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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : The Tower of Babel, The Book of Mormon, and the Pointy-Haired Boss » The Tower of Babel, The Book of Mormon, and the Pointy-Haired Boss

The Tower of Babel, The Book of Mormon, and the Pointy-Haired Boss

Seth - February 12, 2008

While I was in Japan in the mid-1990s, a new translation of the Book of Mormon to Japanese was completed. This was a very big deal. The original Japanese translation had been around a long time. And it was almost unreadable by normal Japanese people. The man who originally translated it noticed that the King James Version (the official LDS version) used “old English.” So he felt it would be appropriate to use old samurai Japanese.

Problem is that the Japanese language is linguistically more in flux than English. It changes at a much more rapid pace. Distinctive dialects develop more readily and are much harder for other Japanese to understand. Even different generations have a hard time understanding each other. To use a form of the language which is no longer in general use is a much bigger deal in Japan than it is in English.

English-speaking readers can read King James, and still, more or less, “get it.” It’s much harder for a Japanese person to do the same. And this incomprehensible Book of Mormon was a great barrier to teaching and conversion. We’d hand out the book, bear testimony and challenge them to read and pray about it. Next week, we’d follow up and the answer would be – “I read a bit and couldn’t understand any of it, so I quit.” Really takes the wind out of a young missionary’s sails.

So, as you can imagine, we were all giddy about the news that a new, revised translation was being made in contemporary Japanese. We were even going to get some footnotes and cross-references!

Soon the Book of Mormons were available for purchase and distribution. And they were wonderful! The Japanese was clear, concise, and moving. The local members acted like Moses had just walked off the mountain, stone tablets in hand. General rejoicing.

Then the word came to us that while the missionaries in Japan would get ONE copy for their own personal use, and the members would be able to make only enough purchases for their own family, none of the revised Book of Mormons would be made available for missionary work.

Apparently, some bean-counter in Tokyo had come to the realization that missionaries throughout Japan had boxloads of the old Book of Mormons still sitting in their apartments. The apartment I was in probably had close to two hundred of the old books sitting in their original shipping boxes in the study room closet.

This was of great concern to the folks in Tokyo, and it was decreed that the missionaries would not be permitted to use the new translation in proselyting efforts until they had disposed of the old books.

And not only that, we were expressly forbidden to dispose of the books in any way that would be undignified. We were not to throw them away. We were not to simply drop them in bike baskets at the local train station (probably a rather sensible prohibition – since to do so would certainly be a real public nuisance and strain community goodwill). No, we must go out and give each book to new investigators with respect, and personalized approach, etc.

And to make sure we were doing it, a new box was added to our weekly accountability sheets for reporting the number of Book of Mormons handed out.

I took this new edict as I take most stupid ideas. I originally nodded my head in assent and didn’t really decide what I thought of it until I had mulled it over a couple weeks. After a couple weeks, I was thoroughly exasperated and disgusted.

Oh sure, the Mission President gave a great talk on “Flooding the Earth with the Book of Mormon” and the APs stood up and gave some motivational speeches about obedience. And Zone Leaders held a few group pep rallies about how we were going to totally step up to the plate on this new challenge.

But I had zero testimony of the truthfulness of this piece of nonsense. It seemed to me quite clear that some pencil-neck in Tokyo was on a Dilbert-esque power-trip and trying to feel important.

Even more pressing in my mind was the knowledge that following this new program would require me to actually go out and “street-contact.” Like I said, I was terrified of street-contacting. No amount of cajolling, motivating, or guilt-tripping had ever budged me on that issue.

So I’d like to say, I avoided it on principle. But the truth is, I was just scared of street-contacting and wasn’t about to change my ways. My junior companion was a quiet sort who kept his own counsel. But I’m pretty sure he thought the new policy was as dumb as I did. He was in no great hurry to go on a samurai Book of Mormon rage either. And since it was just the two of us in our isolated town, we didn’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves, and God.

I looked at the boxes in our apartment and didn’t bother opening them. I think I browsed at the local library to see if they had a copy. They did – all towns with missionaries already had that angle covered. But other than that, I flat-out refused to play ball. And my companion was perfectly content to follow my lead.

