William Merrell Vories

William Merrell Vories

An American missionary and architect who left many beautiful buildings all over the region.

place Area: Omihachiman access_time Published: 2020.03.20

Name in Japanese: 一柳 米来留
Dates: 1880 to 1964

William Merrell Vories was not originally a resident of Ōmi. He was born in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1880. While at Colorado College, he had a vision of Christ which made him resolve to become a missionary.

Despite his hopes of becoming an architect, he came to Ōmihachiman in 1905 as an English-language teacher, with the intention of pursuing missionary work. However, in 1908 he was dismissed from his teaching job because his superiors believed that his Bible classes were poaching too many Buddhists.

In 1907, Vories was asked to oversee construction of a YMCA office building in Ōmihachiman, which became his first work as an architect in Japan. In 1908, he opened an architectural design office and rsoon after, he founded “Vories & Co.” with an American architect and one of his English students. The company made its start in Kyoto, but when business took off, they moved to Ōmihachiman and in 1914, his parents emigrated to Japan to join him there. Despite only limited formal training as an architect, Vories came to employ over thirty professional staff. His office was responsible for the design of up to 1,600 residential, commercial, and church buildings in Japan and occupied Korea, prior to the Second World War, including many related to the YMCA.

In 1918, he founded the Ōmi Mission, later renamed the Ōmi Brotherhood, for Christian missionary work and related education. The Ōmi Mission opened a tuberculosis hospital in Ōmihachiman and founded a chain of schools known as Vories Gakuen.

In 1919, Vories married Hitotsuyanagi Makiko, daughter of a viscount.

In order to generate funds to support his missionary activities, Vories established Ōmi Sales Company in 1920, to produce an ointment called Mentholatum under license. Since he also loved music, he obtained the rights to sell Hammond organs in Japan, which were used in the schools run by the Brotherhood. He designed the Toyosato Elementary School in Ōmi, built in 1937, incorporating many of the progressive principles from his own educational institutions.

As Japan looked set to go to war, Vories was naturalized as a Japanese citizen and took the name of Hitotsuyanagi Mereru, pledging his allegiance to the nation of Japan and to the Emperor Hirohito. Nevertheless, as a Christian, he was regarded with deep suspicion by the Japanese authorities, and during the course of the war, his various businesses and activities were forced to shut down. But since Mentholatum was distributed to Japanese soldiers, this business was spared.

As part of the negotiations ending the war, former Prime Minister Konoe asked Vories to convey a message to General McArthur on the Emperor’s behalf in September 1945. Vories also indicated that the Emperor might renounce his claim of divinity and become a constitutional monarch. He later went on to meet the Emperor four times.

In 1957, Vories suffered a stroke while he was in his summer home in Karuizawa. He was transported back to Ōmihachiman for medical treatment, where he remained bedridden for seven years. He died at his home in 1964, aged 83.

In 1958, Vories was made the first Honorary Citizen of Ōmihachiman. He was posthumously honoured with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 3rd class, by the Japanese government. His house in Ōmihachiman is now the Vories Commemorative Museum.