Japanese Church Music: Reaching back and reaching forward

After the first Catholic missionaries visited Japan in 1549, many people became Christians. But less than a century later, Japan expelled all missionaries and priests, banned Christianity, and cut off cultural contact with former trading partners.

After the first Catholic missionaries visited Japan in 1549, many people became Christians. But less than a century later, Japan expelled all missionaries and priests, banned Christianity, and cut off cultural contact with former trading partners. Some Japanese tried to maintain their faith in secret, but centuries of isolation erased accurate memories of the Bible, hymns, and liturgies.

When Japan reopened to foreign contact in 1873, Protestant missionaries streamed in. Each denomination published its own hymnal, often simply translating European or North American hymns into Japanese. In 1903, several denominations cooperated to produce a common hymnal, Sanbika.

“The hymns that were introduced into Japan 100 years ago were in old Japanese. Even for old people, lots of words in the old hymnal are words they don't know. Young people don't know hardly any of these words,” says Akira Mochizuki, a Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ) pastor.


The RCJ has taken two approaches to developing distinctive church music, according to pastors who attended a Calvin Symposium on Worship. Speaking through an interpreter, they described their denomination's approach as going back and going forward.

Mining Reformed heritage

They reached back into history to introduce the Genevan Psalms. John Calvin oversaw production of the Genevan Psalter, because he wanted the Psalms to play a large role in church liturgy.

“The people who translated the Genevan Psalms into Japanese wanted to participate in a liturgical movement. They wanted to return to a Reformed or pre-Reformed order of worship,” Mochizuki says.

Old Testament scholar Kichisaburo Yasuda used Hebrew, English, German, and other psalm texts to develop Japanese translations.

“Other hymns tend to be emotional, but these are straight from God's word. Learning the Genevan Psalms can enrich worship and encourage the people's faith,” says Rev.Yasuyoshi Kawasugi.

However, Yasuda translated the psalm texts into old Japanese, because its cadence matches best with Genevan Psalm meters.

“In English, you can say a whole word in one syllable. But we cannot sing one word, one note. The word 'I' takes two syllables in old Japanese and four syllables in contemporary Japanese. Rev. Yasuda tried to summarize the meaning of the psalms to fit the Genevan Psalm tunes. Our denominational worship committee checked that the translations were appropriate,” Kawasugi says.

RCJ worship services typically include a doxology at the beginning and end of the service and three songs during the service. Some congregations ask their choirs to introduce Genevan Psalms. Others play hymn tapes or use the church organ to teach the songs at weekday meetings.

Internationally known Bach scholar, musician, and conductor Masaaki Suzuki has introduced many non-Christian Japanese to the beauty of the Genevan Psalm tunes, as well as to the Christian message in Johann Sebastian Bach's cantatas.

(You can see the notes and English text for all Genevan Psalms and listen to many tunes.)

Encouraging new music

While agreeing that the Genevan Psalms are beautiful, some RCJ pastors wonder whether the language, comparable to the King James Version for English speakers, might be too difficult for young people or non-Christians to relate to.

That's why some advocate spending the money to replace old hymnals with Sanbika 21, hymns for the 21st century. Mochizuki says that about a third of the new hymnal's songs are “very modern in content.” It also includes some hymns based on Japanese tunes. The RCJ has made a list of Sanbika songs recommended for Reformed worship.

Yutaka Maeda, a retired RCJ pastor, has written many hymns and children's songs, as well as a bilingual Japanese-English catechism in several versions. Beginning with a small catechism that a pregnant mother reads aloud to her child in the womb, the series includes versions for toddlers, children, elementary students, and adults.

Meanwhile, many North American denominations have been looking for Japanese and Asian songs to include in their new hymnals. And new publishing and recording companies in Japan now offer contemporary praise and worship music in Japanese.

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