I remember some of the missionaries getting the bright idea to drop Book of Mormons in hotel rooms. That’s a lot of books.

There was a literal cheer from the missionaries at zone conference when this particular coup was announced. But, as it turns out, hotel owners willing to let you drop a strange book in their nightstands are less common than they seem to be in the USA. Anyway, I didn’t know any hotel owners. The one time I tried it, I got a really weird look from the receptionist and a firm refusal. On the way out, I noticed the secluded positioning of the hotel, the abundance of concealing trees and foliage, and the curtained entrance to an underground parking lot…

The Japanese missionary I was with at the time soon confirmed it. Yup. Love hotel (a place where the Japanese go to have affairs).


Anyway. I ignored the policy, and marked a big fat zero in my numbers box week after week. For all I know, the hapless missionaries in Japan are still trying to get rid of those accursed books.

To this day, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t have the guts or the insight to just take the boxes out to the parking lot and throw them in the dumpster rather than allowing them to be a problem for the next set of missionaries to cope with.

Oh well. The benefits of hindsight I guess…


  1. I think all missions have some stupid “programs”. Tracting a certain number of hours, not eating at member’s homes, no movies on p-days, no blood pudding or blood sausague (that one I liked), but it goes on and on.

    It’s all part of the great missionary experience we can now look back on and say “It used to be the best two years of my life.”

    Comment by Don — February 12, 2008 @ 1:22 am

  2. As a Hong Kong mission alum, I share your hatred of street contacting. Waste of time, destroyer of goodwill, and bane of missionaries’ existence, as far as I’m concerned.

    Comment by Steve M — February 12, 2008 @ 8:08 am

  3. We had a similar problem in Brazil when the new Portuguese translation came out. It wasn’t as big of a deal—the old one was good enough. But I can remember every missionary being sent home from zone conference with several cases of old BoMs.

    Comment by BrianJ — February 12, 2008 @ 8:20 am

  4. We had a similar problem in Brazil when the new Portuguese translation came out. It wasn’t as big of a deal—the old one was good enough. But I can remember every missionary being sent home from zone conference with several cases of old BoMs.

    Comment by BrianJ — February 12, 2008 @ 8:21 am

  5. Thrift stores and used book stores weren’t an option? :)

    Comment by Susan M — February 12, 2008 @ 8:38 am

  6. The ‘real’ tragedy here… and in other subjects-areas of LDS practice is that No One is given permission to Stand Up and say: BULLSHIT!

    all ideas/programs voiced by leaders are given automatic credence-authenticity; it’s like everything said comes straight to earth thru a pillar of light.

    That leaves the church and its members without a correction track like the runaway truck lanes coming down mountains… LDS are literally STUCK with items like the MMM, Hofmann, etc.

    Comment by Guy Noir, Private Eye — February 12, 2008 @ 9:07 am

  7. I lived through this exact same story in Japan in the mid-90s. Although I hated this policy as much as you did, I seem to recall that we took a few boxes downtown and basically handed them out to anyone who would take a free book (which is almost no one in Japan). After a couple of good faith attempts at this it seems the policy suddenly changed and we started getting the new books. And then it was the opposite – we had to carefully account for and quarantine all of the remaining old books and ship them back to the mission office in specially labeled boxes. I never knew how bureaucratic the Church was until I served a mission…

    Comment by lief — February 12, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  8. Although I would not have used the words “bull shit”, I certainly would have called foul on such a program. Save tithing dollars by wasting good will? No thank you.

    PS… I’ve said it elsewhere, and I’ll say it here: I can’t wait until the Book of Mormon is translated into English.

    Comment by Silus Grok — February 12, 2008 @ 10:57 am

  9. Reading your account, all I could hear were the words of the disciplinary committee to Vincenzo di Francesca…

    “Burn the book(s)”

    Comment by JM — February 12, 2008 @ 11:31 am

  10. I know JM,

    The way I was raised, there just seems something a little… I don’t know… sacrilegious about throwing 100 BoMs in the trash.

