The Peanut Preacher

How a Canadian woman spread Jesus and peanut butter in Japan

When I first arrived in Japan in 1999, two things hit me: the sensory overload of Tokyo and homesickness. Yearning for Canadian comfort food, I mounted a fruitless supermarket search for peanut butter. Then I spotted a tall foreigner in the aisles and sidled up.

Sarah Agnes Wintemute Coates PHOTO: UNITED CHURCH ARCHIVES, TORONTO. 76.001P/ 8230. AGNES WINTEMUTE, [CA. 1890?]

“Excuse me,” I said, “How does one say ‘peanut butter’ in Japanese?” He looked me up and down, a fresh-off-the-boat gaijin, and laughed, saying, “piinatsu battah!” Not only did I find a jar of Skippy, the man introduced me to my first apartment in Japan.

Peanuts were also a source of good fortune for a Canadian who had arrived here a century earlier. Sarah Agnes Wintemute was born in 1864 near Port Stanley, Ontario, to a family of United Empire Loyalists (residents of the 13 original U.S. colonies who remained loyal to the king of England and eventually moved north to Canada). After graduating from Alma College with a degree in liberal arts, she was recruited to proselytize in Japan by the Women’s Missionary Society (WMS) of the Methodist Church.

Wintemute arrived in Tokyo in September 1886. She taught English, music and Sunday school at Toyo Eiwa Jogakko, a WMS boarding school for girls. She excelled at her job and, in 1889, was appointed principal of a new WMS school in Kofu.

Spreading the Word

After marrying fellow Canadian Methodist teacher Harper Coates, and then raising six children who were born between 1895 and 1906, Wintemute’s career took a very un­expected turn.

The family settled in the peanut-growing region of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, and she started experimenting with peanuts by adding water to peanut butter to create a milk sub­stitute for salad dressings, soups, gravy and other foods.

During her 1920 stint as matron at Kobe’s Canadian Academy, Wintemute put peanuts front and center on the menu. Canadian missionary Howard Norman recalled this Peanut Butter Era: “We had peanut butter on the table, peanut butter stew, peanut butter soup — peanut butter in all forms … it was all very tasty if a bit monotonous.”

Working with one of her husband’s Japanese evangelists, Wintemute established a peanut butter manufacturing company.

“We had peanut butter on the table, peanut butter stew, peanut butter soup — peanut butter in all forms

New Mission

Wintemute was soon in demand as a nutrition specialist, consulting for the city of Nagoya as well as the Imperial Household Ministry and the Imperial Government Institute for Nutrition. Following her husband’s death, she moved to Tokyo to do research with the institute’s head, Tadasu Saiki.

In 1931, she authored The Sure Road to Health, or What Can Be Learned From the Nutrition Laboratory, a book aimed at educating the Japanese public about nutrition. It included recipes such as peanut loaf and eggs tofu soufflé.

Horrified by the atrocities of World War I committed by supposedly Christian nations, Wintemute’s interest in missionary work began to evaporate. She found spiritual direction in Theosophy and New Thought, and reinvented herself as a self-styled nakodo, or go-between, to bring East and West closer together.

But when Japan began its military expansion in China, Wintemute had to choose sides. She became a vigorous defender of Japan’s policies, sending a steady stream of pro-Japanese letters and pamphlets to friends, family and other missionaries.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wintemute rebuffed the entreaties of her children overseas and decided to remain in Japan. In the early years of the war, she enjoyed freedom of movement while Japanese friends helped her obtain food and other necessities.

As conditions grew worse, though, she was put under state surveillance and her sources of support dried up.

Through the Red Cross, her children urged her to return to Canada, but Wintemute stayed on. At a temporary hospital on the grounds of Nikolai Cathedral in Tokyo, Sarah Agnes Wintemute Coates died in June 1945 at age 81, apparently of malnutrition. After the war, Norman scattered her remains in the Pacific Ocean at the International Date Line, a tribute to a woman who sought to unite East and West.

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