James Curtis Hepburn
Missionary from Central Pennsylvania to Japan[I]
By David J. Lu [II] Revised May 2011
One day I was sitting in the upstairs
living room of Sat Eisaku<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>.
In a room surrounded by the autographed portraits of Queen
Elizabeth II, the late Prime Minister Yoshida Shireru, and other
notable world figures, the former prime minister who had just
received his Nobel peace prize, was in a relaxed and jovial
mood. “Tell me, why is Bucknell so interested in Japanese
studies? Is there any special tradition behind it?” he asked.
“Well, we have the
Susquehanna river that gave its name to the flagship of
Commodore Matthew Perry who opened
I wonder how many in his home town know who J.C. Hepburn
J. C. Hepburn was a giant among those who helped usher in
The saga of this remarkable man began on
The following year, he joined the First Presbyterian
Church of Milton. The notion of becoming a medical missionary
suddenly overtook him. His father strongly opposed it, and he
tried to wipe away this notion to please his family. But his
heart was not at rest until he decided to go overseas. The sense
of mission and calling was simply overpowering. In the fall of
1838, Hepburn opened his practice in
They had their eyes set on
Finally there was an opening at a mission hospital in
The Hepburns remained in
On July 8, 1853, four days behind schedule, Commodore
Matthew Perry’s four black ships entered the Edo bay and
anchored off the
The Americans and Japanese shall not do anything that may be calculated to excite religious animosity. The Government of Japan has already abolished the practice of trampling on religious emblems.
This was the opening that the Christian community was
waiting for. Naval chaplains on the
A Physician in Kanagawa
In Kanagawa, the Hepburns rented as their mission house a
Buddhist temple that was located next to the U. S. Consulate. He
was soon joined by other missionaries, including S. R. Brown<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>,
a personal friend whom he first met in 1842 in
the time of his arrival in
Hepburn’s first priority was to establish a clinic, which
he started in a location separate from the mission house in
1861. For the next 18 years (with some interruptions caused by
the government intervention), he treated an upward of 10.000
patients. To a handful of students who wanted medical training,
he set aside a couple of days each week to teach them. During
the last five years when the clinic was in operation, he gave
Bible lessons to the waiting patients before giving them
treatment. The clinic did not rely on money sent by the Mission
Board. A small amount of donations came from foreigners living
Translating the Bible
Japanese-English Dictionary: Another goal he set for himself was translation of the Bible. However, before he could undertake this task, he had to know the language, and the study of Japanese begun in earnest. Townsend Harris helped him find a Japanese instructor by the name of Yano Ryūzan. That was in 1860. Within a year, he felt he knew the essence of the language and started to read Japanese books in order to know the Japanese thought process and to create a word list. He wanted to compile a Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionary as the first step toward the translation of the scriptures.
In 1866, the dictionary was completed. As he remarked in
his preface, the Japanese language was a totally new language to
the Westerners, and there were no dictionaries or grammar books
available. He had to undertake everything anew. To know the
Japanese people and their culture, it was imperative that one
knew their language first. Furthermore, without knowing the
language, he would not be able to translate the Holy Scriptures.
The first edition of the dictionary contained a 20,000
word vocabulary and was published in
The Japanese language is written with the combination of kanji 漢字 (Chinese characters) and kanaかな (Japanese syllabary). The dictionary had to transcribe these words into Romanized letters. This system of Romanization became the basis of the so-called Hepburn system of Romanization. With some modification, and under some other names, this system is still in use today.
The New Testament:
On the matter of translating the Bible, Hepburn advised the
American Bible Society not to recognize any translation rendered
by individuals. He firmly believed that the translation had to
be a joint work, and the Society should accept only those
versions recommended by a committee of missionaries representing
all denominations in
The Old Testament:
Another committee with different members was formulated to
translate the Old Testament with Hepburn as its chairman.
Hepburn was the only person to serve on both committees. In
1887, the task was completed and the following year it was
published. Hepburn knew Greek well enough, but not Hebrew. He
utilized a year of rest in
In 1886, two schools which were successors
The completion and dedication of the Shiloh church in
By 1888, church members exceeded 200 and continued to
grow steadily. The city of
The same year, the couple completed their 33 years of
missionary work in
Hepburn’s Place in History
Hepburn and Ballagh, along with Leroy Janes<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>,
William S. Clark<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>,
and Jerome Davis<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
are the names most often cited as the most influential early
American missionaries to
Why did this honor belong to an unassuming son of
1. His love and
respect for the people he served. While some other
missionaries might have considered Japanese Christians their
“spiritual children”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
long after they matured in their faith, Hepburn always treated
them as “fellow workers in the Lord’s vineyard.” A story has it
that in 1872 before returning to
Today we know the Japanese as a people who are self-assured. But in Hepburn’s days, they felt that the Westerners were vastly superior, and one of their goals was to become like Westerners and be treated as equals. The chance of equality in diplomacy and economy was hard to come by. But in Christianity, they saw the example set by Hepburn. His egalitarian principle was one of the keys in attracting the best minds to Christianity, and Japanese Christians, while small in number, were able to exercise a disproportionate influence in their society.
