Saturday, February 14, 2015

The life and faith of John. A. Hewitt (1907-Martyred 1942)―a Northern Ireland missionary to Japan

Ever since Francisco Xavier (1505-1552, Spain) landed in Japan as a first Christian missionary, countless young men and women have dedicated their lives for the salvation of Japanese souls. The other day, as I was conversing with my fellow sister Sanae about the great role and sacrifice which missionaries have paid for us, an idea came into mind; why don’t we publicly express our gratitude to all the missionaries who have served in Japan for the past 500 years? We want to honor each one of them and give thanks to their sacrificial love and service.

Today, as a token of our deep gratitude, I’d like to make a special post about the life of John Hewitt (1907-1942), a Northern Ireland missionary to Japan during WW II.

He has been virtually “unknown” figure in the Christian history but he must be very known by our Lord. We feel obliged to introduce the life and faith of such a devout man in order to honor him and make him known in the world.


John Alexander Hewitt was born at Armagh, Northern Ireland, 1907. His father, Joshua was a farmer and John was the 5th of seven children in Hewitt family. 

red part; Armagh in Northern Ireland  source

Ever since his grandfather believed Jesus Christ during the Northern Ireland Revival (1859), Hewitt family had been active members in the local congregation. After he finished junior high school, he started to help his father’s farming. When he was in mid-teens, a certain evangelist called Moneypenny used to visit his village and preached the Gospel with power. As a result, many villagers, including 15-year-old John, sincerely believed Jesus Christ as their Savior. Out of abundant joy, young John started to witness Christ to his friends and distributed Gospel tracts wherever he went.

Missionary call to Japan

Brother R.J. Wright, a Northern Ireland missionary had been serving in Japan since 1931. Influenced by him, John also started to pray for going to Japan as a missionary. His father, however, opposed him initially and told him, “If you stay at home, you would receive our inheritance, but if go, I will give it your brothers.”  John did not yield.

“And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life (Matt 19:29).”

On the day of his departure, he confided to his old friend Johnston, telling him that “I sense I would never come back to Northern Ireland.” John also referred to his fiancee (Meta Stevenson) and told his friend as follows; “I am thinking of her but I don’t want to think about anything before things would be settled down in Japan.”

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold; I’d rather be His than have riches untold; 
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands. I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand than to be the king of a vast domain Or be held in sin’s dread sway. 
I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.


In 1938, John Hewitt left his beloved land for Japan. He was 31 years old at that time. After the Manchurian Incident (1931), Japan had gradually taken on militant and totalitarian character. Emperor was worshiped as a living god and people were suffering from poverty. Anti-western propaganda was everywhere. Did he know about all of these? Of course, he did. Like Apostle Paul he knew “the chains and tribulations await me (Acts 20:23).” 

But his heart was fixed on one thing; that is to preach the Gospel to the unsaved and suffering souls in Japan. “None of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24).”

Service and evangelism

John joined R.J. Wright and started to help him for open evangelism and distribution of Gospel tracts while learning Japanese at Kanda YMCA in Tokyo.

John Hewitt; left side in the back row

Hewitt and Wright stood firm and encouraged Japanese believers to not worship Emperor even it means prison and torture. The congregations which they were serving have got split into two over the very issue, unfortunately. It reminds us of the incident of King Nebuchadnezzar and the worship of the gold image (Daniel 3:5,6).”  Meanwhile, John kept preaching the Gospel in Shinjuku area under extreme poverty. His dairy diet was just tea, some bread and a jam.

In 1941, Hewitt and Wright were detained and interrogated by the government inspectors. The content of the interrogation was as follows; about their teachings regarding the Ise Shinto shrine. Whether it was all right for Christians to worship at Shinto shrine. About the divinity of the Emperor and so forth.

By the outbreak of the war, Wright was interned at Yokohama. Fortunately, a year later he was repatriated in a prisoner exchange program. Wright suggested John to go home together but he declined, saying that he cannot go back to his safe country while his Japanese brothers and sisters are suffering in prison because of their faith. He said, “I cannot leave them. I will remain in Japan.”

