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Sea-Girt Yezo

Glimpses at Missionary Work in North Japan.

By John Batchelor

London: Church Missionary Society, 1902.

Chapter VIII. The Hakodate Fire and Further Progress of the Work.

"Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth." Rev. xix. 6.

THE church which was erected at Hakodate in the year 1878 was a very nice and commodious building, and there were sittings in it for at least 250 people, while 300 could easily be accommodated when necessary. The walls were cemented all round and the windows had iron shutters to them. It was said by the builder to be fireproof. Many people believed it to be so, while there were some who had very grave doubts on this point. It had a small tower over the porch, with one bell in it. I shall never forget the first time that bell was rung for service. You must know that in all Japanese towns and cities there are a number of fire-bells set up in various places, by which notice is given when a fire breaks out. Those nearest the quarter where the fire is raging ring more rapidly than those farther away, so that the people know at once how far off the danger lies. Now, when our church bell was rung for the first time, the people thought the place was on fire! They turned [84/85] out in their thousands, and the church that evening was simply packed to overflowing. We did not know at the time why so many had come, but thought it was to hear the Gospel, and rejoiced accordingly. We were told afterwards, however, the true reason, and were also informed that some of the people were very angry at being startled and put to inconvenience by the bell, while others thought it a splendid joke. But never mind that now, there was a good congregation and many heard the Gospel on that occasion for the first time, and would perhaps never have heard it had it not been for the mistake. But, it may be asked, "Have not the Buddhists some [85/686] bells in their temples?" Why, yes, of course they have. But the temple bells are large and do not sound at all like the fire-bells, while the one placed in the church was just a fire-bell of the ordinary kind. Hence its effect on the crowds. Besides, the people know when to expect to hear the temple bells, and also recognize their tone and time at once, for they are rung very slowly indeed. Our bell was rung more rapidly, and the faster it rang the more the people hastened to church, thinking the danger and need of help was great. The matter ended without accident, but later on a request came from the city authorities asking that the bell be not rung again, which request was, of course, thenceforth complied with.

The church used to be very well attended sometimes, and the people were always respectful and attentive. I remember being very much amused one evening by an old country farmer who happened to be at the service for the first time. It was the beginning of the work in those days, and the people did not know they might not smoke or talk in church. There was a very large pulpit in the church, standing on four legs. The building was crowded with people, so that the old gentleman I am now speaking of was obliged to sit between the legs of the pulpit and right under the preacher's feet. There he sat and smoked and listened in a happy frame of mind. The preacher had no idea he was there, and was very much surprised at the end of his address to see the man poke his head out from below, and looking up, say: "Don't stop yet, please; kindly go on; I am listening "! This behaviour did not strike him as being anything out of the way, but it did some of the congregation, and caused a good deal of amusement. You may, perhaps, think it funny that he should have smoked; but to him it was not so, for the people smoke in the Buddhist temples during their services, and not only so, but talk, or sleep, or get up and [86/87] walk about just as they desire. They have not the respect for their places of worship that we have, so that reverence in God's House is one of the matters the missionaries have to teach the early Christians.

December 6th, 1879, was a sad time for us at Hakodate, for at eight o'clock in the evening of that day a big fire broke out about 3000 yards away from the church. There was a very strong wind blowing at the time, and every one could see that it was going to be a very serious matter; and indeed it was serious, for within four hours the greater part of Hakodate was burned to the ground. No less than 2500 Japanese houses were reduced to ashes within that time, besides our church and one of the C.M.S. houses, which Mr. Dening himself was then occupying. Mr. Williams had already been transferred to the important station of Tokyo, and I happened to be residing in the house he had built. As soon as I saw how serious things were looking, I rushed off to the church to see if anything could be done, and there I found Mr. Dening watching things. I had not been there long before I became aware that the wind was carrying the fire towards Mr. Dening's home, and so I rushed off to see whether anything could be done to save the property. Arrived there I found Mrs. Dening, who begged me to take her to her husband, which I did at once. That task finished, I ran back to the house and found that place too was now in real danger. All the servants had rushed off to their homes to save what they could of their own belongings, and the two little Dening children, Lillie and Florrie (of course they are full-grown ladies now), I found to be snugly in bed and fast asleep. The first thing to be done was to make them get up and dress at once, so as to be prepared to leave at the shortest notice. I then got a small handcart and commenced putting a, few things in it, at the same time wishing Mr. and Mrs. Dening would return, and wondering why [87/88] they did not do so. However, I had not put many things into the cart before they came, and sadly told me that the church had gone to ashes. Some of the Christians had placed their goods in it, hoping that it would not burn, but, alas! it did, so that they lost all their property. Mr. and Mrs. Dening had only been back a very few minutes when we discovered that if we would save our lives we must all be off at once, and so by carefully choosing the least smoky places we got out of harm's way. It was an awful night, and I hope never to see another like it. On our way from the house I saw a frightened cat rush across the road and escape into a drain. The poor animal was like a big black cinder with a large head, glaring eyes, and four legs to it, for every hair had been singed off her body. It was shocking to see those large, staring eyes. I have often thought of that cat and wondered whether she escaped into safety or not. I believe about forty men and women lost their lives in the fire, and I myself saw one or two charred remains lying by the roadside in the very early hours of the morning. But enough. The first C.M.S. church ever built in Yezo completely disappeared in the Hakodate fire.