    Comment by Seth R. — February 12, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

  11. Having suffered (ignorantly) through a Japanese mission back in the old jidai (1973-75), I didn’t face the challenges that Seth or Lief did. And if the 1973 versions of the Japanese didn’t understand the book, they didn’t articulate that very well to us.

    The Doctrine and Covenants was substantially “older” Japanese than the Book of Mormon. What happened to it? If people had difficulty understanding the Morumon Kei, the Kyogi to Seiyaku was off the charts.

    I must say, however, that the sacrament prayers in the new simpler language just don’t have the same resonance: “Eien no chichi naru Kami yo! Warera Onko Iesu Kirisuto no mina ni yorite, negai tatematsuru. . . .”

    Comment by Mark B. — February 12, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  12. I served in Japan Okinawa at the same time as you did in Fukuoka. We heard about this policy, but nothing was done about it. We were giving out the new translations within weeks of their debut. And our Mission President knew all about it.

    And, sad to say, whatever the new translation did for the members spirituality, it did nothing to improve our finding and teaching pools.

    Comment by John Cline — February 12, 2008 @ 2:44 pm

  13. You should’ve served on Okinawa. I was there when the new translation came out. We heard about the policy, but we were giving out the new translations within weeks of their debut. I didn’t realize that they actually enforced the policy on the mainland!

    It did nothing to help our teaching pool, by the way.

    Comment by John Cline — February 12, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

  14. Sorry for the duplication, I was having computer troubles.

    Comment by John Cline — February 12, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

  15. Seth,

    I think burning would be a suitable option. They could have been incorporated into those missionary traditions that happen in some missions.

    In the Nevada Las Vegas Mission, back when I was there, we did the following:

    6 month: burn a tie
    12 month: burn a shirt
    18 month: burn a suit
    40 days and nights left: submerse one’s self in water fully clothed (the Ark Mark)
    last day: burn your missionary guide

    I’m thinking the 3 month mark would be a good time to burn an out of date copy of the B of M.

    (It does feel a little icky, thinking about doing it though.)

    Comment by JM — February 12, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  16. Mark, the D&C got an overhaul as well. I’ve got a nice revised triple-combo sitting on my shelf right now.

    Twenty years is linguistically a long time in Japan. So who knows…

    John, I don’t think the book itself plays much into increasing the “teaching pool.” It plays more into how well investigators are handled once you have them.

    Comment by Seth R. — February 12, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

  17. here just seems something a little… I don’t know… sacrilegious about throwing 100 BoMs in the trash.

    But remember that Vincenzo di Francesca found his BoM in the trash. Just think how many Japanese Vincenzos there might have been….

    Comment by BrianJ — February 12, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

  18. Maybe if I went for 100 different trash cans, in strategic locations.

    Comment by Seth R. — February 13, 2008 @ 8:09 am

  19. The ‘real’ tragedy here… and in other subjects-areas of LDS practice is that No One is given permission to Stand Up and say: BULLSHIT!

    You know, I haven’t found that to be true. Just last week in the middle of sacrament meeting I stood up and yelled “BULLSHIT” from the top of my lungs. My bishop was a little surprised, of course, since he wasn’t actually “BULLSHITTING” us: he was announcing that YW would be held in another room that day, and it turned out that YW really was in that other room that day. But at least I said it, and man did it feel great.

    Comment by jimbob — February 13, 2008 @ 8:54 am

  20. Isn’t it Books of Mormon, instead of Book of Mormons?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 13, 2008 @ 9:29 am

  21. Isn’t it Books of Mormon, instead of Book of Mormons?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 13, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  22. Isn’t it Books of Mormon, instead of Book of Mormons?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 13, 2008 @ 9:31 am

  23. I heard a story about a man in Provo, who, during testimony meeting sometime back in the 1960′s, stood up and shouted that barnyard epithet in response to a testimony. The speaker had been a soldier, and was shot at. The bullet, apparently, stopped miraculously a few inches from his chest, and fell harmlessly to the ground. He picked the slug up, and it was still hot.

