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This page last updated 15 April 2007
Anglicans Online last updated 31 August 2014

an essay for Anglicans Online

The Story of Hannah Riddell and Hansen's Disease

by The Reverend Timothy Makoto Nakayama

At the end of Eastertide 2001, the government of Japan officially declared that Hansen’s Disease is no longer the dreaded incurable illness that it once was. Withholding the information about the cure until now has perpetuated the tragic history of discrimination in Japan, despite the knowledge and effective practice of the medical breakthrough that occurred many decades ago.

Our Church in Japan has a splendid witness throughout the land, going back 106 years, of a work begun by Hannah Riddell, a brave English missionary nurse. We have our own 'Father Damian' in the person of Keisai Aoki, the first person in the Anglican Communion who suffered from this disease to be ordained. Several of his successors who also suffered from the disease are still serving as deacons in their communities today. The official governmental change is an action of release, and our Church's faithful work is an undergirding.

By having been in southernmost Okinawa and in northeast Japan, Aomori, I had the honor of ministering among these people in two of the 16 sanitaria, hearing their Christian witness, and learning some of their story.


The Church Missionary Society originally sent Hannah Riddell, an English nurse, to Kumamoto, Japan. Her aristocratic social circumstances shaped her way of looking at life and her Christian faith determined her will. On her calendar on April 3, 1890 she made a note, 'Homonjoji—first saw lepers'. It was her record of being on the temple grounds in Kumamoto where she saw those suffering from Hansen’s Disease. She determined that her life purpose was to serve them and not long after returned to England to make her desire known. In 1892 the CMS expressed 'indifference' to her request.

Returning undaunted to Japan, with her political astuteness she engaged the help of powerful people there and within five years she bought three acres of land at the foot of a mountain with a magnificent view of an active volcano. With the backing of her supporters in England along with her own personal family estate, she built a hospital.

Hannah Riddell was, by family lineage, among the privileged of society. She had wealth and education. She moved easily, skillfully, and persuasively among the powerful. Her aristocratic manner stirred up the animosity and opposition of detractors. When the Kumamoto Kaishun Byouin (Hospital of the Resurrection of Hope) was built and dedicated to serving the victims of the disease, her connection with the CMS was severed. One account states that she left the society, another says she was dismissed. Because her ministry seemed to be more dedicated to social service rather than evangelism, and because she went ahead to serve those suffering from this serious illness when the CMS rejected this direction, there were many reasons that make her dismissal believable. For the same reasons she may have decided to leave. Whatever the case, she was launched upon her vocation for the next 40 years. Her ministry was for healing of both body and soul. Riddell’s conviction that Hansen's Disease should be a national concern caught the attention of legislators. In 1907 the 'Leprosy Prevention Law' was adopted.

In 1925 Kourin Church was built within the Kaishun Hospital with the words, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer' (Matthew 21:13). Regular prayers were offered in this place for Kusatsu, and for Okinawa. A patient, Keisai Aoki, born in 1893, had the disease when he was 16 years of age. Formerly a Buddhist from the Island of Shikoku, he came to believe in Jesus and was baptized when he was 25 years old. Supported in prayer from the people of Kourin Church, Riddell sent him to Okinawa. He discovered people suffering from the disease and gathered them together, and despite repeated rebuffs, fires, and evictions, they finally established a community in the corner of an adjacent small off-island called Yagaji. Eventually 'The House of Prayer' became the central feature of the Okinawa sanitarium.

Ada Hannah Wright, Riddell’s niece, born in 1870 and educated in Switzerland (where daughters of wealthy English families were often sent), came to help her aunt in 1923. When Hannah Riddell died in 1932, he niece became her successor. During the Pacific War, Ada Wright witnessed the tragic spectacle of the government’s action of closing down the hospital, after which she had to flee to Australia.

The institutions with their neatly-aligned buildings, row upon row, looked like military installations viewed from the air. The ones on the Islands of Miyako and Okinawa were bombed, adding to the number of non-combatant fatalities. When the war ended, the sanitaria were rebuilt with much help from the American occupation military forces.

Ada Wright returned as quickly as possible after the war ended to re-establish the hospital in Kyushu, and continued the work until her death in 1950. About that time the government of Japan took responsibility for the sanitaria throughout the land.

Eventually Keisai Aoki, once a patient at Kaishun Hospital, was ordained Deacon, the first person in the Anglican Communion to be so ordained—our Father Damian. He died in 1969. Today Okinawa’s 'Airaku-en' is the largest sanitarium in Japan. And 'The House of Prayer' is still the largest congregation in the Diocese of Okinawa. Barnabas Yuusuke Tokuda became a priest and succeeded Keisai Aoki. Retired Deacon Matsuoka, in the House of Prayer, Okinawa, and Deacon Fukushima in St Michael’s, Aomori, both remain active in pastoral work and social justice today.

THE REVEREND TIMOTHY NAKAYAMA is a retired priest living in the Diocese of Olympia (Episcopal Church in the USA). He was a missionary to Japan from 1991 to 2000. You can write to Fr Nakayama at frtim@yahoo.com.

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