Guido F. Verbeck as Pioneer Missionary in Japan


A review of Verbeck of Japan: Guido F. Verbeck as Pioneer Missionary, Oyatoi Gaikokujin, and “Foreign Hero”, by James Mitchell Hommes

In the early 1850s, Japan began to reopen its doors to the world after having been isolated for roughly 250 years. One of the reasons for that isolation had been the perceived threat of Christianity and the papacy. The Tokugawa government, in the early 1600s, was still in its infancy since Tokugawa Ieyasu had unified Japan and ended its warring states period. When Japan began to allow greater contact with the outside world once more in the 1850s, Christianity was still regarded with some suspicion, notably by the members of the developing Japanese government. It was this environment of a reopened Japan that the subject of James Mitchell Hommes’ dissertation, the pioneer missionary, Guido F. Verbeck, entered into. As a Protestant missionary, Verbeck came to Japan in 1859, the year after Japan and the U.S. signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, or the Harris Treaty. Despite Japan’s initial distrust towards Verbeck’s religion, he eventually became a “revered teacher and trusted advisor” (p.iv) to the Japanese people, in particular, to many later Meiji government leaders and other leading members of Japanese society.

The dissertation is made up of three parts with three substantial chapters in each part. Hommes begins by asserting that “looking at Verbeck through the framework of ‘enacted narratives’ can help in understanding why Verbeck has been an appealing figure, both inside and outside Japan, but also why, conversely, he has been an overlooked figure at certain points” (p. 20). Hommes demonstrates three “enacted narratives” in which Verbeck has played a significant role, and each of the three parts of the dissertation detail these areas. Part One examines “Verbeck as a Missionary Pioneer in the Nineteenth Century Protestant Missionary Movement”, looking at the importance of Verbeck’s role as a missionary in Japan. Part Two considers Verbeck as a prominent oyatoi gaikokujin (abbreviated to oyatoi), or as it has been translated, “foreign employee”, during the late Edo and early Meiji periods. Finally, Part Three looks at Verbeck’s role as a “foreign hero” and how that ties in with the development of modern Japanese nationalism.

Chapter 1, as the first chapter of the part of the dissertation that focuses on positioning Verbeck in his role as a missionary, introduces the concept of “enacted narratives”. Here, Hommes describes the “enacted narrative” concept as one “in which the perceived meaning and significance of an individual’s life is based upon their role in the development of a larger narrative or story” (p. 2). This focus of Verbeck as a missionary is one that Hommes places great importance on. Later in the paper, Hommes suggests that, “the reappraisal of a prominent figure like Verbeck in the modern missionary movement, can begin to remedy the omission of Japan in the recent scholarship, and help to forge new models for analyses of missionaries” (p. 90). In recent scholarship, particularly in Japan, Verbeck is regarded for his role as an advisor, and his importance as a missionary is not given much focus. Therefore, from the outset, Hommes is placing Verbeck in his original context, his “enacted narrative”, that of a missionary in Japan. Following on from this, Chapter 2, entitled, “The Protestant Missionary Movement and Modern Japan”, outlines the missionary situation throughout parts of Asia and looks particularly at the increasing number of Protestant missionaries from the United States of America, of which Verbeck was one. The chapter explains the growth of Christianity in Japan during the early Meiji period. Hommes tells his readers that “many have associated this growth in Christianity with the ‘westernization’ craze of the Meiji regime or with the People’s Rights (jiyū minken) Movement” (p. 50). He also asserts that “other factors also contributed to it, such as the sending of Japanese evangelists into rural Japan, the availability of the scriptures in Japanese, and generally good relations between the missionaries and the Japanese Christians” (p. 50). In the paper, Hommes states, “though initially hostile to Christianity in the 1860s, by the end of the 1870s Japan had become a much more tolerable field to work in” (p.60). Also, that “modern Japan’s westernizing reforms and their emulation of the “Christian” nations of the West, was not only seen as reinforcing Christianity which, though it had not grown as much as predicted, still seemed to have a bright future in Japan” (p. 58). From the perspective of the foreign missionaries then, Japan appeared to be a good place for them to carry out their work.

Hommes also considers the arguments for whether or not missionary work to spread Christianity was a form of cultural imperialism. He considers the “missionaries as cultural imperialists” (p. 62) noting the criticism among other foreigners in Japan as well as the positions of some Japanese people who were critical of missionaries. One such example he raises is Uchimura Kanzō who although a Christian convert himself did not appreciate the missionaries who came, as he saw it, “not to become our equals and friends” but to “exercise lordship over us” (p. 66). Nevertheless, Hommes explains that “overall, the concept of missions as cultural imperialism has been challenged as the general scholarly interpretation of missionaries, and it is no longer the reigning framework for thinking about the modern missionary movement” (p. 67). Hommes continues, “in general, the unidirectional charge of cultural imperialism seems overly simplistic for most missionary encounters, and it is no surprise that scholars have begun to criticize such a theory” (p.67). Chapter 3 entitled, “‘Living Epistles’ and the Pioneer Protestant Missionary Guido F. Verbeck” considers the concept of what “living epistles” are, and places Verbeck within that framework.