    This last statement was the last straw for one listener, who stood, shouted the aforementioned epithet, walked out of church, and never returned. Ever. (No update on whether he has passed on to his eternal reward, and, if so, whether he made it back into the church one more time en route.)

    If it really happened, I didn’t hear how good it made the guy feel. Thanks to jimbob for his insight on this important issue!

    Comment by Mark B. — February 13, 2008 @ 9:37 am

  24. Strictly speaking, Eric, it’s “copies of the Book of Mormon”.


    Comment by Silus Grok — February 13, 2008 @ 11:30 am

  25. Funny thing, Seth. I have an opposite story when serving in L.A. I got out there about the time the new thin paged BOMs were coming out. Many missionaries requested them immediately (and received them). Some so that their backpack was lighter (though most companionships in my mission had cars and others for no reason at all. The old fat ones were just as good in every way and perhaps better being as those thin pages are sticky and easily torn. Why waste the church’s money?

    Anyway, kinda funny how opposite that is. Certainly if I was in your position I’d feel the same way.

    Comment by Bret — February 13, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  26. You are a sad, sad slacking loser of a return missionary.
    If you had kept your comittment to the Lord while you were a missionary, you would have seen success. And you would have planted seeds with those copies of the Book of Mormon, no matter how bad that translation was.

    I was there also, and I found a way to put those books into the hands of japanese people who listened to my testimony of the truth contained in that book, and they all agreed to read it. We placed more than 400 copies of that old translation into hands of people who had even the slightest chance of learning the truth in this life. Certainly, many of them likely ended up in the most unappreciated places, and even in the gomi bako. But I will not have to answer for being a slacker, disrespectitng my leaders, and not being in touch with the Spirit. If you were it is very likely that you too would have handed out hundreds of copies of that old out of date translation, then moved on to the newer better version. Who are you to determine that the old translation was so bad that no one you could have given it to deserved that opportunity to find the truth of the Gospel. You cheated those people out of that chance to decide for themselves. Did you think that God was stupid for letting that translation be His official written version of the truth for more than 90 years in that country? That’s pretty audacious. And even sadder that anyone could be so narrow minded as to only think that it was some stupid church leader in Tokyo who was on a power trip. That insinuates the belief that God does not have control over His Gospel. I’m betting that when you get to the next life, you are going to have some serious regrets about your slacker loser attitude towards missionary work back then.

    My companions and I comitted to do our very best, inspite of how inefficient and difficult it was. Did you think that you were comitting to go on a two year vacation back then? I am inclined to think that it is likely that you were the type of missionary that hindered the work from moving foward. And, most likely, you have a negative and ill perspective about many if not most gospel ideals. I really feel bad for you, that you weren’t able to take the challenge and make yourself better for it and that likely is reflected in where you are in your life now. Are you happy, successful and fulfilled? If you were, why on earth would you be spending your time filling the internet boasting of your lameness, and loser attitude.

    Lucky for you, there are plenty of other people (even return missionaries) who will empathize with you– as they said it was always and probably still is the 90-10 rule, 90% of the missionaries accomplished 10% of the work, and 10% of the missionaries picked up the slack of elders like you seem to portray yourself, and produced the remaining 90% of the work.

    I think that is basically how life will be. And sadly for you, if you remain the 10%, you will probably always be at the bottom, and unfulfilled.

    I’m sure that you just hated missionaries like I was, who actually worked and made their comps obey the rules, and work too. But we had success, nearly 10 times the average for missions in Japan. All of which I attribute to comittment and determination to be the best I could be.

    Maybe before you die, you will figure it out and get yourself on track. I hope for your sake you do. I would hate for my my son to end up companions with your son in the mission field, if he ends up with your lack of comittment, determination, and work ethic.

    Good luck. Sounds like you need something aside from yourself to make a success of your life.

    Comment by whiting choro — May 27, 2008 @ 10:54 pm

  27. You know, after reading your bio, Seth, it seems completely obvious to me, and that it should be to you as well, that the Lord, although He does care and has a plan, does allow people to be human, and selfish and stupid, as evidenced by your own description of your sad missionary attitude and lack of comittment. He didn’t strike you down for your poor work ethic and attitude, nor did he strike down the “idiot” who translated the original Japanses translation either, or the “stupid” leader in Tokyo who was on some purported power trip.

