Uemura, Masahisa (1858-1925)
Foremost representative of the Presbyterian-Reformed tradition in the early history of Protestant Christianity in Japan
Like many others in the leadership of the first generation, Uemura was born in a family of samurai class that had supported the Tokugawa regime. As part of the losing side vis-à-vis the new Meiji government, the family moved to Yokohama, where Uemura helped to support his family and earn school expenses by raising pigs and tutoring. He turned toward Western studies and at age 15 entered the juku (private school) conducted by the American missionary J. H. Ballagh and later studied under Samuel R. Brown.
Uemura was never graduated from any school, but in this period he laid the foundation for a remarkable breadth of knowledge that he nourished throughout his life by extensive reading in English, Chinese, and Japanese. The subsequent life and career of Uemura were affected even more by the faith and personal character of the missionaries under whom he studied. A religious atmosphere surrounded the entire program of instruction and supported as it was by the life commitment an noble conduct of the teachers, it deeply moved the mind and heart of Uemura, as it did many other Japanese youths in these schools.
Uemura was baptized in 1873 at age 16 and almost at once committed himself to the life of a Christian evangelist. In 1877 he entered the new theological seminary that had been opened in the foreign settlement of Tsukiji in Tokyo. In the same year he started a preaching place in the city, the first instance of formal Protestant evangelism conducted primarily under Japanese responsibility. Characteristic of Uemura’s spiritual independence was his concern, while holding firmly to classical expressions of Protestantism, to find something of the history of salvation in his own pre-Christian religious experience, as in that of his own people. Thus he came to regard Neo-Confucian bushido (the way of the warrior) as a gift of God to Japan and a veritable Old Testament.
Uemura remained in Tokyo after leaving the seminary, and later, as pastor of what became the citadel of Presbyterian-Reformed faith in Japan, Fujimicho Church, he found the base for his increasingly extensive and influential Christian service. He began to write for periodicals and in 1890 founded the bi-monthly magazine Nihon Hyoron (Japan review), which did much to introduce Christian concepts of humanity, society, literature, and art to the educated public. His first important theological work, Shinri Ippan, was published in 1884. He also became a member of the Old Testament translation committee and cooperated in the preparation of the first joint Protestant hymnal. He taught in the theological department of Meiji Gakuin, even as he continued in his growing pastoral work and participation in the organizational development of the Nihon Kirisuto Kyokai (Church of Christ in Japan).
In 1901, Uemura and Ebina Danjo entered into a theological debate that was carried on for several months in the pages of the journals of which the men were respectively editors. The main points of difference concerned the doctrines of the incarnation and redemption. Ebina emphsized the role of Jesus as teacher and example rather than as divine redeemer. While recognizing the human elements in the historical development of Christianity, Uemura preferred to see its origin in divine revelation and stressed the work of God in the entire Christ event. Over against Ebina’s leaning toward an adoptionist view of Jesus as the Christ, Uemura believed in his deity, in a literal incarnation of the pre-existent Christ. He saw Jesus Christ as a proper object of worship, the risen, ever-living Savior to whom believers may properly pray. Uemura’s clear and forceful expression of what was classical Protestant orthodoxy in his time helped to fashion and strengthen what came to be the main stream of Japanese Protestant theology for most of the twentieth century.
Richard H. Drummond, “Uemura, Mashisa,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 687-88.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Uemura, Masahisa. Hymns and Songs of Praise. Tokyo: Uemura Masahisa, 1890.
Uemura, Masahisa. Uemura Masahisa chosakushu. Tokyo: Shinkyo Shuppansha, 1966.
Uemura, Masahisa and Hiromichi Kozaki. Shinri ippan. Tokyo: Nihon Tosho Senta, 2002.
Aoyoshi, Katsuhisa. Dr. Masahisa Uemura, a Christian Leader. Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan; agents, Maruzen, 1940.
Drummond, Richard Henry. A History of Christianity in Japan. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1971.
Germany, Charles H. Protestant Theologies in Modern Japan; A History of Dominant Theological Currents from 1920-1960. Tokyo: IISR Press, 1965.
Ouchi, Saburo. Uemura Masahisa ronko. Tokyo: Shinkyo Shuppansha, 2008.
Scheiner, Irwin. Christian Converts and Social Protest in Meiji Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
Takeda, Kiyoko. Uemura Masahisa: sono shiso shiteki kosatsu. Tokyo: Kyobunkan, 2001.
Thomas, Winburn Townshed. Protestant Beginnings in Japan: The First Three Decades, 1859-1889. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1959.
The photograph is part of the public domain.