Joseph Hardy Neesima (Niijima J¬ō; 1843-1890)


Christianity in Japan
Christianity arrived in Japan with Portuguese merchants based in Goa, India, in the mid-1500s. Their crews were made up mostly of Indian Christians, and so the Japanese initially assumed Christianity was a new religion out of India.

In 1549, St. Francis Xavier arrived with three Japanese men who had become Christians, and the first missions work began under the sponsorship of Portugal.

Some of the daimyo (feudal lords) saw Christianity as an opportunity to build trading relations with the Portuguese, so they welcomed the missionaries; some even converted to Christianity. Eventually, Nagasaki emerged as the center of Japanese Christianity.

Unfortunately, the missionaries made two mistakes that would cost the Catholic Church in Japan dearly. First, the Spanish arrived and promoted the Franciscans and Dominicans as rivals to the Portuguese Jesuits in a bid to get their own trading concessions in Japan. Second, the Jesuits had all the converts take on Portuguese names and begin wearing Western clothing. Both of these had the effect of making the missionaries look like they were covertly advancing colonial interests, and the converts look like foreign agents.

As a result, there were outbreaks of persecution in 1597, 1613, 1630, and 1632. After a rebellion in 1637-38, Christianity was officially outlawed and Japan closed off to all foreigners except the Dutch. About 30,000 Catholics continued to worship in secret as kakure kirishitan (“hidden Christians”), only coming into the open after the Meiji Restoration in the mid-1800s, when Japan allowed freedom of religion.

The opening of Japan
In the early 19th century, it was becoming increasingly obvious in Japan that isolationism might be a bad idea. Western powers were increasingly aggressive in colonizing in Asia, and so a vigorous debate began in Japan about how to deal with the foreigners. Some advocated Western learning and military techniques, while others insisted that only the traditional ways could preserve Japan and its culture.

In the year preceding the Opium War (1840), conservatives got the upper hand, and even after Britain defeated China, Japan tried to keep out Western influences.

In 1853, Commodore Perry, an American, arrived in Tokyo Bay with a squadron of four ships. He was fully prepared to use his advanced naval guns to bombard the city if the Japanese refused to negotiate. He returned the following year, and the ironically named “Treaty of Peace and Amity” was negotiated. Japan was still closed to trading, but several ports were opened to American whalers for resupply, and shipwrecked American sailors were guaranteed good treatment. In 1855 a similar treaty was concluded between Japan and Russia. In 1858, several new treaties were signed giving foreign powers trading rights in Japan in terms highly unfavorable to the Japanese.

The new treaties generated a great deal of political and economic turmoil. The political system had been by the Shogun, a military dictator, while the emperor was kept as a figurehead. The shogunate was shaken by the fact that foreigners were essentially able to impose their will on Japan. Foreign trade led to inflation, a complete breakdown of the currency, and unemployment, which in turn triggered peasant revolts, urban uprisings, and attacks on foreigners. In 1863, the Emperor stepped in and ordered all foreigners to be expelled from the country, triggering a de facto war.

The war went badly for the Japanese, as did a series of subsequent engagements lasting until 1869. This resulted in the collapse of the shogunate and the restoration of the emperor as the head of state, an event known as the Meiji Restoration. The Japanese decided that if they were going to avoid China’s fate of being taken over by foreigners, they needed to Westernize and modernize.

Niijima Jō

Niijima J­ō was born to a Samurai family shortly after the Opium War and grew up during the period of debate over the influence of foreigners in Japan. He studied as much Western learning as he could and determined to go to America to pursue his studies of science and to learn about Christianity.

In 1864, shortly after the Emperor ordered the expulsion of foreigners, and while it was still illegal for Japanese to travel abroad without the permission of the government, Niijima approached an American captain and asked for safe passage to the United States. The captain agreed as long as Niijima came on board the ship at night with no help from the crew. Once on board, the captain hid him in his stateroom, since if Niijima was caught by customs officials, he would be executed. The ship went to China, where the captain arranged for Niijima’s passage to America.

Niijima arrived in Andover, Massachusetts. His sponsors were Alpheus and Susan Hardy, and so Niijima’s name was anglicized to Joseph Hardy Neesima. The Hardys were members of Old South Church, the only Congregational Church in Boston that had remained Trinitarian in the wake of the growth of Unitarianism in the early nineteenth century. Neesima attended the prestigious Philips Academy in Andover from 1865-1867. He converted to Christianity and was baptized in 1866.

When he graduated from Philips, he went on to study at Amherst College from 1867-1870, then Andover Theological Seminary from 1870-1874. Andover had been founded by orthodox Calvinist ministers who split from Harvard when the Unitarian Henry Ware was appointed professor of theology.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the Meiji government decided it needed to modernize the country and to renegotiate the unfavorable treaties it had been pressured to sign with the Western powers. In 1871, it sent the Iwakura Mission on an around-the-world trip to conduct diplomacy and to learn as much as possible from the different Western states. Neesima acted as an interpreter for this mission while it was in the United States.

In 1874, Neesima became the first Japanese person to be ordained as a Protestant minister. That year, he attended the annual meeting of the Congregational Church in Rutland, Vermont, and made an appeal to start a Christian school in Japan. The Congregationalists agreed to support him, so he returned to Japan and settled in Kyoto.

In Kyoto

At this point, two other individuals enter the picture. Yamamoto Yaeko was the daughter of a gunnery instructor in Aizu. A skilled gunner herself, she participated in the defense of Aizu in the Boshin War, which completed the military phase of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1869). After the war, she travelled to Kyoto, where her brother Yamamoto Kakuma was a prisoner.

Yamamoto Kakuma was a child prodigy who could read at age 4 and recite Chinese poetry at 5. He was a military strategist, and fought on the losing side of the Boshin War. He lost his eyesight in battle and was taken prisoner in 1868. While in prison, he wrote a lengthy work on national reform, influenced by the Western learning he had acquired in his studies. He was pardoned after the war and served as a member of the prefectural assembly in Kyoto.

When Neesima arrived in Kyoto, he met the Yamamotos, both of whom had recently become Christians. Neesima and Yamamoto Yaeko were soon married.

The Neesimas and Yamamoto Kakuma worked together to establish the Doshisha English School in Kyoto, which soon emerged as Doshisho University with the help of Canadian Methodist missionary G. G. Cochran. Neesima was the school’s first president (1875-1890), followed by Yamamoto Kakuma (1890-1892).

Neesima was awarded an honorary doctorate by Amherst College in 1889, the first Japanese person to receive such a degree. He died in January, 1890. In 1907, he was honored as one of the six most important educators of the Meiji period at an assembly of educators of the entire nation held by the Imperial education conference, the education conference of Tokyo prefecture and the Tokyo city board of education.

Neesima understood the connection between Western education, the modern world, and Christianity in a way most of us today have forgotten. That is why he came to America looking not just for modern science but for Christianity. He also recognized that God cares about the mind, and thus that founding schools and promoting education is part of our responsibility as Christians. As a result, as a minister of the Gospel, he fulfilled his calling by establishing a modern university in Japan and contributed to the emergence of Japan as a modern state.

Next Steps

How will you improve your “Christian mind” in the year ahead? Why not start by reading Glenn’s book on worldviews, Why You Think the Way You Do. You can order your copy from our online store.


You might also benefit from reading the article, “From Pearl Harbor to Calvary,” by Chuck Colson.