Bernard Bettelheim

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Monument to Bettelheim at Gokoku-ji in Naha.
  • Born: 1811
  • Died: 1870
  • Japanese: バーナード・ジャン・ベッテルハイム (baanaado jan betteruhaimu)

Bernard Jean Bettelheim was a Protestant missionary who resided in Naha from 1846 to 1854. He is credited with producing the first Okinawan-English dictionary, and the first translation of the Bible into Okinawan. He appointed himself translator for Commodore Matthew Perry during Perry's time in the Ryûkyû Kingdom, and proved himself a nuisance to both Perry and the kingdom's officials; the latter regularly denied his requests to meet with them, and found his proselytizing efforts troublesome and obnoxious.


Earlier Years

Bettelheim was born into a prominent Jewish family in Pressburg, Hungary, in 1811, and was educated towards possibly becoming a rabbi. Much of what is known about the early parts of his life are only known from his own writings; he claims that by the age of ten, he could read and write in Hebrew, German, and French. By the age of 12, however, he left home, and began teaching, while continuing his studies at as many as five different schools. He earned a medical degree from a university in Padua, Italy, in 1836, and according to some sources completed 47 scientific dissertations over the next three years, though this seems an improbably large number. Over the next few years, he jumped from place to place frequently, shifting between mainly Trieste, Padua, Naples, Sicily, and Greece; for a time in 1840, he served as a surgeon on-board an Egyptian man-of-war. While working as a surgeon for a regiment based in Turkey, he first began to read and study the Christian Bible. He later converted and was baptized by an English minister in Smyrna, Turkey, though he continued to engage in theological debate with local rabbis.

Soon afterward, he resigned from his post in Turkey, argued with authorities there over his pay, and then moved to England, where he sought official approval from the Church of England to become a missionary proselytizing to Jewish communities around the Mediterranean. Possessing no British university degrees, and having converted so recently from Judaism, he had trouble obtaining favor with the British religious authorities, but during his time in London met several prominent missionaries active (or formerly active) in East Asia, including Dr. Peter Parker and Karl Gutzlaff, as well as David Livingstone, famous for his activities in Africa.

Disgusted with the Church of England, he severed his ties with them, and married an Englishwoman, with whom he had a daughter, Victoria Rose, less than a year later. She was named after Sir George Rose, the head of the London Jews' Society, a group of Jews who had converted to Christianity; Sir George was also named Victoria's godfather. After a quarrel with the group he had recently joined as pastor, Bettelheim soon abandoned that group and rejoined the Church of England. This would become a pattern in his life. He applied to become an official missionary in the service of the London Jews' Society, in hopes of being sent to the Middle East to proselytize; he was only made a probationary missionary, though his own journals indicate otherwise. The Society severed their ties with him, and Bettelheim took the opportunity to join the Loochoo Naval Mission, which was at that time looking to send a missionary with medical experience to Naha.

In Okinawa

Bettelheim departed Portsmouth, England with his wife Elizabeth and daughter Victoria Rose on 1845/8/8 (Sept 9), arriving in Hong Kong in January 1846[1] and having a second child aboard ship in the intervening time. The child was named Bernard James Gutzlaff Bettelheim. After roughly four months spent studying Chinese and networking with the local community of British missionaries in order to arrange passage to Okinawa, Bettelheim and his family secured a spot on the British ship Starling. Just prior to leaving Hong Kong, Bettelheim wrote to Lt. Herbert John Clifford, the head of the Loochoo Naval Mission, to ask for additional funds. The expedition was already looking to cost more than twice what Clifford had expected or planned for.

The family arrived in Okinawa on 1846/4/6 (May 1), along with the children's teacher and a Chinese assistant, aboard a ship called the Starling.[2] Christianity was banned in the kingdom at that time, and though initially harbor authorities denied his requests to disembark, Bettelheim got their men drunk, and persuaded them to row him, his family, and their baggage, ashore. Once they arrived, it was too late in the day to send the Bettelheims back to the Starling, and so they were permitted to stay one night in the Buddhist temple of Gokoku-ji. Afterwards, Bettelheim simply refused to leave. He forcibly took over the temple, throwing out the monks, along with Buddhist sculptures and anything else he deemed pagan, and proceeded to make the temple his home for the next seven years. His efforts were aided by Ryukyuan reluctance to invade his wife's privacy, and by Bettelheim's repeated threats to bring down the wrath of the British Royal Navy upon the kingdom should they give him too much trouble. It is said that he considered it a Christian victory to deny the locals the use of this pagan temple.

