Christianity was brought to Japan by Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and his fellow Jesuits in 1549. By 1587 the systematic persecution of Christians had already begun and by 1639 all foreign missionaries had been banished and Japan was almost completely isolated from the outside world. Evidence suggests that the Jesuits had printed in 1613 a Japanese New Testament in Kyoto, but no copy of the book survives.
The Gospel on display here is the earliest extant Japanese translation of the Scriptures. Its publication was made possible by a string of unpredictable circumstances. Karl Gützlaff (1803-1851), a German by birth, was sent to Java in 1826 by the Netherlands Missionary Society. Having learned Chinese in Java, Gützlaff left the Society and went to Singapore and Bangkok, where he translated the New Testament into Thai. In October 1835, he was working in Macao on a Chinese translation of the Bible, when he was entrusted with the care of three young Japanese fishermen.
Otokichi (1817-1867) and his two companions had sailed from a small port not far from Edo (present-day Tokyo) in November 1832 in a small boat manned by a crew of 14. They were caught in a storm that smashed their rudder and left them floating aimlessly throughout the Pacific. Thirteen months later the boat landed on the shores of Cape Alava in the Oregon Territory. The three survivors were enslaved by the native Makah, freed by the head of the Hudson Bay Company, and sent from Vancouver to London via Hawaii, and from London to Macao. Their arrival in Macao provided Gützlaff with an unexpected opportunity to learn Japanese and start work on a Japanese translation of the Bible. The three Japanese refugees tried unsuccessfully to return home and finally started new lives in China. Otokichi was baptized and took the name “John” in remembrance of his work with Gützlaff on the Gospel according to John.
The translation prepared by Gützlaff and Otokichi was printed in Singapore on the press of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions with funds provided by the American Bible Society.
Woodblock used to print John’s Gospel in Japanese in 1872
Like any other Japanese book at the time, the 1837 translation of John’s Gospel was printed from woodblocks. In this technique, a relief matrix of two consecutive pages of text is created by cutting away all the areas that are to remain white and leaving the characters standing off from the original surface. Once the double page is printed, it is folded through its middle to simulate a double-sided leaf. The woodblocks used to print Gützlaff’s translation have not been preserved. However, the ABS collection includes five double-sided woodblocks that date from 1871 and 1872 and served to print the Gospels according to Matthew and John translated by J. Goble and J.C. Hepburn. The side seen in this display includes the text of John 3:17 to 18.