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A Witness for Christ in Japan:
Methodist Mission in Historical Perspective

by Christie House and Elliott Wright

Miss Takashima, survivor of Nagasaki atomic blast, with kindergarten students of the Peace Memorial Church, rebuilt in Nagasaki just 10 years after the blast. World Outlook 1955
Miss Takashima, survivor of Nagasaki atomic blast, with kindergarten students of the Peace Memorial Church, rebuilt in Nagasaki just 10 years after the blast. World Outlook 1955
Image by: New World Outlook
Source: New World Outlook
Japanese and Chinese nationals studying for advanced degrees in religion in Nashville Methodist Schools, 1923. These students returned to their countries to become leaders in their home churches. Missionary Voice 1923.
Japanese and Chinese nationals studying for advanced degrees in religion in Nashville Methodist Schools, 1923. These students returned to their countries to become leaders in their home churches. Missionary Voice 1923.
Image by: New World Outlook
Source: New World Outlook

New York, NY, March 17, 2011--United Methodist response to the March 11 earthquake in Japan puts the spotlight on a rich mission history that began 135 years ago.

The General Board of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) are working in the crisis with church organizations that continue a mission story that opened in 1873, the year the first Methodist missionary arrived in Japan.

Methodism is a major stream in the United Church of Japan, established by the merger of 33 denominations during World War II. The UCCJ's Relief Committee was among the early responders to humanitarian needs created by the earthquake and tsunami in March.

The story is both rich and complex, conditioned by political and cultural factors. Some of the complexity comes from the fact that multiple Methodist denominations entered Japan in the late 19 th century.

Today, Global Ministries has nine missionaries and a variety of other personnel and volunteers in Japan. The work includes education, services for minorities and seafarers, ministry with women and children, and the training of persons from Asia and Africa in sustainable agriculture. These ministries are coordinated with Japanese mission partners, including the UCCJ. Links continue with several church-founded universities, including three with roots in what is today United Methodist Women.

First Missionaries

Japan was closed to most outside contact from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s. The first modern-day Christians arrived in the 1850s with Admiral Matthew Perry, sent by the US to more or less force Japan to open itself to trade. In 1873, a ban on Christianity was lifted by the government, and that year the first missionaries, Rev. and Mrs. Robert S. Maclay, arrived from the Methodist Episcopal Church. Mission bases were set up in Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Yokohama, and Maclay was instrumental in the founding of what is now Aoyama Gakuin University.

Another couple, Julius Soper and his wife, Mary Frances Davison, arrived the next year, and Soper was the first Methodist to preach in Japanese. It is worth noting that in 1874, no fewer than 87 Protestant denominations set up operations in Japan.

The first two Methodist converts were baptized in 1874. Also, in that year, the Women's Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) of the ME Church sent Dora Schoonmaker as its first missionary to Japan. She was joined two years later by Olive Whiting. The two set up a school for women, housed initially in space rented in a Buddhist temple.

Annual Conference Organized

In 1884 the ME Church General Conference Committee on Missions organized the work in Japan into an annual conference. The conference had 32 clergy members--13 missionaries and 19 Japanese ministers--along with 1,148 church members, 241 probationer members, and 1,203 persons enrolled in Sunday schools.

By 1895, the Japan Conference had nine districts, 68 clergy--18 American missionaries and 51 Japanese clergy. There were 3,371 members and 668 probationers. The Women Foreign Missionary Society had 23 missionaries stationed in Japan, 19 working in schools and the rest with Bible Women in evangelistic missions. Not until 1904 did Japan have a resident Methodist bishop. The Rev. Merriman C. Harris was elected as missionary bishop based in Tokyo; he also had responsibility for Korea.

Methodist Unity Efforts

Meanwhile, other Methodist and Wesleyan denominations had marked Japan for missionary efforts. Five of those today are part of The United Methodist Church: the ME Church; the ME Church, South; the Methodist Protestant Church; the United Brethren in Christ; and the Evangelical Association. The sixth was the Methodist Church of Canada, now part of the United Church of Canada.

In 1901, the Canadian Methodists invited all of these mission groups to discuss union, a move strongly supported by the Japan Annual Conference of the ME Church, and the General Conference of that denomination voted in favor of union. The negotiations continued for several years, and a plan of union was confirmed by the ME Church; the ME Church, South; and the Canadians--resulting in the formation of the Japan Methodist Church in 1907. The Rev. Yoitsu Honda became the first Japanese bishop of the church.

Depression and War Years

During World War I and the ensuing Great Depression, missionary personnel in Japan gradually decreased. The women of the ME Church maintained a larger missionary staff than the Board of Missions. But by 1939, all personnel and financial support were greatly diminished.

Japan's military exploits in Korea and China and its move toward empire posed many difficulties for the church and the US missionaries. Methodist missions in Korea and China were in the path of the advancing Japanese military force. In 1941, the Board of Missions withdrew all missionary personnel in Japan and Korea, and in many areas of China where Japan had advanced. The US government had been urging US citizens to evacuate as impending war with Japan endangered their lives. It also became evident that indigenous Christians who associated with Westerners in Japan and Korea were in dire risk.

The Japanese government forced all Protestant churches in Japan, as well as the Greek Orthodox Church, to unite into a single body. Foreign personnel, funding, and any other kind of support were prohibited by law. The Methodist Church turned over all its property to the Japanese church leaders in 1941. The united church was called the "Church of Christ in Japan."

Immediate Post-World War II Years

In 1944, the Japanese government ordered the disbandment of all religious organizations in the country, including Shinto and Buddhist temples. But quickly after hostilities ceased, World Outlook, the magazine of The Methodist Board of Missions, sent reporter Richard Baker to assess the state of the church in Japan. Of the 1,222 Protestant churches in Japan, 500 were destroyed--mostly by US bombs.

In Tokyo, 157 of the 166 Protestant churches were destroyed. Hiroshima Girls School was completely obliterated by the atomic bomb, along with all 350 of its students and teachers. Chinzei Middle School for Boys was annihilated in Nagasaki. Aoyama Gakuin, the Methodist university, was partially destroyed and would be rebuilt. Other schools and churches were not damaged.

After the war, some churches elected to go back to their pre-war status, but others elected to stay as part of the United Church of Christ in Japan, whose Japanese name is "Kyodan." United-Methodist related churches that affirmed their continued membership in the Kyodan in 1945 were the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Canadian Methodist Church, the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the United Brethren Church.

The Korean Christian Church in Japan (KCCJ) was started by the YMCA in 1908, as a mission outreach of churches in Korea, including the Korean Methodist Church. It worked with Koreans forcibly brought to Japan--more than a million--between 1910 and 1945, as part of the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Today, the KCCJ continues its work with the Korean minority in Japan and is a mission partner of Global Ministries.

Kyodan Anniversary

The Kyodan in 2009 celebrated 150 years of Protestant presence in Japan, reaching back to the arrival of Admiral Perry. The United Church and Christianity in general do not have a large membership in Japan today, only a small percent of the population. But it has a vital presence.

Methodism has been a major part of Protestantism's 152 years in Japan. The mission connections remain strong, as is evident in the collaboration between Global Ministries/UMCOR and partners in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters.

One of the anniversary celebrations was a commemorative assembly with the theme, "One in Christ (as the Lord's Witnesses)."

This could also be the motto of the relationship between The United Methodist Church and its partners in Japan today and for the future.

Japan Earthquake and Tsunami


arrow icon. View Listing of Missionaries Currently Working in: Japan   

Date posted: Mar 17, 2011