In this post, Jan describes how she came to meet and work with Hiroi-sensei, how he taught his apprentices, and how she felt appreciated among a community of artists.
Malina: So, now I think we’re going to shift over to, um you’re work with Hiroi Sensei.
Janell: Yes. Uh-huh.
Malina: So how–you mentioned how you first met him, had you heard about him before?
Janell: No. No. He came from Tokyo and settled in Sendai but it was–I didn’t know he was there. It was through Mr. Amano’s connection, he and Mr. Takahashi helping Hiroi sensei and visiting for this particular, they discovering him. They found, like I said, they were looking for a kite-maker to interview on one of these new years programs because flying kites is the big thing for boys and playing badminton is for girls. And anyway, they didn’t find a kite-maker but a woman who was running–a japanese woman who had a nice book store was acquainted with Hiroi-sensei. and she found that they had a top-maker right there in Sendai. And that’s when they found him and he was not well, and he was not making much money to live on. So they got him into the hospital and got him taking them on as apprentices. So they could get some money to him and assisting him in getting back to making tops. And around that period, I had been on that program with Mr. Amano’s wife and she was my associate and using the Japanese while I was doing the English. But anyway, he and his friend from the same company, TBS, asked me to be on this program. And they took me to the home of Mr. Hiroi. And I met Hiroi-sensei and his wife in a very strange house. They had one or two rooms besides the shop and we’d sit around the table and have tea after we finished working.
So, there’s some pictures in this book of that room and the thing that was wonderful is, he had two lathes, one that he worked at and we sat and he could see us like that you know. We sat across from each other. And so, instead of like an apprentice does for a potter making clay for five or six years before they get on the wheel. We got on the lathe right from the very beginning. And he prepared the wood for us, he prepared our tools for us, so we were his apprentices but we were beholden completely to our teacher. I was so pleased with the way he accepted me as a foreigner and he actually would make, for me, he would make a model and then I could copy it. For his professional men who were his apprentices, the ones who made the dolls, he would just talk about the concept and talk about what…and then they’d make it and bring it back to him and then he’d tell them what was wrong with it and what was good about it. It was interesting to be there and sit in the same [kotatsu] with these other apprentices.
And many times his wife and I were the only women, so we listened a lot. And it was fun. I enjoyed those times in the kotatsu and listening to the discussions. For a teacher of English who was with a college of junior high and senior high school girls, and in many ways being a leader for them, it was just wonderful to be able to sit around a tale with these Japanese men and listening to what they were talking about. Because a lot of the times it was about making the tops, but the friendships that developed in that area were some that were quite different from being a missionary in a Christian school. But I was always accepted as a valid person.
And he was good at giving me examples and I would make them myself. I have two of them out there that I made, one in ‘82, that’s the first one. That was a present for my family, so I made I think seven or eight of them. That’s in one of these books too. Then the more recent one is the church with each item makes a top, there’s seven tops in that one. That one conglomeration of seven tops. But anyway, he let me do Huck Finn, and Tom Sawyer, Cinderella. I like that fact that he was open to European or American stories as well as these ones we have here of Momotaro. These two he made, this is not his, these two. Momotoro and the Onii, the devil, that were disturbing the life of his village. And the peach boy. Those are the [dango] that his mother made him that he gave one to the pheasant, one to the monkey, and one to the dog, and they helped him conquer these ugly bad guys. And they were fierce and then they became friends.
But we had some interesting discussions. And my teacher once, around Hiroshima day in August, that was one of the most memorable times in my visits with him. He told me about when his parents and he were in Tokyo when the big bombing of Tokyo took place. Their part of Tokyo was connected with war-making factories. His father could no longer do tops, he had to use his…doing something connected to the war so that the company that bought his tops took his lathe and all his equipment and sent it up to [Shiroishi City] in Tohoku where there were a lot of woodworkers. But then the father and the mother… in this time…Sensei said the planes were so low he could hear the music that they were playing on the airplanes. They bombed that part of the city. He and his brother and father fled to the school pond, the swimming pool, and they jumped in the pool, fortunately in the shallow end. The people who jumped in the deep end went down to the bottom and other bodies went on top of them and they all perished. But the people in the shallow end survived. His mother and the siblings, I don’t know if it was one or two, perished in the fire. And his father and his brother were left, and this company sent them to Shiroishi to live.
Many of the children of Tokyo at that time were sent out to farmlands and Tohoku was one area where they came, Tokyo kids, because their families were trying to save them from the terrible bombings that they were having. Some of them were in the same areas and the locals weren’t that glad to have them, you know. You’re struggling yourself with food, but in those years people that I knew sold their kimono or whatever, they took them to the farmers in the country. Fortunately the farmers in Japan didn’t experience what Europe experienced, the land warfare where the armies were fighting right out in the farmlands. The Japanese were bombed in big cities but the farmlands were still functioning. So the city people went out with their treasures and traded for food. But Mr. Hiroi– he and his father and brother went to the Sendai area, [Shirorishi] about an hour away on the train and then he became one of the Tohoku’s famous woodworkers. He and his brother are the two living members of the Edo-tops. Edo, the former name for Tokyo.
Malina: Did he have many other apprentices? How many other apprentices?
