Bathing Parades and Bicycles: The Life of a Missionary Family in Japan

07 April 2016

Area Studies | Empire and Globalism | History

Whilst working on Church Missionary Society Periodicals, Module II: Medical Journals, Asian Missions and the Historical Record: 1816-1986, I have been constantly entertained and intrigued by the photographs which illustrate the periodicals. The articles surrounding an image can often offer an interesting insight into its production and its significance to the CMS mission.

One photograph which has been my work desktop background for some time is this, showing young Chinese women and English children. Aside from the boy’s fantastic bicycle and enigmatic expression, which initially caught my eye, this photograph raises some interesting questions about the relationship between missionary families and the communities among whom they lived and worked.

Three of the Boarding House Girls. Image © The Church Mission Society. Further reproduction prohibited without  permission.

 

Three of the Boarding House Girls. Image © The Church Mission Society. Further reproduction prohibited without

permission. Click on the image to view the document in the collection.

While the boy’s thoughts remain unknown to us, the accompanying article and other periodicals from around this date offer some answers. Guy (aged 6) and Margaret (aged seven months) were the children of Rev. William Hedger Elwin and his wife Emily. The girls in this photograph were staying at the hostel run by the Elwins in Tokyo, studying at different schools in Tokyo and attending weekly Bible classes and evening prayer; they had asked for this photograph as a memento of their time there. The one in the centre is described in the accompanying article as ‘a Christian at heart’ but whose father forbade her to be baptised. 

Rev. Elwin was originally a missionary with the CMS China Mission from 1896, but travelled to Japan in 1908 to work in co-operation with the Chinese Student Y.M.C.A., established in Tokyo in 1907, and the newly-formed student Church. There were a large number of Chinese students living in Japan at the time – figures vary, but it is estimated over 10,000 in 1906 – attracted by a more Western-style education, and often subsequently joining socialist and revolutionary groups. It was decided that efforts to convert these young people to Christianity whilst they were abroad might have more impact than attempting to reach larger groups within China. 

Rev. W. H. Elwin with the four who were confirmed on June 26 1910. Image © The Church Mission Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Rev. W. H. Elwin with the four who were confirmed on June 26 1910. Image © The Church Mission Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click on the image to view the document in the collection.

The second photograph that I wanted to highlight is of a group of Chinese men at a summer conference in a coastal area of Japan, in 1912. They are posing (with varying degrees of model-esque confidence) on a jetty with two missionaries, Rev. E. Band and the Rev. W. H. Elwin mentioned above, all wearing rather fetching striped robes. The conference was arranged in the style of a British summer camp, in the hope that some outdoor living would encourage prayer and conversation about the future of the church in Japan.

Summer Conference, Boshiu. Bathing Parade. Image © The Church Mission Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

Summer Conference, Boshiu. Bathing Parade. Image © The Church Mission Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click on the image to view the document in the collection.

These photographs highlight the complicated link between China and Japan during this period, and how missionaries adapted to their changing communities. The relationship between missionaries and the people they tried to convert was not always harmonious – many early missionaries to China met untimely, violent ends, and foreigners were regularly expelled during periods of political unrest.

The photographs also demonstrate the extent to which entire families were invested in the mission. Rev. W. H. Elwin was born in Hangchow to another CMS missionary, Arthur Elwin, for example. His wife taught English to Chinese women, wrote many articles for the Tokyo News Letter and CMS Japan Quarterly, and helped to run the girls’ hostel. Their children were born in Ningpo and Tokyo. These missionary families had very strong connections to the countries and communities in which they worked, often with multiple generations continuing the evangelical and educational roles of their predecessors.

More fascinating images of missionaries at work and play can be explored in the recently released second module of Church Missionary Society Periodicals. Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institution who have purchased a licence.

For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew. Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting projects, from the First World War to American History, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, and Race Relations in America - very different but fascinating projects! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I have really enjoyed putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our resources.

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