Chapter 4 kicks off the second part of the dissertation, which examines “Verbeck as a Prominent Oyatoi Gaikokujin (‘Foreign Employee’) in Bakumatsu-Meiji Japan”. Chapter Four defines and quantifies the oyatoi, and examines the role that these men and women played in Japan. Hommes notes the meaning of the word oyatoi itself, which helps to give insight to what these men and women did. Hommes explains, “the literal meaning as well as the connotations of the term―had a mixed reception by Westerners from the beginning” (p. 159). The verb yatou was given in Hepburn’s 1886 Japanese-English dictionary as meaning “to hire, to engage or employ for service…to hire a coolie” (p. 159), and Hommes suggests, “this servile designation of the foreign employees as yatoi was accepted amiably by some like Verbeck, but for others it became a point of tension” (p. 160). Hommes notes that the oyatoi’s “classification as ‘hired hands’, their short-term contracts, and the rapidity with which they were replaced, demonstrated Japanese desires to take the initiative and the credit for their modernization” (pp.161-162). Hommes also notes the difficulty there has been in giving exact numbers for the oyatoi population. In addition, Hommes considers the challenges to regarding the historical role of the oyatoi in modern Japan. He considers the motivations for the Japanese government to hire foreign help and how that relates to the sending of Japanese students abroad to learn about Western ideas. In understanding the background of the oyatoi, Hommes notes that there is a distinct lack of official documents making it very difficult to carry out research on them. Furthermore, Hommes looks at the motivations of the oyatoi themselves, addressing the question of whether they came to Japan simply for the high salaries.

In Chapter 5, the author goes on to examine the historiography of the oyatoi in the pre-second world war and the postwar periods. The chapter, entitled, ‘The Historiography of the Oyatoi Gaikokujin and Japan’s Modernisation’, looks at the development of studies regarding the employment of members of the foreign community in Japan. Hommes first explains that “oyatoi studies, despite its potential for development in the 1960s and 1970s, does not exist today” (p. 249). He goes on to suggest, “one reason for this is that the study of the oyatoi needs to be expanded to incorporate more comparative work on the use of foreigners in the 19th century and perhaps in other periods as well” (p. 249). Indeed, Hommes explains, “it is true that, in both Japan and the West, the oyatoi have been selectively remembered” (p. 194). He notes that within that historiography the perceived significance of the oyatoi and the roles they played in Japan’s modernization has varied greatly (p. 194).

Chapter 6 is entitled “Verbeck and the Expansion of the Study of Oyatoi Gaikokujin in World History”, and is useful, not only to scholars of religious history, but also of secular history. Hommes describes the preeminence of Verbeck in both the Western and Japanese literature on the subject of the oyatoi in the postwar period, citing particularly the works of Umetani Noboru and Hazel Jones (p.253). Hommes asks, “why, if Verbeck is such a significant figure in the oyatoi literature, is he not better known, outside of the small cadre of scholars who deal with the oyatoi?” (p. 253). The answer he suggests in response to this question includes the obvious reasons of “technical ones such as language barriers or funding resources” (p.253). However, he also suggests “the relative isolation of the scholarships and research on the oyatoi” (p.253). Thus in Chapter 6, Hommes attempts to place Verbeck and other oyatoi within the context of World History and he makes an argument for the importance of this to allow for a wider interest and readership on the subject. Hommes explains that, “the study of oyatoi has the potential to contribute to the formation of a literature that could compare various foreign employees and experts in societies around the globe” (p. 254). As a comparison, Hommes suggests that, “it is clear that the Bakumatsu-Meiji’s governments’ overall strategies for the adoption and assimilation of Western technology and ideas were not unique” (p. 255). He puts forward comparisons with Peter the Great’s Russia, or 19th-century Egypt, Siam and China (p. 255). He then proceeds to place Verbeck in this World History context, which helps to push forward the clear necessity of further study in this area. Hommes looks at the often compared categories of “cooperators” and “domineering” types of oyatoi where Verbeck is considered to be one of the former due to his reputation as a “trusted adviser”. Also, the role of Verbeck as a “General Adviser” rather than a “specialist” is examined. A large section of the paper then looks at “Verbeck as Missionary-Oyatoi: Transcending Missionary Boundaries” (pp. 282-313). Chapter 6 closes with a consideration of “Verbeck as a Transitional and Transnational Oyatoi” who is capable of “Transcending Political Boundaries” (p. 313).