Janell: Well, I’m not sure how many are left. Because we’re all getting older. But I have a picture and there were oh about, three or four, five, six, seven. Some professional and then non-professional. When I was starting my work there there was a man who was an employee for Sendai City and he went there as a treat to himself, and he was very good and I have a top that he made, really beautiful top, on that I often use. It’s way over there, but anyway. And now we have a connection with Mr. Maeda who’s there every day. That means I think he’s working on the lathe.
Malina: How did you become interested in becoming his apprentice?
Janell: Well, it was just buying that [??} and giving it to somebody and finding out that right there in Sendai was the man who made it. And I was impressed with him and I just…it was timing. I, nothing I can say I was looking for. It just happened. And I was so fortunate to be able to be on that program teaching English to the women that gave me a contact with Mr. Amano. And anyway, to be invited to meet this man. And then be able to be an apprentice [excited noise]. Because I had been interested in art and I draw pictures and stuff. But, I never had any…my father was a woodworker. He made a big desk for me that’s in another room here. I took that to Japan and brought it back, but my father was working down in the basement of our house. When I was an eighth grader, in the seventh and eighth grade, girls weren’t allowed to take shop but we had cooking and sewing, and so I wasn’t interested in that stuff. But, being an apprentice was just a work of fate.
Malina: So, you had bought a [sumo-set] before you met him, or was that after?
Janell: Yes, before. Because I found that in Tokyo, he was making things still and selling things in Tokyo that, right after the war, because of the connection probably to his father. His father had this connection with people in Tokyo, but anyway, I bought that when I went to Tokyo one time. And I gave it to Mr. Amano’s little girls. And thought it was fun. And then they found when they were looking for a kite-maker they found the top-maker and found out that he made that set of sumo wrestlers.
Malina: How long before you met him did you give the girls the set?
Janell: It wasn’t too much before that. A couple..maybe a year or so. Because it was still connected to that program and I wish I could tell you what years that program was on. One year it was on TBS and that connection.
Malina: What year did you become his apprentice?
Paula: For how long were you apprenticed to him?
Janell: Until I left Japan. ‘95. There wasn’t a real apprentice after a couple of years because my teacher helped me get my own lathe. Like I say he’d make me a sample and I’d make it on my own. I have a book of the stuff I made. This is it. [laughs] You can see in that book the freedom I was given. And he helped me do a Cinderella, a little pumpkin and the horses and anyway [laughs].
Malina: Did you sell yours?
Janell: Yes, I didn’t make ‘em for sale. Then for three years–and I wanted to find out if they’re still doing that–one of the department stores has a sale of Mr. Hiroi’s apprentice’s and his tops for sale. Three days in that January 3 and January 6. I had a couple of books of that. Where are they–over there. But I had my things there for sale at that time. The money for our things one year went to an organization for helping people with something. I had…I don’t have it in my head, I have it in one of these books. The money that we made from the tops that time–some of it was from the apprentices–was given to an organization for some use for others.
Malina: How far did you travel to take lessons, to work with him?
Janell: To get lessons? For a while I was going to the southern part of Sendai. I usually went around supper time. It was a frustrating experience because two lanes went into one to cross a bridge and you’d have these guys who would sneak in [makes driving noise]. I was kind of high before I got even to my teacher’s house. But anyway, then he moved from that place to this village and that was further, but it was a more interesting ride into this hot spring town south of Sendai. The other one was off a main thoroughfare that went down to Tokyo, you know. But this one was a more quiet route. So, I was never really far.
Malina: What was a daily lesson like?
Janell: Mmm. Well, it was like being given a piece of wood that was five-sided and you’d put it on the bit, and working, and the teacher was often working on a project that I could watch him do. And there’s a… if I had any trouble he would come and look at me. It was just me doing work. After I got good enough he got me this lathe of my own and I went there just like the pro-deshi [apprentices] did with the things I made and he would look at them. And we would discuss what project we could do and then he’d make something…made the raft and Huckleberry and Tom. So there were things done in the kotatsu, around the table. Planning. But when I had my own I wasn’t getting lessons anymore I was getting assistance and a great deal of help.
I liked my teacher because he was willing to…and he was knowledgeable. It was an interesting combination of him and his wife. When they were in Sendai, she was from a farm home down south of Sendai, I can’t remember the town. And her father and his father were very close friends. They’d his father…Her father would come and visit. [laughs] They were such good friends that they decided his son and her father…his daughter, his daughter was just right for the son. Now, this is a Tokyo son and a farmer girl. Who for part of her life was sent to Hokkaido to be somebody’s babysitter and send the money back because her mother had gone, had died, I think. It was just like an oshikei story oshiin, of the hard life of this farm-woman. And then she married this Tokyo-man. But he had a lot of interest in Japanese folklore, and I think coming out of Tokyo he had a background that was much broader than coming from a little town and farm in Tohoku. It’s an interesting combination. But she’s the business woman and he’s the artist. She handles all of these things that the apprentices bring to sell in the store in connection with his shop in this village. She keeps track of how much this man should get and how much this man should get. She was very good at business, and of course, cooking and taking care of the house. And then she was on–there’s a picture of her there on the lathe. He let her–he taught her how to make things. But anyway, it was an interesting combination.
Malina: What was the most challenging aspect of the top-making?