During that time, he managed to keep the monks and other Ryukyuan authorities out of the temple, and engaged in various efforts to proselytize to the people of Naha, despite the government's efforts to stop him. He offered the authorities that he might teach English or sciences, or provide medical services, but was rebuffed, with the explanation that Chinese language, sciences, and medicine, were more than sufficient; his requests for tutors or teachers in the Chinese language and Chinese classics were granted, but he repeatedly tried to make use of these lessons to produce translations of the Bible, or to otherwise serve his missionary goals, resulting in the resignation or dismissal of his tutors. He had a third child while on the island, naming her Lucy Lewchew Bettelheim.

Bettelheim studied katakana and believed himself to have obtained a degree of capability in the Okinawan language, even producing supposed "translations" of the Bible, but it seems unlikely that he obtained any degree of true fluency, and it is unclear the extent to which any of his sermons (or other interactions) were indeed understandable to the Okinawans with whom he interacted. Only one figure converted to Christianity by Bettelheim is known; the man was arrested for professing his faith, and after being visited by Bettelheim in prison, was moved to a more distant location, where he died.

Bettelheim was, for the most part, seen by the Ryukyuan authorities as obnoxious and difficult, a source of trouble, and a financial burden. The royal government established a guard post outside Gokoku-ji, and assigned roughly one hundred men to watch the family, and to follow Bettelheim and monitor his activities. He would break into private homes to preach to the people, and would scatter pamphlets in the marketplaces and public streets, followed by Ryukyuan guards who gathered them up and took them away. Sometimes he preached loudly outside the gates to the palace, or in public squares, sometimes even interrupting public town meetings, to preach to the gathered crowd. On one occasion, on 1849/11/23[3], he was thrown out of a private home and attacked in the streets by guards; he claims he lay in the street for two hours before his wife found him and brought him back to the temple. Since people were forbidden from selling goods to the Bettelheims, and since most were apprehensive to interact with them anyway, Bettelheim took to simply taking whatever he desired from street stalls and shops, and leaving what he estimated was a fair amount. The Loochoo Mission (under Lt. Clifford) continued to send funds to Bettelheim's Hong Kong bank accounts, and members of the mission based in Hong Kong or elsewhere in southern China sent supplies to Bettelheim on occasion. Okinawan ships also occasionally carried letters and packages to and from China for him.

Despite the trouble he often caused, as a medical doctor, he did often provide inoculations and other forms of medical care, for which he gained some degree of popularity among the locals; some took to calling him "Naminoue no megane" ("the eyeglasses of Naminoue");[4] others called him in gan chô (bespectacled dog doctor), as he kept frightening dogs at the temple.

Interactions with Western ships

When European ships appeared in Naha harbor, as they did not infrequently, Bettelheim was always eager to present himself to the visitors, and to represent himself as an interpreter available for their benefit. The Ryukyuan authorities were surely not pleased with this situation, but put up with it, as it was convenient, and as Bettelheim was, essentially, uncontrollable. They did, however, frequently petition the European or American crews to take him away. Bettelheim, serving as interpreter, faithfully relayed these requests, but roundly refused to leave; the foreign crews often refused responsibility for him in any case, Bettelheim being a British subject, and the foreigners not being a British crew. Still, upon departing, they would very often leave Bettelheim with a number of gifts, such as clothing, food, furniture, soap, or the like.

When pressured by the Ryukyuan authorities, Bettelheim threatened on numerous occasions to contact the British authorities, but the Brits as well, for the most part, wanted to have nothing to do with him. On one occasion, a British admiral accused him of posing as a British official (e.g. in his interactions with the Ryukyuan authorities, and perhaps with visiting Western crews) and threatened to file that his citizenship be revoked. The Loochoo Mission in Hong Kong & China did a fair job of hiding his troublemaking from the Mission's home office in London; however, officials in Satsuma and Beijing were well aware of such matters. Beijing claimed that his activities in the Ryukyus were in violation of the Treaty of Nanking, which specified only five Chinese ports that would be open to missionary activity. Apparently, they interpreted Naha to be a Chinese port, or at least interpreted Ryûkyû to be Chinese territory beyond the boundaries of where foreign missionaries were permitted to travel. Of the various Western ships arriving in Okinawa around this time, many, to the contrary, believed Okinawa to be part of Japan, and traveled there as part of efforts to see Japanese ports opened to commerce for their nation.

