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Book Review : A Missionary in Japan Minus His Halo

December 13, 1985|ROGER DINGMAN | Dingman, the author of "Power in the Pacific" (University of Chicago), is a USC historian who specializes in U.S.-Japanese relations. and

American Samurai: Captain L. L. Janes & Japan by F. G. Notehelfer (Princeton University: $30)

Half a century ago, biographies of American missionaries who labored in remote corners of the world were a dime a dozen. Written in praise of individuals and pursuit of dollars, they omitted anything that might raise questions about the sanctity of the missionary endeavor. Mission boards, as I learned years ago, denied historians access to materials likely to tarnish the halos of their saints. Consequently, most missionary biographies are dull.

This one is not. Its protagonist, Leroy Lansing Janes, although not formally a missionary, became the most influential advocate of Protestant Christianity in Japan in the late 19th Century. He was no saint, and his biographer, a UCLA historian born in Japan to missionary parents, previously has used closed personal and mission board papers to show why. He focuses on the central paradox of Janes' career: How could a man who repeatedly failed in the United States become such a success across the Pacific?

Failure dogged Janes from birth in 1837 to departure for Japan 34 years later. He could not resolve inner tensions born of fierce quarrels between his strict Calvinist father and emotional Methodist mother. At West Point, he barely escaped expulsion for violations of military discipline. After being graduated in 1861, he rode off to grief rather than glory in the Civil War--defeat in battle, abandonment, escape and physical and emotional breakdowns. He was given command of an Oregon fort in 1866 but was hauled before a military court on grounds of insanity a year later. Exonerated, he resigned his commission.

In 1871, through missionary influence, Janes was named head of the School for Western Learning at Kumamoto. His employers in that remote and dangerously anti-Christian castle town wanted him to teach their sons the secrets of Western science and culture. Janes made the school a miniature West Point, demanding diligence, self-discipline, and commitment to the service of state and society from his students. The captain taught by practical example. He once harnessed students to an American plow in order to demonstrate its utility to their doubting elders.

Janes became a successful missionary in part by force of example, in part because his students, adrift between traditional and modern mores, demanded spiritual guidance from him. He never preached. But they posed religious questions, formed Bible study groups, and pledged to spread Christianity throughout Japan. In 1876, first religious disputes, then a revival disrupted classes. Students defied their parents and Janes supported the youths, ensuring nonrenewal of his contract. Leaving Kumamoto just before anti-Christian forces assassinated its governor, he remarked that what he had built there was "melting away like a snowball."

Momentarily a missionary hero, Janes might have made the new missionary college in Kyoto his next pulpit. But his marriage failed--spectacularly. His wife claimed that he had contracted syphilis from liaisons with Japanese women. Despite Janes' protestations and medical evidence to the contrary, her father, a prominent Presbyterian preacher, believed her. The ensuing divorce scandal embittered Janes and turned missionaries in Japan against him.

Years later, loyal former students got him a job at the preparatory school for Kyoto University. Janes now preached radically anti-institutional Christianity. Missionaries were alarmed. But Janes' new pupils, nationalistic urbanites rather than samurai sons in search of new values, regarded him as little more than an English language teaching machine. The captain left Japan in 1899 for California, where as farmer, novelist, and unpublished advocate of racial understanding, he failed again.

Why should anyone today read the life of this obscure, tormented man? Notehelfer argues convincingly that Janes and his pupils were the source of an important current in modern Japanese intellectual life. He shows how the Japanese transformed the captain into their kind of hero--a noble failure. Janes' career also demonstrates the intensity with which our forefathers engaged in the export of values and the difficulties they faced in that most American of enterprises.

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