Janell: The most challenging? Time was an issue. Having the time to do it. When I had my own lathe I didn’t have to travel so far. It was right behind me in my house and I could work after school when I was teaching at Miyagi. It was different when I was working for the conference because then I could plan my own schedule. When I worked at school I was at school this time and by this time so it was easier to organize. When I had my own time, I’d feel guilty when I wasn’t working, you know. It’s not as easy to do what you thought you should do. But, after a while, otherwise I didn’t feel any hardships. Or frustrations, because my teacher was very generous. He’d even say something nice even when it was dumb [laughs].
Here’s a picture when he had…this is why I like my teacher. Just look at that bottom picture. Look at him sitting in a chair smiling. We had this wonderful party and we had food. There’s Mr. Amano, and Mr. Takahashi, and the woman who did all my cooking.
Malina: Was there a difference between the types of tops Hiroi made for collectors, well you said you didn’t make any for sale, was there a difference?
Janell: Yes, he’d make some that were easy to spin, but the collectors were interested in something that’s really different. And so, he would make them and anybody who came there to visit could buy them. He didn’t have a shop when I first met him, he was in this very–what I call a hovel. A very poor place to live. But then we joined this artisan’s village then he had a nice shop to go with it. And most of the tops in that shop were done by his disciples, his deshi. And then they would get the money that they–Mrs. Hiroi was the business woman. The money that they got from those that say Masayuki made, then he, those were–all that money went to him with a bit for the sensei. You know like one of the consignment things where you give things and you get some of the money back. So these, this is one way he was helping these young professional doll-makers also become skilled top-makers and they could earn some extra money that way. But the one rule he made was interesting, the professional men who were skilled in making the dolls, they always signed their name on the bottom and some of the dolls were collected faithfully by certain people. Every year they’d get another one and the number of how old the person was would change each year. Then you could compare how many, if you collected Masayuki’s all every year you could see how he developed or how it went down and so on. That’s a collecting technique that I didn’t follow. But, my teacher himself asked that none of the tops that were sold in his store, none of them have a name on the bottom.
He wanted the people to buy the tops for the appearance and not for the name. And that indicates a difference between the dolls and tops in my teacher’s case. And when he made tops for the collectors, he did that. Not a different top every month because some of them were quite complicated and took a long time to make fifty of one kind. Those he might sign for the collector, because that was a verification that this was Hiroi-sensei’s and that’s an Edo top. But, um, when I was there in the shop that was part of that village, his things were not on the shelves. All of the tops were made by his professional deshi. I don’t…I think it indicated a kind heart of a teacher who wanted his disciples to have equal access to the buying public. And I appreciated his generosity. He didn’t handle the business he was there, they would sit in the kotatsu and talk with him and discuss some new designs. He, for me he made it so I could copy it, but for his professional disciples they had to make it from his words, from his descriptions. And when they’d come back with what they made and then he would pick out that should be a little bit rounder there or something. He would make them do it over if it wasn’t what he was suggesting. So that trained them to listen very carefully. And I was in on some of those sessions, they were exciting to be there, just sitting there and listening to him instruct them.
In this post, Hiroi-sensei describes the difficult process of woodworking behind top creation as well as the long history of tops in Japan
Paula: When you’re teaching apprentices, what is the first skill you teach them? Or, what do you think is the most important lesson?
Hiroi: Mmm, the most important one? What is the most important one?
Paula: Or the first step.
Hiroi: Well, I don’t really say such difficult things like “first step.” It’s [more like] “Do it because you love it.” Anyway, at first you mimic the hand movements, and I teach how to carve. So that anyone can learn it, I take their hands and show them, and after that, little by little back off, so they are doing it on their own. So it’s [learned] rather quickly. People who take a longer amount of time take about half a year before they can make a single top. And people who take a while, there are some that take quite a long time.
Usually apprentices struggled with the tops for half a year or a year, and then were gradually able to make apprentice tops. So it’s not that there’s a particularly important thing I teach them. The most important thing is for them is the feeling that they want to learn it themselves.
And this, well, in the past, it was that no matter what, a master’s skills had to be inherited, not that you did it because you liked it, and if the master did it a certain way, you had to do it exactly like that. It was like we absolutely had to do it one way. But people who do it for a hobby do it because they love it, they learn it because they just enjoy it, and before I teach them something like “an important [lesson],” they already love it, so there’s no need to say such unnecessary things like that. So I lend a hand so that they can make even just one [top], no matter how long it takes. Even if it wobbles a little or something, if they can make even one top, I’m so happy. And then they get absorbed in [making them], and they come again wanting to make a better one and want to give it their best on their own. And they keep at it, and like Landis-sensei get really good at it. That she had to go back to America– I think it was fitting, since she became so good at [top making]. Heh heh heh.
Paula: When your apprentices’ training is done, how do you keep in touch with them?
Hiroi: Mmm, I don’t really keep in touch with them. When my apprentices have time they come for a lesson. I don’t really say anything [to keep up with them] on my part. Apprentices come when they want to work on [their skills], and if they come, I teach them. It’s like that. So it’s very free in that way. So I don’t force them to do anything. It’s the same for those who are pros and those who are amateurs.
Paula: In the teaching of your apprentices, what is a daily lesson like?
Hiroi: Mmm, just foolish talk. And everyone rolls around laughing, “hahaha,” “hohoho,” and just enjoys themselves. We talk about all kinds of things here, and in those conversations there’s fun things, humor like the Edo iki*, and jokes. There’s a lot of that [when we get together], and if I were giving a strict lecture, or teaching as if I were in a classroom, then I couldn’t make learning and teaching interesting. So I break it up and make it half play. And very free-form.
