A Brief History of Freemasonry in Japan

Duncan T. MacPherson

P.M. 1145 S.C., Proxy Master 640 S.C., M.M. 1305 S.C.

Japan being separated by water from the Asian Continent, its civilization developed in relative seclusion in pre-modern days. Foreign cultural influence gradually reached the country mainly through the neighboring countries of China and Korea. The first Westerners to reach Japan were the Portuguese traders who landed on Tanegashima, a small island in southern Japan, in 1543.

Subsequently other nationals arrived. In due course the then ruling Shoganate became concerned about the growing foreign influence on its people. In 1639 it virtually secluded the country from the rest of the world, which condition lasted for more than two centuries until 1854. Under these circumstances only Protestant Dutch and non-Christian Chinese were allowed to do business with Japan.

Among those Dutch traders who came to Japan during this period was Isaac Titsingh. He is believed to be the first mason to visit Japan. He was initiated in Batavia in 1772 when he was in the service of the Dutch East India Company. He came to Japan three times between the years 1779–1784 and headed the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki. During those early troubled days, the samurai took full advantage of the situation and assaulted foreigners in order to harass the now weakening Government.

Such attacks became frequent in the late 1850s and early 60s. As a result foreign powers lodged strong protests. In 1863 the Japanese Government agreed to have British and French troops stationed in Yokohama.

It was during this period that the first Masonic lodge was introduced to Japan. A military Lodge called Sphinx Lodge No 263, working under the Irish Constitution, came to Japan with a detachment of the 20th Regiment of Foot (Lancashire Fusiliers) that arrived in Yokohama in 1864. While in Yokohama, the Lodge held meetings and admitted civilian members. Being a military lodge, however, it could not operate long. It held its last meeting in March 1866...

Meanwhile, those Brethren living in Yokohama felt it desirable to form a Lodge of their own and they petitioned for the formation of such a Lodge to the United Grand Lodge of England. Thus the first Lodge, Yokohama Lodge No 1092 E.C., came into being, holding the first regular meeting on 26th June 1866.

A total of six English and three Scottish Lodges were formed in Japan before the Last War. With the gentleman’s agreement with the Japanese Government that the Government would not interfere with the fraternity’s membership as long as membership was limited to foreign nationals and the meetings conducted without ostentation. The members included those who contributed to the modernization of Japan. Names such as; Bro E. Fischer, Bro William G. Aston, Bro A. Kirby, Bro Thomas W. Kinder, Bro John R. Black and many other notable Brethren of the era.

Of these Brethren I should mention Bro A. Kirby who built the first ironclad warship in Japan and the Brethren in Kobe meet in Kirby Hall named after him. Brother John R. Black I should also mention, who was a British journalist who published an English language newspaper, the Japan Gazette that I shall refer to later. As already mentioned the first local Lodge was Yokohama Lodge No 1092 E.C. Other early lodges were:

1866 Yokohama Lodge No 1092 E.C. Yokohama   Dark
1869 Otentosama Lodge No 1263 E.C. Yokohama   Dark
1870 Hiogo & Osaka No 498 S.C. Kobe
1871 Nippon Lodge No 1344 E.C. Tokyo   Dark
1872 Rising Sun Lodge No 1401 E.C. Kobe  
1879 Lodge Star in the East No 640 S.C. Yokohama
1885 Lodge Nagasaki No 710 S.C. Nagasaki   Dark

However Nagasaki’s foreign community transferred most of its business to the Kobe-Osaka area around 1911 and the Lodge surrendered its charter.

There were two other Lodges under the English Constitution, Torii Mark Lodge No 837 E.C. and Lodge Albion in the East No 3729 E.C.

Early in 1913, a few of the leading English-speaking Freemasons in Kobe met with the idea of establishing a Lodge which, restricted to men of British birth or ancestry, should devote a certain portion of its time to Masonic research and instruction, and initiate candidates as a secondary matter. On 7th January 1914, a meeting was held at which the District Grand Master, Bro Whymark, was invited to accept the chair for the first year of existence of the Lodge, to be known as Albion in the East No 3729 E.C.

