Foreign Outliers in Kyoto 50 Years Ago

Fifty years ago, I was attending second grade at the U.S. Army Base on the grounds of the Kyoto Botanical Garden. I’m not sure whether it might have been called Camp Botanical Garden (Shokubutsuen, 植物園). I remember that some of my military-brat classmates had to ride a school bus from nearby Camp Otsu, which didn’t have its own school at the time.

It was my third school in as many years, and the next year I would enter my fourth. The previous year, while we were on furlough at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I had attended first grade at Greathouse Elementary School in St. Matthews. The year before that, I had attended the Japanese kindergarten on the grounds of Seinan Jo Gakuin, a Baptist girls school where my father served as chaplain.

After we returned from furlough in 1956, my father became chaplain of the newly established Japan Baptist Hospital in Kyoto. The military base closed down the very next year, so the local missionaries hastily organized Kyoto Christian Day School (now KIS), using Calvert School curriculum materials.

The photo above is from a KCDS field trip to the Kyoto police headquarters, maybe in 1958. Our adult chaperone was Mr. Daub, whose eldest son Philip was in my brother’s class (a year behind me). My brother is the disgusted-looking kid in the front row, with Philip to his right. I’m the angry-looking kid in the front row, with my classmate David Thurber to my left. I don’t remember much about David except that he was somehow related to the writer, James Thurber; and that he had a wide-smile contest at his birthday party, which I thought was kind of unfair because he had the widest mouth in the class (and not just because I was such an accomplished frowner).

Behind me are two more of my classmates, Danny Hesselgrave and John Hawley. I remember riding my bike to the Hesselgraves on more than a few weekends, where Danny and I would play with his sets of little plastic cowboy and Indian figures, each of us taking one side or the other. Our games would always start with the question “Peace or War?” I once experimented—only once—with the game-killing answer, “Peace!”

John Hawley was an only child with what we imagined to be a rich grandmother back in England, who used to send him much more impressive sets of little metal figurines: legions of finely crafted toy soldiers in the colors of famous British regiments. I remember only once or twice going out to visit him in a huge mansion on a large estate in Yamashina. To us, he seemed the poor little rich kid. We envied him his toys, but not what we imagined to be his solitude.

AFTERTHOUGHTS: Such, anyway, were my childish impressions at the time. In truth, we were all poor little rich kids relative to our Japanese neighbors at the time. We lived in a large American house on a lot so big that it was later subdivided to accommodate at least half a dozen Japanese houses for employees of the Baptist Hospital. We had a Japanese maid, as did most other American missionaries at the time. And we got presents of various kinds either from relatives or churches back home or from Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogs we ordered from in time for Christmas every year.

At the time, we only knew that John’s father was a writer of some kind, but I’ve just this weekend learned what an extraordinary man he was. Frank Hawley (1906-1961) was a linguist who taught at SOAS, spent the 1930s in Japan, helped found the Japanese language section of the BBC after being repatriated to England during the war, then returned to Japan where he worked as a writer and collector of well over 20,000 books, some of which were destroyed during the war, others first confiscated then purchased by Keio University in Tokyo, and others after his death now housed at the University of Hawai‘i.

It also turns out that Danny Hesselgrave’s father was a very productive author in his own right. I had thought the Hesselgraves were Evangelical Lutheran, but now I’ve found that they belonged to a pietist, congregationalist offshoot of Scandinavian Lutheranism, the Evangelical Free Church, explained further below.

There were also Finnish Lutheran missionaries in Kyoto at the time, and at least two Finnish MKs, John and Eva Kekkonen. Eva taught the kids of KCDS a game that we used to call Finnish Red Rover, where one kid in the middle tried to tag the other kids as they ran between the endzones, turning each person tagged into a tagger until all had been caught. (Eva was also the object of my first secret boyhood crush.)

Thanks to a random, mindful act of Internet archiving [PDF], I’ve discovered more about the first school teacher whose name I remember. Miss Pilcher was the first principal and first credentialed teacher of Kyoto Christian Day School.

Reflecting the keen interest of the denomination to which they belonged, the fledgling church [Evangelical Free Church of Walnut Creek, now known as NorthCreek Church] was very missionary-minded from the start, and this was further demonstrated when Shirley Pilcher left for Japan. Shirley’s folks, Carl and Ada, often had missionaries visit in their home thus exposing their children to the spiritual needs of the wider world.