And those [apprentices], how should I put it? They have their own distinctive character. And there’s a certain style of Edo tops, but within that, I [have them] make make it in their own way while enjoying themselves. So everyone learns while having fun. It’s the same for those doing it professionally and as a hobby. If you don’t have that, then you really can’t make interesting tops. It’s fine to teach it like, “This is like this, so do it like this. This is like this, so don’t do that,” but then everyone will make the same things, and their charm disappears. Everyone is their own person, so in order to make the best use of that individuality, they [should] make them freely, doing interesting things while enjoying themselves. For pros and amateurs alike.
Paula: What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of learning the woodworking craft? Not just making tops…
Hiroi: The most challenging part is the seikan, sawing the wood, making the tools– blacksmithing. Tool-making. That is difficult. If you can skillfully make the tools and saw the wood, you can do anything. If it’s just carving, even a person doing it as a hobby can manage, but if you become a pro, you can’t be a professional just with that [skill], so until you get on the lathe, the preparation before that is the sawing [kidori 木取り], finely cutting the actual tree trunk. Some time ago Maeda-kun cut some of the ones over there, and to saw in the kidori style, he made tools, and the tools were based on the items he made; he came up with a variety of tools by himself.
If you can’t make your own tools well, you won’t be able to come into your own [as a top-maker]. It’s difficult to teach it as well as to use a design, and in the end you just have to learn it yourself. Well, I teach the fundamentals. But I’m not a blacksmith, you know. Though I’m an amateur at smithing, I have my own style. I tentatively teach my own style of it, though I don’t know if that’s in itself a kind of tradition. I teach about the tools that I use here [at my workshop]. And now Maeda-kun is thinking about it himself and making his own tools. If you’re able to do that, then you’ve matured [as a top-maker]. That’s actually what’s most difficult.
Paula: Um, regarding the Edo tops, can you explain a bit about their characteristics? For example, how are they different from other tops?
Hiroi: Ahh, they’re totally different from other tops. Umm, well, in Japan there are many different tops that are the famous product of different areas, but these are almost all tops that you spin outside. The tops that I make, well, of course you can spin them outside, too, but almost all of them are called “tatami tops” and are meant to be played with and enjoyed indoors. And when you’re not playing with them you display them, and enjoy them that way. They’re tops that you can enjoy in a number of ways. Their characteristics are that they’re “tatami tops,” you use them indoors, and you usually play with them.
And there’s many different types. That there’s a lot of types, too, is something from long ago, in the Edo period… In Japan, long ago, in ancient times, a thousand or two thousand years ago, on the morning of New Year’s Day, at the imperial court they spun tops and, err, how should I describe it? They wanted to create the country’s policies, so they used [the tops] for fortune-telling. And there was an official who spun tops on the morning of New Year’s Day, and through what direction they stopped on, decided things like harvest will be good this year, or the harvest will be bad, so we have to do this or we can’t do this, etc., and [the tops] were used that way. One of them was, umm, when they built the bullet train here, in the city of Natori, there was an archaeological site called Shimizu, i think. And they excavated it to build the bullet train tracks. When they did, from inside a well they found three things: a top, a flute, and comb. One of those items is preserved in the prefectural Folk Museum in Takajo. I think they still have it.
The top is about this big. And there’s no doubt it was made with a lathe. I think it might be the oldest [top found] in Japan, and it was about a thousand years old. And the fact that it was found like that in the well, with the flute and the comb, means it was probably used to fortune-telling, or a charm, or… what should I call it? Used for deciding something. That there was a flute and a comb along with the top meant that it was for a matsuri (festival/ritual). So it is said to be for something like that. A good luck charm, or fortune-telling. It seems it was probably for deciding important things.
And burying it inside the well like that, what would you call it today? Um, you would bury such things in the well when there was an outbreak of contagious disease or illness, like dysentery in children or regular dysentery. If you drank the water in the well, the disease would spread. So they’d fill in the well so it couldn’t be used anymore, and at that time [the objects] would be sort of like a sacrifice. It would be like you were sacrificing them, and the top, the flute, things you usually use everyday would be buried [along with the well]. And people think that’s what they were used for. And there’s no doubt that the tops were made using a lathe. And there was evidence of shavings from a lathe (kanname 鉋目).
And there’s evidence it was spun, too! On the tip of the top, it was rubbed by grit and rounded off. It must have been spun a number of times. So it was probably used for fortune-telling. It was probably that the most elite person in the village where those remains were used it for fortune-telling. And at that time, it was a top shaped like this. This kind of shape, but… umm, a top shaped like this, but… here, like this, there was a pattern from using a plane tool… and this area was rubbed away. Rubbed away by grit. And here, there was no hole, but it had [evidence] that it had been broken by being snapped off with a saw, so it looked like there was a hole. If you looked at it from the top, it looked like this. It was said that it looked like there was a shaft there, and if that was the case, it was really incredible, a breakthrough discovery. I asked to see it, and went there. Looking at it, there was evidence it had been cut with a saw, and that it had been cut and snapped off. And when I said that, they said they didn’t think there were saws around in use during that time period. But since this was evidence that without a doubt it had been cut with a saw, this was a huge discovery. For the history of saws, they said that if that was the case it would change the history of saw usage. And that it was incredible that in this period they already had saws. And everyone made a big fuss about it and about tops, and the people involved in saws also clamored about it. Hehehe. The history goes back hundreds of years. They were all excited about it and top people weren’t allowed to touch it because they wanted to preserve it forever. Hahaha. I expect they still have it [at the museum].
