These photos show two signs in the Tokyo subway system. The first demonstrates
the use of the Hepburn system, the most widely used way to write Japanese words
in the Western alphabet. The second sign uses only Japanese characters.
Hepburn 1832's influence lives on in Japan
By Bruce G. Dunning ’62
Any one of his accomplishments would have earned James Curtis Hepburn, a
member of the Class of 1832, a revered and important place in the history of
19th-century Japan. But taken together, his 33 years as a missionary there left
an astounding legacy.
His contributions include helping to introduce Western medicine, starting
an English-language school that grew into a university, contributing to the first
complete Japanese-language translation of the Bible, compiling the first Japanese-English
dictionary, and popularizing the most-widely used system of writing Japanese
in the Western alphabet – a system that still bears his name.
The 20,000-word dictionary and the Romanization known as the Hepburn system" (or
hebon" in Japanese) are his most influential accomplishments. At his word," wrote
his biographer and fellow missionary, William Elliot Griffis, the two-leaved
gates of the Japanese language and literature swung apart, to the delight of
James Hepburn was born in March 1815 in Milton, Pa., the son of a College
of New Jersey alumnus, Class of 1803. He entered the College at 16 and spent
only two years as a student, graduating in 1832. But Princeton seems to have
changed his direction in life. He discovered chemistry and this led him to medicine
instead of the ministry, the goal his parents had set for him.
He received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1836.
Two years later, he felt called to be a medical missionary; that year, too, he
met a woman who shared his dream, his future wife, Clara.
They married in 1840 and left within weeks for the Far East. Their mission
brought them first to Batavia (now Jakarta), then Singapore and Macao. It took
two years and the end of the First Opium War for missionaries to gain entry to
China. In 1842, the Hepburns finally settled in Amoy, on China's south coast.
Three years later they became so ill, probably with malaria, that they had
to return home, their five years of mission work a great disappointment," Hepburn
later said. Health was always precarious, especially for Clara Hepburn; the couple
had five children, only one of whom survived infancy.
For 14 years, Dr. Hepburn practiced medicine in New York City. Then, in 1858,
the U.S. government succeeded in pressuring Japan to allow foreign residents.
Japan insisted, in the words of one chronicler of the time, on terms to keep
opium and Christianity out of the country." Hepburn immediately asked the
Presbyterian foreign mission board to send him to Japan.
In October 1859 the couple arrived in Japan. There were only 44 foreigners
in the Yokohama-Kanagawa settlement. The country witnessed frequent violencw
then, going through its last years of feudalism before the collapse of the two-century-old
Shogunate and the restoration" of the emperor. The country had been isolated
from the West, and the newly arrived foreigners were feared and hated.
Forbidden by government edict either to practice medicine or to teach Christianity,
Hepburn immediately began to wrestle" with the language. He had no textbooks
and no trained instructors; teaching the language to foreigners technically was
unlawful. His extensive knowledge of Chinese was the key, since Japanese is written
in Chinese characters supplemented with two phonetic scripts called hiragana
In 1861, the doctor was finally able to open his clinic. Thus began his introduction
of Western medicine to Japan, offering both care for the sick and training for
students of medicine. He amputated the gangrenous leg of a famous Kabuki actor
and fitted the man with a U.S.-made prosthesis. The fact that the actor could
resume his stage career boosted the reputation of Western medicine. A quarter-century
later, Hepburn would attend a meeting of the recently-founded Tokyo Medical Society;
some 70 doctors, most of them Japanese, would be present.
In his home, Hepburn started a school teaching English to young Japanese.
His students became leaders in the explosion of industrial, financial, and cultural
modernization that transformed Japan in the last third of the 19th century. Merged
with several other missionary academies, his school evolved into Meiji Gakuin
University, even now a distinguished Christian institution. In 1889, Hepburn
became its first president.
These earliest missionaries saw their most important task as translating the
Bible into Japanese, and a committee developed which had various men working
on different books of the Bible. Hepburn also began work on his Japanese-English
dictionary. By 1867 he completed and published the first edition.
A major hurdle for the missionary-translators was devising a standardized
system for writing Japanese in Roman letters. At first, for example, Japan's
capital city was spelled Tokio," which would logically be pronounced toe-key-oh." But
the correct pronunciation is toe-oh-kyoh-oh," hence Tokyo." One organization
even urged a complete shift from the traditional writing system to nothing but
the Roman alphabet. This group developed a standardized transliteration that
Hepburn adopted for the third edition of his dictionary (1887). This became identified
with his work that now bears his name.
The Hepburn system allows an English speaker with little or no knowledge
of the language to approximate the Japanese pronunciation. Other systems more
accurately reproduce Japanese pronunciation, but Hepburn" with minor modifications
remains the most widely used way to write Japanese words in the Western alphabet.
Although there is a semi-official government system, Hepburn is still the standard
used for Japanese passports, for signs at airports and railroad facilities, for
road signs, and in publishing.
But controversy over what system to use on the Internet is quietly raging
in Japan. Neither Hepburn nor the government system has been adopted for cyber
use; consequently confusing, non-standard usages constantly are appearing.
So the old doctor still dominates the Romanization question, more than a
century after he left Japan. In 1892, Hepburn departed for the United States,
hailed as a samurai of Jesus." On his 90th birthday Japan's emperor awarded
him a decoration; three months later, at Commencement, Princeton University gave
him an honorary L.L.D., and one speaker noted that he was the University's oldest
living alumnus. His death six years later was headline news in Japan.
Bruce Dunning '62 is a retired CBS News correspondent and bureau chief. He
spent most of his 35 years with the network in Asia, and in the last
15 years, he was bureau chief for Asia, based in Tokyo. His first attempts at
broadcasting news were at WPRB. Dunning now lives in New Jersey.