Methodist Church

Methodist Mission in Japan: A historical perspective

NEW YORK – 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 organisations that continue a mission story which began in 1873, the year the first Methodist missionary arrived in Japan.

Methodism is a major stream in the United Church of Christ of Japan (UCCJ), 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.

Today, Global Ministries has nine missionaries and various other personnel and volunteers in Japan. Their work is coordinated with Japanese mission partners, including the UCCJ.

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 force Japan to open itself to trade. In 1873, a ban on Christianity was lifted by the government, and that year the first missionaries, the Rev and Mrs Robert S. Maclay, arrived from the Methodist Episcopal Church (ME Church). Mission bases were set up in Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Yokohama, and the Rev 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 following year, and Soper was the first Methodist to preach in Japanese.

The first two Methodist converts were baptised 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.

In 1884, the ME Church General Conference Committee on Missions organised the work in Japan into an annual conference. 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. 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 favour 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.

In 1944, the Japanese Government ordered the disbandment of all religious organisations in the country, including Shinto and Buddhist temples. Five hundred of the 1,222 Protestant churches in Japan were destroyed during the war – mostly by US bombs.

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 of Japan, whose Japanese name is “Kyodan”.

The United Church and Christianity in general do not have a large membership in Japan today, but it has a vital presence.

Methodism has been a major part of Protestant churches’ 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. – United Methodist News Service.