    And look, he isn’t striking you down even now, when as a priesthood leader in your ward, you perpetuate an attitude that defies the Spirit and missionary work.

    I hope that you were being completely, insincerely sarcastic. If not I really hope you figure out that the road of cynicism you sound like you are on will not lead you or your family to happiness.

    Of course the Lord allows all sorts of crap to happen, even to the best of people. But is is not what happens around you that counts, it is what you do with what is around you that determines who you are and what you will become.

    But who am I to judge you? I don’t know but what I gleaned by stumbling on this page whil looking for vintage copies of the Book of Mormon in Japanses. But, as I was a sincere, hard working, dedicated missionary at the same time you were ( in Sendai) I found a very saddening and disturbing expression of the kind of attitude that I saw and still see in people who should and can be more comitted than they are. It is a tough fight to keep up that comittment. And if you struggled then, it must be terribly difficult now. I say that with sincerity, as it is tough for me as well. But the determination pays off, and the self satisfation of knowing that you have done the best you can do, while being human, and being you, is still very rewarding.

    I sure hope you step up to the plate and kick that shamefully apostate-sounding attitude before it reasons you and your family right out of your eternal potential.

    If I am completely wrong about you, consider how a person not of our faith would view your expression. Would you really be ok with them getting the same impression as I have gotten? How sad that would be if your expressions here were the only impression they ever had of our church.

    I’m sure that you are better than that. And if you are, I am glad.

    Comment by whiting choro — May 27, 2008 @ 11:44 pm

  28. Seth-
    Ignore the last two comments. He obviously doesn’t know you personally (like…ooh! Me!) and is glued so tightly to that saddle up there on that noble (and all-be-it high) steed.

    Wowzahs. Seriously, It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a personal attack via blogging. Sorry, Seth. Glad you have thick skin…

    Comment by cheryl — May 28, 2008 @ 10:48 am

  29. Dear Whiting Choro,
    You sound like a real blind dork. How do you handle the fact that the book of abraham is not a translation but a made up story of fantasy, and the temple rituals have been changed numerous times. How can that be? I am a 15 year convert on my way out because of the falsehoods and dogmatic dorks like you.

    Comment by pablo — July 1, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

  30. I’m a convert at 25 and now mid 40′s remembering an episode of Bewitched where Darin gets an coin, or something he believes makes him invincible, and acts accordingly to great success.

    This is how I feel about choro, believes in the BOM, and all the GA stuffs, and acts accordingly to great success. Hats off to you and hope your have a great life. Really.

    The reason why I am planning my exit is mainly because the temple rituals are the same as the masonic rituals, the book of Abe is a proven false translation, and the fact that JS translated with a peep stone.

    I think the mormon culture is excellent, but to say the ONLY true church in light of the many errors, where one error is too many for the ONLY true church, leaves me only one course. Leave the church and love my neighbor.

    Comment by california joe — January 11, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  31. Wow! what an exchange of ideals and various people and insults! It only shows we in fact do have free agency and that God will force no one into Heaven. I also served a mission in Japan. I served in the Japan Sapporo Mission from 1981-1983. (The Frozen Chosen) I used the “old” translation as it was all we had. I don’t recall anyone ever saying it was too hard to read. The honest seekers of truth read it and felt the spirit of this sacred record. That is the point. It doesn’t matter what the translation is in any language, if the reader is honestly seeking the truth, he or she will feel the spirit bear witness of its truthfulness. The words written on the pages themselves do not convince anyone of its truthfullness; the spirit of God does. “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” Moroni 10:5. If a reader honestly and sincerely reads with the intent of finding the truth, it does not matter if the words are old Japanese, old English, old Portuguese, etc. It would be sad to tell Martin Luther that his translations of the Bible into German from the original Greek were too hard to comprehend, at least the common people were finally allowed to read the word of God for themselves rather than to have someone tell them what they thought it meant. To tell the others who translated the Bible into English so that many thousands more could come to believe in Jesus the Christ that their translations were to hard to comprehend would be most unfortunate as well. What about all the wonderful Japanese people who joined the church and were convinced that Jesus is the Christ by reading the “old” translation prior to the 1990s? Ask Elder Yoshihiku Kikuchi what he thinks of the “old” translation. The true word of God stands on its own and those who read it with sincerity and honesty and pray about it will come to know of its truth, whether that be in the Bible, The Book of Mormon, or any other scripture that claims to be the word of God, no matter what language it is translated into or how difficult it is to comprehend.