As a result, Bettelheim's activities began to become more of a concern for the Mission and for British authorities, eventually reaching the level of being discussed by the Cabinet in London; if the difficulties with Bettelheim somehow sparked a larger international incident, it could potentially have had a serious impact upon British diplomatic relations and political intentions in the region. An example of the many interactions Bettelheim had with Western ships took place on 1849/2/14 (March 8), when the HMS Mariner, under the command of a Captain Matheson, pulled into port in Naha. The visitors were invited to a formal banquet by the chief magistrate of Naha, in preparation for an official meeting with the royal regent; yet, somehow Bettelheim convinced the Captain and his men to leave the banquet hall in order to have dinner at Bettelheim's house (i.e. at Gokoku-ji). The Naha officials were unable to stop them, and so had the entire banquet moved to Gokoku-ji. The regent stepped aboard the Mariner the following day to meet with Captain Matheson, and petitioned him to remove Bettelheim; the missionary translated the petition and interpreted for the meeting despite being the subject of discussion in this manner. The Captain agreed to take him, but Bettelheim refused to leave; in the end, Bettelheim remained ashore, while the Mariner returned to England with petitions from the Ryukyuans for Bettelheim's removal, and from Bettelheim petitioning that Royal Navy ships be sent to punish the Ryukyuan authorities for their treatment of him.

Bettelheim's manipulations eventually led, indirectly, to Queen Victoria's government sending a letter to Shuri in 1849, requesting that the Ryukyuan government regard Bettelheim more highly. The Ryukyuan response emphasized the kingdom's inability to engage in interactions with foreign parties, due both to the lack of worthwhile trade goods in Ryûkyû, and to strict Japanese regulations; the kingdom requested that Bettelheim and other missionaries be removed. This never came about, though London did decide to keep an eye on Bettelheim, to make sure he was keeping out of trouble, and being treated well. One such British ship which came to extend the Crown's protection over its subject was the HMS Reynard, which stayed in Naha for a week in 1850/9; the royal regent banqueted Captain Cracroft and Bishop Smith of Victoria (Hong Kong), and received similar hospitality aboard Cracroft's ship.

After these incidents, the Ryukyuan government, knowing that the British were watching out for Bettelheim's safety, took action to cut him off from interactions with Okinawan people. He continued to live in Gokoku-ji, was not harmed by the Ryukyuan police, and was in fact supplied with food and other necessities. But the temple was surrounded, and his movements became severely restricted. Hearing that Bettelheim's situation had not improved despite the letter the previous year from Her Royal Majesty, Queen Victoria, the British government (by way of a Lord Palmerston) sent another letter, this time threatening that future visits by British warships would be less friendly if Bettelheim's circumstances did not improve immediately. Of course, all of this bother from London served to inflate Bettelheim's massive ego further; a new interpreter/translator, T.T. Meadows, was sent to Okinawa to ensure that Bettelheim did not meddle in the content of communications. Meadows warned his superiors that Bettelheim was particularly apt to grab for power, and that their support could result in the distasteful result of Bettelheim gaining considerable power within the small kingdom. Shortly afterward, there was a changeover in the British government; the new officials now handling the Bettelheim situation looked far less favorably on Bettelheim's use of the Royal Navy to articulate his own personal threats.

Interactions with Commodore Perry

When Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Naha in 1853, Bettelheim, seeing the Western ships approaching, ran the Union Jack up a pole at the Gokoku-ji. This was his first sighting of Western ships in roughly a year and a half. After Perry turned away the Ryukyuan officials who came out to meet him, Bettelheim found his way onto the ship, where he spoke to the Americans for several hours.

The following day, the Americans sent for Bettelheim to join Perry, the ship's chaplain, and chief interpreter S. Wells Williams, for breakfast. Believing himself sorely mistreated by the Ryukyuan authorities all these years, Bettelheim pressed Perry to take him into his service. He first suggested that Perry take action to promote missionary activities in Japan; though Perry rejected this suggestion flat out, the discussions that day ended with a decision to explore the island, and establish a base on shore, over any potential Ryukyuan objections.

After meeting chief interpreter Williams, Bettelheim felt that Williams was insufficiently competent, and decided that he himself should serve as interpreter/translator for the commodore. He pressed upon Perry that he take action against the Ryukyuan government, which had so mistreated him over the years. The Commodore, for the most part, refused, but used Bettelheim as his interpreter in his various meetings with the Ryukyuan regent. Williams criticized Bettelheim's manner of using hand gestures and facial expressions, and in particular the self-assured way he complimented himself on making certain suggestions, even when he had equally self-assuredly suggested the opposite mere hours earlier. Bettelheim is said to have reveled in being seen in association with Perry, and in the powerlessness of the Ryukyuan authorities to stop Perry from doing as he wished.

Bettelheim soon began to make demands, however, that the Americans provide him with various necessities, including candles, soap, shoes, and butter. He hesitated to accept supplies from the ships even as he pressured the Ryukyuan authorities to provide gifts and supplies to the ships; yet, he made these demands, and accepted some of what was given, nevertheless. On 1853/4/23 (May30), he helped Perry and his men break into a schoolhouse in Tomari and seize it for use as a residence, despite the strong objections of Ryukyuan officials (led by one Bettelheim calls Ichirazichi) that the Americans could not be permitted to establish a house on shore.