After high school, Shirley went to Trinity College, the EFCA school in Chicago, and then to San Francisco State where she completed her teaching credential. After a second grade assignment for one year in Walnut Creek, she felt God’s call to overseas work under the Evangelical Free Church Overseas Missions Department, as it was then called. This opportunity had developed on very short notice, so a commissioning service was quickly arranged and held on the evening of July 31, 1958. About 200 people attended. A few days later, with about 100 well-wishers at the airport, Shirley left for Kyoto, Japan, where she spent four years teaching mostly missionary children plus some from U.S. Embassy families. Church records show that the stipend paid to her monthly was $1,287.

Because Shirley would spend her next birthday thousands of miles from home, all in the church family were encouraged to send her appropriate greetings. For those wishing to send money, envelopes were provided. A telephone call to her was initiated from the church during a Sunday school hour; it was probably very early morning in Kyoto. In 1962 she returned home to a public school teaching assignment in Alamo. Later, Shirley met Foster Donaldson and, after they were married, they served for many years in the Philippines with Overseas Crusade where they were engaged in a Bible correspondence ministry and provided literature resources for pastors. They also opened a couple of bookstores there. Shirley lost her life to cancer in January 2004; Fos continues to be active in the church. Following is a reproduction of the farewell program for Shirley’s departure for Japan.

I must confess that, until today, I had never heard of the Evangelical Free Church of America. Here’s a bit of its history, from the document I discovered online.

Scandinavians began streaming to the United States in the late nineteenth century, settling mainly in the East and Midwest. They brought with them all of the thinking, the implements, and the practices of the culture they knew abroad. One big difference was that there was no state church in America. Most Christian immigrants attended a Lutheran Church where their own languages were spoken, Swedish, Norwegian, or Danish. Following their experiences back home, especially where they did not find evangelical messages in the churches here, many began to meet privately for worship, Bible study, and fellowship. In 1884 a Norwegian-Danish Free Church was founded in Tacoma, Washington. It was the first church with “Free church” roots on the West coast. Shortly a group of seven persons formed the next Norwegian-Danish Church, this one in Boston. Those of this European background thus organized two conferences, one “eastern” and one “western.” In time these two joined to form the Evangelical Free Church Association….

Although there were a number of leaders in those early years, the research points to John. G. Princell as the “founder” of the Swedish Evangelical Free Church of America. His counterpart was R. A. Jernberg of the Norwegian-Danish Free Church. Princell attended the University of Chicago, majoring in Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Jernberg graduated from Yale University and the Chicago Theological Seminary. So both of these men were learned and well-trained in the American tradition that the best educated men were those “of the cloth.”

People feared becoming a denomination because that word was associated with Lutheranism in Europe….

In the early history of these Scandinavian free churches, all the preaching was done in the native tongues since the immigrants still spoke them here. But their children were learning English rapidly and so English gradually took over, first in the Sunday schools. And little by little it then followed in the preaching services despite some resistance by the “old timers.” In some churches it was necessary for lay people to provide the pastoral leadership owing to the absence of ordained and capable men. So efforts to unite the two regional Norwegian-Danish associations had taken a long time, and getting those two to agree, despite their long years of political union in Europe, was not accomplished without a lot of discussion. And then there were many further discussions before they united with the Swedes!



Filed under education, family, Japan, religion, U.S.

3 responses to “Foreign Outliers in Kyoto 50 Years Ago

  1. Jeff ONeil

    I attended 4th grade at the Botanical Gardens during the ’54-’55 school year. I lived at Camp Fisher.

  2. Eric Jay

    I attended 9th and part of 10th grade at Botanical Gardens, ’55-56. As I remember it, there were about 50 students grades 9-12. Army brats traveled by train from Kobe to Kyoto. More classmates, Air Force brats, boarded in Osaka. We left Japan November 1956. I understand the military left Botanical Gardens the following year.

  3. Peter Van Note

    I attended 2nd grade and lived in military housing in the Botanical Gardens in1952-53. My sister and I played by running in the planted bamboo forest and hiked among the botanical areas. I rode my bicycle around the “Garden”. We lived in a single dwelling house with Japanese live-in maid quarters. Our male cook lived in a dormitory on the botanical gardens premises. An armored car with a small cannon was stationed at the entrance. There was a pile of sand which as at the entrance we used to play in. Its purpose was to stop vehicles trying to gain access. I believe I was told there were communist demonstrations in town and the fear was that they would march on the Botanical Gardens. My father, a military police major, just back from the continuing conflict in Korea was given the task to train Japanese police and was based in Camp Otsu.
    My sister and I have many fond memories of Japan and I wish I could return to Kyoto. My father took many pictures of ancient rituals pulling carts in the streets….the dying of cloth in the river…and of course the temples and the multitudes of rice patties.

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