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A Japanese Convert To Methodism Who Evangelized Japan 1847-1936

By John G. McEllhenney

Kanichi Miyama lived between two countries and two definitions of civilization?one waning like the setting sun, the other waxing in self-conscious brilliance. But Miyama offered his loyalty only to one ruler, whose courtier demanded, “Will you give your whole life to him?” and Miyama, feeling cornered, finally submitted, “Yes, I will give my whole life to him.”

Born into Japan’s soldier-bureaucrat class, Miyama imbibed the classic Shinto tradition before studying Western science and philosophy, military strategy, and English. Failing the entrance exam for the Military Academy, he worked for the Department of Defense, then started his own business. When it failed, he decided to move to the United States, hoping to improve his English and business skills.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1875, Miyama heard Otis Gibson, superintendent of the city’s Chinese Christian Mission, tell a story about George Washington, whose father had directed his attention to the will of God behind the order of the world. Miyama experienced Gibson’s sermon as a challenge to his egotism, an admonition to confess his sins, and an invitation to accept Christ.

Gibson, however, demanded more: “Do you want to lead others to Christ?” Miyama said he did. “Will you give your whole life to Christ?” Miyama felt cornered by God, an imperious ruler, while Gibson, God’s courtier, patiently studied his face. At last, gathering his courage, he replied, “Yes, I will give my whole life to him.” Gibson baptized him early in1877.

Soon Miyama became a leader of the Japanese Gospel Society, which offered Bible studies and English lessons, along with providing lodging for new immigrants from Japan and helping them find jobs. In 1881, he became a candidate for membership in the California Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In due course, he received deacon’s and elder’s ordination and full conference membership. First he worked with Gibson at the Chinese Mission, then he helped Merriman Harris establish a Japanese Methodist Church.

After a period of evangelizing Japanese immigrants in Hawaii and founding the first Methodist church in Honolulu, and another tour of ministry in San Francisco, Miyama returned to Japan in 1890. Back home, it became clear to him that he lived between two countries and two views of civilization. While many Americans had viewed him as a foreigner, many Japanese now rejected him as Americanized and therefore someone helping to erode their traditional ways of thinking. His message, that of the Lordship of Christ, challenged the ages-old beliefs that defined what it meant to be Japanese. So he found it difficult to minister in Nagoya, his first Methodist appointment in Japan.

Then, in 1891, an earthquake shattered the city. Miyama and his wife sustained injuries, their nephew died. But despite his own problems, Miyama devoted himself to rescuing the survivors. With the result that his Americanization and his Christianity were seen in a new light. A year later, he was appointed to Ginza Methodist Church in Tokyo, where he devoted himself to evangelism and the temperance movement.

Having been influenced by the American temperance movement, Miyama invited Clara Plish, a leader of the anti-beverage-alcohol cause, to visit Japan in 1896 and speak about the abstinence crusade. When she returned to the States, Miyama organized the Japanese Temperance Federation and traveled throughout the country as an anti-sake advocate.

In 1896, Miyama and his wife moved from Tokyo to Kamakura, a beautiful old city filled with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, where he was pastor of the Methodist Church until he retired in 1920. His wife, Toyoko, had died six years earlier; he lived on to the eve of his ninetieth decade.

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