The burning down of the church did not, of [88/89] course, stop the progress of the work at all, for the success of the Gospel does not depend upon a church-building. Churches are convenient places for worship and preaching, but they are not necessary at the beginning of a Mission, for preaching or seed-sowing can be done anywhere, out of doors as well as in. Humanly speaking, it appeared to us then that it was the end of all things when the church had disappeared; but we always remember that "the Lord God omnipotent reigneth," and if He permitted the church to be destroyed it was only to teach us that it was not necessary to His cause just then and in that place. Other churches have since' been built, and the present one, of which I have already spoken on page 22 belongs entirely to the Japanese themselves. It is their own, and we praise God that it is so.

The missionary work in Yezo is largely itinerant, that is to say, the missionaries travel about a good deal. They are out at all seasons and in all sorts of weather. The bare fact of going out in bad weather sometimes makes its mark, for it has more than once excited surprise and done good among the people. I will give you an example of this. You will understand that the rooms in Japanese inns are only divided from each other by paper sliding doors, so that what is said by people in one room may easily be heard by those in the next, even when one does not intend to hear. Now, one evening, there happened to be two men, whom I will call A. and B., in the room next that in which the missionary was boiling his kettle for tea, and a conversation something like the following was heard to take place between them:

A. "Dear me, what a strange thing! Look at the weather and listen to the howling wind. It has been snowing and blowing like this all the afternoon. 'Yet that foreigner next door (meaning the missionary) has come several miles through it all to preach Christianity! What can his object be? and I wonder if he can speak [89/90] our language. I wonder, too, what the real object of all this trouble he is taking can be!"

B. "Hush! do not talk so loudly. He is next door and may possibly understand what is said. Ah, yes; it is strange, to be sure. Why should he turn out this cold weather? I suppose he must be pretty well paid for it. He would not do it unless he was, I suppose."

A. "Yes, that may be so; or don't you think there may be some political motive behind it all?"

B. "It may be that, or very likely he is simply looking about to find out whether there is an opening here for trade."

A. "Just so; yet I hardly imagine this to be the case, for other foreigners and sometimes a Japanese or two come here to preach. They have done so, indeed, for several years now. But it does not appear that any of them have done any business; and if there was any political motive behind it all, our Government would very soon hear of it and set that matter straight."

B. "Yes, yes; just so. I wonder, then, what can be the motive. The idea of taking the trouble to come all this distance in such weather as this! It surprises me and I cannot understand it. Truly the foreigners are a remarkable people."

A. "It is curious indeed. Can Christianity be so important that missionaries will go to all this trouble for nothing excepting just to preach it?"

B. "Yes; if they come only to preach and for no other purpose it is most surprising. Have you ever heard a Christian sermon?"

A. "No, I never did. Did you?"

B. "No, never."

A. "Well, then, supposing we go and hear this evening? What do you say?"

B. "Agreed; let us go."

[91] And to the service they went. Thus you see that the simple fact of going a few miles in wind and snow to preach was an eloquent sermon in itself, and one which, by God's grace, made an impression. I do not know what has become of those travellers, but I am hopeful that the seed sown in their hearts was not in vain.

Since the time of the great fire in Hakodate the work in Yezo has developed and expanded wonderfully. Instead of having some five or six stations at which preaching services were held, the whole island is now well under control. And, moreover, though at that time no direct preaching to the poor Ainu had been done, there are now but few who have not heard something of the Lord Jesus. [91/93] The message is regularly carried to them by the missionaries and their helpers in each district. There are in all twenty-two churches and preaching-places on this island. But it must not be supposed that these are the only places in which services are held. We preach in many other buildings, such as Japanese inns, rooms in private houses, and also in Ainu huts. It is always possible to hold the services in an orderly manner in the churches and preaching-places, of course, but it is not in every case so easy to do so in the inns, huts, and private rooms. Let us take the beginnings of the work in an Ainu hut as an example. The light in these is very bad; they are dreadfully smoky; they are not at all clean, and smell anything but nice. It is also very disturbing to be obliged to stop in the middle of one's sermon and say in a loud voice, "Please do not kill insects till the service is ended." Not only do the people do this during the address, but I have also known them bring young bear-cubs to nurse during service. This is not pleasant, but has to be put up with. It all belongs to the work of a pioneer missionary among the Ainu of Yezo. However, things grow better as time goes on. As soon as we get the churches built, the little out-of-the-way matters now mentioned disappear, and things gradually come to be done as orderly as in our churches in England.

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