Paula: What kind of objects are in the collection of Edo tops that Landis-sensei has? Could you explain a little about them?
Hiroi: There’s all kinds of them. Ah– where are the photos from yesterday?
Paula: Ahh, well, um, tomorrow we’ll look at them and you can explain a little about them one by one, but overall, [could you explain about] what kind of themes they’re on, that sort of thing…
Hiroi: Ahh… the themes depend on the top. So rather than there being an overall theme, each one of them has one, and they have their own stories, so all together they’re Edo tops.
Hiroi-sensei has appeared many times in Japanese newspapers. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Spreading the charm of 7 workshops gathered together:
Akiu Craft Village, open for 20 years” that ran June 23, 2008 in the newspaper Kahoku shinpō. See the original Japanese article at the link below.
Spreading the charm of 7 workshops gathered together: Akiu Craft Village, open for 20 years
First collective exhibition
“We want to communicate the culture of artisans.”
Akiu Craft Village (Sendai, Taihaku Ward, Akiu) commemorates its 20th anniversary. The business association of Akiu Craft village, formed by its artisans, will hold their first-ever collective exhibition at Aoba Ward’s Tōhoku Institute of Technology Ichiban Lobby from June 13-25. The exhibition aims to convey the appeal of the traditional crafts in connection with the “Sendai/Miyagi Destination Campaign (DC)” tour bus advertisements, which kicks off in October.
The artisans of the seven workshops in the craft village are exhibiting a total of seventy-six works they have made, including Sendai chests of drawers (tansu 箪笥), kokeshi dolls, tops. Thenstructors and students at the Institute of Technology will hold a a panel demonstrating the working processes of various artisans and their workshop settings. Those attending will also have a chance to make tops and paint at a demo corner.
Hiroi Michiaki (75), the head of the Akiu Association, explained the goal of opening the exhibition, stating, “At the Craft Village our homes and workshops are together, and it’s a valuable space where you can see what an artisan’s life is like. Of course, we want both tourists and people of Sendai to know what Sendai’s artisan culture is like.”
Akiu Craft Village was established with the support of Miyagi Prefecture and the city of Sendai in April 1988. The artisans of the Village have continued to produce art and craft work with the goal of reviving local life skills . This year, to celebrate the 20th anniversary, they are also planning other events besides this collective exhibition. From the end of the July to the end of August, they will open painting workshops aimed for families. During the Sendai/Miyagi Destination Campaign period, they will also have the exhibition works in their workshops and hold concerts.
Kumano Akira (50), the owner of Kumanodō, a Sendai tansu shop, noted, “In Sendai, the number of artisans has been decreasing, and children and younger generations don’t have as many opportunities to experience handmade crafts. In Akiu, I want to increase the number of hardworking artisans.”
Janell, determined to travel to Japan one last time to see her many friends and attend her homecoming at Migyagi Gakuin, invited Paula and Malina to join her so that they could interview Hiroi in person and share in the Japan side of the collection’s history.
At Miyagi Gakuin, Janell had the opportunity to meet with former colleagues and students, who were overjoyed to see her. A group of former students planned Janell’s entire trip and accompanied the three of them in Sendai. They had a large luncheon where Janell spoke about her experiences as Miyagi Gakuin. The photo to the right is Janell smiling as she points to the label of the building named after her at Miyagi Gakuin: The Landis Building.
We are sad to report that on July 27, 2020, Hiroi Michiaki passed away. He was 87 years old. We were very fortunate to be able to interview both Hiroi and Janell before their deaths. Hiroi was a playful, thoughtful person who hoped that the tops he created would make others smile. As we bring the Carving Community project to a close this year, we are deeply grateful to be able to share the interviews from our time with Hiroi and Janell.
We are saddened to report that on March 24, 2020, Janell Landis passed away peacefully in her sleep. She was 93 year old. It has been our great honor and pleasure to have known Janell (or Jan, as she liked to be called by friends) and to have been able to spend the time we did learning about her journey building bridges between people in Japan and the United States. She was always full of wonder and joy, and sought to bring that happiness to others. Today we are glad to be able to share a piece of writing on Janell’s life in her own voice: an essay in which she reflects on her early path to Japan and her experiences at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. She will be greatly missed, and we hope to honor her memory by seeing this project to its completion.
To view the essay in the original Japanese, see the following link: 日本語はこちら
My road to Japan probably began in the fall of 1952 in Toledo, Ohio. That year, as the person in charge of the Christian education program at the E&R (Evangelical & Reformed) Church in Tiffin, Ohio, I attended the joint conference of Northwestern Ohio. At the conference, I heard very moving stories about Japan from the church’s international missions office’s Japan coordinator, who had recently gone there. But my motivation for going to Japan may have come about at an earlier time. It may have started when I received a number of letters from Margaret (“Maggie”) Garner.
After she graduated from the Eden Seminary, she taught English as a Second Language for three years at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai, Japan. I was in the midst of my final year at seminary and felt doing a mission in the United States was necessary. But in Maggie’s letters, she wrote about her life and experiences in Sendai at the mission school established in 1886 by the German Reformed Church in the United States [the former name of the E&R Church]. And so Japan was in my heart and my thoughts, and I selected Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai to serve my three-year mission term.
