W.M. Vories: The Kansas Boy Who Became a Famous Japanese Citizen

  • If you were to visit the beautiful lakeside town of Omi Hachiman in gorgeous Shiga prefecture, you might notice that much of the architecture is not very Japanese. It might look very different. That is because many residential areas, government buildings, and over 1,000 different buildings and houses were built by an untrained American missionary from a small town in rural Kansas: William Merrell Vories.

    Early Life

    William was born in Kansas on October 28th, 1880. In 1904 he graduated from Colorado Collage with the hope to train further and become an architect, but life got in the way. A consistently religious man with strong convictions, William made the decision to become a missionary in Japan. So he traveled to Japan to teach English and Christianity. In 1905, he moved to Omi Hachiman and began teaching. He became well acquainted with many of the local officials and in 1908 he was asked to do an inspection on the Kyoto YMCA office. After this, he realized that he could finally achieve his dream of becoming an architect.

    Designing into Eternity

    He opened his own architecture firm. Through his connections with the YMCA, he was able to meet many ex-pats and Japanese who gave him plenty of work. He designed houses, schools, hospitals, churches, and YMCA facilities. He came to be a person of some renown in the Omi area. He met with Suenori Hitotsunagari, a local leader, who introduced William to his daughter, Makiko. William and Makiko were later married in 1917.

    Not giving up on the missionary spirit that brought him to Japan in the first place, William opened the Omi mission in 1918. He continued his missionary work. He also established the Omi Sales Company in 1920. Through this company, he introduced the lip ointment mentholatum to Japan (so next time you use lip balm in Japan, say a special thank you to William). He used these funds to support the Omi Mission.

    A World at War

    Throughout the 1930s a drift grew between William’s birth country of America and his adopted country of Japan. When war finally broke out in 1941, William made a rather controversial decision. He became a naturalized Japanese citizen. There are many different reasons he might have done this. When any 2 countries are at war they have the tendency to see any people from the opposing country in their own as third-columnists and possible threats. So, becoming a Japanese citizen and taking his wife’s name might have been necessary to protect his businesses and his mission.

    William would even play a small role in ending the war. He would help to arrange a meeting between a former Japanese Prime Minister and General MacArthur. He would be able to speak with the Emperor himself, who thanked William for his aid.

    Fading Away

    In 1957, at the age of 76, William was stricken with a severe hemorrhage and had to return to Omi for treatment. He would spend most of the rest of his life on bedrest and would finally pass away in 1964. After his death, William was awarded Order of the Sacred Treasure 3rd Level. His home is now a museum in his memory.

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