Bro Whymark then issued a provisional warrant, Grand Lodge was notified, and arrangements were made for the consecration ceremony to be held on 21st February. However a telegram was received from Grand Lodge pointing out that the authority for granting provisional warrants by District Grand Masters had been withdrawn in 1899. A petition for a regular warrant was therefore sent, the prayer was granted on 21st April 1914 and the Lodge was formally constituted and consecrated by the District Grand Master on 13th June 1914.

Haffner’s “The Craft in the East” gives 1926 as the year of foundation of Torii Mark Lodge No 837 E.C. It also lists Torii Mark Lodge as one of the many E.C. Lodges that ceased working in 1940 and never resumed work after the War—the only exception being Rising Sun No 1401.

As for the inauguration of Lodge Star in the East, at a meeting of Master Masons held on the 4th of February 1879, it was proposed that a new Lodge under the Scottish Constitution be formed in Yokohama. This petition was supported and recommended by the Master and Past Masters of Lodge Hiogo & Osaka No 498 S.C. Kobe, the District Grand Master of the English Constitution, and the Masters of Yokohama Lodge No 1092 E.C. and Otentosama Lodge No 1263 E.C. The petition was forwarded to the Grand Lodge of Scotland on the 12th March 1879 and presented to Grand Lodge on 1st May of that year.

A charter was granted, and at a meeting held on the 16th September 1879, the Lodge was consecrated and the Master and Office Bearers installed. The first RWM of Star in the East was Edward Fischer who I have mentioned previously and most of the Office-bearers were notable men of their day, who played a significant part in the modernization of Japan and were instrumental in bringing Freemasonry to this country that had been in voluntary seclusion for many years.

Of those early lodges, there remain three lodges still working under their Charters, two under the Grand Lodge of Scotland and one under the United Grand Lodge of England.

Lodge Hiogo & Osaka No 498 S.C. that was chartered on the 7th February 1870 still meets in Kobe, originally meeting in the Corinthian Hall, but now meets in the Kirby Hall.

Lodge Star in the East No 640 that was chartered on the 1st May 1879 still meets in Yokohama but has moved eight times in the preceding years. The Rising Sun Lodge No 1401 E.C. was first chartered in 1872 and also meets in the Kirby Hall, Kobe.

A lot of the early records and documents of Lodge Star in the East were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Temple was reduced to rubble but it was the fire that followed that caused the major damage.

In the late 1930s the situation for Freemasons in Japan began to deteriorate when the Government began to crack down on the Fraternity, especially after the outbreak of war with China in 1937. In the early 1940s the anti-Masonic movements intensified and all the Lodges had to cease their operation.

Most of the Brethren in Yokohama were incarcerated and the Lodge furniture and records confiscated. Yet by means both devious and dangerous Brethren were able to save some of the Lodge records and pass them on to their successors.

Following the disruptions of war, the Lodge issued a summons to the Brethren to meet on 9th April 1946. It must have been an emotional event. The opening paragraph of the minute’s states; We meet here this evening in open lodge for the first time in 4years and 5 months with mixed feelings of gladness and sorrow.

They go on to report that RWM Michael Apcar included in his address, “I will not dwell this evening on the trials and sufferings of individuals while in jail, but suffice it to say, it was at times, almost beyond human endurance. In our of triumph we must not overlook nor forget the factors which contributed towards restoration of our temple and our happy meetings.

From then on, 1946 was fully occupied in rebuilding of Lodge membership. Significant numbers of Brethren joined the Lodge either as candidates or affiliates. By acclamation of the Brethren, Bro Gen Douglas MacArthur and Bro Lt. Gen Robert L. Eichelberger were made honorary members of Lodge star in the East. An indication of the pressure of the degree work can be obtained by the fact that emergency meetings stated “ To initiate any seven applicants” and each month saw at least one emergency meeting. In January 1947, Bro H. C. H. Robertson was elected to honorary membership and thus the three leaders of the Allied Occupation forces entered the fold of Star in the East.

For the Companions amongst us, there are two Royal Arch Chapters in Japan.

The Rising Sun Chapter No 1401 E.C. warranted on the 18th November 1872, to meet in Kobe, but was not revived after the World War 11. The second Chapter was consecrated on the 2nd May 1975, consecrated in Hongkong and transferred to Kobe in 1976.

