I was listening to a song Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame in Japanese (the intro, The Bells of Notre Dame or ノートルダムの鐘), and I noticed that they referred to the cathedral as a 「てら」. I thought that was odd since as far as I know お寺 is used to refer to a (specifically) Buddhist temple and the Notre Dame is a Catholic building.

The Wikipedia page on the Notre Dame refers to it as both a 大聖堂{たいせいどう}and a 寺院{じいん}. (Of course, the latter uses the kanji , but it doesn't seem to me to carry the implication of a specifically Buddhist temple, and at any rate does not share a reading with it.)

Is there any precedence for calling a cathedral a , or was this used for a certain effect (perhaps to make the imposing look of the building a little more familiar to a Japanese audience...to be honest, it can be kind of scary looking)? Is it possible it was used because it's a shorter word and fit into the song better? I'd love to watch the movie entirely in Japanese to see if they continued calling it such, but alas I don't have it.

  • Trying to find the lyrics to get some context. Is this it geocities.co.jp/Hollywood-Spotlight/4050/Paroles/… ? Don't see any てら there.
    – dainichi
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 9:05
  • @dainichi: That is the lyrics to the song, but it leaves out the spoken dialogue where they say it. Which is sad because I would have like to see it they used kanji or kana for it. I don't like posting links to Youtube as they have a tendency to break, but for what it's worth you can listen to it here: youtube.com/watch?v=dWk9slSgEKI It's around 4:45 if you don't want to listen to the whole thing :) Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 13:41
  • 1
    I listened to the English version as well, and they're saying "church". Probably they're just using the most familiar term for a religious building, which I guess would be "church" in English and 寺 in Japanese. Still, I would have translated it as 教会. I'll keep this as a comment, since I have no idea how common this translation is.
    – dainichi
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 14:17
  • @dainichi: That's a good point that they don't really call it "cathedral" but "church" in English :) Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 14:35

1 Answer 1


Yes, a cathedral can be referred to as a 寺. Here's Nogami Toyoichiro doing just that. Forgive choppy translation, please:


The 大寺 of Notre Dame is located where the ancient Roman 神殿 to Jupiter was, and if the Île de la Cité is the "Eye of Paris", we can surely call Notre Dame the "Pupil". It was the latter half of the fourth century when the first was built here, which initially was called Saint-Etienne. It is not clear when that was made into a to the Holy Mother ("Notre Dame"), but, according to Victor Hugo, Charlemagne laid the first foundation stone, and so it must have been in the late eighth or early ninth century.

Nogami's chronology doesn't match up with the Wikipedia explanation, but as you can see there is clearly precedent for using this sort of terminology for Christian churches and even Notre Dame itself. I've seen 本山 used for people-of-the-book religious buildings, and I've seen 教会 used to refer to "the Church" (the organization) and 寺 for "church" (the building). And let's not forget terms like 南蛮寺 ("Barbarian temple") from the early Christian era in Japan...

However, as dainichi says, in contemporary Japan (Nogami's piece apparently dates from 1941) we would generally expect "church" to be translated 教会. This is I think a reasonable observation. The reason for this is that Japanese culture is becoming more familiarity with Christianity and other "world religions," which means two interrelated things: (1) increasing awareness of the distinction between them and Buddhism (i.e. they aren't just "corrupt sects" of the same everything-except-Shinto "religion", they are a different religion); (2) increasing specialization of and familiarity with vocabulary, so that even non-Christians know that Christians call their place of worship a 教会 and believe it distinct from a 寺 (which is also "sharpening" as a concept because of cultural self-consciousness).

So, why use 寺 in this translation if it is "possible but marked"? This is something I cannot answer, although someone else might be able to. I can think of several possible explanations, though, one or more of which might be true:

  • Timing. /tera/ is two morae shorter than /kyo:kai/. This might have been important.
  • Mood. In this story in particular, Notre Dame is not a modern, well-lit place of worship, but rather an ancient and foreboding place of worship. The translators may have felt that the implications of 教会 were too tied in with modernity and so on, while 寺 feels more "old"
  • Characterization. This is sort of tied in with "mood", but perhaps the translators wanted to make the characters and situation seem more old-fashioned and picturesque. Here too using 寺 could help.

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