    Comment by One Frozen Chosen choro — January 26, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  32. The true word of God stands on its own and those who read it with sincerity and honesty and pray about it will come to know of its truth, whether that be in the Bible, The Book of Mormon, or any other scripture that claims to be the word of God, no matter what language it is translated into or how difficult it is to comprehend.

    Well, if that were true then there would be no need to translate it at all. Everyone could just pray about the english version.

    Comment by MCQ — January 26, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  33. Cha– I only read the American version. That’s the true version. Dead to rights.

    Comment by David T. — January 26, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

  34. [...] The Man in the High Castle, The Martian Chronicles. Verne and Wells, of course. They had a 1909 Japanese translation of the Book of Mormon, which uses crazy archaic kanji and was surreal to flip through – like a Japanese book that slid [...]

    Pingback by goviolet » what happened in vegas — April 10, 2009 @ 12:12 am

  35. I don’t know any of that Japanese non-sense that went on in the past as I served in Brazil. The thing is that when I read the Portuguese version I thought it was super plain and super easy to understand in Portuguese, but I had people that told me it was awful, nobody would ever be able to understand a book that uses such old language, etc. My point is that even if people said that it was hard to understand in my experience they may really have been saying, “I’m not that interested.” Because the same day others would tell me how much a lighter read the BoM is compared to the Bible. That’s just part of the work.

    Next, I followed my mission president and I thought it was stupid, pigheaded, and all around idiotic what he told me to do. But I did it anyway, and it worked. No matter how dumb it seems it worked and I enjoyed more success doing the stupid, pigheaded, idiotic things than I did in any other time in my mission.

    Lastly to those leaving the church. That’s a shame. If you can believe that some man that only preached kindness 2000 years ago got nailed to a tree because we all hated him for what he taught, and because of that act all of our sins are forgiven, and even more amazing still that this dead guy got up and walked around 3 days after his death, then after talking to some folks flew off to some unknown place and will return again someday in the future, then what is so hard to believe about the book of abraham, or the temple, or anything else for that matter. Why couldn’t God say this is the way things are? Even if it doesn’t make sense to men. God does what is wisdom to him. You have allowed doubts to enter into your faith. I’m not going to argue about the validity of the points you guys raise, I have seen the contemporary translations and everything else. My point isn’t in them, because they were made by very knowledgeable men. But what of the faith that comes with the religion? Why can’t God tell Joseph to write a certain translation, or if there is some meaning more sacred to the translation that has yet to be uncovered, a sort of code perhaps to keep sacred things sacred? Why do you doubt the temple ordinances because of similarities to other practices? The sacrament is similar to many practices of other faiths, do we abadon it because of those similarities? Of course not. Truth abounds in all places and in many cases different degrees of truth can be found everywhere.

    I do not condemn you for your descion to leave. I actually commend you for it. You seek truth, that is good. But what of your faith? Will you wreck your faith with doubts? How long until you use a purely scientific approach to religion and become atheist? Because you will never be able to prove once and for all that there is a God, and that the God that you claim to worship is that God, and that your way of worshiping him is the correct way. When you search for truth you must have doubts or why would you be searching in the first place. And faith and doubt cannot exist in the same person at the same time.

    Comment by Ryam — July 24, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

  36. When the new Morumon Sho came out I asked all of the members of the branch to help us in distributing the old Morumon Kei. They understood the weird bean-counting mentality and many of the members actually helped us. When all of the old Books of Mormon were gone, several of the members asked if they could have copies of the new one to give out as well. This spirit of missionary work continued for a few months, contributing to two baptisms.

    Comment by Waruchi — November 1, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

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