The Kirby Legacy

M.W.B. James L. Johnston

When visiting Kobe, Japan, and if you would like to attend a Masonic Lodge meeting, Kirby Hall, situated in the rear area of the Kobe Club, on Kitano-cho, is where two Craft Lodges hold their meetings. They are Lodge Hiogo and Osaka No. 498, S.C., and Rising Sun lodge No. 1401, E.C. They trace their beginnings to 1870 and 1872 respectively, and have operated continuously except for the war years.

A natural question could be, "Why is the Lodge building named 'Kirby' Hall?'" The answer involves the lives of two Englishmen, Alfred and Edward Kirby, and we have to return in time to when Japan's Ansei Commercial Treaties were approved in 1854 and 1858, which provided for sliding scale tariffs, extra-territorality, and restricted areas for foreign commerce and residence in several ports and cities, including Kobe, Hyogo and Osaka. Due to internal political unrest, the foreigners in Hyogo and Osaka were requested to move to Kobe, which in time became a model city with wide streets and spacious homes and buildings. The foreign trading and residential areas attracted men from all stations in life, from those who were worthy and respected, to those described as "...the scum of the earth ...adventurers, desperados, runaway sailors, outlaws, moral refuse ...unscrupulous specimens of all nations ..." Newly-formed clubs in Kobe — the Hiogo & Osaka Race Club, the Kobe Regatta & Athletic Club, the German Union Club, and the English International or Kobe Club — had to decide who would be desirable members and had an unwritten rule that excluded mariners, Eurasians and shopkeepers. This obvious discrimination and social injustice caused considerable ill-will and did not change for many years.

Edward Kirby (1836-1883) came to Japan via Australia and China, and used his business acumen to establish several enterprises in Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. This included what we would today call a department store, employing twenty Europeans and a large staff of Chinese and Japanese; this defined him as a shopkeeper which made him ineligible for membership in the elite Clubs in Kobe, despite the fact that he was probably one of the wealthiest foreigners in Japan, and was superior in education and social background to many of the members. Edward's other business interests included considerable property in Kobe and Osaka, and two-thirds interest in the Kobe Iron Works which he eventually owned. He then sent for his nephew Alfred (1852-1940), an engineer, to expand the iron works. Soon several coastal steamers, including two for Lake Biwa, and the first iron-clad warship for the Government of Japan were built. The iron works covered six acres and employed over 700 men, but due to its rapid expansion there were financial difficulties and while in Yokohama in 1883, Edward committed suicide. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank had advanced considerable funds for the iron works expansion, and to protect their loan, forced a sale to recoup their investment, and the Japanese government, to safeguard their interests (they had contracted for the construction of another warship, the "Yamato," the first of many to bear the name), purchased the iron works and it was re-named the Imperial Japanese Onahama Naval Yard. Alfred was retained as General Foreman and Superintendent until the Naval Yard moved to Kure. He then established himself as a marine surveyor and spent considerable time managing his late uncle's affairs, which included at least four large and valuable properties in the foreign settlement, several in Kobe City proper, and a large stock holding in the Tor Hotel. He had no interest in becoming member of the Kobe Club, due to the prejudice afforded to his uncle.

A devoted and active Freemason, Alfred had been initiated in Lodge "Hope" Kurrachee No. 350, S.C. in 1877, became an affiliate member of Rising Sun Lodge No. 1401, E.C. and served as Master in 1895. In the District Grand Lodge of Japan he was the Junior District Grand Warden in 1896, and in 1892 was a member of the Scottish Royal Arch Chapter No. 229 until it became dormat in 1910. In the Scottish Rite (AASR, SJ) he was a member and the Secretary of Kobe Chapter of Rose Croix No. 2. His "club" was in the Masonic Corinthian Hall at 48 Nakayamate-dori (which he assisted in planning), where he enjoyed playing billiards and by common consent, a chair was reserved for him in the bar room.

Alfred maintained an interest in the Tor Hotel and was a Director until his death in 1940. During the war the hotel's stockholders were forced to turn over their shares to the Kawasaki Dockyard and the hotel was used as a hospital for wounded Japanese soldiers. After the war, Alfred's daughters, because they were Japanese nationals, could not receive any of their Tor Hotel shares from the Allied Powers Compensation Law, and by then had only two small parcels of land which had houses built on them. By the 1950s, the daughters were in dire circumstances, as the younger had been blind since childhood and the elder had cancer. At this time the two Kobe Lodges intervened. The elder daughter was placed in a hospital, the two houses were renovated, one was rented for income and the blind daughter and her maid resided in the smaller one. WB William Lackie, an accountant and a member of Lodge Hiogo and Osaka, became the trustee for the properties with the agreement that the daughters needs would be taken care of, and at their deaths the residual would revert to the Masonic Benevolent Fund of the two Lodges. The blind daughter died in 1963, followed by her maid in 1964. The land was sold in 1969, and due to the remarkable appreciation in Japan's real estate, the Lodges received almost forty-five million yen. During 1971 an agreement was reached between the Lodges and the Kobe Club (where the Lodges had been meeting since 1956), whereby the Lodges would lend the club ten million yen and the club would agree to the Lodges' erecting a building costing twenty million yen and the club would hold the title. The building was consecrated on January 15, 1972 with representation from the two Kobe Lodges, Lodge Star in the East No. 640, visiting Masons, and the English and Scottish District Grand Lodges in Hong Kong. RWBs Richard Lee was the Dedicating Officer and George Arliss was the Dedicating Chaplain. During the oration it was stressed to those in attendance not to forget Brothers Kirby and Lackie who made the construction of the Masonic Hall possible. Thus we have the story of the legendary Kirby family and why the Masonic building in Kobe was named Kirby Hall. Although it is rather ironic that a building bearing the Kirby name was built on the property of the club that denied Edward Kirby membership, perpetuating the family name in this manner is clearly appropriate. The building, described as "splendid and dignified," is a white Grecian tetrastyle temple situated in a serene setting of Japanese pine trees, despite a nearby dense residential area, and affords the Kobe Masons with an ideal place for their meetings and ceremonies.


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Williams, Harold S.; Tales of the Foreign Settlements in Japan, Tokyo, 1972.

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