Fortunately, at that time I was able to “select” the place I wanted to go from amongst places with historical relationships to my denomination. In the many years since I’ve worked in Japan, church policies have become more strict about serving missions in places with the greatest need, without any consideration for those relationships. However in 1953 I was able to request being dispatched to Miyagi Gakuin. Thus, in March of that year I was able to depart for Japan for a three-year appointment in Sendai working as a teacher at the mission school established through the missionary activities of the German Reformed Church in the United States in northern Japan.
I had worked for two years in Christian education for the E&R Trinity Church in Tiffin, Ohio, until the fall of 1952, just before I departed for Japan. At the Trinity Church, my job was to lead groups for children, youth, and women under the guidance of the senior pastor, and it was a fun and worthwhile experience. However, I realized that my greatest weakness was throwing myself into my work (not taking advantage of teachers and leaders who worked in the church school programs). Unconsciously, I did too much myself, and it was difficult for me to request help from church members. Going to Japan and teaching English as a second language released me from the managerial responsibilities of D.C.E. (Director of Christian Education). However, I did not have any understanding of what that work [in Japan] would entail.
It was fortunate that the ocean liner I was going to board for the 14-day journey to Yokohama was departing from San Francisco. [When I arrived in San Francisco,] Pastor Fesperman, who was retired from the mission in Japan, helped those of us departing for missions in Asia. He arranged a comfortable hotel for me where I could get Japanese food. Also, Matsuzaki Chiyoko, an old friend from Heidelberg University, saw me off, and I was very grateful. She was accompanied by her mother, a first-generation Japanese American (issei), and they came to see off a ship departing for her mother’s hometown. In San Francisco, I got to meet Matsuzaki-san’s mother, and though she only spoke a little English, it warmed my heart.
The President Wilson, which I road as a second-class passenger, was a ship that offered delicious food and the opportunity to meet fascinating people. Until we landed in Honolulu I rode with Adlai Stevenson, who had lost the 1952 U.S. presidential election. From Honolulu, I was accompanied by Chief Abbot Otani, the well-known Buddhist leader of a large temple in Kyoto,and his wife [Satoko] (younger sister to Emperor Hirohito’s wife, the Empress Kōjun).
In addition, on that journey there was also a Baptist female minister (my ping-pong companion) and Gordon and Bertha Van Wyk, a missionary couple from the Reformed Church in America, and their children. The Van Wkys were affiliated with the mission board joint commission that had given aid during Japan’s reconstruction, so my friendship with them continued for a long time during my stay in Japan. They were newly appointed to Tokyo and for many years served Meiji University.
I did puppet shows twice aboard the ship, [something] I had started doing since the winter of 1950. The first time I performed them was for children, and the second time was for an all-ship talent show on the voyage from Honolulu to Yokohama. After the show I received praise from the Otanis, and I haven’t forgotten that kindness.
In Yokohama, Dr. Carl Kriete* and his wife Bess greeted me. They took me in their Japanese car to Tokyo and each time they turned left and right, an interesting arrow (blinker) popped out from the side of the car.** Their house in Shinagawa was the first one I saw in Japan. I stayed there for several days and, during that time Dr. Kriete took me to the embassy for my registration and introduced me to life in his Shinagawa neighborhood. To make sure that could get safely to Sendai, the two of them prepared a list of all of the stops on the way to Sendai and helped me board the Tohoku line bound for Sendai. I don’t recall how long that trip took (6-8 hours?), but when I arrived, there were not only E&R teachers there to greet me, but also many students and teachers from Miyagi Gakuin.
* Spelling uncertain. ** This probably refers to a trafficator, which was used to signal turns in old cars.
I arrived in Sendai in the middle of March, so there was plenty of time for me to settle in at my two-story house in Komegafukuro. This house was also home to two short-term missionary teachers, Lilian and Morrie Marnitz*, who had been newly appointed to Sendai together with William Cundiff, Carl Schweitzer, and James Melchior in the fall of 1952. Lilian and Morrie taught middle and high school at Miyagi Gakuin, Bill Cundiff was a university music teacher, and Jim and Carl were newly appointed to Tohoku University.
What was the reason I dedicated more than 30 years to Miyagi Gakuin, and 42 years of my life to Japan? Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” These words were my home! I read them as part of a recitation on Tuesday, January 12, 2010, in an Upper Room Contemplation written by a woman from Pennsylvania. That day, her contemplation was “There is no one among us is worthy to be close to God. However, all of us are welcomed.”
15 years after retiring– I’ve discovered this!
In March of 1953, when I was appointed to Miyagi Gakuin, the school had already been in operation for 67 years. As a short-term missionary (J-3), I was to serve at Miyagi Gakuin for three years. However, after six months in the classroom with middle schoolers and first and second year college students, I felt in my heart that I had been put on a path to devote the rest of my life to working as a missionary in Japan. After two years studying Japanese in Tokyo (this was an absolute gift from the mission board), I again was appointed to Miyagi Gakuin. My life in Japan had become full of meaning.
The path that was prepared for me was full of joy. Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University, founded in 1886 by two young women who were dispatched from my hometown in Pennsylvania* and Japanese Christians, was large, with [students] from middle school to college level, and with a good reputation. It attracted students from the surrounding six prefectures and from Hokkaido in the north to Tokyo in the south; some students studied there for six years but most of them for as many as 8 to 10 years. Among them were sisters, aunts, mothers, and even grandmothers who were graduates from this famous mission school in northeastern Japan.