Prison and death

We don’t know the exact date but John was arrested and was detained in Sugamo prison in Tokyo. And then he was transferred to Matsuzawa mental hospital (we don’t know why he was transferred to the mental hospital. Some say because he did not stop witnessing Christ in prison, while others say because he could not make himself understood well in Japanese). His whole body was tied and he was ill-treated. Thus he soon became critically ill.

There is a precious witness record by a sister who could visit him at that time. Sister Kiyono Hirazawa testified as follows;

“,,when we entered the hospital room, we saw Mr. Hewitt lying on the ground. We were surprised that his hair had turned white completely and was now skin and bones. The officer called him, John! John!  But there was no response. Unable to contain myself any longer, I shouted, Mr.Hewitt! Mr.Hewitt! Recognizing my voice, his face flushed with joy and he opened his eyes,,,and he kept saying, “it is a vision. It is a vision” and he was so glad to see us again. I could never forget that scene. His joyous countenance has sustained me all through the war period and my spiritual life. Thanks to him, I could remain faithful to the Lord during that difficult time. Also, we could confirm that he was not mentally ill.” (chapter 7, kita-airurand no akai yuri, p.66-67)

Thus on 7th April, 1942, John Hewitt was drawn to the Lord in the mental hospital in Tokyo. Sister Kiyono who could attend his funeral witnessed that there were many bruises on his face (Ibid.,p.70). Some say that in order to hide the trace of violence, his corpse was burned to ashes without the permission of his family.

his last letter to his fiancee, Meta

John used to tell his Japanese believers; “watashi wa nihon no tsuchi ni naruI will become the soil of Japan.) Thus his words became true.

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24).

He died alone in a foreign country as an obscure grain of wheat. It quietly fell into the ground without peoples’ notice. But we would not let his death lay in vain. We Japanese Christians publicly honor him and thank him for coming to Japan and served in the midst of us. We will take his banner and continue to run the race until our Lord returns.

Lastly I will write down the words which are written on his gravestone at Kilmore, Northern Ireland:

John Alexander Hewitt

Missionary, who died in Japan 7th April 1942
And his ashes are interred here



Anonymous said...

Thank you for uploading this article! I'm Sanae.We Japanese believers was given a lot of gift of faith from foriegn missionaries.They helped orphans,build school,hospital,told bible words to many people.Many missionaries are still working in Japan.May God bless them and reward their efforts.
Thank you for sharing beautiful story of devoted missionary I have not know before!

Kinuko H said...

Dear Sanae san, I want to thank you for encouraging me to write this post. Thanks to your help and prayer, we could produce this post together. By the way, have you ever heard of the name Sister Irene W. Smith? She was a missionary to Japan as well and there is her biography as well (in English).

The title of the book is "Sensei: The Life Story of Irene Webster-Smith" by Russell T. Hitt (Author). Here is a book review from

“Irene Webster-Smith, an Irish woman, dedicated her life to missionary work in Japan. First she ministered to prostitutes and later began to adopt unwanted babies and nurture them in the Christian faith. There is even more but you need to read this book for yourself. Her story is one to challenge and amaze the reader as you see how she trusted God in the midst of great obstacles.

I was privileged to have met Sensei in her later years and was duly impressed with her humility and willingness to do anything the Lord wanted her to do. She became a legend among the Japanese people in the greater Tokyo area and greatly respected and loved by everyone who knew her.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who has a heart for Christian missionary work.”

If you know any other books or information, please do let us know, thank you! Kinuko

Anonymous said...

I searched Ms Irene Webster Smith on internet today.She was a founder of Ochanomizu Christian Center(Tokyo) ! I have not known her. I also could find her testimonies on some homepages.Her love for prisoner(ex Japanese army solidier fought at WW2).
The books written about missionaries I have read are not so many,and mostly famous ones.

