The Matchmaker

How a Canadian missionary set the stage for an imperial wedding

Next spring will see a historic change in Japan, home to the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy. The current emperor, Akihito, is scheduled to abdicate on April 30, 2019, and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will be enthroned as the new emperor on May 1.

Japan hasn’t seen an abdication in two centuries. It was in 1817 that Emperor Kokaku stepped aside for the ascension of his son Emperor Ninko, who reigned until 1846. That year, a boy was born in Toronto who later helped pave the way for the first imperial succession of the 21st century.

Alexander Croft Shaw was born into a military family of Scottish heritage, but he took a degree in theology and was ordained by the Anglican Church of Canada. He served as a parish priest in Canada and England.

In London, England, he attended a memorial service that changed his life. Listening to a eulogy by the great orator Samuel Wilberforce that commemorated a missionary slain in the Solomon Islands, Shaw was inspired to spread the Gospel in East Asia. In 1873, he landed in Yokohama with Rev. William Ball Wright as part of an Anglican Church mission.

A Connector and an Influencer

Shaw proved adept at making key connec­tions. Yukichi Fukuzawa, a prominent author and entrepreneur remembered as the founder of Keio University and featured on the current ¥10,000 note, took him on as a tutor for his children.

Shaw began instructing students in ethics and, with Wright’s help, converted some 150 young Japanese, including the first native deacon of the Anglican Church in Japan.
In 1879, he founded St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Shiba. It attracted luminaries of the day, including politician Yukio Ozaki, later celebrated as the father of the Japanese constitution.

Part of his legacy was the flourishing of Karuizawa, now a major tourist destination.

Seven years later, Shaw brought his wife and children to the little-known town of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture to escape Tokyo’s hot summers. Tucked into the foothills of Mt. Asama at an elevation of about 1,000 meters, Karuizawa is about five degrees cooler than Tokyo in summer.

Shaw built a summer cottage there in 1888 and a chapel in 1895. He encouraged fellow missionaries and other foreigners to join him; upper-crust Japanese followed over the next few decades. In 1894, an old inn called the Kameya, close to Shaw’s chapel, was converted into the Western-style Manpei Hotel. It served as a venue for hundreds of missionaries from Japan and China who would gather every summer to plot strategy.

Long Legacy

Shaw died of heart failure at age 56 in 1902, after nearly 30 years as a missionary priest in Japan. In recognition for his services to the nation, including lobbying to revise unequal treaties that favoured foreigners, Emperor Meiji presented ¥1,000 to his widow, Mary Ann Cattell. Part of his legacy was the flourishing of Karuizawa, now a town of some 19,000 people and a major tourist destination. It’s been a summer retreat for Tokyoites as well as a venue for international events, both religious and athletic — Karuizawa hosted the equestrian portion of the 1964 Summer Olympics and the curling matches in the 1998 Winter Olympics.
a match on the court

But it was on a Karuizawa tennis court in 1957 that Emperor Meiji’s great-grandson, then Crown Prince Akihito, first met Michiko Shoda. The fact that she was a commoner sparked rapturous headlines about the “tennis court fairytale” of Karuizawa. The couple married in 1959 and announced the birth of their first child, Naruhito, the following year.

Shaw was buried in Tokyo’s Aoyama Cemetery alongside his wife under a simple cross and a Bible inscription. His chapel was enlarged and renovated in 1922 and is now called the Karuizawa Shaw Memorial Church. It still stands in Karuizawa amid a pastoral grove of larch trees — and has long been a popular spot for Western-style weddings.

Every August at the Shaw Festival, locals place flowers at his bust, which looks out over visitors walking the path to the church door.

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