Were it not for Dr. James Curtis Hepburn, the Japanese language as it is today might not have been what it is. He went to Japan with his wife as a medical missionary with the American Presbyterian Mission in 1859 and stayed there until 1892, running a clinic at a rundown Buddhist temple. He was the first Christian missionary to take residence near the newly opened treaty port of Yokohama.
During his fourth year in Japan, Dr. Hepburn moved to the Yokohama foreign settlement and established the Hepburn School, which would later branch out into today’s Meiji Gakuin University and Ferris University. There, he treated journalist-entrepreneur Ginkō Kishida, who had contracted an eye disease. With Kishida’s help, Dr. Hepburn published his Japanese-English Dictionary—the first of its kind in history.
His dictionary served as a basis for the modern system of transliterating Japanese into the Latin alphabet, now known as the Hepburn romanization. Interestingly, his name was never transliterated accurately in Japan, always referred to as “Hebon” even to this day. This may be in contrast to other Hepburns, such as either of the famous Hollywood actresses, whose last names are transliterated as “Heppubān” rather than “Hebon.”
In Yokohama, Dr. Hepburn’s former residence has been commemorated with a historical marker and a relief portrait, located off the limelight of the otherwise bustling Motomachi-Chūkagai area.