A few days later, on 4/26 (June 2), Perry sent off one of his ships, the Caprice, which took a number of things back to Shanghai for Bettelheim, including letters and $800 to be deposited into Bettelheim's bank accounts. It is unclear where Bettelheim obtained these funds to begin with, or the other goods he provided as gifts to Western ships he met at port. It is said that throughout his stay in Ryûkyû, he ate whatever was given him, and paid whatever he chose, never being told he owed any particular amount.

Bettelheim continued to force himself upon the commodore and his crew, becoming, according to the notes of certain crew members, quite tiresome; Bettelheim expressed annoyance with Perry's pursuit of various actions without consulting him, and began to be quite disliked by at least some members of the crew. He asked to join Perry in traveling to mainland Japan, but was refused, and was asked instead to prepare a description, as best he knew it, of the history of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. On 1853/4/30 (June 6), against the wishes of the Ryukyuan regent, and without having consulted Bettelheim on the matter, Perry led his men, in full dress uniform, with Bettelheim and a full marching band in tow, to Shuri castle. They were met at the outer gates by the regent, who offered to entertain them in his own mansions, but who insisted they would not be able to meet with the king or dowager queen. Perry pushed forward, and forced his way into the palace, only to find the king and dowager queen absent; Bettelheim, however, is said to have taken pleasure from these events, as he finally was able to enter the palace, after being refused for so many years.

Two days later, Perry claimed a portion of the Gokoku-ji grounds to use as pasture for sheep and cattle he brought with him to Okinawa, over Bettelheim's objections. The Americans had, by this point, established themselves enough on the island that they stopped relying upon Bettelheim for provisions; always hungry for importance and for a role to play, this surely rankled the missionary somewhat. Perry journeyed to the Ogasawara Islands in the fifth month (June). During the few weeks of his absence, the royal regent resigned or was deposed, and so upon Perry's return, a banquet was arranged aboard ship for the new regent; Bettelheim was annoyed at the regent's arrival aboard before himself. Williams' accounts indicate that Bettelheim took particular pleasure in the downfall of the former regent, who had been his adversary for so long, and that Bettelheim was generally drunken, and strange in his behavior, refusing, furthermore, to interpret directly and convey directly what was said by the new regent and other Ryukyuans in attendance. Following the banquet, Bettelheim remained on the ship for a brief time, and got into an argument of some sort with the crew about settling accounts, accusing them of cheating him.

Bettelheim preached to the Americans on board the Plymouth later that month (5/20; June 26), and on 5/26 (July 2), Perry left for his first attempt to enter Japan.


Bettelheim was finally taken away, to the great relief of the royal government, by Commodore Perry on his second visit to the islands, in 1854. Mrs. Bettelheim and their three children departed Okinawa on 1854/1/11 (Feb 8) aboard the USS Supply bound for Shanghai. After one last petition from the Ryûkyû government (issued 1854/5/15; July 10) to the commodore insisting that Bettelheim be taken away, the missionary finally departed the island a week later (1854/5/22; July 17) aboard the USS Powhatan, alongside Perry aboard the USS Mississippi. Bettelheim took with him as much as he could from the Gokoku-ji "house," and was given back by the Ryûkyû authorities, supposedly, all the money he had "spent" during his time on the island[5], along with mountains of missionizing pamphlets the authorities had seized over the years.

After leaving Ryûkyû, Bettelheim settled in the United States, dying in 1870 and being buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, in Brookfield, Linn County, Missouri. His wife Elizabeth Mary and children Bernard James and Victoria Rose are buried alongside him.[6]

Writings by Bettelheim's missionary colleagues at other ports for the most part describe his approach and actions in Okinawa as hindering the cause more than helping it. Despite Bettelheim's horrible behavior, utter and complete lack of respect for Okinawan or Japanese culture and political authority, destruction of sacred objects, etc., a monument was constructed in his memory at the Gokoku-ji in 1926.


  • Kerr, George. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Revised Edition. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. pp279-340.
  • Okinawa rekishi jinmei jiten 沖縄歴史人名事典. Okinawa bunkasha, 2002. p69.
  1. Roughly, the 12th month of Kôka 2, the lunar year which largely corresponds to 1845.
  2. Ishin Shiryô Kôyô 維新史料綱要, vol 1 (1937), 8.
  3. January 6, 1850.
  4. Gokoku-ji was located adjacent to Naminoue Shrine, so he was associated with that area.
  5. International commerce outside of those avenues expressly permitted by the lords of Satsuma han was forbidden in Ryûkyû; when Perry's men tried to pay for food and other goods with American coin, it was always gathered up by Ryukyuan authorities, and most often returned.
  6. "Dr Bernard Jean Bettelheim,"