I have three of them in my bookshelf now.'Whose child is this? 'by Bill Wilson The founder of metro ministories,'The heavenly man' by Brother Yun,なぜ人を殺してはいけないのですか(means 'Why we should not kill others?) by Hugh Brown,missionary from North Ireland UK living in Japan.(He became a terrorist of UVF to fight with IRA when he was so young.After he was arrested, he met with Jesus in prison and became a missionary, came to Japan.)

Several years ago I read the book called 10人の聖なる人々(means 10 holy people).This book introduce 10 cathoric people who lived in 19th-20th centuries. I was moved to read the story of Brother Zenon Zebrouski.He dedicated his life to help Japanese orphans after WW2.

Although there are very few christians in Japan,Japanese people has often point of view that 'christians are good people.' One of the reasons of fact is that many missionaries in Japan left good influence,I think. Thank you for sharing!

Jessica R said...

This was a thought-provoking article, Kinuko. I teared up as I read how this faithful man of God suffered. He reminds me of Jesus, how He was tortured for our sakes, and yet forgave those who hurt Him. Thinking on these things makes me feel sad that sometimes I don't want to risk very much for God. My heart is cold and complacent much of the time. Thank you for telling us about the life of John Hewitt, which I was not familiar with before now.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I forgot to write down my name on my former comment. I am Sanae!

Kinuko H said...

Dear Sanae, thank you so much for your input. Wow, I did not know that there was an effort of Sister Irene for the founding of Ochanomizu Christian Center in Tokyo. I did not know about Brother Hugh Brown as well.

I did some research on the life of Brother Zeno Zebrouski which you kindly mentioned and I realized that he was a disciple of that famous martyr Fr. Maximilliam Kolbe (Poland) who died for his friend. I am going to quote an excerpt from Zeno’s biography.


Source :

His service after war in Japan

[In the face of the horrendous tragedy and human suffering, without caring for the harmful results of radiation, Br. Zeno began a movement for saving victims in Nagasaki. Shortly after, in January 1946, he began his charitable work by founding an orphanage for boys called Mugenzai no Sono. This is the name by which the Convents of Japan’s “Niepokolanow” were known. ,,August 1948, when he finalized the purchase of land in Tokyo-Akabane, Br. Zeno himself, took charge of the construction of a church and monastery at this newly acquired place. At the same time in “Konagai”, near Nagasaki, he was building an orphanage.

The Destructions of war, the helpless, the crippled and the homeless, the orphaned children of the streets, deeply moved the sensitive to human suffering.

In April 1951, while he stayed in Tokyo, Br. Zeno joined in the caring of approximately 6000, poor and homeless people. He helped them obtain materials to build modest shacks, and in his free time, he oversaw the continuation of the dynamic construction and often worked on it himself. Thus was born “Ari no machi”, which means, “Ant City”. With the help of Br. Zeno, similar settlements were growing in many regions of Japan, like mushrooms after the rain.

In 1953, Br. Zeno’s charitable work for the poor brought him general acclaim, and the Directors of the Japanese railway, offered him free transportation in the entire Country.

Br. Zeno was reaching the poor in countless Towns and Hamlets. In relation to this, he traveled a lot, crossing Japan in every direction. Quite often the train became his home.

Continuous work and lack of sufficient rest, slowly strained the health of the Polish Franciscan. In February of 1951, tired Br. Zeno fainted in the train on the way to Hiroshima. With lightening speed, this news spread throughout the whole Country. His health problems did not slowdown the activities of a Polish Missionary. He still served the needy with the same energy. In the year of 1962, an untiring apostle of goodness, received a parcel of land in the district of Hiroshima, where, with the help of soldiers and students, he built a home for children with special needs.

In the following year, Br. Zeno suffered a heart condition and found himself in the Franciscan Sisters’ Hospital in Himej. Once more, newspapers and radios informed the Japanese people of this incident. This provoked a wave of Japanese visitors, who brought him flowers and presents.]

Together with sister Sanae, I give thanks to Bro. Zeno and other servants of God who had served selflessly for the suffering children in post-war Japan.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for quoting Br.Zeno's biograpfy! I am Sanae. He also had relationship with Satoko Kitahara who is famous as 'Mary in Ant city'.On Japanese wikipedia '北原怜子’,you can see the photo of her with veil and story between she and Br.Zeno.

