Born MARCH 13, 1815

On missionary James Hepburn’s 90th birthday, the emperor of Japan conferred upon him the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun. God had used James and his wife Clara during a transitional era in Japan’s history. As a result, few missionaries have impacted a nation in so many ways.


James first saw daylight in Milton, Pennsylvania. At age 16, he entered Princeton to study chemistry. He completed his medical training at the University of Pennsylvania. Taking Christianity seriously after joining the Presbyter-ian church, James felt called to become a medical missionary. He and Clara, sharing a vision to serve God overseas, married in 1840. A jaunt to Singapore became their first missions trip. Then China opened its doors.

Only five years after embarking from America, the Hepburns left their work in China. Both had contracted malaria, which left them with health issues. Back in the states, they recover-ed. For the next dozen years, James practiced medicine in New York. Then Japan, ending centuries of isolationism, began welcoming foreigners. The Hepburns left for the island nation in late 1859, willing to help in whatever way God allowed. They settled in present-day Yokohama.


The Hepburns arrived in an environment that welcomed, yet didn’t fully trust foreigners, much less Christians. Some, seen as intruders, were murdered. The Hepburns were free to practice their faith, but not to preach it to the Japanese. Nor did James’ medical degrees matter. He was forbidden at first to apply Western medicine.

Image: Namazu-tron

Opportunities came gradually. The government allowed James to open a clinic in 1861. A well- known Kabuki actor who needed his leg amputated came to him. Following the surgery, James provided a prosthetic leg. The actor’s recovery greatly advanced the Japanese acceptance of Western medicine. James also began training those who wanted to learn the medical arts.

His ongoing study of the Japanese language gave James a working knowledge so he could fulfill another need. He set about to create the first Japanese-English dictionary. He did so as a foundation for translating the Bible into Japanese.

He published the first dictionary in 1867. A decade later, in the third edition, James used a writing system he developed based on the Roman alphabet. That system, used in Japan today in a modernized version, is called the Hepburn System. We use it when we translate Japanese words into English.


Translating the Bible filled much of the 1870’s and 1880’s. James formed a committee of fellow missionaries in the area to help. He also used Japanese scholars for the editing. In 1880, the people of Japan could finally read the New Testament in their own language. The Old Testament went into print in 1888.

Two years after arriving in Japan, before they could legally teach the Bible, James and Clara opened the Hepburn Academy. It went through changes through the years, morphing into Meiji Gaskin University. In 2013, the institution will celebrate 150 years of training Japanese students.

Shiloh Church. Photo by Yasano steel pipe.

By 1876, the Government finally permitted the teaching of Christianity. That year, James erected a chapel outside the missionary compound solely for that purpose. Before James retired to the United States at age 77, he and Clara fulfilled their vision to have a new church built in the center of what had become the bustling city of Yokohama. The completed building, Shiloh Church, does command attention.


By the time the Hepburns left in 1892, they had greatly contributed to spreading Christianity and helping modernize Japan’s culture. God had used them to bring many to the faith, introduce Western medicine, create a lasting Japanese-English dictionary, initiate what became a university, build one of Yokohama’s most respected churches and translate the Bible into Japanese.

In, 1911, five years after Emperor Meiji awarded him the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun, James Hepburn died. From the ruler of the universe he receives more than a medal of honor. He’s given eternal rewards and a “Well done, good and faithful servant.”


LET ME KNOW:  How has James’ story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped  you? I welcome your comments.


You can get a fuller picture of the ministry of James and Clara Hepburn from the following book, which is a scan of a previously published volume-

Griffis, William Elliot. Hepburn of Japan and His Wife and Helpmates: A Life of Toil for Christ (1913). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Library, 2009. _____________________________________________________________


About William E. Richardson

I'm married to a wonderful woman named Deb. We're the parents of a son and daughter who bring great joy to our lives. I currently pastor the Assembly of God church in Afton, Iowa.
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One Response to JAMES HEPBURN

  1. cspindler says:

    The gospel has motivated more positive change in the world than the evil it’s detractors claim. Thank you for this inspiring remembrance of one who selflessly made a positive impact for the sake of Christ.

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