*Lizzie R. Poohrbaugh and Mary B. Ault
I began working with the devoted missionaries connected to either Miyagi Gakuin or its related school, Tohoku Gakuin, as well as the other missionaries working directly with Japanese Christian organizations like Japan’s UCC, etc.. (Tohoku Gakuin, too, was established in 1886 as a boy’s school. By the time until I came to Sendai in 1953, the middle and high schools were still boys-only, but the college had opened its doors to female students.)
There was no need for me to embark on a new line of work for the sake of the mission in Japan. As it is written in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand…”—those who come after are surely joyous! I learned many things from my students. My colleagues and missionary companions also taught me many things. Whatever I was able to contribute through my 42 years of work in Japan, was provided by God. That is, establishing this beloved school in Sendai and the faithful church in the Tohoku region— everything I did was possible because of the Holy Spirit of the Creator, led by God’s hand.
“Go to church to pray, go into the world to serve.” When I joined the Good Shepherds E&R Church in my hometown of Boyerstown, Pennsylvania, members would greet each other with this phrase.
This word, “serve,” influenced me throughout my life. Guided by the minister and his wife, I received training at college and seminary, and as someone responsible for Christian education I was able to “serve” in a wonderful church for two years. However, my dissatisfaction with my own lack of management skills gradually grew, and in the end, in order to teach English as a second language I began to consider going to Japan as a short-term missionary. I was appointed to the E&R Church’s international missionary office, and in the spring of 1953 I started work for a 3-year term. Being working with the mission board, working as a teacher at a women’s Christian school, and serving alongside my brothers and sisters were all very satisfying experiences, so I received approval from the mission board and within a year I had become a lifetime missionary. With this, my life began to change.
I had to rethink assumptions I had about life—about its meaning and the nature of social interactions, and beliefs, thoughts and customs I had held for a long time… even my body language. For example, waving one’s hand was not a greeting in Japan but a sign towards children that meant not “Hello!” but “Come here quickly!” As time passed, it became clear that we missionaries were not “serving” Japanese people. In a culture in which the concepts of giri (duty, gratitude) and on (kindness, grace, as well as obligation) exist, human relations are determined by giri and on. Because of this, the way we Christians thought about acts of kindness and charity [giving without expectation of a return] were always understood by the Japanese as returning the favor by giving tangible gifts [giving is an obligation to be returned]. Since “giri” and “on” were the foundation of the culture,I felt as if the act of serving people was understood to be “service,” the same as tipping a waiter or hotel maid.
Before long, I had to deliberately think about serving people. …and the wonderful word sharing became the best word to express my life as a missionary. I was a short-term missionary with very little experience; I’m embarrassed to say that because a lot of time had passed since I left America to serve in Japan.
I then finally understood the words “Go to church to pray, go into the world to serve,” to worship the Creator and serve our Lord.. In Romans 12:11, it is written, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” How we can serve God is very simply and concisely conveyed. Have hope, patiently endure in times of happiness and of hardship, pray without fail, respond to the requests of others, extend your hand to strangers, etc. — how much do we serve God through these acts? The verbs “to do services” and “to extend one’s hand” are acts that share and tie us to others.
How did I come to share while I was in Japan for 42 years? I agree with the words of Julian of Norwich: “God is everything which is good, as I see, and the goodness which everything has is God.” The time I shared with young, middle-aged, and elderly Japanese people brought about so many marvelous things in my life. Although the number of Christians attending church in Japan hasn’t changed– according to religious surveys, they are less than 1% of the population– clearly God is at work in the hearts and minds of many Japanese people outside of the church as well. I think that, after the transmission of Christianity in the 1800s, many people made “connections” to Americans through kindergartens, schools, social groups, and churches, not just at the close of World War II, when the U.S. Occupation shifted to peace-time activities to help relieve many years of suffering and the impoverishment of the people.
When I came to Japan in March of 1953, it was right as the Occupation ended in 1952, and I had set foot into an atmosphere of openness and acceptance. The middle school and junior college I was in charge of longed for fellowship and for the opportunity to improve their English. The success of the Sendai Student Center, established by the first J-3 missionaries who had come to Japan in the late 1940s, was because the students of national universities desired broad social lives as well as meaningful lives and practical abilities in English . Through English conversation, puppet shows, folk dance, and daily group classes, I was able to make meaningful connections with young people at Christian universities, non-religious universities, and various schools. Under the guidance of Jeffrey Mensendiek, the Student Center still exists today, and there one can not only learn about social issues, discrimination, and injustice, but one can visit with other neighbors from Asia, such as those from Thailand, Nepal, and India. He is the only missionary in Sendai from the United Church Board for World Ministries (UCBWM). (As of 2010, he and his sister Martha, who lives in Kyoto, became the only 2 people from UCBWM in Japan.)
I spent my first year at Miyagi Gakuin serving the mission board and working with not only the students of English literature, Japanese literature, and home economics departments, but also middle school and high school students. After that, through the establishment of the kindergarten and junior college education departments affiliated with Miyagi Gakuin, I spent my time with students who wanted to become childcare workers and kindergarten teachers. At the YWCA of the college, middle, and high schools I was able to go out for special programs established by student organizations, summer groups, churches, children’s hospitals, and other facilities.