The book called 10人の聖なる人々 (10 holy people) also contains the stories of her and Father Kolbe.Very moving stories.

(I was also impressed by another story of this book.The one of Father Damian,who dedicated his life for abandoned hansen's desease patients in Molokai,Hawaii.When you have time, Please search his story.)

Anonymous said...

Dear Jessica,I heard that USA churches still sends most of missionaries to the world nowadays.In Japan many of American missionaries work as English teachers, keep on spreading Gospel.My first English teacher was one of them.
I also know that many American christians who support missionaries pray for our country.
Some people says that Japan is 'cemetery of missionaries'. It means that most of all Japanese people do'nt accept Jesus in spite of many missionarie's efforts.
Even Japanese people has often thought that 'Christians are good people'.
But I believe that their efforts never be in vain. God knows. I appriciate USA christians who pray for our nation. As a minority Japanese christian, it is so encouraging fact.
And off course I appriciate you,Jessica for being there and praying for us.
Please keep on sharing! Love from Japan,Sanae

Jessica R said...

Thank you, Sanae, for your words of motivation! Yes, there are many American missionaries, even in these days. Many churches here in my hometown support missionaries abroad. When I was little, I thought I wanted to be a missionary, too. Something I've learned, is that we don't always have to leave our own country to be a missionary, but can reach others around us wherever we are! And of course, I always deeply admire the perseverance and work of those who are serving far from home (such as Kinuko). It must be so hard to be away from home!
Thank you, again, for your kind words of support, Sanae!
Your friend,

Irina Glazkova said...

Sanae, Next Saturday our church has a mini prayer conference our missionaries from Japan (one of the couples, we have two couples of missionaries out there) coming back for home assignment. We also have a couple who have been missionaries in Japan and now serve as directors of missionary board in Canada that sends missionaries to Japan, China, Korea and many other Asian countries. The husband preached at our church today. I told him afterwards that I know two wonderful Christian Japanese ladies (you and Kinuko) who are so thankful for Western missionaries. He said that it was very exciting to hear this. We talked some more about Japan and Christianity in Japan. I am greatly honored to meet you two, who shine the light in dark places.
Your sister in Christ,

Anonymous said...

Dear Irina,thank you for the comment! I am very happy to know that our gratitude was sent to missonaries of your church by you.As I wrote in my former comment, in Japan many missionaries are working in spite of many difficulties.And I also know that many christian who support missionaries pray for our country.Thank you Irina, I also happy to know you.Russia and Canada became special countries for me,because of you. God bless you and your church members!

Kinuko H said...

Dear Irina. How wonderful! Our Lord is so good! Thank you so much for our delivering gratitude to the missionaries. We are so much grateful for their efforts and sacrificial love. As Sanae said, ministering to Japanese people in Japan is not so easy. They might feel discouraged sometimes. We want to encourage them and we want to honor them! Please send our big love to brothers and sisters who will join in the conference next Saturday. God bless you, Irina. from Kinuko

Cantus said...


Just a small heads-up - being Irish myself, I think the spelling of 'manipeni' that you're looking for might well be "Moneypenny". That sounds like a name you might hear in those parts of the country.

Cantus said...

On top of that, I should add that it is with great sadness that I look back on the 16th century missions to Japan. Such a terrible loss that politics had to stand in the way of the Faith.

Kinuko H said...

Dear Cantus, oh, it is so kind of you! I am going to correct it immediately. Wow, our God is so great that He guided you (a native Irish Christian!) to my blog and tell me the correct spelling. Thank you, Cantus! Kinuko

Kinuko H said...

Yes, it is painful to read the history of that period, Cantus. At the same time, I was impressed by the believers (even small children) who did not tread on a tablet bearing an image of Christ (fumie) and were faithful until death. Their testimony has been speaking to us until today.

Once again, I appreciate your genuine interest and care for Asian souls. Kinuko