A Heart at Leisure from Itself: Caroline MacDonald of Japan

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A truly remarkable person, Caroline Macdonald (1874-1931) was a Canadian woman who spent almost her entire working life in Japan and who played a significant role there in both the establishment of the YWCA and in prison reform. A native of Wingham, Ontario, she was one of the first women to attend the University of Toronto, where in 1901 she graduated with honours in mathematics and physics. But rather than follow an academic career, she opted in 1904, through her connections with the Presbyterian Church and the YWCA in Canada and the United States, to move to Tokyo to work as a lay missionary and social worker. During the 1920s, she was the best-known foreign woman in Tokyo.

In A Heart at Leisure from Itself Margaret Prang follows Caroline Macdonald's life and career, focusing on her work in Japan on behalf of incarcerated criminals. Working mostly with male prisoners and their families, Macdonald became an international interpreter of the movement for prison reform work for which she is still warmly remembered in Japan. She regarded herself as a missionary but was also highly critical of much missionary endeavour, her own work being more in the practical than spiritual realm. Her death in 1931 elicited tributes from all over the world, particularly from Japan. Perhaps the most fitting came from Arima Shirosuke, the prison governor with whom Macdonald worked most closely. Reflecting on her life, Arima observed that he thought it was her absolute conviction that every human being was a child of God and her "effortless" practice of that faith that placed Macdonald "beyond every prejudice" of religion, race, or class. She was, he said, "a heart at leisure from itself."

This book throws light on Japanese-Canadian relations in the first few decades of this century. Macdonald's career reveals the cross-cultural influence of the YWCA in Japan, the role of the Protestant churches there, and the evolution of prison reform in Japan and the people involved in it.


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About the author (1997)

Margaret Prang is professor emerita of the Department of History at the University of British Columbia. She is a former president of the Canadian Historical Association, founding co-editor of the journal of BC Studies, and the author of a biography of N.W. Rowell.

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