2. Steadfastness in
his Bible-centered belief: Years after Hepburn left
The building that Hepburn bequeathed was devastated by
the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923. The building that replaced
it was destroyed by the
Shiloh church holds a unique place in
“The scepter shall not depart from
3. His long-term commitment and ability to set long-term goals: The translation of the Holy Bible into Japanese was the crowning achievement of his ministry. Taking 18 years, he studied the languages, and constantly toiled in the vineyard. Denying credit to himself, and working twice as hard as anyone else, he accomplished a feat seldom matched anywhere. He was a remarkable team-worker, the quality that endeared him to his Japanese and American colleagues and ensured his success. His translation had a lasting impact, not just because it had the imprimatur of the American and British Bible Societies, it was done in elegant Japanese. The Psalms were rendered in such a way that it gave inspiration to Japanese poets who were in search of a new genre. Secular schools found no contradiction in incorporating Biblical passages in their school songs.
His compiling of the Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionary was just a means toward the end of translating the Bible. But it is this work that is best remembered by the secular society along with the Hepburn system of Romanization. On these alone he established a firm place in Japanese history. In seeking the kingdom and its righteousness first, everything was indeed granted to him.
Hepburn’s was an age of transformation which was seldom
seen in world history. In the
Hepburn’s firm belief in the need to translate the Bible,
his long-term project, was predestined for success and required
no mid-course correction. The Bible as translated filled the
cultural and moral void that existed in the age of uncertainty.
The undertaking also signified Hepburn’s belief in the Japanese
people’s ability to know God through the Holy Scriptures.
Luther’s notion of universal priesthood of all believers was, in
effect, transplanted to
4. His relative
independence from the
5. The role played by his wife Clara:<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> In speaking of Hepburn’s ministry, one can never forget his wife and partner Clara. The attack on her in 1861 has been discussed earlier. Sustaining an injury, she quietly returned to the States for a while, so as not to endanger the status of her husband’s mission or those of other missionaries. Their children’s deaths and other tragedies visited on them. She suppressed her private grief for the greater glory of God. Mrs. Hepburn’s school had students that included Takahashi Korekiyo, mentioned earlier, and another named
<![endif]>Hayashi Tadasu,<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Their educational impact was not confined to politicians
and diplomats. Shimazaki Tōson, cited earlier, was one of the
three most important writers of the early 20th
century. His sojourn from naturalism to romanticism, his
exposing of social ills through his pen, and his reaffirmation
At the time of revising this article in May 2011, the
devastations wrought by the triple disasters of earthquake,
tsunami, and nuclear meltdown are still fresh in minds. In these
difficult times, the Japanese people have demonstrated their
resilience, good manners, and spirit of hope. It was the same
spirit that brought them back from the devastations of the IIWW,
and when combined with their work ethic, brought unprecedented
prosperity to Japan in the 70’s and 80’s. Even though it had
yielded the position of the second largest economy to
Scholars are quick to point out the power of the traditional teachings based
on Confucianism as the guiding principles that led to
History has a
curious way of finding similarities in unsuspected corners of
the world at different times. Today our scripture-based
traditional values are under attack, and we are taught to become
politically correct. The moral confusion we experience is eerie
similar to the
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> 佐藤栄作(1901-1975) Japan’s longest continuous serving prime minister (1964-72).. First Asian to receive the Nobel peace prize in 1974 for his “Three non-nuclear principles.”
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> 高橋是清(1854-1936) Born in Edo (Tokyo), studied in the United States, taught English after his return, became a financier, President, Bank of Japan, Finance Minister, Prime Minister, head of the Seiyūkai Party, assassinated in the February 26 incident.
On Hepburn, I have relied
heavily on Professor Takaya
Micho’s seminal work
which was published by Yoshikawa
Kōbunkan in 1961 as part of a
series of biographies of 100
most prominent persons who
ushered in modernization to
See David Lu,
Samuel Rollins Brown, D.D.
James Hamilton Ballagh
(1832-1920). Arrived in
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Headquarters of the Shogun, endowed with full military and administrative power, or Shogunate.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Recognizing this aspect of his mission, the memorial plaque erected in his honor at the First Presbyterian Church of Milton cites II Corinthians 4-9-10 “Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.” King James Version
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> 植村正久(1857-1925) evangelist, pastor of Fujimichō church, one of the founders of Tokyo Shingakusha (Seminary), a prolific writer in defense of evangelical faith.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> 47,:9, King James Version.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> A seminary established in 1877 through a merger of schools maintained by the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Dutch Reformed Church in America, and the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> 島崎藤村(1872-1943), poet, author of the Meij-Taishō and early Shōwa periods. “Teachers gave their blessings,” he wrote in his autobiographical novel When the Cherries Ripen 桜の実の熟する時, there were “recitations from the Bible, the singing of hymns, and prayers for our departure.”
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Luke see also Matt: , King James Version.
Leroy Lansing Janes (1838-1909),
a Civil War veteran, taught in
William Smith Clark (1826-1885)
While president of the
Jerome Dean Davis (1838-1910),
became a missionary to
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> I owe this term and Hepburn’s differing views to John F Howes, “Japanese Christians and American Missionaries” in Marius B. Jansen, ed., Changing Japanese Attitudes toward Modernization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965)
The Centennial History of
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Genesis 49:10, King James Version.
Hepburn portrait courtesy of
1913) Born in the present
day Chiba. His education at the
Hepburn school led him to be
selected as one of the 14
students sent by the
– 1869). Born in Yamaguchi.
Early on interested in knowledge
from the West that led him to
William Edwin Hoy (1858-1927) as
a missionary to
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> See for example Fukuzawa Yukichi’s (1834-1901) 1885 essay “Good-bye Asia 脱亜論” that advocated discarding of Confucianism in favor of Western civilization. Lu, op. cit. pp. 351-53.