The "German East Asia Mission" in Japan — Past and Present

by Mira Sonntag, ecumenical co-worker of EMS
Tomisaka Christian Center (Tokyo)
KNL Editorial Committee member
For the final issue of this year, which was marked by the 150th anniversary of Protestant mission in Japan, I have been asked to summarize the contributions of German missionaries, who are hardly known today due to the overwhelming influence of North American Protestantism. Although there have been a number of German missionary societies, I will focus on the first German missionary society to send staff to Japan, the General Evangelical Protestant Missionary Society (AEPMV, later OAM, now DOAM as a member of EMS and BMW) for two simple reasons. First, this is the only German missionary society affiliated with the Kyodan through a partnership contract; and second, my own service in Japan is based on this partnership relation.
As a matter of fact, the Germans were latecomers to the evangelization field of Japan, arriving as the 30th missionary society with a delay of 26 years after the first North American missionaries. Also, they started without any experience (AEPMV was founded just one year earlier in the German city Weimar) and suffered a constant shortage of staff. Missionaries would hardly stay in Japan longer than five years (often as lone warriors), which was good for a fast feedback to the homeland community but raised many problems in Japan itself.
German mission to Japan meant German-speaking mission of mostly male, ordained pastors from Switzerland, Germany, and Alsace-Lorraine, financed by supporters from a number of European countries and even North America. As an internationally-minded body, AEPMV (and later OAM) sought to free itself from historically grown denominational boundaries and return to the original gospel of Christ’s times (“the heavenly seed” that gives birth to a new “tree” in every new location). Thus, it resembled in its ecumenism the first North American missionaries, only that it arrived in a time when this ecumenism had long been lost. However, the ecumenism of AEPMV was founded on the new approach of liberal theology (“new theology”). Learning from the methodology of the Moravian Church, Winfried Spinner, the first AEPMV missionary to Japan, started to gather German residents into a “mission church” (German Cross Church Tokyo), which should then foster evangelization among the Japanese and support Japanese churches where they were founded. Fortunately, he was soon joined by Otto Schmiedel. The first Japanese church (now Kyodan Kami-Tomisaka Church) was also founded in 1887. As of 1934, the organization was supporting ten churches in eastern and western Japan, with a total of 63 Japanese service employees. The emphasis lay on urban areas, with a new focus on the Korean minority in Japan from 1929. While concentrating their service on the German-speaking communities, the German and Swiss pastors would give advice but try not to interfere with decisions of their Japanese colleagues.
Such progress was possible mainly because the AEPMV had actively dealt with its staff shortage through the establishment of a theological seminary in Tomisaka in 1887. This seminary was, actually, the most important transmitting station of liberal theology to the Japanese churches at the time. And it was through the influence of liberal theology that Japanese Christianity could survive the anti-Christian propaganda of the 1890s, following the Uchimura incident of l?se-majesty. By the end of the 19th century, liberal theology was further strengthened by North American Unitarians and subsequently led to Japan’s first major theological debate: the Uemura-Ebina-Debate about the divinity of Christ. The theological seminary in Tomisaka continued until 1908. But even after it closed, AEPMV missionaries continued to teach at theological seminaries, e.g. of Aoyama Gakuin University.
As the above shows, AEPMV combined community building with theological training on a high academic level that had to be based on a proper understanding of the traditional religious and philosophic landscape of Japan. As a result of this approach, missionaries also contributed to the growing discipline of religious studies in Germany. Besides, liberal theology was the strongest proponent of public welfare activities. AEPMV engaged in child care, tuberculosis treatment, and student housing.
With the outbreak of World War I, however, the internationality of AEPMV (OAM) was increasingly difficult to maintain. After Hitler came into power, the German communities abroad mostly followed the nationalist movement. These developments were hard to tolerate for the Swiss members of the mission society as well as for Germans like Egon Hessel, who had joined the anti-Hitler emergency union of pastors (Pfarrernotbund). The events of World War II finally led to a break-up of OAM into a German (DOAM) and Swiss (SOAM) mission society. In order to reduce relational difficulties as much as possible, both agreed to regional distribution of responsibilities: DOAM would continue work in East Japan (Tokyo); SOAM would focus on Western Japan (Kyoto). But the end of the war also led to the founding of Christian East Asia Mission Foundation (CEAM), which united the physical heritage of DOAM and SOAM in Japan into one legal body under Japanese law during the whole postwar period.
The postwar period also brought about a reform movement in the understanding of mission and its relation to church structures. In Germany, mission societies that had traditionally existed outside of church structures voluntarily reintegrated into the churches, forming new regional mission boards. Due to the division of Germany into East and West, DOAM became a member of the Association of Churches and Mission in South Western Germany (EMS) and Berlin Mission Board (BMW) in 1972. Abroad, the application of the principles of New Delhi (1961) concerning “partnership in obedience” ushered in a new age of cooperation in mission. “Missionaries” were first re-framed into “fraternal workers,” later into “ecumenical co-workers,” and an appointment by the Kyodan became the precondition for dispatch. Although DOAM still held considerable responsibility and means of influence through its right to assign half of the board members of CEAM foundation, it always tried to listen carefully to the wishes and visions of its partners in Japan. Together they founded Tomisaka Christian Center in Tokyo (TCC) for interdisciplinary research on urgent issues in social ethics. In 2009 an existing housing facility was re-launched as an ecumenical dormitory (Uphill International House of Studies). Currently, the supporting body of CEAM is investigating new ways for welfare activities to complement the already existing mission work in Tomisaka.
Finally, on October 19, 2009, the Swiss and German parent organizations (SOAM and DOAM) agreed on CEAM’s wish to apply for state approval as a public welfare organization and on the necessary changes to its constitution. The new constitution brings two new forms of freedom to CEAM: freedom from possible outside intrusion, and freedom to engage in pari passu international cooperation. Interestingly, while DOAM and SOAM are dispensing their legal rights to child organizations in Japan, EMS is now preparing to extend the rights of its African and Asian partner churches in order to reorganize itself into a truly ecumenical (international) body of common witness. These developments make me very optimistic about the possibility of a truly post-colonial future of church cooperation between Japan and Germany.