Beginnings of a Prison Ministry in Japan – 1875

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Satsuma Rebellion: Saigō Takamori (seated, in French uniform), surrounded by his officers, in traditional attire. News article in Le Monde Illustré, 1877.

In 1875 Dr. J. C. Berry had obtained through the American Minister permission to visit prisons in different parts of Japan. The results of his inspection were embodied in a report that he made in 1876 to the Japanese Government, adding many suggestions about needed improvements. The Government had the report printed and distributed among the prison officials, a fact the more noticeable since it included the testimony of many European and American penologists upon the value of Christian teaching as a reformatory agent. The Governor of Kobe appointed a member of the church in that city as a teacher in the prison to give instruction in reading, arithmetic, and morals. Though not appointed as a chaplain, he found many opportunities to exert a Christian influence. Early in 1877 this man received a document from eight of the prisoners. The cover was of ordinary paper; but in the centre was a wreath of flowers painted in colours, in the centre of this wreath was a cross, and on the cross were four Chinese ideographs that signified “The Company of the New Covenant.” Within the covers was written an agreement saying that the persons whose names were signed at its close entered into a solemn covenant with each other and with God to cease from all violations of the law of God and of the land, and to follow Jesus as their Saviour. At the end each man wrote his name, and then as they had no seals, they did what is recognised as lawful under such circumstances, dipped the ends of their thumbs in ink and impressed them on the paper. The man that taught these prisoners was afterwards made the superintendent of the prison.

Early in 1877 Mr. Neesima sent some Christian books to the prison at Otsu, about eight miles from Kyoto. Among them was Dr. Martin’s “Evidences of Christianity” in Chinese, the book to whose influence reference has several times before been made. This so interested one of the prisoners that he he^sn to translate it into Japanese for the benefit of his illiterate associates, whom he began to instruct. Mr. Neesima wrote an account of what followed :

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“Most of the prisoners are uneducated and petty thieves. A lamp was allowed for evening study. This was a great concession from the authorities, for the use of lamps had hitherto been forbidden. But one lamp proved insufficient for the large number of prison students. I believe they were eighty in number. Subsequently one more was granted, then another, then another, till finally the room was fully lighted. He who taught his associates also began to preach to them every day. One day fire broke out in the prison, but there was no least confusion. He kept them in complete order. Under his direction each on work nobly and soon the fire was extinguished. Afterwards the prisoners were inspected, and none of them had escaped. It was a wonderful thing. The authorities of the city were informed of the behaviour of the prisoners and the reason for it, and their leader was released on account of his good conduct, although he had one year yet to serve. After his release he called on us and told us his story. He had killed a man ten years ago in a Quarrel. He has since started a private school in Otsu, and Mr. Davis, myself, and some of the students have preached there ever since.”

Departing from the chronological order of events, we may here insert one or two other incidents connected with work for prisoners. The first relates to a young man who failed in an attempt to inaugurate such work.

He was a student in the Doshisha School. While there, his conscience troubled him because a few years before, when a boy in Tokyo, he had stolen some shoes from a hotel. He finally decided to confess his crime and take the consequences. Supposing that he would have to spend considerable time in prison, he began to think where he could do the most good. As no Christian work had yet been done in the province of Satsuma, he decided to seek imprisonment there in order that he might preach Christ to those that were confined with him. He left school without telling any one of his plans, and went to Satsuma. From there he wrote letters to two leading newspapers in Tokyo telling of the theft committed years before, of his remorse of conscience since he had been taught by Christians, and his desire to make all the restitution in his power. He then gave himself up to the officers of justice for punishment. He was detained a few days and then, much to his surprise, was released, the authorities scarcely knowing what to make of such a conscience. Thus his plan for Christian work in a prison ended in failure.

The prisoners at this time furnished a more hopeful field of labour because they contained, especially after the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, a number of political prisoners, who were intellectually and morally of a higher grade than most criminals. The labour of the convicts was often let out to farmers and manufacturers. In Kobe a Christian had established a small factory and he employed some of these political prisoners to run the machines. He began to speak to them about Christianity, had someone read the Bible or other books while they were working, and once a week invited some preacher to address them. The official that accompanied these prisoners made no objection, and some of the men became very much interested in what they heard. After a time, business grew so dull that the employer could no longer afford to keep his machines going; but the prisoners were so desirous of continuing the arrangement that one or two of them, who were men of property, furnished funds to enable him to continue hiring them and their companions through the dull season. Several of them were baptised after their sentences had expired, and on returning to their own province opened the way there for Christian preaching.

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