Yesterday we went with my parents to Japan! Missouri!
Seriously, just as Missouri has a Paris, Florida, Santa Fe, and Mexico, it’s got a Japan, too. I adore Missouri’s place-names; I can’t help it. My dad’s an authority on them, and there was no avoiding my getting hooked, too.
By the way, the locals pronounce it JAY-pun, or JAY-pan . . . not jah-PAN like the nation.
The place-name of Japan, Missouri, has a fascinating history. At one point, soon after December 7, 1941, the town was in danger of losing its unusual name. I have no idea what they might have changed the name to, but you can’t blame them for having anti-Japanese feelings at that time.
But cooler heads prevailed—once it was explained that the town takes its name from the local Catholic church, and the story of the church’s namesakes was told, the town name “Japan” was retained.
So you want to hear the story, right? Of course you do! Actually, it’s pretty grim.
The full name is Church of the Holy Martyrs of Japan, and it commemorates twenty-six priests and fellow Christians who were crucified in Nagasaki, Japan, on February 5, 1597. (The feast day for these martyrs is February 6.) The men were killed as part of an effort to wipe out Christianity in Japan, which largely succeeded over the following three centuries.
The martyrs represented a variety of ethnicities, including Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese. Thus in this story Japanese people are both persecutors and martyrs. And this is why the place-name was kept, even after the attack of Pearl Harbor.
At the back of the church is a mural depicting the scene of their crucifixion (see photos above), as well as other materials about the history of Christianity in Japan; the Our Father written in Japanese, for instance, and an explanation of what a “fumie” is: “A likeness of Jesus or Mary upon which . . . suspected Christians [were required] to step . . . in order to prove that they were not members of that outlawed religion.” This test of faith was used from 1629 until 1856 and possibly even later, according to a sign in the church.
The exterior of the church isn’t terribly remarkable; with its white clapboard siding and simple shape, it could be any number of churches around here, including Protestant ones.
There is a little shrine or grotto, and that kind of marks it as Catholic.
There are some beautiful big pine trees next to the church, which I thought was nicely evocative of Japan and its cultural aesthetics.
And the interior of the church is quite distinctive. The first thing you notice is the color yellow! Lots and lots of yellow. All the side windows are yellow stained glass, so all the light pouring into the church—except for a bluish rose window high above the altar—is yellow.
Even the bell-ringin’ ropes up in the choir loft are bathed in yellow.
The slogan for this parish seems to be “God’s grace in a country place.” And country it is, indeed. Here’s the view looking out from the front of this church:
Well, by now you might be thinking of visiting Japan, yourself, even though it doesn’t have any decent sushi restaurants. (Actually, I don’t think there are any restaurants there at all!)
So here’s how to get to Japan: It’s in southwestern Franklin County. Take I-44 between Sullivan and Cuba (Cuba, Missouri: that’s a whole ’nother story!). Between those towns is a little burg called Bourbon (yes, Bourbon, Missouri), and just east of Bourbon, you need to take Highway J north. (By the way, you can’t exit directly off of I-44 to Highway J—you have to get off on an access road, or do like we did: Skip I-44 and travel instead on old Route 66, which is more fun anyway.)
Anyway, from Bourbon, go north/northwest on Highway J (J for “Japan,” huh?) until you reach Highway H; veer left a little ways on that, then turn left onto Highway AE, and the Church of the Holy Martyrs of Japan will be on the left.
Or, if you’d rather get to it from Highway 50, you could go south on Highway H from Gerald, which takes you through the town of Strain . . . but hey, I don’t want to confuse you with all these crazy place-names!
Thanks once again to Sue, for sharing some photos with me: two gloriously color-corrected interior shots, plus the one of the full mural. My blog would look really junky without her awesome images.