Kobe Royal Arch Chapter No 229 S.C. was consecrated in 1892 but became dormant in 1910. A petition was submitted to the Supreme Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Scotland in 1983 for its Reponement and this was approved in 1984. The Chapter was reponed on 13th April 1985. Appendant to the Chapter is Kobe Cryptic Council of Royal and Select Masters No 229 S.C. Consecrated and Dedicated 5th December 1997.

Following the organization of several Masonic Clubs by occupation forces, the Grand Lodge of the Philippines began to charter Lodges in Japan and Okinawa. The fraternity was made available to Japanese nationals for the first time, and soon the ritual was translated into the Japanese Language.

The building and the land that were to be the forerunners of the new Tokyo Masonic Centre was purchased and occupied. Soon yet another Grand Lodge was to be represented in Japan. The Sinim Lodge which had been operating in the City of Shanghai China, with a charter from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, was reactivated in Tokyo in 1952.

The various Lodges and appendant bodies enjoyed considerable growth and prosperity, and, by 1954, a District Grand Lodge of Japan was approved by the Grand Lodge of the Philippines. In early 1957, a resolution was passed within Moriahyama Lodge No 7, calling for all Lodges in Japan chartered by the Grand Lodge of the Philippines to a convention to consider the formation of an independent Grand Lodge of Japan.

By March of 1957, fifteen lodges had approved the resolution, a constitution had been drafted, prospective Grand Lodge officers had been elected, and a delegation had been formed to attend the Annual Communication of the Grand Lodge of the Philippines to request recognition for the newly formed Grand Lodge of Japan.

As the years passed, the number of constituent Lodges under the Grand Lodge of Japan increased to twenty; and by 1972, there were 4,766 members on the rolls. But after 1972, the Grand Lodge of Japan began experiencing the trend that faced a large proportion of the worldwide fraternity of Masons, gradual reduction of members and consolidation of lodges. By December 1980, total membership was reduced to 3,743, and the number of lodges reduced to eighteen.

The Scottish Lodges and the one English Lodge do go from strength to strength and are in the enviable position of having waiting lists. This in some Japanese Lodges is not the case, one recent example that I can give you happened on Saturday 3rd April, the newly installed Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Japan, Most Worshipful Brother Saburo Katagiri was paying an official visit to Far East Lodge #1, at first it was thought that the meeting would have to be postponed as there were not enough Brethren to open the lodge, even as Grand Master MWB Katagiri was prepared to take office in the lodge.

However, two visiting Brethren arrived and the meeting went ahead as planned, it is about three years since Far East #1 had a candidate and that night was no exception. This state of affairs seems to be too common with Japanese lodges; the exception is the Lodges that meet in Military and Naval facilities.

I had mentioned previously the names of two of the founding fathers of Freemasonry in Japan and shall now return to them. Bro Janusz Buda the RWM of Lodge Star in the East was browsing through the archives of a Tokyo newspaper and he came across this article:

The Inauguration of Lodge Star in the East was reported in the 20th September 1879 edition of the Japan Gazette.

On Tuesday evening, 16th instant, a pleasant gathering took place at the Masonic Hall, to inaugurate the “Star in the East” Lodge of Freemasons No 640 on the role of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. The RWM designate, Edward Fischer, P.M. was installed by W. & W. Bro A. S. Fobes, Past Master of Hiogo and Osaka Lodge.

After the ceremonies the newly installed officers with their guests and visitors adjourned to a banquet. After doing ample justice to the good things provided, the RWM gave the first toast of the evening. “The Rulers of our respective countries and the Craft” which was duly honoured; after which the Masonic Toasts usual on such occasions were proposed and received enthusiastically.

Over sixty of the Fraternity were present, and the meeting was one of the most successful that had taken place at Yokohama. The article went on to list the officers for the present year. Brother John R. Clark was the editor and went on to print other Masonic events in Japan.

Those early Freemasons were men of vision and today’s Brethren share that same belief.

Lodge Star in the East No 640 S.C. will celebrate 125 years as a Scottish Lodge in Japan on the 16th of September 2004 and we congratulate them on their History all be it through dark years fraught with danger. Their dedication will ensure an active presence in that part of the World for future generations of Freemasons.

I have not dwelt at length on the History of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Japan, and I do not wish to be disrespectful, that is not my intention. The Grand Lodge of Japan is a relatively young Grand Lodge, their history is well documented and I think merits its own discussion paper.

This article appeared in the Year Book of the Grand Lodge of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland 2005, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.