The American YMCA in Japan, 1890-1930

Jon Thares Davidann

This book provides a fascinating account of the cultural relations between American YMCA missionaries and native Christians in Japan at the turn of the century. In addition to demonstrating clear evidence that this cross-cultural interaction produced changes on both sides of the Pacific, the author also analyzes the implications of late-nineteenth-century nationalism and imperialism for all participants. This work also contributes to an international perspective in historical understanding.

The American YMCA inaugurated its first foreign mission to Japan in 1889. Upon their arrival, YMCA missionaries considered Japan to be the most promising mission field in East Asia. Many Japanese, including important members of the former samurai class, had converted to Christianity. In addition, the segment of the population that the YMCA served―youth—were taking up leadership positions in Japan and throughout East Asia. Thus, the YMCA mission brought to Japan hope for Christian conversion.


It was with great shock and surprise, therefore, that YMCA missionaries faced conflict and confrontation with Japanese Christians in their new enterprise. With different cultural concerns, Japanese Christians collided with YMCA missionaries over a range of issues. Motivated by a deep sense of nationalism, Japanese Christians strove to indigenize the YMCA. American YMCA missionaries reacted with their own sense of nationalism, recognizing that failure to enact the American Protestant vision of Christianity in Japan would represent a setback for their role as God's "chosen people."


After the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, American YMCA missionaries battled Japanese Christians and the Japanese government for control over a new arena of Christian concern: continental Northeast Asia. Japanese Christians prevailed, but ironically, in the ensuing attempt to enforce their vision of Christianity upon Korea, they found nationalist resistance there, much like their own resistance to American YMCA missionary imperialism.


By the 1930s, the American YMCA acknowledged the failure of its mission to Japan in a comprehensive report, which identified indigenous nationalism as the main culprit behind the failure. In addition, the YMCA mission was transformed by the very cross-cultural contact it had initiated.


American missionaries went forth to save the world and their own version of Christianity from destruction. Ironically, it was this act of salvation that insured the eventual ruin of the YMCA's missionary movement, for the YMCA allowed its message and goals to be thrown into a maelstrom of change and flux. Indeed, this book serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of attempting to remake the world in one's own image.

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Lehigh University Press - A World of Crisis and Progress