddings in Japan also reflects religious variance in Japan, キリスト教の結婚式が一番人気がある (kirisutokyō no kekkonshiki ga ichi-ban ninki ga aru, since Christian weddings are the most popular). Meanwhile just 10% of Japanese say that religion is important to their 日常生活 (nichijō seikatsu, daily life).

And while relatively few Japanese consider themselves 仏教 or 神道, these two religions dominate Japan’s landscape with their お寺 (o-tera, temples) and 神社 (jinja, shrines), and rule the calendar year with 祭り (matsuri, festival). Shinto and Buddhism have coexisted in Japan for over 1,000 years, and have even fused together.「神仏習合」という合同の信仰もある (“Shinbutsu shūgō to iu gōdō no shinkō mo aru, There is also a combined belief system called “Shinbutsu-shūgō”).

Long story short, whatever your religious beliefs may be, they likely differ drastically from that of Japanese people, and will be met with simple curiosity in conversation. For Japanese practice, feel free to ask and describe your 信仰 (shinkō, faith), as in 神を信じているとまでは言わない (kami o shinjite-iru to made wa iwanai, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I believe in God).

とまでは言わない (To made wa iwanai) is a useful expression for saying that you can’t quite say that something is true, like 信心深いとまでは言わない (shinjinbukai to made wa iwanai, I wouldn’t call myself devout). Some other handy religious terms include 宗教行事 (shūkyō gyōji, religious events), 日曜学校 (nichiyō gakkō, Sunday school), and 聖書 (seisho, bible), in the trend of the oh-so-common, かつては日曜学校で聖書を勉強していたけれど、今はもう宗教的な生活はしていない (katsute wa nichiyō gakkō de seisho o benkyō shiteita keredo, ima wa mō shūkyōtekina seikatsu wa shite-inai, at one time, I used to study the bible at Sunday School, but I no longer have such a religious lifestyle).

Personally, I’ve felt that without any high-stakes politics pegged so closely to the topic of religion in Japan — at least compared to many of our home countries — speaking about it can lead to interesting and curious discussions. 怖がるトピックではない (Kowagaru topikku dewa nai, It’s not a topic to be scared of). 逆に、話してみたら? (Gyaku ni, hanashite-mitara? On the contrary, why don’t you try talking about it?)


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                        <figure><a class="fresco" data-fresco-group="attachment-group" data-fresco-group-options="ui: 'inside'" data-fresco-caption="Cultural spread: Apples, pomegranates and honey are some of the sweet things eaten on Rosh Hashanah.  | GETTY IMAGES" href="" rel="nofollow">
                            <figcaption>Cultural spread: Apples, pomegranates and honey are some of the sweet things eaten on Rosh Hashanah.  | GETTY IMAGES</figcaption></figure></li>
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