The Old Missionary House in Zoshigaya

In a quiet neighborhood near Zoshigaya Cemetery in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, stands a conspicuous Western-style structure made of wood. It used to be a residence of an American missionary named J. M. McCaleb, but after his return to the US, it eventually became the property of Toshima Ward, and since 1989, it has been open to the public as “the Old Missionary Museum of Zoshigaya.” This is a beautiful, interesting structure and here you can learn about the history of Christianity in Japan.

雑司ヶ谷旧宣教師館」
Entrance to the Old Missionary House

Born near Nashville, Tennessee, in 1861, John Moody McCaleb came to Japan with his wife in 1892, and after living in the foreigner’s settlement in Tsukiji for 15 years, he built the Missionary House in Zoshigaya in 1907 to be used as his home as well as a base to engage in missionary work based on Puritanism.

Old Missionary House in Tokyo, Japan.

The neighborhood was a new residential area at that time, and there he also started a kindergarten and a Sunday school. It is said the older generation of this area still remembers how his activities, ranging from charitable work to educational programs for children and young men, impacted the local people.

The window on the old missionary house in Japan.

When I visited there with my friend in July 2016, we were fortunate to speak briefly with the manager of the museum’s office. I asked him if international travelers sometimes visited there.
“Ah, sometimes…,” he said, as his voice trailed off. “But Mr. McCaleb’s relatives occasionally visit here. If I’m not mistaken, he had three children. So probably those people we met the other day were his nephews or something. They duly visit here every time they come to Japan.”
“So, didn’t Mr. McCaleb live in Japan permanently?” I asked.
“No. He returned to America shortly before the Pacific War broke out.”

Interior of the old missionary house in Japan

“Do you know what caused him to go back to his home country?”
“Well, I think there were various reasons, but it might have been partly related to the progress of his missionary work…”, he said hesitantly. (It is thought that McCaleb’s efforts to spread Christianity were largely unsuccessful.)
I asked him how the house was built.
“It was built by two Japanese carpenters. Their names are still on record. But I suppose McCaleb gave them detailed instructions so that they could build this Tennessee-style structure.

Blueberries in the garden of the Old Missionary House in Tokyo.
Blueberries in the garden.

We strolled around the garden, appreciating the beautiful plants and trees (some of them were planted by Mr. McCaleb himself). And then we went into the house. We were especially intrigued by a unique bay window (called an “oriel”) facing west and the fire-place mantel with art nouveau tiles and decorations made from zelkova wood in the living room.

Fire-place mantel at the Old Missionary House in Tokyo.

Back at my home in Shizuoka Prefecture, I did some further study about this missionary house, and learned how difficult the times Mr. McCaleb lived in were for Christian missionaries in Japan. It was the period from the middle Meiji Era leading up to the outbreak of the Pacific War.

Interior of Mr. McCaleb's house in Zoshigaya, Tokyo.

Even though the ban on Christianity had already been lifted by that time, nationalism was beginning to rear its ugly head and it sometimes led to the expulsion of foreigners and foreign cultures. In this environment, it seems Christian missionaries gradually found themselves in an awkward position. The thirty-four years he spent in Zoshigaya overlaps with this “period of hardships” for Christianity.

Tennessee-style structure in Tokyo, Japan.

Mr. McCaleb left Japan in 1941, and he never came back again. It is said that he didn’t even put up an American flag, to say nothing of a Japanese one, in front of his house in Zoshigaya, and he was quoted as saying, “My true nationality is the kingdom of heaven.”

How to Get There

The Old Missionary House in Zoshigaya is about a seven-minute walk from Toden-zoshigaya Station, and about a ten-minute walk from Kishibojinmae Station, on the Toden Arakawa Line (See Update 1 at the end of this post). It is also about ten-minute walk from Higashi-ikebukuro and Gokokuji Stations on the Tokyo Metro Yurakucho Line, as well as Zoshigaya Station on the Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin Line.

Suggestions of a Tour

If you want to visit other places nearby, several interesting spots are within walking distance of the Old Missionary House. The Zoshigaya Cemetery, with the area of 10 hectares, was founded in 1874. There are the graves of many distinguished people, including Natsume Soseki, Nagai Kafu, Izumi Kyoka, Nakahama Manjiro and Lafcadio Hearn. A map of the compound showing the locations of each grave is available at the cemetery’s office.

Zoushigaya Cemetery in Tokyo (雑司ヶ谷霊園)
Zoshigaya Cemetery.

And there is Kishimojin-do. This might be a place any mother in the world would want to visit. Its principle image, Kishimojin, has been worshipped as a goddess of pregnancy, safe delivery and happy child rearing.

Kishimojin-do (鬼子母神堂)
Kishimojin-do

Riding the Toden Arakawa Line (the Tokyo Sakura Tram) is in itself one of the highlights of a trip. It is the only streetcar line left in Tokyo, running 12 km from Waseda to Minowa. If you board it, you can see how essential it is as a means of transportation for the local people.

Toden Arakawa Line (都電荒川線)
Toden Arakawa Line (Tokyo Sakura Tram)

Other than the above stops, there are many interesting destinations along the Toden Arakawa Line. If you are interested in joining guided tours around here, please send an e-mail from the contact form on the Rates/Contact page.

Photographs: taken at the Old Missionary House in Zoshigaya, and other places along the Toden Arakawa Line, by Koji Ikuma, with Fuji X-T1 & P. Angenieux Paris 15mm f1.3.

Update 1 (August 2020): In 2017, a new name for Toden Arakawa Line was sought from the public and eventually, the “Tokyo Sakura Tram” was adopted. However, it didn’t exclude the old name, and now both names are used.

kishimojin-do-featureKishimojin-do

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