As teaching staff, I shared teachers’ rooms with Japanese middle and high school teachers, so I was blessed with guidance from teachers of English and faculty from other departments. Much like the delicious tea one drinks while surrounded by acupuncture needles of a charcoal fire, spending time with my colleagues was a special treat.
In the 30 years total I spent at Miyagi Gakuin, as teacher at a well-known school in the Tohoku region, I also received opportunities to speak with other groups outside of the university. For example, “perspectives on Japan from blue-eyed people” was often an everyday topic of conversation, and I also participated in international relations seminars. These opportunities were frequently proposed by graduates of Miyagi Gakuin who worked at various companies. I retired from Miyagi Gakuin in 1985 and was blessed to have the opportunity to work as a cooperation missionary for the Tohoku region’s United Church of Christ in Japan. When I went out to Miyagi, Fukushima, and Yamagata prefectures I was working alone, but was always able to say I had a connection to Miyagi Gakuin.
While I was working at Miyagi Gakuin, through the service of all my posts at schools, I was given many opportunities to serve God. And I became friends with the students and the teaching staff and shared that precious time with them. I also had exchanges that were separate from the school–the church, Sendai’s YWCA, and other groups in Japan. English Bible study, puppet shows, a variety of services at the church, performances, holding fun groups at my home– they were all wonderful opportunities to share my life with virtuous people. And before long, the church I went to regularly offered prayers for my sake. God had given me the gift of these people who worked devotedly to be servants of God in the city and this beautiful countryside church. At the time, through work as a part-time instructor at the middle and high schools in the religion and English Literature departments and as a board member I had a close connection to Miyagi Gakuin.
God is good! God’s family is good! Serve God– is it not joyous to be able to share your life with God’s family?
As the 125th anniversary of Miyagi Gakuin’s founding approaches, I offer my congratulations; in a constantly changing world, I pray that Miyagi Gakuin does not change. May the spirit of love exemplified by Jesus Christ continue, without change, to be part of the fundamental spirit of Miyagi Gakuin.
[Letter from Janell Landis, December 6, 2010]
This school building has a 109-year history, but we are only one part of that. And each of us has graduated from Miyagi Gakuin with different goals, experiences, and memories, but we all received the same promise. When we entered this school built on the principles of Christ, we all received the possibility of a new life founded in Christianity. It was a glorious gift.
In today’s Bible, this new life is written about thoroughly. The first nine or ten verses [of Romans] are a model for a new life. In the ninth verse of the Colloquial Japanese Translation Bible and the Japanese New Interconfessional Translation Bible, the verse is translated as, “In love, there must not be any falsehood” (Romans 12:9). However, I prefer the more positive and simple duty espoused in the English version, “Love must be sincere,” rather than the negative version in the Japanese translation. Verse [12:]10 explains true love: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” In the New Interconfessional translation, the English phrase “mutual affection” is not translated into Japanese well [as “brotherly love’]. There is definitely no “high and low” in the word “mutual,” and I feel that in “brotherly love” in Japanese there is this sense.
I remembered something recently when rereading the English translation of this section. Regarding love, the writer, Joan Chittister wrote the following:
Life based on the teachings of Christ is living in community. The principles of community are rooted in the spirit of Christ, and you learn from supporting the people you are living with and applying that [knowledge]. The necessary events in a Christian life present themselves as things like, for example, making meals and adequately considering the needs of others, and then preparing for those events, feeling good about making requests, and politely declining others’ assistance.
Christian love also has requirements. For example, using our talents not just for our own family but for strangers as well. For Sister Joan D. Chittister’s idea of love, the most important requirement is to make relationships with others the center of your life. Create community for others, share your thoughts, knowledge, and time with others; share your real feelings with others. And the most important thing is to, with your own power, accept others around you such that they can grow.
While Chittister was a nun in the Roman Catholic Benedictine order, at the same time she was also a missionary for all Christian churches in America, but the community she spoke of did not enter convents. We can make Christian lives [outside convents] in the environment we were provided, in our families; those who are single like me can make Christian lives with our friends and in the places where we work.
Please read Romans 12 carefully. It’s wonderful advice. Chapter 11’s title, in contemporary language is “Keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” It only uses the word “serve” once. Think of others as excellent. Help people; be hospitable to travelers; be joyous with joyful people, and so on. Share with others. If you serve the Lord with spiritual fervor, you will find real love, pure and sincere love, and naturally manifest a Christian society!
So that we can continue to teach young people who learn at Miyagi Gakuin about new, Christian lives, we ask for all our alumni for prayers filled with love.
[[original] summary by the late Emeritus Professor Izawa Yūko]
My dear Matsumoto-sensei,
I heard that last week everyone suffered a terrible earthquake and tsunami, and I am praying that you and all of the staff, teachers, and students at my beloved Miyagi Gakuin have gotten through it safely.
My heart hurts thinking of how so many people have been struck by this kind of enormous disaster, and how, unable to be there, I can do nothing. I am ardently praying. I pray that the reconstruction proceeds quickly and that Miyagi Gakuin is able to pass on the works of that important education. All of our group of retired missionaries is praying for the health and safety of everyone at Miyagi Gakuin. You are in our hearts.
May God’s protection and compassion be upon you all.
March 15, 2011
[A message from Landis-sensei to President Matsumoto]