Chapter 7 is the first of the last three chapters of Part Three of the dissertation, which considers Verbeck in light of his “foreign hero” status. This is tied in with notions of modern Japanese nationalism. Hommes explains, “though still a foreigner, the figure of Verbeck appealed as a ‘foreign hero’ for Japan to both Japanese and Western interpreters of his life from the 19th century until today” (p. 329). The chapter begins by examining the role nationalism has played in modern Japan. It considers the negative nuances that the term ‘nationalist’ has today, but that “some aspects of nationalism have grown in recent decades in Japan” (p. 331). Hommes explains that, “the period in which Verbeck lived and worked in Japan, is in many ways the focus of much of this revived nationalism in Japan” (p. 331). The chapter then goes on to examine “Verbeck and Cycles of Nationalism and Internationalism in Modern Japan” (p. 338). Hommes notes that, “one of the ways that the history of modern Japan has been organized… is the concept of alternating cycles of national and international orientations” (p. 338). However, he suggests that “there are several problems with this theory of alternating national and international cycles, and looking at Verbeck’s life and legacy can help to reveal some of these” (p. 339-340). Hommes records some incidences of “underlying hostility to Christianity” (p. 342), which reignited a revival of nationalism, citing the example of the Christian teacher Uchimura Kanzō when he refused to bow to the Imperial Rescript in the 1890s. This incident and others like it provoked a wave of anti-Christian sentiment among the Japanese people. In the 1880s, at the same time that Japan was becoming ‘Westernized’, the Japanese government was promoting ‘State Shinto’ (p. 343). Nevertheless, Hommes notes that, “for Verbeck, the 1880s can be seen as the high point in his missionary career and the peak in the growth of the Protestantism that he played a prominent role in introducing in Japan” (p. 344-345). Indeed, Verbeck not only tried to counter the popular equating of Christianity with Western nations, but also the corresponding assumption that Christianity was incompatible with Japanese nationalism” (p.359). “Verbeck claimed that Christianity, just like Buddhism and Confucianism and Islam, was originally an ‘Oriental’ religion, not a Western religion” (p. 358-359).

In Chapter 8, “Verbeck as a “Foreign Hero” for Modern Japan”, the concept of “foreign heroes” is defined, and the author looks at Verbeck and other candidates as “foreign heroes” for Japan. Hommes raises three areas in which Verbeck can be considered a “foreign hero” in his role as both sensei (teacher) and hakushi (doctor/expert), and in the fact that Verbeck devoted his life to his work in Japan. Verbeck’s high level of Japanese language ability is particularly noted, as well as his “many years of devotion to the Japanese government as an oyatoi” (p.431). “Verbeck has been depicted as a most trusted advisor, who could be counted on to consider Japan’s welfare first and foremost” (p. 431). An example of this is the effort Verbeck put in to pushing for a Japanese embassy group to visit the U.S. and Europe; what later became known as the Iwakura Mission of 1871-1873. Verbeck spent four decades in Japan, and as Hommes explains, “though Verbeck spent much of the last decades of his life away from many of his children and even his wife, he never seemed to waver in his commitment to his mission for the people of Japan” (p. 440). The concluding chapter, Chapter Nine, looks at the significance of Verbeck in modern Japan and world history. This chapter briefly summarizes the preceding chapters and proposes the importance of Verbeck to the history of both Japan and the world. It is key characters such as Verbeck, which although they are often forgotten by history textbooks, are still thoroughly important to the development of modern Japan and its history.

Hommes’ dissertation on Verbeck sheds new light on a key character of Japanese history and on the history of Christianity throughout the world. In recent years, there has been little attention paid to the history of Verbeck and his career in Japan in particular with regard to his missionary work. Hommes insists that, “to study Verbeck without seeing him as a pioneer missionary is to miss the sense of calling he had and the widespread prominence he was awarded as a figure in the global missionary movement of the 19th century” (p.445). However, to recognize Verbeck as an oyatoi as well as a foreign hero for the Japanese people is key to understanding the vital role Verbeck plays in history. These three areas in the three parts of the paper assessing Verbeck’s life and work make the dissertation a thoroughly persuasive one. It provides insight into the life of a key character within Japanese studies, and is a substantial and extended examination of Verbeck placing a new light on both his role as an advisor to the Meiji elite as well as his core values as a missionary. The method of examining Verbeck through the concept of these three “enacted narratives” is particularly effective and helps to place Verbeck in an “essential” position within Japanese history and Christian missionary history. Without him, both the missionary world and Japan and its early important leaders might have developed very differently.

Eleanor Robinson-Yamaguchi
Department of British and American Studies
Faculty of Foreign Studies, Aichi Prefectural University

Primary Sources
National Archives. (Dokuritsu Gyosei Hojin Kokuritsu Kōbunshokan) Tokyo, Japan.

Presbyterian Church Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Reformed Church Archives. Gardener Sage Library, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Houses papers of the Japan Mission of the Reformed Church in America (JMRCA), including records and letters of G. F. Verbeck (1860-80).

The Japan Evangelist 5/6 (June 1898).

William Elliot Griffis Collection, Alexander Library, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Dissertation Information
University of Pittsburgh. 2014. 497pp. Primary Advisor: Richard J. Smethurst.

Image from the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture (Nagasaki Rekishi Bunka Hakubutsukan).

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