How to Call Prayer Beads

I’ve been pondering how best to refer to Buddhist prayer beads in English. The options include “Buddhist beads,” “Buddhist rosary,” or simply “rosary.” I often write “prayer beads,” but this could apply to Catholicism, Islam, or Hinduism as well. Probably none of these terms are incorrect, nor is any single one absolutely correct.

In Japanese, the same issue exists. Many of us call them “JUZU,” but “NENJU” also has substantial support. Given that Japanese has Kanji characters, various ways to write it exist.

There are theories suggesting that the rosary in Catholicism and prayer beads in Buddhism have the same roots. Indeed, in Manichaeism, intermediate customs still exist. Both serve a similar purpose: counting repetitions of invoking the Buddha’s name, chanting mantras, or reading scriptures in Buddhism; and counting prayers in Catholicism. Russian Orthodox prayer ropes, known as “komboskini,” might have different origins, but the truth is unclear.

If similar tools were used across various religions around the world, even when there was no means of communication between them, it’s incredibly fascinating. Maybe the idea of prayer beads is ingrained in human DNA, which is believed to have spread from Africa.

Broadly speaking, prayer beads worldwide likely evolved as a tool for counting repetitive actions during religious rituals.

Regarding the Japanese terms “JUZU” and “NENJU,” “JUZU” means “counting beads,” while “NENJU” means “beads of thought.”

My company, NAGAOKA-NENJU-TEN, adopted the term “NENJU.” While counting is undoubtedly important in religious contexts, I personally prefer the nuance of “beads of thought.”

These aren’t just tools; they can also serve as a medium to convey people’s emotions. For example, parents may prepare them wishing for their children’s growth, or they might be gifted when someone becomes a working adult or gets married. Additionally, repairing the prayer beads of a deceased grandmother for the grandchildren to use is also common. Prayer beads become a medium to pass thoughts from one person to another.

In Japanese, there’s a saying, “A drowning man will catch at a straw,” similar to the English saying “Any port in a storm.” When a family member passes away and we are in deep sorrow, all we can do is hold onto these prayer beads.

From such perspectives, I prefer to use the term “NENJU,” which has the meaning of “beads of thought,” over its mere function as a counter.

Being not a native speaker, I don’t fully understand the subtle nuances in English. Rosary? Prayer beads? What do you usually call them?